BURCHILL, GEORGE, shipbuilder, merchant, and lumberman; b. 8 May 1820 in Bandon (Republic of Ireland), son of Thomas Burchill and Catherine Murphy; m. 12 April 1849 Bridget Percival in Chatham, N.B., and they had three sons and two daughters; d. 18 June 1907 in Nelson (Nelson-Miramichi), N.B.
George Burchill immigrated to the Miramichi with his parents in 1826. He began work clerking in a Chatham store. In the early 1840s he was hired as a clerk by Joseph Russell*, and he rose to become the business manager of Russell’s shipyard on Beaubears Island. He held this position until he and John Harley*, Russell’s master builder, purchased the yard for £1,000 on 21 June 1850. They were financed by Rankin, Gilmour and Company [see Robert Rankin*; Allan Gilmour* (1805–84)], part of a shipping firm with main offices in Glasgow and Liverpool but with branch offices all over the world, including Douglastown on the Miramichi.
Together Burchill and Harley were to construct nine square-rigged ships ranging in size from 568 to 1,002 tons. They built with quality materials, even importing oak knees from Quebec when necessary, and always prudently insured their ships and cargoes. Like most Maritime shipbuilders, they were also lumber merchants. They annually shipped as much as two million board feet of deals to Rankin, Gilmour in Liverpool. Although they held leases to crown lands, they did not work them themselves, obtaining their lumber primarily through purchase or through barter at their general store.
When, on the advice of Rankin, Gilmour, the partnership was dissolved on 18 Feb. 1857, Burchill’s share of the profits was £8,384, an excellent return on his investment of £500. He retained the non-shipbuilding portion of the operation and moved to Nelson, on the south bank of the Miramichi, where he established a general retail and lumber business. In his retail endeavours he reaped a profit annually (as high as $11,000) on sales which ranged from $8,000 to $27,000 in the period 1857–75. The business was conducted on the truck system, with lumber, logs, produce, and fish as the media of exchange. Burchill dealt with his employees and suppliers in a fair manner, providing approximately 25 per cent of the funds due to them in cash. It was not unusual that they received the rest in trade, given their distance from the commercial centres of Newcastle and Chatham. Supplies were initially obtained largely through Rankin, Gilmour, but over the years Burchill reduced his reliance on this firm from a credit account of around $24,000 in 1857 to one of $207 in 1872. Canadian businesses were becoming more independent in this period and were increasingly buying in North America. (Burchill may also have been less trusting of his former British mentors. In the same year they had advised him and Harley to get out of shipbuilding, they had opened a yard of their own on the Miramichi.)
Small at first, Burchill’s lumber business expanded after 1866 as the British market recovered from the American Civil War. Sales would reach $38,000 in 1875. Until the 1870s his own holdings of crown lands usually did not exceed 20 square miles, and he maintained no woods operations. He obtained logs from jobbers working his timber limits, as well as by purchase and barter. From 1868 to 1875 most of his logs were sawn at the mill of Charles Sargeant, a future son-in-law. Burchill invested in many local enterprises, including the Bathurst Telegraph Company, the Newcastle Telegraph Company, the Chatham Gas Light Company, and a number of banks. He became a principal of the North West Boom Company and in addition held numerous mortgages in local properties.
Burchill’s business was highly successful. In 1875, in the midst of an international depression, he was able to buy Sargeant’s mill, without outside financing. From 1873 to 1880 his net worth increased by one-third, to nearly $100,000. The following year the firm of Geo. Burchill and Sons was formed, with John Percival Burchill* (soon to become an mla) and George Jr as junior partners. By this time Burchill had vastly increased his timber limits. His holdings represented 3.7 per cent of the total leases granted in New Brunswick in 1880 and placed him ninth among the 107 leaseholders. In the early 1880s his annual limits were in the neighbourhood of 100 square miles, and from 1894 to 1901 his holdings consistently exceeded this amount, latterly by as much as half. The firm began to do some of its own logging in the 1880s but it still acquired logs from jobbers and others. It also began to cut lumber for lumbermen who did not own mills. Thus it always sawed more than it logged. Since it continued to obtain lumber from other mills, it often shipped more than it sawed. From 1880 to 1906 the annual average output of its mill, which had had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1876, was approximately four million board feet. The Burchills maintained their attachment to wind and sail for shipping. Although the first shipment of deals to leave the Miramichi by steamship did so in 1866, Burchill did not convert to steam until 1892. North American shipments, however, went by rail exclusively after 1885.
In the operation of lumber camps Burchill was ahead of his time. Many of the foodstuffs he provided did not appear in other camps for another 20 years. He also supplied such amenities as windows, towelling, blankets, and carpeting, but at a financial penalty. The costs of procuring logs himself were above what he had to pay for logs from others. He was also a benevolent landlord. From 1875 to 1896 the rents on the houses he had acquired with the Sargeant mill varied from $4.00 to $2.50 a month according to the changing economic times.
On 1 Jan. 1904 the Burchill firm was restructured: John Percival became the senior partner and George Sr retired at the age of 83. He would die three years later. He had been, above all, a survivor. During the prolonged depression of 1873–96, which saw the collapse of many firms, he had expanded. At a time when many small lumber companies were being taken over by the new pulp and paper industry, his had remained a profitable family firm.
[George Burchill’s biography is based primarily on the author’s thesis, “The Burchill lumbering firm, 1850–1906; an example of nineteenth century New Brunswick entrepreneurship” (ma thesis, Concordia Univ., Montreal, 1978). Other relevant sources include the George Burchill & Sons coll. at PANB, MC 1246 (cited in my thesis under its former classification, MBU), especially the unsorted family correspondence from the 1970s which has been added to the collection since 1978, and the probate file for George Burchill Sr and George Burchill Jr at PANB, RS68, 1906; because their deaths occurred close together, their probates became intertwined and only one file was created. b.g.]
PANB, RS153, A1/10–18; I7/2, no.3217. N.B., Crown Land Office, Returns (Fredericton), 1850–60, continued as Crown Land Dept., Annual report, 1861–1906. Jane Percival Dollahan, The ancestors and descendants of John Percival of the Miramichi (Tucson, Ariz., 1972).