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DESSAULLES, JEAN – Volume VI (1821-1835)

d. 20 June 1835 in Saint-Hyacinthe, Lower Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

Original title:  Painting Sir William Christopher MacDonald (1831-1917) Robert Harris About 1917, 20th century Oil on canvas 49.7 x 39.6 cm Gift of Mrs. Walter M. Stewart M970.65 © McCord Museum Keywords:  Painting (2229)

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MACDONALD, Sir WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER (until 1898 he spelled his family name McDonald), merchant, tobacco manufacturer, and philanthropist; b. 10 Feb. 1831 in Glenaladale, P.E.I., youngest son of Donald McDonald* and Anna Matilda Brecken; d. unmarried 9 June 1917 in Montreal.

William Macdonald’s paternal grandfather, John MacDonald* of Glenaladale, a Roman Catholic, was the last of a line of Scottish lairds bearing the title Glenaladale. In 1772 he transported over 200 Highlanders to St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, where he had purchased 20,000 acres of farm land. His son Donald, who became a highly controversial landlord and a legislative councillor, married Anna Matilda Brecken, the daughter of a prominent Protestant landowner and the sister of John Brecken*.

Macdonald grew up therefore in an important family. His mother remained Protestant while his father and the children, three boys and four girls, continued in the Catholic faith. William served as an acolyte; his father may have hoped he would become a priest. At about age 16, William suddenly renounced Catholicism and, without formally disavowing Christianity, declared himself free of all sectarian loyalties. Whether his renunciation was caused by rebellion against his father, dislike of Catholic ritual, or something else is unknown; the subject still deeply perturbed him 50 years later. His alienation from religion strongly influenced his later attitudes and actions.

Macdonald quarrelled with his father but remained devoted to his mother. Unlike his brothers John Archibald and Augustine Ralph, who were sent to their father’s Catholic alma mater, Stonyhurst College in England, William was educated at Central Academy in Charlottetown. At 16 he was apprenticed, apparently unwillingly, to a cousin on his mother’s side who kept a general store in Charlottetown. By age 18 he was clerking with his brother Augustine in a commercial establishment in Boston, George H. Gray and Company. Soon he engaged in commerce on his own account. In 1849 he asked his father for financial backing, failing which he threatened to join the gold-rush in California. He raised capital somehow, for in 1851 he persuaded his brother John to turn from farming to storekeeping in Charlottetown; he would be the partner abroad. Ambitiously, he declared that he would not stop until his signature was “GOLD wherever it appears.” But a shipment of goods to the Island worth $6,700 was mostly lost when the vessel was wrecked, and the partnership ended.

Meanwhile, William and Augustine had moved from Boston to New York and then to Montreal, where in 1852 they set up as oil merchants – presumably vegetable, fish, or coal oil. In 1854 their father visited them. Impressed, he wrote to John that they did a business of $40,000 a year and reckoned in five years to clear half that amount in profits. No sooner had William become reconciled with his father than he lost him to cholera.

In 1857 the brothers appeared in the Montreal directory as importers and general commission merchants. By the following year they were McDonald Brothers and Company, “manufacturers of tobacco.” They bought the tobacco in leaf from Kentucky and elsewhere, cured it, and processed it for chewing or for consumption by pipe (not until 1922, after William’s death, did the company begin the large-scale manufacture of cigarettes). Shortly after 1866 McDonald Brothers and Company was dissolved and Macdonald was operating under his own name.

Macdonald’s first tobacco factory was on Water Street (Rue de la Commune) in Montreal. By 1871 it employed over 500 persons. As at other tobacco factories, women and adolescents, hired cheaply, made up over half of the workforce and did much of the stripping, sorting, and drying of tobacco plants. Macdonald’s product owed part of its popularity to a secret recipe (probably molasses-based) for sweetening chewing tobacco. The plugs had a small heart-shaped label made of tin pressed into the tobacco, with the motto “the tobacco with a heart.” Even in remote areas, trappers and native people knew the label. The American Civil War opened up opportunities for export and brought higher prices, which Macdonald exploited; he may have cornered much of the American crop. With industrialization, Montreal became a centre for manufacturing pipe and chewing tobacco and cigars. Canadian cultivation increased as well: in the mid 19th century Quebec led in the production of tobacco with over 1 million pounds in 1870–71, while Ontario produced just under 400,000 pounds. In the 1860s and 1870s Macdonald played an active role in his business. Although he disliked the use of tobacco, he prided himself on a good nose and a feel for a leaf.

In 1875 Macdonald built a new tobacco factory, the largest in Canada, in eastern Montreal. Little was published about the company – Macdonald owned it exclusively and owed no reports to shareholders. He ran the business with few assistants, maintaining overhead costs at minimum; these methods resulted in a wide profit margin. (By 1895 he was described as the highest taxpayer in Canada.) He kept the ratio of office workers to production workers extremely low – perhaps 1 to 200. He avoided correspondence, advertising, and all unnecessary expense. Customers had to present cash or a certified cheque for the previous consignment of goods before any new order would be accepted. The authorized order form then had to be taken to the custom-house for payment of charges and, when duly stamped, to the bonded Macdonald warehouse to receive delivery of goods. The customer had to arrange transportation to his own premises. For 40 years Macdonald did business from a small, notoriously plain office on Rue Notre-Dame, two miles from his factory. In 1910 he moved to an office on the seventh floor of the Guardian Assurance Building on Rue Saint-Jacques and conceded to using an elevator.

In February 1888 in Montreal Macdonald and many other manufacturers and employees testified before the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital, an inquiry into compliance with the factory laws, female and child labour, working, safety, and sanitary conditions, and wages. Macdonald’s factory was run by a superintendent, Samuel William Wells, and about a dozen foremen. There were some 180 subcontractors or bench-hands, each of whom could recruit three or four workers, often women or children, as stumpers, stringers, and coverers. In all, Macdonald employed about 1,100 hands, a slight majority being female. The testimony and the commission’s report showed that the Montreal tobacco factories, including Macdonald’s, paid by the piece, imposed fines for minor infractions such as dawdling or talking, and employed numerous boys and girls, some under the legal age. Macdonald declared that his subordinates tried to observe the regulations against hiring boys under 12 and girls under 14 but were greatly deceived by bench-hands, parents, and the children themselves. Macdonald ran a clean shop; unlike some cigar manufacturers, he did not have to defend himself from charges of poor sanitation or tolerance of immorality and physical punishments. His factory hours were from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with an hour for dinner; the shipping department might remain open some nights to 9:00 or 10:00, but no children were employed there. Fines were administered by the foremen. At year’s end they were given to the Montreal General Hospital. Macdonald followed the trade practice of reducing wages in winter and raising them in spring, a policy that reflected the seasonal availability of labour. According to their productivity women and girls earned from $1.50 to $4.25 a week, boys $1.50 to $5.50, men $6.00 to $8.50, and bench-hands $5.00 to $15.00. The annual wage bill amounted to $200,000. Asked if he had considered schemes to share profits with his workers, Macdonald replied: “I have really been very desirous to do it, but cannot see how it is going to be brought about with any degree of safety to the capitalist.” He added that he sometimes gave bonuses and emphasized that he had to compete with other manufacturers and would go to the wall if he paid greater wages than his competitors. Macdonald admitted he did not attend to day-to-day procedures as closely as he once had. He referred the commissioners to superintendent Wells for details about the factory. On the business side, he depended heavily on David Stewart, who had begun as an office boy in 1867 and had risen to become his confidential manager.

On 25 April 1895 an accidental fire burned the upper two storeys of Macdonald’s four-storey factory. The building was not insured and losses were estimated to be at least $400,000. The architect, Alexander Cowper Hutchison, had built in brick and wood to slow-burning standards, and had provided a wide staircase in the central tower to serve as a fire escape. The factory had a water supply and fire-fighting equipment. The supervisors tried to ensure an orderly evacuation; however, panic broke out and four workers died. The coroner’s jury criticized the company for being unprepared. Macdonald had to defend himself in a civil suit for damages brought by the parents of a woman who had died in the fire. The court found against him, judging that the supervisors had delayed too long in raising the alarm and had mishandled the evacuation. Macdonald appealed the decision. The outcome is unknown.

By the 1880s Macdonald appears to have valued the company simply as a source of wealth for higher purposes. He took little interest in his urban, Catholic, French-speaking workforce; from his days on the Island his affinities were with rural, English-speaking people. Furthermore he disliked his company’s product. His tension over this contradiction may have spurred his philanthropy. Francis Charles St Barbe Harrison, a principal of Macdonald College, once asked to see the factory which had made the college possible. Macdonald refused, replying, “I am not proud of my business, and that feeling, perhaps, has been the reason for my donations.”

Like his fellow merchants, Macdonald sat on a few boards of directors – notably those of the Bank of Montreal (he was the leading stockholder) and the Royal Trust Company. He took a considerable interest in social concerns: he was a governor of the Montreal General Hospital, a director of the Citizens’ Association and of the Parks and Playgrounds Association of Montreal, a member of the Protestant committee of the Council of Public Instruction, a vice-president of the St John Ambulance Association, and a governor of the Lady Stanley Institute, Ottawa. He spent little time at his clubs, the Mount Royal and the St James.

A handsome bachelor, Macdonald had no known romances. Until 1869 he boarded at hotels, but at age 37 he decided to live domestically in a proper house. In August 1868 he invited his mother and sister Helen Jane (who had become a Protestant) to come to Montreal and live with him. Citing the convenience of being together, he promised them gas, hot and cold running water, servants, covered and open carriages and sleighs, and nearby churches. The following year they moved into a three-storey townhouse at Prince of Wales Terrace, Montreal’s most up-to-date development. Fatefully, it stood almost next door to McGill College, which was emerging into prominence under Principal John William Dawson*. Macdonald and Dawson made natural allies; both disliked Roman Catholicism and favoured practical scientific education. Free of the dynastic ambitions, social life, and art collecting of his fellow Montreal millionaires, Macdonald found his life’s mission in McGill. He practically refounded the institution, transforming it from a medical school attached to an arts college into a full-scale university with particular strength in science. His first gift, in 1869, was $1,750 for biological equipment; in 1871 he gave $5,000 for the general endowment. Thereafter the benefactions continued with very particular objects in view: whole buildings and their necessary professorial chairs for physics, engineering, and chemistry, large numbers of books for the library, many of them individually chosen (10,000 in all), and substantial grants to other faculties, including arts, law, education, music, architecture, and by bequest even medicine, although during his lifetime he left that area to the generosity of Lord Strathcona [Smith].

Macdonald’s benefactions adorned the campus with distinctive grey stone structures designed by Andrew Thomas Taylor*. The Macdonald Physics, Engineering, and Chemistry buildings opened in the 1890s. When the engineering building burned in 1907, he immediately funded its replacement. He had committees of management for each building which included the principal, the bursar, and another member of the board of governors, the head of the department, and himself. The committees oversaw expenditures and Macdonald required close accounting. He investigated construction problems himself, stood on chairs to check damp ceilings, and trotted across girders followed by nervous administrators. When he gave buildings, he also provided operating funds. He was proud of the achievements of Ernest Rutherford* and other professors in his laboratories.

Macdonald protected McGill. He provided for expansion by giving 25 acres on the lower slopes of Mount Royal, above the farm which had been owned by James McGill*. He stopped a syndicate from building the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the southwest corner of the campus; he told the speculators to sell the land to him at a profit of $500 or he would ruin them all. Then he gave the land to McGill. He built a splendidly furnished student union for the male students; it opened in 1906. His rival in philanthropy, Lord Strathcona, had already provided the Royal Victoria College for the women. Macdonald’s gifts and bequests to McGill exceeded $13,000,000 – a sum unparalleled in Canada and other countries.

Besides McGill, Macdonald supported a national rural education program. Nostalgic for his rural background and resentful that his own education had been cut short, Macdonald became interested in rural education in the late 1880s and pursued several initiatives over the next two decades. He read of the success of the pioneering educational efforts of James Wilson Robertson*, a member of the staff of the Central Experimental Farm outside Ottawa from 1890 to 1895 and later federal commissioner of agriculture and dairying. Robertson interested Macdonald in schemes to improve field crops and encourage practical education – gardening and carpentry – in rural elementary schools. The Macdonald Manual Training Fund was established in 1899 to contribute (in at least one year as much as $40,000) to the procurement and payment for three years of specialized teachers in various locations throughout Canada, on condition that local and provincial funding would continue the program thereafter. In 1902 Macdonald financed a study of the Quebec Protestant school system by Scottish educationist John Adams. One result of the study was the Macdonald Rural Schools Fund to encourage practical education in school gardens and manual workshops in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. A second result was yet another fund, to assist in the consolidation of small, anglophone rural schools into larger, central schools where practical training could be a regular part of the curriculum. The Macdonald Consolidated Schools Project provided for the building of the new schools and their operation over three years, after which, it was presumed, other funding would take over. The scheme was adopted in many parts of Canada. In the five eastern provinces, the schools initiated by the fund, and other consolidated schools organized as late as 1907, demonstrated the value of the reforms. In the west Macdonald supported similar programs and in 1905 financed initiatives headed by Henry Marshall Tory* which would evolve into the universities of Victoria and British Columbia.

Another initiative which attracted Macdonald’s attention was that of Adelaide Sophia Hoodless [Hunter*] in Ontario. In 1894 Hoodless had begun promoting classes on domestic science through the Young Women’s Christian Association in Hamilton, and in 1896–97 she instigated the Women’s Institute movement. In 1900, largely as a result of her efforts, the Ontario Normal School of Domestic Science and Art was established in Hamilton. Three years later the school became part of the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph and, with a broader curriculum, was renamed the Macdonald Institute of Home Economics. Macdonald provided for construction of a building, together with a residence for the women students named Macdonald Hall, and the government of Ontario undertook to operate the buildings and supply the teaching staff.

These preliminary ventures provided the inspiration for Macdonald’s major educational experiment. He conceived the idea of a college which would afford practical instruction for young people who would live and work in English-language rural communities in Quebec and the rest of eastern Canada. He designed his college to be an independent rural institution for future farmers, farmers’ wives, and the teachers of farmers’ children, so it was to have three divisions, agriculture, domestic economy, and teacher training. Macdonald intended to build it at Ormstown, Que., but when difficulties concerning the site and transportation to it arose, the location was changed to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, at the western end of the island of Montreal. He wanted the college to be fully independent of any government or academic control, but in 1906 William Peterson*, principal of McGill, persuaded him to modify his intention and to name the university’s board of governors the governing body of the new college. To increase the viability of the project, the university agreed to move the McGill Normal School to the site as a constituent part of the institution. Macdonald not only provided all the buildings (designed by Hutchison and George W. Wood) but he also endowed them with a capital fund of $2,000,000. Macdonald College opened in 1907 with 115 teachers-in-training, 62 students in household science, and 38 in agriculture. There were 37 members of staff and Robertson was the first principal. Since that time the college has formed a strong, integral part of McGill University. Macdonald paid many visits of inspection; he even watched the chickens lay eggs. The. tobacco company regularly supplied the college with tobacco ashes for fertilizer and experiments on insecticides.

Of Macdonald’s six brothers and sisters, only John Archibald married – in 1866 at 40 to a girl of 18. They had nine children and Macdonald paid for most of their education as well as for a new house and other improvements at Glenaladale, the family home in Prince Edward Island. Macdonald’s mother died in 1877; after his sister Helen Jane died in 1889, the eldest niece, Anna, came to keep house for him. When Anna married, against Macdonald’s wishes, another member of the Macdonald clan, a Catholic, Alain Chartier Macdonald, on 29 Nov. 1894, he withdrew all patronage from his brother’s family and devoted his philanthropy as well as the succession to his property to outsiders. According to Macdonald’s servants, the break caused him to pace the house in a passion of resentment and grief. Fifty years later, Anna told author John Ferguson Snell that her uncle never gave any reason for disapproving her marriage beyond declaring, “I do not wish it.” Snell suggested he saw in this marriage the failure of his hope to wean his brother’s family from Catholicism. More probably, dismay at the loss of his housekeeper and his last family support is the explanation for Macdonald’s reaction. Anna visited her uncle on his deathbed in 1917; he “affectionately” pressed her hand. Anna’s marriage triggered the breach, but for some time previously Macdonald seems to have felt that he had done enough for his family – now he would concentrate on his philanthropic interests.

In 1898 Macdonald, after initially declining the honour, had received a knighthood. From that time on he signed his name Macdonald. He was embarrassed by his connection with the tobacco trade from which he derived his profits. Also, his family connections had now been severed. So changing the spelling of his name may have had both conscious and unconscious motivations. In 1914 he followed Lord Strathcona as chancellor of McGill. That same year Macdonald’s assistant David Stewart was stricken with paralysis and soon afterwards, on 25 Aug. 1914, Macdonald made his will. He died almost three years later. He left nothing to his relatives. His business, estimated to net $750,000 a year and to be worth $20,000,000, went to Stewart’s sons Walter Moncrief and Howard, who had long served in the company. Walter Moncrief Stewart, and later the Macdonald Stewart Foundation, continued Macdonald’s extraordinary philanthropy to McGill, education, and many other causes. Macdonald left $25,000 each to his McGill friends, Principal William Peterson and bursar Walter Vaughan, and to his factory supervisor, Samuel Wells. He ordered his body cremated without religious observances in the crematorium he had presented to the Mount Royal Cemetery in 1901. He left $1,000,000 to Macdonald College, $500,000 to the faculty of medicine at McGill, $300,000 to the McGill Conservatorium of Music, $500,000 to the Montreal General Hospital, and $100,000 to the crematorium company.

Perhaps no other Canadian figure inspired so many anecdotes and left so little documentation of his life. The anecdotes agree as to his frugality, modesty, dry wit, dislike of innovations such as the telephone or the gramophone, insistence on business accountability, old-fashioned tastes, Scots loyalty and pride, dislike of religion, and faith in education. He had eclectic knowledge, gained by voracious reading in many fields. He avoided public recognition, but enjoyed the company of a few well-chosen friends. Susan Elizabeth Vaughan [Cameron*], wife of the bursar of McGill and later warden of the Royal Victoria College, remembered his “fine democratic friendliness, which included in its circle, not only statesmen and financiers, but also women and children, to whom his gentle manners and his sense of fun endeared him.” She described his charity as “mingled shrewdness and generosity. . . . He was not interested in supporting weakness and had no wish to assume responsibilities which belonged to others, but, once convinced that he had found a promising field, he poured out his irrigating wealth with a hand as lavish as it was unpretentious.” Unpretentious he certainly was. Mocking his modest height, he pointed out the buildings at Macdonald College with the words, “Not so bad for a little fellow, is it?” He might have preferred that remark as his obituary.

Stanley Brice Frost and Robert H. Michel

[Sir William Christopher Macdonald’s papers were destroyed after his death except for a letter-book to which the authors were refused access, but which provided information for several of the articles cited below.  s.b.f. and r.h.m.]

McGill Univ. Arch. (Montreal), MG 2007 (J. F. Snell papers); RG 2 (office of the principal and vice-chancellor); RG 4 (secretariat of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning and the board of governors), esp. c.504, file 6797; RG 32 (faculty of arts); RG 35 (faculty of engineering); RG 43 (Macdonald College), esp. c.3, c.5, and c.183 (hist. files). E. A. Collard, “All our yesterdays: Sir William Christopher Macdonald,” Gazette (Montreal), 4, 11 March 1946. Gazette, 26 April–10 May 1895, 11–13 June 1917. McGill Daily (Montreal), 1 Oct. 1917. Montreal Daily Star, 26 April–10 May 1895, 11–13 June 1917. New York Herald, 29 Oct. 1885. La Patrie, 26 avril–10 mai 1895. La Presse, 26 avril–10 mai 1895. Sun (New York), 29 Oct. 1885. Telegraph (New York), 29 Oct. 1885. World (New York), 29 Oct. 1885. Bettina Bradbury, Working families: age, gender, and daily survival in industrializing Montreal (Toronto, 1993). Augustus Bridle, Sons of Canada: short studies of characteristic Canadians (Toronto, 1916). Can., Royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada, Report (5v. in 6, Ottawa, 1889). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). Directory, Montreal, 1854–66. M. H. Epstein, “Sir William C. Macdonald: benefactor to education” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., 1969). S. B. Frost, McGill University: for the advancement of learning (2v., Montreal, 1980–84). F. C. Harrison, “Reminiscences of the founder of Macdonald College,” Old McGill (Montreal), 1927: 102, 341. Macdonald v. Thibaudeau (1899), Rapports judiciaires de Québec, Cour du banc de la reine (Montréal), 8: 449–79. P. E. Nobbs, “Sir William Macdonald,” McGill News (Montreal), 4, no.3 (June 1923): 1–2, 4. J. F. Snell, Macdonald College of McGill University: a history from 1904–1955 (Montreal, 1963); “Sir William Macdonald and his kin,” Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 23 (1943–44): 317–30.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Stanley Brice Frost and Robert H. Michel, “MACDONALD, Sir WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_william_christopher_14E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_william_christopher_14E.html
Author of Article:   Stanley Brice Frost and Robert H. Michel
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   June 20, 2024