BELL, MATHEW (Matthew; he signed Mw Bell), businessman, jp, office holder, politician, militia officer, and seigneur; baptized 29 June 1769 in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England, son of James Bell and his wife Margaret; d. 24 June 1849 in Trois-Rivières, Lower Canada.
Mathew Bell, whose well-to-do father was twice mayor of Berwick-upon-Tweed, came to Quebec when he was about 15. He went to work for John Lees* as a clerk, and then around 1790 formed a partnership with David Monro*. An importer of wines and Barbados molasses, the firm of Monro and Bell leased shorelines, wharfs, and warehouses at Quebec, where it owned a store. In 1794 it bought the schooner L’Iroquois and the following year the sloop Abenakis. It seems to have grown rapidly. In the first decade of the 19th century the port registers annually recorded the arrival for the firm of such products as port, rum, shrub, lemon juice, red and white Spanish wines, raw and refined sugar, allspice, flour, and coal from Berwick-upon-Tweed.
On 5 Sept. 1805 Bell gave some indication of his prosperity when he paid Isabell Mabane £1,200 for Woodfield. This magnificent two-storey stone country house, which had been called Samos when Bishop Pierre-Herman Dosquet* occupied it, was built on 42 arpents of land and overlooked the St Lawrence. On 10 June 1807 Bell bought the waterfront lot “forming the frontage” of the property from the Séminaire de Québec. He seems to have lived at Woodfield only in summer and was content with making improvements to the vegetable garden. He sold the estate, including the waterfront lot, to shipbuilders William Sheppard* and John Saxton Campbell* for £3,550 on 21 Sept. 1816.
Monro and Bell apparently owed their rapid success in business to their connections with John Lees and Alexander and George* Davison, two brothers who came from the same region as Bell and were protégés of the Duke of Northumberland. Alexander had engaged in the import-export trade in partnership with Lees since 1773, and he was purveyor to the British military in North America. In addition, the firm of Davison and Lees, together with George Davison, held leases to the king’s posts on the north shore of the lower St Lawrence and to the Saint-Maurice ironworks. The brothers lived mainly in England, where they cultivated political and business contacts, and Lees ran the company in the colony. On 15 Aug. 1791 Lees and Alexander Davison ended their partnership, Lees retiring from business. Davison chose Monro and Bell to replace him and they became the brothers’ agents at Quebec. They attended to buying provisions and shipping them to the British forces, and along with Peter Stuart they managed the king’s posts in Alexander’s name. Monro and Bell naturally became interested in the Trois-Rivières region, where the Davisons had invested heavily in property. Bell bought some land in Caxton Township in the summer of 1792, and in company with Monro and George Davison acquired a building site in Trois-Rivières in October. Alexander had settled in London at the end of the 1780s and he divested himself of his Canadian enterprises. On 6 June 1793 he made over the lease to the ironworks, valid until 10 June 1799. as well as the inventory, to his younger brother George and Monro and Bell for £4,434 11s. 8 1/2.d. George owned half the shares, but, chronically ill, he retired to England, leaving Monro and Bell to manage the operation.
The new lessees improved the existing facilities. They hired skilled labour from Europe and introduced new models of stoves and utensils. The products were sold in the company’s store in Trois-Rivières, and some of the goods were taken on consignment by James Laing in Montreal and Monro and Bell at Quebec. As managers they soon ran into the problems all their predecessors had encountered: ascertaining the exact boundaries of their territory, building up the necessary reserves of ore and wood, negotiating the rent for the lease and the terms of compensation in the event of its not being renewed. These tasks gave rise to a voluminous correspondence between the lessees and the government. Mindful of the public interest, the government contemplated an auction for a 99-year lease. Bidding might increase the rent, and a longer term would induce the lessees to invest more money in the enterprise, which would be advantageous for the region. In January 1799 Governor Robert Prescott*, lacking sufficient information, made an offer to extend the lease to 1 April 1801 and authorize its holders to get their supplies of wood and ore from crown lands, as Bell had requested on several occasions. Monro and Bell accepted these generous terms. George Davison died on 21 Feb. 1799 and in June Bell and Monro became the sole lessees of the ironworks, on condition that, in accordance with an arrangement put in writing on 8 Jan. 1800, they paid Davison’s heirs £10,523 18s. 7d. sterling. On 18 Dec. 1799 Monro and Bell obtained from Jesuit father Jean-Joseph Casot* a grant stretching 2 leagues along the east bank of the Saint-Maurice, with a depth of 20 arpents.
In June 1800, as the projected date of expiry of the lease to the ironworks, 1 April 1801, drew near, there was keen competition. Acting for the Batiscan Iron Works Company, Thomas Coffin pushed the bid up from £25 to £500 a year. This offer was in the direction that the government had in mind. The two rival groups kept raising their bids: Coffin offered £800 and Monro and Bell offered £50 a year above the highest bid. They secured a renewal of their lease for five years, 1 April 1801 to 1 April 1806, at £850 annually. On 15 July 1805 the lease was extended for a year, in order to give the Executive Council time to gather all the information needed to develop a new policy, the basis of which would be the auction of a long-term lease, with prior notice in Canadian and British newspapers. The bidding took place at Quebec on 1 Oct. 1806. There were seemingly three rival groups: John Mure*, notary Michel Berthelot who was agent for Pierre de Sales* Laterrière and his partners, and Monro and Bell. Rather strangely the Batiscan Iron Works Company did not participate. To everyone’s amazement Monro and Bell won with a bid of £60 annually. In Governor Prescott’s absence the Executive Council, not knowing what to do, submitted the matter to the British government. Lord Castlereagh suspected the bidders had been in collusion. However, the president of the council, Thomas Dunn*, who held shares in the Batiscan Iron Works Company, as did his sons, saw no irregularity. The new governor, Sir James Henry Craig*, who arrived in the autumn of 1807, wanted an amicable agreement and let Monro and Bell fire up the blast-furnace, even though they had no lease. Monro and Bell argued that their low bid was justified because they had made investments to improve the ironworks and production costs had soared as a result of bad harvests and the gradual need to go farther afield for materials; furthermore, competition by British and Canadian foundries – in particular the Carron Ironworks, a Scottish company copying the products of the Saint-Maurice ironworks – was, they said, depressing prices. Betting on the impending bankruptcy of the Batiscan Iron Works Company, Monro and Bell proposed a rent of £500 annually. On 7 June 1810 the Executive Council suggested an arrangement that would include a 21-year lease from 1 Jan. 1810 to 31 March 1831 for £500 a year, and an extension of the territory towards the northwest.
Around 1810 the Saint-Maurice ironworks looked like a village, since Bell and Monro had put up 23 buildings for housing or industrial purposes in the period 1793–1807. There was a blast-furnace, a foundry, two forges, a coal crusher, a flour-mill, and a sawmill. A large house was used as the lessees’ residence, and there were about 50 other dwellings for two or three hundred people, who were served by the company store. The area belonging to the ironworks covered about 120 square miles. The enterprise employed a score of skilled workmen, as well as finishers, carters, and unskilled labourers. It also gave part-time work to several hundred farmers. In early April they would go with their horses and pick up the ore lying on their own land or the company’s property. During the summer they worked on their farms. Early in November some would cut about 8,000 cords of wood on the company’s land, at least 5,300 of which were for conversion into charcoal; others used the ice roads to cart ore. These raw materials fed the ironworks, which operated day and night for six to eight months of the year. At the foundry the men assigned to the blast-furnace worked in teams on six-hour shifts; the casters and finishers toiled from sunrise to sunset, and there were two castings a day. In the forges the teams put in six-hour shifts. Yearly production amounted on average to 549 tons – 2 1/4 tons a day. The ore, when converted into pig iron, gave a 45 per cent yield. The cast iron produced was worth £12,000 a year on average. It consisted primarily of iron bars, stoves, potash or maple-sugar kettles, castings for mills and steam-engines, and forged products such as ploughshares. Bell kept another foundry going at Trois-Rivières. Equipped with two cupola-furnaces for melting pig and scrap iron, it specialized in stoves and potash kettles.
The partnership with the Davisons in the 1790s had been profitable for Bell, and it probably constituted one of the bases of his success. It had introduced him into a powerful network meshing business and politics. It had fostered the activity of Monro and Bell and led Bell to manage the ironworks. Even more important, it had provided him with a model. The Davisons owed their success to the patronage of well-placed politicians and a web of social relationships that they kept up through lavish entertaining. When he met the Davisons, Bell entered upon this same path. Politically, he was an avowed supporter of the English party. In 1794 he signed a declaration of loyalty to the British government and in 1795 a promise of fidelity to the king; in 1799 he and Monro subscribed £100 a year to support Great Britain in the war against France. In England he enjoyed Alexander Davison’s protection, and at Quebec that of John Lees, his former employer who sat in the House of Assembly for Trois-Rivières and was an honorary member of the Executive Council. When he and Monro became the sole lessees of the Saint-Maurice ironworks, he began to be involved in public life. In June 1799 he obtained the first of a long series of commissions as justice of the peace which spanned the period up to 1839. In December 1799 he was appointed treasurer of the commission to erect a metropolitan church at Quebec. He was elected to the assembly for Saint-Maurice in the summer of 1800, and while he was in England in 1804 Monro held the seat. Bell ran in a by-election in Trois-Rivières in April 1807 to replace Lees, who had died. He was defeated by Ezekiel Hart, but won the seat in November 1809 and represented Trois-Rivières until 22 March 1814.
As a member Bell initiated little in the assembly, for the most part simply supporting the measures put forward by the English party. He showed more interest in shipping matters. On 31 May 1802 he was appointed to the Lower Canada Board of Pilots, and on 16 May of the following year he was put on a commission to establish regulations for pilots and skippers. He became a warden of the newly founded Trinity House of Quebec on 6 May 1805, deputy master on 15 Sept. 1812, and master on 18 April 1814, a post he held until 22 Oct. 1816. The assembly and Trinity House were vantage points from which Bell served his fellow citizens while at the same time looking out for his own interests.
Bell had also become a prominent figure in society. On 17 Sept. 1799 he had married Ann MacKenzie, daughter of the late James Mackenzie, a Trois-Rivières businessman, with whom he had 12 children. Resident at Quebec, he made lengthy stays at Trois-Rivières. In Quebec he was one of the 21 members of the Barons’ Club – known prior to 1800 as the Beef-Steak Club – who came from the commercial and governmental élite. He led the life of a seigneur, with a host of servants, and gave receptions and hunting parties that were famous. He was a devotee of horse-racing and an experienced horticulturist, a member of the Agriculture Society, and active in the Fire Society. In Quebec’s 3rd Militia Battalion he was a captain. As soon as the War of 1812 broke out, he put himself at the service of Governor Sir George Prevost*. Prevost gave him orders on 22 April 1812 to raise a troop of light cavalry attached to the 3rd Battalion and by 27 June Bell had 34 volunteers under his command. On 27 July Major-General George Glasgow* made it an independent unit, the Quebec Volunteer Cavalry, and by early March 1813 it had about 60 men. It was quartered on Rue de la Fabrique and guarded American prisoners; in March it went to Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce to arrest some militiamen who refused to join up, and then it returned for garrison duty at Quebec.
When peace came Bell’s career took a new direction. Because of his 21-year lease on the ironworks, he did not seek re-election to the assembly, counting instead on his close ties with the executive and officialdom to advance his interests. He turned his energies to reorganizing his business affairs, which had been put in jeopardy by Monro’s unexpected retirement. On 31 Dec. 1815 the firm of Monro and Bell was dissolved. On 26 Oct. 1816 notary Joseph-Bernard Planté* drew up two instruments by which Bell became sole owner of Monro and Bell for £14,350, payable in five instalments, and sole lessee of the ironworks for £13,123 10s. 2d., payable in seven instalments from 1817 to 1823. Bell then mortgaged his assets in favour of Monro and rented out his house on Rue Saint-Pierre. These arrangements did not cover all the properties Monro and Bell owned in common. To replace Monro, Bell took John Stewart* as his partner in his import-export business. The rising star in the Quebec business community, Stewart was an old friend who had been the partner of Bell and Monro in John Stewart and Company, a firm dissolved in the autumn of 1806. Little is known about Bell and Stewart, which owned two stores, one at Quebec and the other in Trois-Rivières. It carried on the same sort of operations as Monro and Bell. The firm built a warehouse in Trois-Rivières in September 1820, but seems to have disappeared around 1825, when Stewart attained high political office. It is certain, however, that Stewart, who had been commissioner for the Jesuit estates since 1815, served as president of the Quebec Committee of Trade from 1822 to 1825, and was master of Trinity House of Quebec in 1824, was well placed to watch out for Bell’s interests.
After reorganizing his business and making a visit to Great Britain – probably from the autumn of 1816 to the spring of 1819 – Bell launched into land speculation, an infrequent activity for him until then. On 23 May 1817, for example, Monro had bought jointly with the absent Bell the seigneury of Champlain for £2,520, and in August a lot in the municipality of Trois-Rivières. In the Trois-Rivières region, Edward Greive, Bell’s future son-in-law and his agent, bought houses, building sites, and farms in Bell’s name. More and more Bell was attracted by the townships. In December 1821 he asked for 1,200 acres in Wolfestown Township for his services as a major in the militia in 1813; he was awarded that amount on 24 Jan. 1830 in Caxton Township. He bought part of Hertel seigneury, in the parish of Notre-Dame-de-la-Visitation at Champlain, from Joseph-Rémi Vallières de Saint-Réal on 22 Feb. 1823, and successful deals in 1823 and 1831 probably made him the owner of the whole seigneury. On 20 July 1824 he purchased the seigneury of Mont-Louis, which he had changed to free and common socage in June 1839. On 15 June 1825 he took 50 shares at £100 apiece in the Lower Canada Land Company, an enterprise being set up to buy crown lands. He acquired 2,940 acres in Simpson Township on 21 Sept. 1830, and on 12 November obtained possession of 25 acres in Sillery for £566. In 1832 he began buying the properties in Aston Township that belonged to judge Anthony Gilbert Douglas, and on 11 July he authorized Frederick Griffin to buy in his name 9,100 acres that George Pyke* owned in Tingwick and Warwick townships. He obtained 526 acres in Wendover Township by letters patent on 27 Feb. 1835 and 1,181 acres in Aston on 15 April 1836. On 9 May 1837 he and Greive bought 31 parcels of 200 acres in Brompton and several others in Durham Township. Arthur William Buller*’s commission of inquiry estimated in 1838 that Bell owned 30,000 acres in addition to his seigneurial land.
These speculations remained, none the less, a marginal activity. Bell was first and foremost head of the Saint-Maurice ironworks. After Monro and Bell was dissolved, he stayed for longer periods at Trois-Rivières and he moved there permanently in 1829. By then he was 60. He had been a member of the Legislative Council since 1823; his friend Stewart had been on it since 1825 and on the Executive Council since January 1826. Public office no longer attracted Bell–he was not in good health. He continued to live as a grand seigneur, and the fate of the ironworks and his children’s future were his great concerns. In the spring of 1829 he acquired three adjoining lots in Trois-Rivières for his sons who had not yet reached the age of majority; his eldest son, James, also bought one . Bell purchased another lot in the municipality for himself, and then two more in joint ownership. In October, perhaps foreseeing the prospects of the Saint-Maurice region, he made arrangements to get a sawmill built in Champlain, which was to sell part of its production on the Quebec market. In 1831 he asked for the grant of a property 84 arpents in area within the seigneury of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, near the Rivière Cachée, and without waiting for official confirmation he lent Greive £850 so that he could start building a dam and a sawmill. He began to participate more actively in the life of Trois-Rivières. Long a member of the district agricultural society, in 1832 he became its president. That year he was made chairman of the region’s Board of Health, which had been created at his urging. From October 1833 till October 1834 he was also chairman of the local education society, and he gave £125 to support two schools. Bell apparently wanted to draw his family together at Trois-Rivières, around the ironworks, and to make the region into a kingdom for his dynasty.
It was a period when Bell emerged as the symbol of patronage. From 1829 the renewal of the lease to the Saint-Maurice ironworks, which was to run out in 1831, occasioned restlessness in the House of Assembly and in Trois-Rivières, where some people, including merchants unhappy about the monopoly on trade which Bell enjoyed in the ironworks village, maintained that it was holding back the development of their town and the settlement of the back country. There was a flood of petitions to the assembly, which, making a tougher stand against the executive, took up these grievances. In February 1829 the issues were discussed in committee of the whole. The governor, Sir James Kempt*, had an inquiry conducted by the commissioner for crown lands. Bell pleaded his case in detailed memoranda. The Executive Council submitted the matter to the British government and simply renewed Bell’s lease on a yearly basis until 1833. The 34th of the 92 Resolutions passed by the assembly in February 1834 [see Elzéar Bédard] stigmatized Bell as “a grantee of the Crown, who has been unduly and illegally favoured by the Executive.” On 25 Nov. 1834 Governor Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer], with London’s backing, renewed the lease for the period 1 Jan. 1834–1 June 1844 at an annual rent of £500. The contract carried with it the right to build up a reserve of wood and ore from the crown lands.
When the Patriotes rose in rebellion, Bell manned the barricades. In November 1837 he administered the oath of allegiance to the officers of the 1st Battalion of Saint-Maurice militia, a unit composed of labourers from the ironworks and their sons. In December he formed two companies of volunteers and appointed his son Bryan ensign and Greive captain. Fearing for Bell’s safety and wishing to maintain order in the region, the government sent some 100 soldiers with large stocks of ammunition to Trois-Rivières in January 1838. Bell was then invited to sit on the Special Council, but he declined, just as he had refused to sit on the Court of Appeal in 1831.
When he was 70, Bell slowed down his activity. He was suffering from various physical disabilities and felt lonely. His wife had died at Quebec in July 1837. One of his sons, David, had died unmarried on 25 June 1839. His friend John Stewart was still a member of the Executive Council, but his influence was declining. The political situation was changing. Bell fell back more and more on his family. For a time he continued to speculate. In the period 1839–43 he staked a large sum on his sawmill at Champlain. He bought pine and spruce logs – some 7,200 in the winter of 1843–44 alone – which he had sawn up in his mill and sent to Quebec. From 1841 the renewal of the lease to the ironworks became his major concern. There were again discussions in the assembly and the Executive Council, but the atmosphere was different – the members of both bodies were in sympathy with the people of Trois-Rivières. The government was reluctant to set a policy and simply renewed the lease from year to year. On 22 Nov. 1845 the Crown Lands Department announced that the ironworks would be auctioned on 4 Aug. 1846. The establishment and the domain, reduced to further the cultivation of new lands and the development of Trois-Rivières, would all be sold. The purchaser would have the right to buy 350 more acres at 7s. 6d. an acre to put together a reserve, and he could get his supplies of materials from the crown lands for the five years following. The former lessee would have a fortnight to vacate the premises. Bell bid £5,450, but Henry Stuart won with an offer of £5,575.
Early in the autumn of 1846 Bell left, retiring with his family to his home in Trois-Rivières. He made one final large-scale speculation on 27 May 1847, purchasing 8,800 acres in Durham Township. But his financial position seems to have been endangered. David Arthur Monro, the son of David, sued him for £60,000, claiming that in discharging the power of attorney over his ex-partner’s estate, along with John Stewart, Bell had refused to give a statement of accounts. He died on 24 June 1849, leaving an estate open to dispute, which his children declined to accept.
Bell represents a generation of businessmen living in a colony in the heyday of British venture capitalism. Their operations characteristically involved sleeping partnerships, personal credit, collusion with the political powers, and participation in networks dominated by people in Great Britain. Bell himself possessed remarkable qualities: he had an imposing build, and his countenance exuded strength, perspicacity, and determination. Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay], who enjoyed his company, considered him “a very intelligent, liberal minded and honourable man.”
As the son of a well-to-do merchant Bell had while very young moved in business circles and among people of status. His association with the Davisons, which thrust him into the British mercantile upper middle class, was a decisive factor. They brought him into an influential milieu, taught him the art of handling important business matters, and passed on to him operations that he had only to develop. Above all, by force of example they inspired him to take up the life of the bourgeois gentleman in which the wealthy and powerful delighted. In the large house at the ironworks, Bell had a richly furnished bedroom called the Governor’s Room, spacious apartments, a ballroom, and stables full of thoroughbred horses. He could thus receive in style the leading figures in the colony and distinguished visitors. Dalhousie stated that Bell “lives and speaks more like an English gentleman than most people in this country.”
To his contemporaries Mr Bell was first and foremost the head of the Saint-Maurice ironworks, a post he held for more than 47 years. He proved a knowledgeable administrator. From the first he made the investments needed to adapt production to the market. He picked the most profitable opportunities. Products of good quality and competitive prices were the bases of his strategy. He made few changes in technology, keeping the methods introduced by the company that had been founded by François-Étienne Cugnet* in 1736. His situation as a lessee and the lack of coal dissuaded him from technological innovation. To strengthen his competitive position he counted on the score of skilled workers who had acquired and passed on from father to son a competency adapted to the environment and the methods in use. He was the first to impose discipline on the employees, who lived in a remote village run in a thoroughly hierarchical fashion on the basis of their qualifications and tradition. An aristocratic type of paternalism governed working relations and even community life. Bell seems to have brought in payment for piecework and put various kinds of penalties into the employment contracts. He determined who could visit the village and what liquor and leisure activities would be permitted, and he settled quarrels between both individuals and families. He encouraged stability in his work force and preferred to ensure for his employees pleasant living conditions and a busy community life – particularly in wintertime – rather than high salaries.
In contrast with the Davisons, however, Bell had become fond of his adopted country. According to Dalhousie, he was indignant at always being considered a foreigner because of his religion and origin. Perhaps he had dreamed, as had the Hart family – and as his speculations in land and his interest in sawmills suggest – of linking his family’s future with the destiny of the Saint-Maurice region, even though he was only the lessee of the ironworks. The change in the political context, the choices made by his children, and above all his extravagances as a grand seigneur, which consumed his profits and his domain, destroyed this dream, if it had ever had any reality. Instead of a kingdom he bequeathed to his children an estate so heavily mortgaged that they had no choice but to refuse it.
[Parks Canada has computerized information on the Saint-Maurice ironworks, including a wealth of detail on Mathew Bell; it is derived mainly from the Quebec Gazette, the appendices to the Journals of the House of Assembly, minute-books of notaries of Quebec and Trois-Rivières, registry offices, the Archives judiciaires du Québec, and various collections at the ANQ and the PAC. Although substantial, this documentation on Bell does not make up for the loss of records: the financial records of Monro and Bell, Bell and Stewart, and the Saint-Maurice ironworks are all missing, and only a few fragments of Bell’s own correspondence have survived. Thus, our knowledge of Bell as a person and of his activities is limited and interpretation difficult. Moreover, Bell has not been the subject of an extended study. The biography by Francis-Joseph Audet* and Édouard Fabre Surveyer in Les députés de Saint-Maurice et de Buckinghamshire, 26–34, is an account which does not delve beyond the main facts and events of his life. Three recent studies are, however, useful in understanding Bell’s role at the Saint-Maurice ironworks: Réal Boissonneault et Michel Bédard, La structure chronologique des forges du Saint-Maurice, des débuts à 1883 (Québec, 1980); H. C. Pentland, Labour and capital in Canada, 1650–1860, ed. Paul Phillips (Toronto, 1981); Roch Samson, Les ouvriers des forges du Saint-Maurice: aspects démographiques (1762–1851) (Parks Canada, National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch, Microfiche report, no.119, Ottawa, 1983). m.b., a.b., and j.h.]
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