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FORSYTH, JAMES BELL, merchant; b. 25 Dec. 1802 in Kingston, Upper Canada, son of Joseph Forsyth and Alicia Robins; d. 1 April 1869 in Quebec.

James Bell Forsyth belonged to one of Canada’s leading commercial families. Through his grandparents he was connected to the important London trading house Phyn, Ellice, and Company. A subsidiary of this company was Forsyth, Richardson, and Company of Montreal in which two of his uncles, Thomas and John Forsyth*, were partners; this firm prospered in the fur trade and expanded into other activities such as the agent and forwarding business. Another uncle, James Forsyth, was associated with Lloyd’s of London. The web of Forsyth family and commercial relationships extended to England, Scotland, and throughout the colony.

James Bell Forsyth was the eldest of a family of six. His father came to Canada in 1784 and was named agent for Forsyth, Richardson, and Company in Kingston. As a member of Canada’s élite, young James received his education in Kingston and in England. In 1821 in partnership with William Walker he went to Quebec City as agent for Forsyth, Richardson, and Company. He cemented his entry into Quebec society in 1828 by marrying Frances Bell, second daughter of Matthew Bell*, a wealthy Trois-Rivières businessman and the lessee of the historic Saint-Maurice ironworks. Forsyth was also fortunate in his choice of Walker as his business partner. Walker had emigrated from Scotland in 1815 and, unlike Forsyth, was an enthusiastic participant in politics. After their partnership ended in 1838, he was to be a member of the Special Council which governed Lower Canada from 1838 to 1841, deputy for Rouville (1842–43), a legislative councillor from 1842 until his death in 1863. Throughout his political career he acted as a spokesman for the commercial class and particularly for the Quebec City timber interests. Walker had lumber coves at Sillery and Pointe-à-Pizeau, and speculated in real estate. He served as director of the Quebec branch of the Bank of Montreal (1844), chairman of the board of the Quebec Gas Company, president of the Quebec City Board of Trade (1840–49), chairman of the Quebec branch of the Colonial Life Assurance Company (1847), and president of the Quebec Fire Insurance Company (1852). He was the first chancellor of Bishop’s University.

With a well-established Quebec partner, a timely marriage into a prominent family, and the power of a leading Montreal trading house behind him, Forsyth’s success was almost guaranteed. He established himself in Quebec City at an opportune moment. Between 1790 and 1845 the city tripled in size to 46,000 and its English speaking population grew steadily in numbers and importance. In 1819 Quebec counted 3,246 Protestants among its 15,237 inhabitants; in 1861 one-fifth of the city’s 51,109 people were of Anglo-Scottish origin. As well as dominating the timber trade and shipbuilding, they played a central role in the city’s military and political life. Like their Montreal partners, Forsyth, Walker, and Company carried on a varied business. In the 1820s the basis of their strength may have been their monopoly as East India Company agent. From their warehouse on the India wharf in Quebec City, Forsyth, Walker, and Company held annual tea sales. The partnership also became active in the passenger business. In 1826 they announced passenger space on a tea ship from Canton which was continuing to London. Insurance was another natural extension of the forwarding business and Forsyth, Walker, and Company became Quebec agent for the Alliance British and Foreign Life Assurance Company (1830). When the Forsyth, Walker partnership broke up in 1838, Forsyth joined with Alexander D. Bell to form the Forsyth, Bell Company; it became agent for the Royal Insurance Company. In 1863 Forsyth was a director of the Accident Assurance Company.

Forsyth’s career was characterized by participation in a variety of enterprises. Speculation in land was a family tradition. In 1834 Forsyth, Walker, and Company was granted 18,777 square feet of crown land in Quebec City and in 1839 Forsyth received an additional 22,760 square feet. Lord Durham [Lambton*] named the Forsyths as one of 105 families who had received a total of 1,404,500 acres of crown land outside the seigneuries; James Bell Forsyth’s share was 10,000 acres. Forsyth’s father-in-law helped in land deals along the Quebec City waterfront. In one important transaction Matthew Bell sold his son-in-law the valuable point of land between the Saint-Charles River and the St Lawrence. Forsyth also owned property along the waterfront at Lévis and elsewhere in the Canadas. Forsyth realized large profits from his land holdings. In 1840 he was awarded £1,400 after arbitration in a Quebec City land dispute. Two years later he predicted profits of £20,000 from his Gaspé lands and £10,000 to £20,000 from his Montreal properties; he owned considerable acreage and a mill in the Kingston area and anticipated a profit of £2,000 if the capital of the new province were to be established in Kingston.

Forsyth’s most ambitious land scheme was a colonization project for Megantic County. In partnership with Robert Hunter Gairdner and William Price he organized the Quebec and Megantic Land Company in 1838. Imitating the British American Land Company, they offered to buy 225,000 acres of “waste” crown lands in Megantic County and proposed to settle as many as 20,000 British immigrants within 70 miles of Quebec City. Despite pressure, the scheme was rejected by the Colonial Office.

Although Forsyth continued to carry on a varied business – shipping pianos, selling insurance, investing in ships, speculating in real estate – by the 1840s he was primarily interested in the timber trade. Capitalizing on his Upper Canadian and British contacts, he specialized in timber from the Lake Ontario region [see John Counter]. Forsyth was instrumental in helping the Calvin, Cook, and Counter Company of Garden Island get established; he made representations on behalf of Delano Dexter Calvin* to his old friend, John Solomon Cartwright* of the Bank of Upper Canada, urging him to give Calvin “fair play.” Forsyth’s backing of Calvin paid off. In 1839 Calvin’s consignment with Forsyth’s company amounted to £58,000; Forsyth’s profit on the Calvin account was £1,800. By 1842 business was so good that the company ordered six barges to handle the Upper Canadian trade. Forsyth travelled regularly to England to sell timber and by the 1840s his price book and annual review of the timber trade, published as the Forsyth, Bell timber circular, had become the standard index of timber prices.

The construction of railways upset the balance of St Lawrence lowlands. In 1850 Quebec City was near the peak of its strength. Twenty years later it was declining in commercial importance, isolated by the St Lawrence from railways to the United States, and increasingly under the influence of Montreal. Forsyth sensed the significance of railways, and like many of his contemporaries assumed that the iron horse was synonymous with progress and civilization. In 1858 he supported a railway to the Pacific. With an imperial subsidy of £8,000 a mile the “bonds of iron” would unify the Anglo-Saxon world.

In the last two decades of his life Forsyth supported virtually every railway that might serve Quebec City from the south shore of the St Lawrence. He was a director of the Quebec and St Andrews Railway (1850), the Quebec and Richmond Railway (1850), and the Grand Trunk Railway (1852). In 1856 he sold property in Lévis to the Grand Trunk. He also served on the boards of two smaller railways: the Quebec and Melbourne (1849) and the Chaudière Valley (1864). Forsyth’s enthusiasm for railways was, however, restricted to those that served his interests on the south shore of the St Lawrence. As a promoter of the Grand Trunk he was opposed to the plan of Hector-Louis Langevin* and Joseph-Édouard Cauchon* to build a railway along the north shore between Quebec City and Montreal. Feelings were strong and in 1860 he felt obliged to reassure Langevin that he would not speak against the North Shore Railway to his friends on the London money market.

Forsyth had proved himself a flexible entrepreneur, able to make the transition from furs and tea to timber, and from sail to steam and railways. His wealth, contacts, and family connections brought him a variety of directorships. As well as being honorary secretary of the Quebec and Montreal Telegraph Company (1847), he was a director of the Cap Rouge Pier, Wharf, and Dock Company (1853), the Quebec Warehouse Company (1858), the Canadian Loan Company (1853), the St Lawrence Navigation Company (1861), the City of Quebec Hotel Society (1853), and the Tadoussac Hotel Sea Bathing Company (1865). His associates on these boards of directors represented a “Who’s Who” of mid 19th century Lower Canadian commercial power. In Montreal his associates included John Joseph Caldwell Abbott*, Charles John Brydges*, Luther Hamilton Holton*, George-Étienne Cartier*, John Young*, and Peter McGill [McCutcheon*]. Among his Quebec City associates were George Pemberton, William Price, William Rhodes, George Irvine, Joseph-Édouard Cauchon, and Weston Hunt.

Forsyth and Walker both played leading roles on the Quebec City Board of Trade which until 1850 acted primarily as spokesman for the English speaking commercial community. In 1842 Charles Langevin and Pierre Langlois were among the few members with French Canadian names. During the 1830s Forsyth prepared the board’s annual reports, and served as secretary and as a member of the boards of arbitration. In the 1840s the board largely represented the lumber and shipbuilding interests. When Walker replaced Forsyth as the board’s leading figure in 1840 its major concern was the maintenance of the Navigation Acts which gave a preference to Canadian timber in British markets. In 1841 Walker presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly asserting that the Quebec City timber dealers felt “alarm” at the prospect of changes in the system of protection. By 1849 the battle was lost: the Navigation Acts were repealed and the Board of Trade fell under the control of free traders.

Quebec City’s merchant class lived a comfortable life. With the danger of fires and epidemics in the lower town, many merchants had moved to the upper town by 1830. After his marriage Forsyth lived in a fine house on Rue Sainte-Anne facing the Esplanade. Although he continued to refer to himself as an Upper Canadian, Forsyth was fond of Quebec City. In 1840 he moved out of town to Cataraqui on the fashionable Chemin Saint-Louis; this estate was rented by the government as a residence for the Prince of Wales during his visit to Quebec in 1860. Here on the cliffs above the St Lawrence and the Sillery lumber coves, surrounded by convents and the estates of timber barons and shipbuilders, he raised his family of two boys and two girls. In 1850 his wife’s health failed and she died of “decline.”

A photograph of Forsyth taken four years before his death gives the impression of a stern and self-possessed individual. His full beard offset his portliness and baldness. Forsyth was a man of expensive tastes, who ordered his boots and furniture from London and whose wine cellar in 1839 included four hogsheads of madeira. He was a great traveller whose business took him regularly to England for meetings with bankers, brokers, exporters, and insurance men. He knew Europe well. In 1860 he took a lengthy pleasure trip to the East and published an account of his travels, A few months in the East; or, a glimpse of the Red, the Dead, and the Black seas.

English speaking society in Quebec was close-knit in its social as well as its commercial life. Forsyth was a founder of the prestigious Literary and Historical Society and of the less intellectual Stadacona Club. He met his business associates at the Quebec Exchange and served on its managing committee (1828). While enjoying their wealth and status, Forsyth and his fellow merchants took seriously their responsibilities as leaders of Quebec’s English speaking community. Forsyth was an active mason and was vice-president of the St Andrew’s Society (1838). A prominent Church of England layman, he was a member of the select vestry of the parish of Quebec (1847) and served for years as vice-president of the Church Society; in 1861 he dedicated his book on his travels to Bishop George Jehoshaphat Mountain. Providing a suitable cemetery for Quebec’s Protestants was another task which Forsyth shouldered as a trustee of the Protestant Burial Ground committee (1857).

While Quebec’s English speaking community left the care of needy French Canadians to Roman Catholic institutions, they showed a persistent concern for the welfare of immigrants. Forsyth’s motives were mixed: a sense of Christian charity and duty, a fear of cholera epidemics, a wish to see Canada populated by British peoples, and the fact that he had lands for colonization and timber ships that provided cheap steerage passage for immigrants.

As a Lower Canadian Tory, Forsyth was distressed by political developments in the 1830s and 1840s. “Everything seems so out of joint,” he wrote shortly after the rebellions of 1837. Opposed to Lord Durham’s plan for union government he dismissed responsible government as a “delusion.” Forsyth had great faith in the strength of Anglo-Saxons. Although threatened throughout the world, they were destined “to be the great civilizers of the countless masses in India and China.” However, eastern peoples did have their use. He proposed that Chinese labour be imported to build Canadian railways and that 250,000 Indian troops be dispatched to England “to stand shoulder to shoulder on English ground” to fend off threatening Europeans.

A confident man with an empire view, Forsyth seems to have had little contact with the French Canadian community. With his business connections, his church, his social club, his library and country home, he had a secure and separate existence.

On 1 April 1869 Forsyth died of a heart attack. He was buried in Mount Hermon Cemetery only a short distance from where he lived, surrounded by the tombstones of his English speaking friends and associates.

Brian J. Young

[J. B. Forsyth], A few months in the East; or, a glimpse of the Red, the Dead, and the Black seas, by a Canadian (Quebec, 1861). ANQ-Q, Greffe d’E. B. Lindsay, 22 June 1833; AP-G-134/12, lettre de J. B. Forsyth à H.-L. Langevin; AP-G-219/1, 26 Oct. 1832, 20 April 1841. ASQ, Seigneuries, 12, no.38. McCord Museum, Notman Photographic Archives, no.15396. QUA, John Solomon Cartwright papers, J. B. Forsyth to John Cartwright, 24 Nov. 1837, 13 Nov. 1839, 1 May 1840, 10 June 1841, 8 Sept. 1842, 23 Feb. 1844; Matthew Bell to John Cartwright, 16 Oct. 1841. Montreal Gazette, 4 Dec. 1831, 10 Nov. 1838. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 23, 28 June 1847, 30 Jan. 1856, 28 Dec. 1858. Quebec Mercury, 10 Oct. 1826. Langelier, List of lands granted.

D. D. Calvin, A saga of the St Lawrence: timber & shipping through three generations (Toronto, 1945). Drolet, Ville de Québec, III. George Gale, Historic tales of old Quebec (Quebec, 1923); Quebec twixt old . . . and . . . new (Quebec, 1915). Hamelin et Roby, Hist. économique. P.-A. Lamontagne et Robert Rumilly, L’histoire de Sillery, 1630–1950 ([Sillery], Qué., 1952). A. R. M. Lower, Great Britain’s woodyard: British America and the timber trade, 1763–1867 (Montreal and London, Ont., 1973). Fernand Ouellet, Histoire de la Chambre de commerce de Québec (Québec, [1959]); Hist. économique. W. F. Butcher, “The ‘English’ of Quebec City,” Hermès (Québec), 3 (1953–54), no.2, 24–29. W. S. Wallace, “Forsyth, Richardson and Company in the fur trade,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., XXXIV (1940), sect.ii, 187–94.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Brian J. Young, “FORSYTH, JAMES BELL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forsyth_james_bell_9E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forsyth_james_bell_9E.html
Author of Article:   Brian J. Young
Title of Article:   FORSYTH, JAMES BELL
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   December 6, 2023