BIRRELL, JOHN, merchant and entrepreneur; b. 6 April 1815, at Lerwick, Shetland Islands, son of Ralph Birrell and Eliza Thompson; d. 12 Feb. 1875, at London, Ont.
John Birrell was raised at Lerwick and at Oban, Argyllshire, where his father was stationed as collector of excise. He was trained in business and worked as a clerk in Glasgow until about 1835 when he emigrated to Montreal. He then moved to Hamilton, where he worked for Isaac Buchanan and Company, and finally settled in London around 1840. There he formed a partnership, Angus and Birrell, which lasted three years. In 1845 Birrell established a new partnership with Adam Hope* – Hope, Birrell and Company – which operated stores selling hardware, groceries, and dry goods. In 1851 this partnership was amicably dissolved, Birrell taking the dry goods as John Birrell and Company. In spite of a fire in 1863, he developed a flourishing wholesale dry goods business with his own extensive warehouses. Stock was imported from England, France, Germany, and the United States, partly through the firm of Isaac Buchanan*, and sold over a territory that included Sarnia, Goderich, Stratford, and St Thomas. He also acquired John McMechan’s boot and shoe store. In 1876 his business was valued at between $100,000 and $150,000. He was described as “a man who watched his business very carefully and pushed ahead, his trade expanding as the country settled up.”
Birrell was prominent in the transformation of London into a railway and financial centre. He was a director of the London and Port Stanley Railway and later became president of the London, Huron, and Bruce Railway (1871–75), playing a leading part in its financing and construction, although he did not live to see the line completed. In addition, Birrell was an incorporator of the Board of Trade in 1857, a member of its council (1857–62), and a director of the Isolated Risk Insurance Company. In 1862 he became vice-president of the new London Permanent Building Society, which in 1865 amalgamated with the Huron and Erie Savings and Loan Society (now the Huron and Erie Mortgage Corporation). In 1864 Birrell chaired the inaugural meeting of the Huron and Erie, was elected a director, and served as president from 1871 until his death.
In politics Birrell was a Conservative and, though he refused to run for election himself, was president of the local organization from at least 1873. A Presbyterian, he was an active member of St Andrew’s Church, sat on various boards, and donated liberally to the building fund. Birrell’s suburban residence, “Beechwood” (built in 1854 and still standing in 1971), was one of the first estates in Westminster Township (South London). He was a popular figure in the city and an obituary stated that “he probably had not an enemy.”
Before he left Hamilton, Birrell married Maria Louisa Sunley (1822–91), a native of England; they had ten children. A son, George Sunley Birrell (1842–1926), was a leading businessman in London, an alderman, and a president of the Board of Trade. Under his management the value of the family firm increased to between $200,000 and $300,000 by 1888. In 1891 he sold out, moved to New York City, and became a real estate agent. A daughter Elizabeth married Charles Smith Hyman*, son of Ellis Walton Hyman.
Middlesex County Registry Office (London, Ont.), Register of partnerships, Liber A (1870–85), no.14. PAC, RG 30, 401–2. Bradstreet’s reports of the Dominion of Canada, February 1, 1876 (New York, 1876), 243, 247. London Advertiser, 12, 13, 15 Feb. 1875. London Free Press, 12, 13, 16 Feb. 1875; 16 Feb. 1891. Can. biog. dict., I, 270–72. Cyclopædia of Can. biog. (Rose, 1886), 521–22. [Archie Bremner], City of London, Ontario, Canada; the pioneer period and the London of today (2nd ed., London, Ont., 1900), 92, 104, 108–9, 129. C. T. Campbell, Pioneer days in London: some account of men and things in London before it became a city (London, Ont., 1921), 93–94. History of the county of Middlesex, 371, 378, 387.