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GAULT, MATHEW (Matthew) HAMILTON, financier and politician; b. 18 July 1822 in Strabane (Northern Ireland), eldest son of Leslie Gault, a merchant and shipowner, and Mary Hamilton; m. in May 1854 in Montreal, Canada East, Elizabeth J. Bourne, and they had 16 children; d. 1 June 1887 at Montreal.
Mathew Hamilton Gault was educated at the private school of the Reverend Charles Allan, a Presbyterian minister who was considered to be one of the best classical scholars in Ireland. Gault’s formal education ended when, at age 15, he injured his spine in a fall from a horse and was confined to bed for a year. Financial losses suffered by his father in the early 1840s, resulting from the loss of a number of ships at sea, the decline in the grain trade, and the removal of duty on Baltic timber, led the family to immigrate to Canada. They arrived in 1842, settling in Montreal, but Mathew’s mother soon fell ill and returned to Ireland on the advice of her doctors; within nine months of arrival his father died of cholera. Mathew Hamilton Gault found himself, at the age of 20, the head of a large family.
For the first years after its arrival in Canada the family was sustained by the sale of properties in Ireland, although heavy losses were incurred with the failure of a Montreal savings bank. Mathew and his brothers attempted farming but abandoned it after losing about $7,000 in three years, and from 1844 to 1848 Mathew was a grocer in Montreal. In 1851 he became an agent in Montreal for insurance companies, representing the Mutual Life Assurance Company of New York and the Western Assurance Company of Toronto; the next year he also became agent for the British America Fire and Life Assurance Company of Toronto. By the early 1860s he was the secretary-treasurer of the Montreal Permanent Building Society, which became the Montreal Loan and Mortgage Company in 1875; he was named its president in 1877 or 1878, a position he retained until his death. Many of the investors in the syndicate which controlled the society were to remain associated with Gault in other enterprises; they comprised a cross-section of Montreal merchants, bankers, and industrialists. From 1866 to 1870 he was the manager in Montreal of the Royal Canadian Bank of Toronto and from 1879 he was a director of the Royal Insurance Company of England.
In 1865 Gault assembled a syndicate of bankers and merchants, including Alexander Walker Ogilvie*, who petitioned the legislature for a charter of incorporation for the Sun Insurance Company of Montreal. Parliamentary assent was obtained on 18 March 1865 but difficulty in raising funds under the terms of the original charter, as well as general economic uncertainty, postponed the actual commencement of operations until 27 Dec. 1871 as the Sun Mutual Life Insurance Company of Montreal (it became the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada in 1882). Gault became the company’s first managing director and with 500 shares, worth approximately $5,000, its largest shareholder. Much of the firm’s initial success was due to Gault’s technical skill, actuarial acuteness, and organizational talent.
In 1873 Gault assumed the presidency of the Exchange Bank of Canada, founded the previous year, many of whose shareholders were board members or shareholders of the Sun Life. Gault resigned as managing director of the Sun Life on 31 March 1879 when he and Robertson Macaulay*, the firm’s secretary, disagreed over the company’s investment policy, especially with regard to holdings in the Exchange Bank and the Montreal Loan and Mortgage Company, but on 10 September Gault was elevated to vice-president of the Sun Life. However, he had to resign this post in 1883 when the Exchange Bank failed and the Montreal Loan and Mortgage Company temporarily collapsed. Gault was president of both and had been instrumental in inducing Sun Life to invest substantially in them. As a result Macaulay, then Sun Life’s managing director, and a group of rebellious shareholders forced Gault to resign. His brother, Andrew Frederick Gault*, an important Montreal dry goods merchant and textile manufacturer, replaced him as vice-president. In 1887, when he failed in his bid to gain control of the company, A. F. Gault sold all but 43 of the shares held by the Gault family in the Sun Life, receiving $39,000 for the 1,300 shares. Soon after the 1883 failure, shareholders of the Exchange Bank had brought suit in an attempt to make Mathew Gault, as president, responsible for the recovery of funds borrowed by the bank’s directors. The courts, however, placed full responsibility upon the bank’s manager, Thomas Craig, Mathew’s brother-in-law and an associate in the Montreal Loan and Mortgage Company, who, at the height of the scandal, absconded to New York.
Gault also held directorships in such diverse organizations as the Montreal Mining Company, of which he was vice-president from 1872 to 1887, the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company [see Sir Hugh Allan], the Dominion Telegraph Company, the Windsor Hotel Company of Montreal (the hotel opened in 1878), the Railway and News Advertising Company, the Canadian Navigation Company, and several cotton companies. In addition he had been, in his early days, an active member of the militia and retired from it with the rank of captain in the Montreal Garrison Artillery Brigade. For many years he was a justice of the peace of the city of Montreal and a warden of Christ Church Cathedral. He was a founder and the first president of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society of Montreal, a trustee of the Mount Royal Cemetery Company, a member of the board of management of the Montreal Protestant House of Industry and Refuge, and a director of the Montreal General Hospital and of the Montreal Sailors Institute.
Gault numbered among his intimates many members of the Conservative party, including Sir John A. Macdonald* and Sir George-Étienne Cartier*. Active in several federal election campaigns in Montreal, Gault was himself induced to run for the Conservatives in 1878. Cognizant of the importance of the votes of workingmen and the weakness of Alexander Mackenzie*’s appeal to them, Gault campaigned vigorously in the working class districts of the Montreal West riding as a supporter of the National Policy. He enjoyed the endorsement of Montreal mayor Jean-Louis Beaudry and several local businessmen, and defeated his opponent, merchant William Darling. In the House of Commons he was not active in debate, his chief concern being the maintenance of the protective tariff. He took a keen interest in party matters, however, and was in frequent communication with Macdonald about various patronage questions and issues affecting Montreal’s prosperity. Although ill in 1882 he was re-elected in Montreal West with a large majority.
After a protracted illness Gault died on 1 June 1887. A tall (6 foot, 1 inch), handsome man, with fashionable mutton chops, he was, in spite of the Exchange Bank disaster, a respected and highly esteemed member of the Montreal business community. About 1869 he had acquired Braeside, a mansion on McTavish Street, high on the slope of the mountain near McGill College, which commanded a superb view of the city and the surrounding countryside. In addition he had a summer residence, Rockcliffe, at Cacouna, Que.
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