GILMOUR, ALLAN, timber merchant, shipbuilder, and shipowner; b. 29 Sept. 1805 at Craigton, Mearns (Strathclyde), Scotland, the son of John Gilmour, a farmer, and Margaret Urie; m. in 1839 Agnes Strang of St Andrews, N.B., and they had one son; d. 18 Nov. 1884 at Glasgow, Scotland.
Allan Gilmour attended the Mearns parish school, where he received a good grounding in mathematics and the elements of bookkeeping. Through his uncle, Allan Gilmour Sr, principal partner in the timber-importing firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Company, established in Glasgow in 1804 as a loose partnership and in 1812 as a registered co-partnership, he secured in 1819 a clerk’s position in the company’s head office. Industry and a rapid grasp of the workings of the business led to his promotion in 1821 to a clerkship in the booming Miramichi branch in New Brunswick. In 1824 Gilmour was transferred to the Bathurst, N.B., branch, where he took regular French lessons from the local priest, acquiring considerable fluency in that language. In 1825, at his uncle’s suggestion, he returned to Scotland and spent a year in Greenock, then a rising shipbuilding centre, where he learned ship-draughting and the principles of ship construction. From 1826 to 1828 he served in Saint John, N.B., with Robert Rankin and Company, a Pollok, Gilmour branch firm which had been established in 1822 by Robert Rankin*. The Saint John operation was enlarged from the export of timber to include the importing of textiles, foodstuffs, and building supplies, and the construction of ships, to which Gilmour devoted himself. By branching out into shipbuilding the firm found a ready use for some of its timber and increased profits through the sale in Liverpool of the ships as well as their timber cargoes.
Gilmour’s chance to assume a leading position in the business came early in 1828 when, in conjunction with Allan Gilmour Sr and William Ritchie* of Montreal, he made a survey of the timber-producing potential of the upper St Lawrence and Upper Canada. As a result of this survey, it was decided to establish a firm in Quebec under the name of Allan Gilmour and Company, the partners being the two Allan Gilmours, members of the Pollok family of Glasgow, and Ritchie. Operations commenced at Wolfe’s Cove (Anse au Foulon) in July 1828, and they soon extended to the Lévis side of the river at Indian Cove (Anse aux Sauvages) as the firm under the junior Gilmour’s direction rapidly rose to be a leading purchaser of timber rafts. In its New Brunswick operations Pollok, Gilmour had advanced money to operators in the field and thereby guaranteed itself a timber supply each spring, but the custom among timber merchants at Quebec was to bid for the rafts brought down the St Lawrence by independent operators. Many merchants maintained up-river agents, often innkeepers, who would alert them to the approach of timber rafts. In 1832, at the instigation of Allan Gilmour Sr, an attempt was made to secure a “corner” in timber by pre-empting rafts coming downstream, and it was so successful that a large profit was made. By 1835, 150 men were employed receiving rafts at the firm’s coves. Gilmour, who was assisted by his younger brother John*, also commenced shipbuilding operations at Wolfe’s Cove, specializing in large, stoutly built vessels for the timber trade, an example being the Advance of 1,466 register tons, “a leviathan of her day.”
From Quebec Allan Gilmour and Company carried mostly square timber in the company’s ships, though some deals and staves were also exported. Until 1830 the major port of destination was Greenock, but after that date the ships unloaded at Liverpool. There the company maintained huge storage yards for the square timber and itself sold the wood to builders who, recognizing its excellence as construction material, used it for beams in the buildings then being erected in a construction boom in Britain.
Gilmour was the favourite nephew of Allan Gilmour Sr, after whom he had been named, and his success at Quebec further commended him to his uncle, who intended that he should succeed not only to his partnership in the central firm in Glasgow but also to his considerable fortune and landed property in Scotland. Unfortunately for this plan, in 1837–38 a violent dispute arose between Gilmour Sr and his associates, the nephews of his original partners, John and Arthur Pollok. Gilmour Sr left the firm, withdrawing his capital and urging his nephew to do likewise. Gilmour refused to follow his uncle, thus losing his chance of a considerable inheritance. Late in 1838 the Glasgow partners asked him to return to Scotland and, in effect, to become manager of Pollok, Gilmour. When he did so it was decided to split the company’s operations between two principal head offices, one in Liverpool, specializing in the timber trade and headed by Robert Rankin, and the other in Glasgow, headed by Gilmour and concerned chiefly with the shipping side. Since Rankin and Gilmour were close friends, the arrangement worked well.
There can be little doubt, from John Rankin’s account in A history of our firm, that Robert Rankin was the head of the concern, but Gilmour’s role as “marine superintendent” was a crucial one. He ran his sailing fleet efficiently and economically; in John Rankin’s words, “he was active, of rare determination, impetuous, passionate (though only momentarily so), but he could be obdurate.” Until his retirement in 1870, by which time the business was essentially a shipping firm rather than a timber importing concern, Gilmour was rated as one of Scotland’s principal shipowners and a leading expert in the Canadian timber trade. He had also given important evidence to parliamentary committees from 1846 to 1848 on the navigation laws and in 1853–54 on the tonnage measurement of ships and other maritime matters.
In Glasgow Gilmour resided in fashionable St Vincent Street, and as his fortune grew he leased and later purchased landed estates where he could indulge his taste for an outdoor life. In Canada he had hunted moose, and in Scotland he fished and shot on his estates of Lundin and Montrave in Fifeshire. He retained his partnerships in the various Pollok, Gilmour branch firms in Canada until his death in 1884, and among the considerable number of businessmen in Glasgow who had commenced their careers in Canada he was regarded as one who had been particularly successful. He was certainly in the first rank of the great timber magnates of the 19th century, and his good fortune in this most lucrative of fields for the British entrepreneur may be attributed not only to his astuteness as a businessman but also to the fact that the various Pollok, Gilmour concerns in British North America had been well established and were served by competent personnel from the very beginning of the timber trade era.
[The bulk of the records of the various Pollok and Gilmour concerns were destroyed after the publication in 1921 of John Rankin’s history of the firm, but some early family and business papers can be found at the Univ. of Glasgow Arch., Adam Smith Business Records Store, UGD/36. d.s.m.]
Canadian business history; selected studies, 1497–1971, ed. D. S. Macmillan (Toronto, 1972). A. R. M. Lower, Great Britain’s woodyard: British America and the timber trade, 1763–1867 (Montreal and London, 1973). MacNutt, New Brunswick. John Rankin, A history of our firm, being some account of the firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Co. and its offshoots and connections, 1804–1920 (2nd ed., Liverpool, 1921). The Scottish tradition in Canada, ed. W. S. Reid (Toronto, 1976). D. M. Williams, “Merchanting in the first half of the nineteenth century: the Liverpool timber trade,” Business Hist. (Liverpool), 8 (1966): 103–21.