GILMOUR, ALLAN, lumber merchant and shipowner; b. October 1775 in Mearns parish, Renfrewshire, Scotland, eldest son of Allan Gilmour, farmer, and Elizabeth Pollok; d. unmarried 4 March 1849 at Hazeldean, Mearns.
Allan Gilmour attended the parish school in Mearns, which had an outstanding reputation among the excellent schools of the area as a nursery for future business leaders, especially in the British North American timber trade. There he received a grounding in bookkeeping and commercial practices, and by 1795 he was conducting a small-scale timber business in Mearns, supplying local and Ayrshire timber to the booming building industry of Glasgow and to the shipyards of Greenock. By 1802 he had moved to Glasgow and expanded his operations, importing deals and other lumber products from the Baltic, Russia, and Norway.
Requiring more capital to extend his business, in 1804 Gilmour entered into a loose partnership with two relations, John and Arthur Pollok, whom he had known at school. The Polloks had inherited an extensive grocery business in Glasgow from an uncle, and carried it on with success, engaging in the timber trade on the side. The new firm was capitalized at £1,500, of which Gilmour contributed two-thirds, but when the company was expanded two years later, each partner donated an equal amount.
The enterprise flourished until Napoleon’s continental blockade of 1806 and 1807 which, ushering in a time of acute timber scarcity, threatened Britain’s vital shipbuilding industry, and hence the navy and the merchant marine. Gilmour was one of the first to realize that the lumber resources of the British North American colonies could provide a substitute for European imports. He participated in the lobby which brought about the introduction of bounties and reduced import duties on colonial timber in 1810 and 1811 respectively, appearing before parliamentary committees in both years. He reported regularly on potential overseas supplies to the Navy Board and the Board of Trade, and to Viscount Melville, head of the Admiralty from 1812. In addition to his commercial connections in Glasgow, he had a wide range of business and political contacts in Liverpool, Manchester, London, and other trading centres. As the driving force behind Pollok, Gilmour and Company and, in effect, the managing director, he also undertook to seek out colonial timber supplies. In 1811 and early 1812 he travelled through Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, where he was well received by many influential Scottish merchants such as John Black* in Halifax and James McGill* and James Dunlop* in Montreal. These men provided him with valuable information and advice based on their own experiences in the timber trade.
After returning to Scotland, Gilmour decided to open business on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick and later in 1812 sent out his younger brother James Gilmour and Alexander Rankin*, a nephew of the Polloks. Both men had had experience in the Glasgow office and between 1812 and 1818 they made a success of the Miramichi agency. By the latter date the branch house was employing a large number of lumbermen and mill workers and Pollok, Gilmour, with a fleet of 15 vessels, was reputedly the largest operator in the British North American timber market. Gilmour pressed on with expansion; further branches were opened at Saint John (1822), Quebec (1828), Montreal (1829), Bathurst, N.B. (1832), and Dalhousie and Campbellton (1833).
All of these houses were headed by young Scots, most of whom were relatives of Gilmour or the Polloks. Each was personally selected by Gilmour, who visited North America frequently to supervise the scattered operations. John Rankin, the company historian, would later describe the detailed instructions that Gilmour left for his partners on these visits: “Before he left for home, each partner abroad would have his work for the coming winter allotted to him. . . . Nothing was too small to escape the lash of Mr Gilmour’s tongue, hardly anything too big for him to adventure.”
Each of these branch houses was actually organized as a separate partnership in order to limit the liability on the parent firm. The branches were, however, dependent on the Glasgow operations for financing, supplies, and manpower, and although they traded independently, they exported everything to the parent company. Within British North America there were also mutual dependencies: William Ritchie and Company of Montreal was responsible for the day-to-day trading capital of the branches, and the majority of Pollok, Gilmour’s ships (which by the early 1830s were said to number 130) were built in the firm’s Quebec or Saint John shipyards. The houses in Lower Canada played a middleman role in the lumbering trade, purchasing all uncontracted rafts which came down the Ottawa and St Lawrence rivers; the rest operated directly as timberers. In 1834 alone the firm exported more than 300 shiploads of timber. Appearing before the British select committee on timber duties in 1835, Gilmour stated that 5,000 men worked for the company’s North American establishments, with perhaps a quarter of them employed in northeastern New Brunswick. By 1830 Pollok, Gilmour was also acting as British agent for many shipbuilders in the Maritimes.
Between 1812 and 1838 Pollok, Gilmour made large profits, and Gilmour was able to purchase extensive estates in Scotland, including one for £200,000. Apart from the land-hunger of a farmer’s son, Gilmour bought these properties to obtain the voting rights which were tied to heritable land. He used the votes to support the Whigs, who he felt were more favourable to mercantile interests and might allow the merchants a greater say in running the country.
With growing wealth, a breach developed between Gilmour and the Polloks about 1837. When they began to live for part of the year on their estates outside Glasgow, Gilmour alleged that they were shirking their responsibilities as working partners. Always a strong-willed, thrusting man, Gilmour was growing increasingly irascible, and on 5 Jan. 1838 he withdrew from the company, receiving £150,000 for his share. Robert Rankin*, the manager of the Saint John branch, succeeded him as effective manager, and the controlling partners were now Rankin, his brother Alexander, still at Miramichi, and Gilmour’s nephew Allan Gilmour* of Quebec. Rankin was to reorganize the firm, now known as Rankin, Gilmour and Company, shifting the main centre of operations to Liverpool. Gilmour Sr felt strongly that he should have received a greater sum than he did for his efforts in building the company, and he tried to persuade several of the partners heading the overseas branches to join him in withdrawing from the company. Except for his nephew William Ritchie* of Montreal, they refused.
Gilmour’s capacity for selecting and training promising young men for responsible positions in the firm had been highly regarded and he had been the undoubted “mainspring” of the great company he had planned and built. Into the 1840s he continued to be viewed as a celebrity in Glasgow, admired for his enterprise and verve. A systematic and precise individual, he impressed all who met him with his energy. In addition to his mercantile concerns, he was deeply involved in agricultural development. He had a keen interest in field sports as well and was an excellent shot. According to John Rankin, Gilmour was “not without kindness of disposition; but he must have been odd-tempered, susceptible to flattery, irritable and litigious, yet far-seeing and of untiring energy. In his latter days he was undoubtedly vindictive, and with feeble health came at times feeble mind; but in the main he was able to exercise his strong will to the last.”
After his retirement to his estate of Hazeldean, Gilmour’s health steadily declined. He had never married. When he suffered a paralytic stroke early in 1849, he bequeathed almost all of his property, including four large estates and several farms, to the sons of his brother James. He died on 4 March 1849, unquestionably one of the most successful of the Scottish-Canadian lumber magnates.
NLS, Dept. of mss, mss 6849, 6866, 6913. SRO, CE.60/1/32–69. Univ. of Glasgow Arch., Adam Smith Business Records Store, UGD/36 (family and business papers of Pollok, Gilmour & Co.). A. R. M. Lower, Great Britain’s woodyard; British America and the timber trade, 1763–1867 (Montreal and London, 1973). D. S. Macmillan, “The ‘new men’ in action: Scottish mercantile and shipping operations in the North American colonies, 1760–1825,” Canadian business history; selected studies, 1497–1971, ed. D. S. Macmillan (Toronto, 1972), 44–103; “The Scot as businessman,” The Scottish tradition in Canada, ed. W. S. Reid (Toronto, 1976; repr. 1979), 179–202. John Rankin, A history of our firm, being some account of the firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Co. and its offshoots and connections, 1804–1920 (2nd ed., Liverpool, 1921), 12–46, 170–71. Graeme Wynn, Timber colony: a historical geography of early nineteenth century New Brunswick (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1981). C. R. Fay, “Mearns and the Miramichi: an episode in Canadian economic history,” CHR, 4 (1923): 316–20.
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Cite This Article
David S. Macmillan, “GILMOUR, ALLAN (1775-1849),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gilmour_allan_1775_1849_7E.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:
|Author of Article:||David S. Macmillan|
|Title of Article:||GILMOUR, ALLAN (1775-1849)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|