BURSTALL, JOHN, lumber merchant; b. c. 1832 in Hessle, England, son of William Burstall; m. 3 Sept. 1861 Fanny Bell Forsyth, eldest daughter of James Bell Forsyth*, at Quebec; d. February 1896 in England.
The education and training John Burstall received in England prepared him for a career in business. He arrived at Quebec in the 1850s to serve an apprenticeship to his uncles Edward and Henry Burstall, important exporters of forest products, who had been operating in that city since the early 1830s. In 1857 John went into partnership with Edward; by then Henry had been retired from business for two years. John’s promotion to a partnership came at a most inopportune time. In October 1857 the firm was in a precarious financial position: the mainstay of its commercial network, Harrison, Watson and Company of Hull, England, had gone bankrupt. There were outstanding notes and drafts of almost $800,000. Edward Burstall personally had debts of $200,000 and his firm had accumulated liabilities of about $300,000. This serious set-back had a disastrous impact on the Canadian business community. Many Quebec merchants were affected by the bankruptcy, if only by the panic it caused at the banks. The repercussions were also felt farther upstream, especially in the Ottawa valley, where Burstall’s bankruptcy triggered that of a number of lumber producers and dealers.
In order to protect himself from his creditors, Edward Burstall transferred his villa at Sillery to his brother Henry, as well as his shares in the Quebec Warehouse Company, which offered shareholders the use of a cove at Lévis for export lumber. A commercial settlement was negotiated and Edward’s firm got out of its predicament by guaranteeing to pay creditors ten shillings on the pound. Henry took over the management of E. Burstall and Company for a while. He allowed commercial activity to resume, and at the same time he straightened out its finances. By the early 1860s Edward had paid his debts and took back the business in his own name.
Until this time, John Burstall had had only routine responsibilities in his uncles’ shipping business. Early in 1860 Henry withdrew from the firm and John began to play a somewhat larger role. In 1862 he left his uncle Edward and went into partnership with Henry Stanley Smith of Liverpool, forming John Burstall and Company. His main interest was still shipping and storing lumber. Unlike his uncles, John showed no particular interest in shipbuilding, a sector in which they had often speculated during the 1840s and 1850s; in the course of his career he would never buy more than a few ships.
The firms of John and Edward Burstall were independent operations, with separate offices and assistants to take care of current transactions in their absence. Each obtained its supplies from different sawmills, even going so far as to finance, in whole or in part, the enterprises of George Benson Hall* and Henry Atkinson. Edward and John did, however, give each other mutual support. Through Edward’s connections, John became a shareholder in the Quebec Warehouse Company as did his accountant Frederick Billingsley, who served as its secretary. John Burstall and Company thus had the use of a storage facility and it owned a wharf with several buildings, which was leased to other merchants.
In 1869 John Burstall and Company had capital assets of $305,000, of which $165,000 had been subscribed by John. At the beginning of the 1870s it was, therefore, in excellent financial shape. John and his family were then living in Sillery at a sumptuous residence that his wife had bought from Edward; they would occupy it until it burned down in 1879. In 1874 John Burstall consolidated his commercial position in Liverpool by going into partnership with William Henry Robinson of Harrison, Robinson and Company. Burstall and Robinson invested nearly $460,000 in the firm. At Quebec it owned a steamship, two barges, nine small boats, and a lumber cove. John Burstall and Company came through the depression of the 1870s with little difficulty. It did suffer substantial losses, particularly on exports of oak, but this situation had little effect on its purchasing policy. It took advantage of circumstances to procure vast quantities of lumber at a low price in the Ottawa valley. Despite Robinson’s death in March 1875, the Quebec enterprise continued to forge close ties with the Harrisons of Liverpool and the following year Burstall entered into a partnership with James Sr, James Jr, and Thomas, which was renewed in 1877. At Quebec, Frederick Billingsley and Henry Talbot Walcot joined Burstall in the company, still operating under the same name. Doubtless the affiliation with the Harrisons was the factor enabling it to minimize losses in spite of a marked decline in its financial resources between 1875 and 1879.
John Burstall and Company was first and foremost a firm of agents. It often acted for British merchants who on its behalf chartered ships that came to Canada for cargoes of lumber to be sold on the British market. Charter contracts constituted the basis for this commercial activity. These specified the shipper, the shipping agents, the shipowner, and the charter-party; they gave the captain’s name, and the name, nationality, home port, and sailing orders of the ship; they indicated the type, quantity, and quality of lumber aboard, and the destination. The contracts also stipulated the time allocated for the return voyage and for loading and unloading, as well as the penalties for violating any clause. John Burstall and Company’s charterers and shipowners in Great Britain were mostly merchants from Hull, Newcastle upon Tyne, London, and Liverpool. Around the 1870s they increasingly chartered Norwegian or Swedish sailing vessels to transport lumber to the British market. In Canada, Burstall’s firm used a network of agents it had established at Sault-au-Mouton, Les Escoumins, Betsiamites, and Trois-Rivières, where the ships took on cargoes. From the mid 1880s it also had a large branch in Montreal to offset the rising cost of handling and loading lumber at the port of Quebec. The lumber distribution network was quite decentralized, especially as regards individual dealers and techniques to meet market demands. When there was a shortage of space, the surplus lumber was sent to other coves to be loaded. This was common practice, as was the frequent exchange of services among Quebec lumber merchants. Any of them, depending on circumstances, would act as shipowners, shipping agents, warehousers, or suppliers of raw materials.
Between the 1870s and the 1890s lumber storage continued to present a problem. John Burstall and Company found a partial solution in a new commercial partnership. In 1877 Billingsley and Walcot formed a company with William Henry Knight and his brother Charles Edward. The five-year agreement allowed the partners to make use of Spencer Cove, where there were several small houses, a hotel, a stable, a blacksmith shop, a lath-making machine, anchors, chains, and piers. In 1885 John Burstall and Company moved its storage area, leasing Woodfield Cove, near Burstall’s family residence, for five years.
Although the company’s financial resources were between $250,000 and $300,000 throughout the 1880s, the partners withdrew one after another. Walcot left the company in 1886 after having taken charge of the London office for a time. Four years later it was the turn of the Harrisons. John Burstall now had no one left to count on but Billingsley. The contraction of the market in England also affected the company’s growth and its financial resources diminished proportionately. Valued at between $150,000 and $200,000 in 1895, they had fallen to between $75,000 and $100,000 four years later. John’s son, John Forsyth Burstall, took over during the first decades of the 20th century, but the era of sailing ships and lumber barons was coming to an end.
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