BENSON, WILLIAM JOHN CHAPMAN, businessman; b. c. 1818, probably in London; d. 3 Dec. 1850 in Whitehall, N.Y.
William John Chapman Benson, a young man in his late twenties, arrived at Quebec from London, likely in the summer of 1845 when he leased a house on Rue Mont-Carmel in Upper Town. With £10,000 borrowed from Edward Henry Chapman of Haringey (London), Benson prepared to launch himself into the highly competitive timber trade. At Quebec, this trade, initiated on a large scale by Henry Usborne at the turn of the century, and shielded by preferential duties in Britain from competition on the part of Baltic producers, had grown by the early 1830s to become the major supplier of square timber for the large British market. While operators such as Philemon Wright continued to produce square timber, sawmills in the Ottawa valley owned by George Hamilton, for example, those around Quebec, such as the ones operated by Peter Patterson* and Sir John Caldwell, and others farther up the St Lawrence contributed deals and sawn lumber to the wood products that in some years accounted for more than three-quarters of Quebec’s export business. A financial crisis in 1837 and a reduction of the preferential duty in 1842 had sent shock waves through the trade, but the effects had been short-term, and by the time of Benson’s arrival Quebec was in the process of exporting a record quantity of timber; in 1845 merchants would send 1,499 shiploads of wood products from the 30 separate coves lining the St Lawrence between Cap-Rouge and the Rivière Montmorency. Exports that year of the principal product, square timber, totalled 24,000,000 cubic feet.
Having arrived late in the season in 1845, Benson began operations in 1846 after establishing his contacts. That July he contracted with an Upper Canadian lumberman from Dundas County, George Browse, to take delivery at Quebec within the season of 50 cribs of elm and white pine in return for advances of £299 to cover production costs incurred during the previous winter. In June he had agreed with the Quebec firm of Allan Gilmour and Company [see Allan Gilmour*] to buy 100,000 cubic feet of red pine timber for some £4,600; the wood was to be delivered at Quebec by 31 August, and when the company failed to make the deadline Benson was awarded compensation of £591. Towards the end of the season, as was the custom among the timber merchants at Quebec, Benson began ensuring the next year’s supply by financing production through the coming winter. To James Jardine of Pembroke, Upper Canada, for example, he committed advances of £1,200 at six per cent interest for the delivery of 50,000 cubic feet of red pine and an equal quantity of white. He reserved the option of purchasing the timber at the current price on its arrival in Quebec or of selling it to another merchant, the costs and Benson’s commission of five per cent, along with the advances and interest, to be deducted from Jardine’s account.
In October 1847 Benson consolidated his presence at Quebec with the purchase of a property on the St Lawrence opposite Sillery. Called New Liverpool, it was situated between the Chaudière and Etchemin rivers beside another establishment of the same name owned by the large firm of Hamilton and Low, which George Hamilton had founded. Benson’s acquisition consisted of 66 acres of beach lot, developed as a timber cove, and 381 acres of farm land stretching back from it. With its shipyard for the construction of ocean-going vessels and its piers, wharfs, houses, and buildings on the beach, the property had been one of the major establishments in the port area, employing 60 men during the summer months. The former owners, William Price* and Peter McGill*, had been forced to put it up for sale following the tariff reductions of 1842 and financial difficulties encountered by McGill; Benson was apparently the first prospective buyer capable of assuming the price of £8,000, of which he paid £5,300 in cash.
From New Liverpool, where he also took up residence, and an office on Rue Saint-Pierre in Lower Town, Benson conducted a large shipping business. The newspapers of Quebec carried countless notices of ships arriving on his order and advertisements by him announcing charter space on ships bound for Britain, requesting space for cargoes, and offering for sale bricks or salt carried as ballast aboard inbound vessels. The papers also recorded more than 100 outgoing vessels loaded by him each year from 1846 through 1850. In 1850, when he handled the cargoes of 159 of the 1,162 ships cleared through customs, the Quebec Morning Chronicle listed him as the largest of the port’s 47 shippers. Benson also constructed at least two vessels in his cove, the 722-ton New Liverpool in 1847 and the 751-ton Harbinger in 1848. In the latter year Benson leased the management of the cove to his agent Robert Roberts for three years at £1,500 per annum. In the summer of 1849 the shipyard was liquidated at public auction; the timber shipping operations continued under Benson’s name.
Despite his youth, as a capitalist of considerable stature Benson was naturally involved in enterprises promoted by Quebec’s commercial community. In 1848 he joined the board of directors of the British North American Electric Telegraph Association, which proposed to link the St Lawrence with the British market through Halifax by 1850, an undertaking vital to the commercial interests of Quebec; among the 30 parties involved in the enterprise were the timber firms of H. and E. Burstall, G. B. Symes and Company, and Sharples, Wainwright and Company and such prominent individuals as Edward Boxer*, James Gibb*, and Henry LeMesurier*. In October 1849 Benson was one of the group of subscribers promoting the Quebec and Melbourne Railway Company, later called the Quebec and Richmond Rail-road Company, a project equally important to Quebec’s expansion as a port. With an investment of £1,000, second only to Peter Patterson’s, he was one of the founding vice-presidents in 1850.
In December 1850 Benson was en route to England to arrange the business of the coming season, as was customary among Quebec’s timber merchants, when he died suddenly in Whitehall, N.Y. His untimely death deprived Quebec of a dynamic business leader. Two other Bensons, apparently his brothers, had also come to Quebec; Thomas took over New Liverpool under the name of Benson and Company, and Willis A. joined Timothy Hibbard Dunn* in the timber business in the 1850s.
ANQ-Q, CN1-49, 2 sept. 1846, 24–25 oct. 1848, 19 déc. 1849; CN1-67, 8 juill., 10, 25 sept., 5 oct. 1846; CN1-197, 14 oct. 1847, 6 juin 1850; P-600/4, D-362-Québec-1861. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 5 July, 5 Oct., 10 Dec. 1849; 13 Dec. 1850. Quebec Gazette, 21 Dec. 1849. Quebec Mercury, 11 July, 5 Nov., 10 Dec. 1850. Quebec directory, 1843–49: 22, 165, 210–11, 236; 1850: 23, 252–53. J. E. Defebaugh, History of the lumber industry of America (2v., Chicago, 1906–7), 1: 139–40. A. R. M. Lower, Great Britain’s woodyard: British America and the timber trade, 1763–1867 (Montreal and London, 1973), 71. P. D. McClelland, “The New Brunswick economy in the nineteenth century”.(phd thesis, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Mass., 1966), table xviii.