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MURDOCH, WILLIAM, merchant, banker, and philanthropist; b. 1800 in Perth, Scotland, the son of William Murdoch; d. unmarried 21 June 1866 in London, England.

Educated in Edinburgh, William Murdoch in 1820 joined the Glasgow dry goods business operated by his brother James. The following year William took a small consignment of dry goods to Halifax. Disappointed by his initial venture in trading, he resolved to return to Scotland, but was persuaded by a local merchant to remain. He opened a dry goods business near the ordnance; his brother joined him and became a partner in December 1831. Another brother, Charles, also joined the firm and after James’ death was admitted as a partner in February 1845.

William Murdoch imported dry goods from Greenock, Scotland (where his father operated a business until his death in 1839), and supplies from Glasgow, Liverpool, and London. He also purchased goods at dock-side and on occasion from other Halifax merchants. During the 1830s he advertised cloth, twine, gunpowder, rails, linseed oil, pepper, butter, Congo tea, and various kinds of spirits. Murdoch soon became aware of the need for banking facilities in Halifax, and he supported the formation of the Halifax Banking Company in 1825. Dissatisfied with this company, or perhaps wishing to be more personally involved, he helped promote the establishment of the Bank of Nova Scotia in 1832 and remained a director until 1849. For over 25 years Murdoch devoted his considerable energy and talent to his business. He became an important wholesaler in the province, and perhaps because of this trade his firm in 1845 commissioned the construction of the brigantine Perserverance, which traded along the Cape Breton coast.

Gradually Murdoch also became involved in a variety of civic and social organizations. He was admitted to the North British Society in 1829, serving as president in 1847, and at various times he acted as director of the Highland Society. He was on the committee of the Halifax Reading Room in 1837 and 1838 and was a fire warden from 1837 to 1841. Frequently combining his business and civic functions, Murdoch served in 1839 as president of the Sun Fire Insurance Company. He was involved in the Halifax Hotel Company from 1841 to 1845 and was a member of a committee, organized in 1845, to promote a railway from Halifax to Quebec [see Moorsom]. Beginning in 1847 he served successively as city auditor, ward auditor, magistrate, alderman, commissioner of public property, commissioner of the public cemetery, and, from 1853 to 1856, as a member of the provincial Board of Works.

Murdoch was involved in the 1850s in many activities that had a bearing on the development of an urban community. Associating urban growth with improved communications, transportation, and industrialization, in 1850 he joined the board of the Halifax-Dartmouth Steamboat Company and helped promote the Inland Navigation Company. In 1851 he served as commissioner in the Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph Company and in 1854 he organized a provincial exhibition of manufactures.

Murdoch was also interested in improving the social and intellectual climate of Halifax. He helped to establish the botanical gardens and sponsored a curling club and the Halifax Club. He was concerned with several religious and charitable institutions, such as the Protestant Orphanage and the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Murdoch also had an involvement with the problems of public hygiene and community health services which sets him apart from moral reformers who preferred such private charities as the House of Refuge for Fallen Women. In addition to serving as director of the Halifax Water Company from 1849 to 1860, he began in 1849 to solicit funds for a general hospital. But in 1855, when he failed to raise sufficient funds, he became president of the newly founded Halifax Visiting Dispensary, which provided medical assistance to the poor under the supervision of Dr Frederick William Morris. The request of the dispensary’s board for a legislative grant of £100 was initially rejected, but in 1857, unable to ignore the dispensary’s success, the assembly finally agreed to vote a small subsidy. Not until 1867 was the Provincial and City Hospital officially opened.

Murdoch’s time-consuming commitment to civic affairs (he does not seem to have taken any part in politics) required some readjustment in his firm and in January 1853 William M. Campbell became a partner. In addition Charles Murdoch dissolved his partnership with John Doull, a former clerk with the Murdochs, and devoted more time to the family firm. With a revitalized leadership W. and C. Murdoch and Company expanded its wholesale trade in the province. In 1856, however, William Murdoch retired from the firm to establish himself as a private financier. He invested heavily in banks in British North America, the United States, and Britain, and in American railway stocks, and had a reputation for backing young men wishing to go into business.

Apparently because of the economic and social limitations of Halifax, he moved in 1860 to London, England, where he purchased a fashionable home. He soon established a new business partnership, Murdoch, Nephews, and Slater, and once again became a private investor. In 1862 he helped establish the Imperial Bank, a modest affair at first, which specialized in financing commercial ventures connected with the colonies. The success of these numerous business activities is shown by the fact that in June 1866 his estate was valued at £480,000.

Although no precise calculation is possible, a large portion of this amount undoubtedly came from Nova Scotia and its transfer to England had represented a loss in available capital to the Halifax business community. His contemporaries did not consider this departure unusual and assumed that a man of Murdoch’s wealth would move to England. Instead it was his bequests that drew attention. Not only did various relatives receive grants, but also the North British Society, St Matthew’s Presbyterian Church, and the city hospital. In addition he left grants of £5,000 each to the Halifax Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and to the Asylum for the Blind. The nature of these grants, as much as their size, fully justifies his reputation as a “father of philanthropy” in Halifax.

K. G. Pryke

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), no.1396, will of William Murdoch (mfm. at PANS). Acadian Recorder, 1867–73. Halifax Herald, 4 July 1896. Novascotian, 1825–66. Annals, North British Society, Halifax, Nova Scotia, with portraits and biographical notes, 17681903, comp. J. S. Macdonald (3rd ed., Halifax, 1905). Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–60. W. J. Stairs, Family history, Stairs, Morrow; including letters, diaries, essays, poems, etc. (Halifax, 1906).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

K. G. Pryke, “MURDOCH, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murdoch_william_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murdoch_william_9E.html
Author of Article: K. G. Pryke
Title of Article: MURDOCH, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: September 22, 2014