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GORDON, JOHN, manufacturer, merchant, and railway promoter; b. in 1828 at Latheron (Highland), Scotland; d. unmarried 29 May 1882 at Paris, France.

John Gordon, his father, mother, and sister joined the flood of Scots who left the Highlands for North America. They landed in 1841, eventually settling at Grenville, Canada East. Perhaps they received information on the country through their kinsmen, Joseph and Edward Mackay, who were establishing what would prove to be a successful dry goods business in Montreal. It is not known what the elder Gordon did for a living or how long the family remained in Grenville before moving to Peterborough, Canada West.

Following the death of the father in 1851, the remaining members of the family moved to Hamilton. John Gordon formed a partnership in that year with his uncle, Donald Mackay, under the name of Gordon, Mackay and Company, Gordon being the senior partner. Mackay had been a merchant-tailor in Hamilton and the firm continued this retail activity, also branching out extensively into the importing and wholesale dry goods trade. Because firms were not required to identify all partners until 1869, it is uncertain if anyone else participated in this business. In view of the later involvement of Joseph and Edward Mackay in Gordon’s business endeavours, and the value to a new firm of the transoceanic business connections the brothers undoubtedly possessed, it is possible that they were involved in Gordon, Mackay and Company.

The 1840s and 1850s were years of commercial growth for Hamilton, but the depression of 1857 revealed how precarious this prosperity was. The city’s commercial community, with an infrastructure of debt and over-extended credit, suffered many failures. Although Gordon, Mackay and Company managed to weather the 1857 depression, its move to Toronto in 1859 was a sound decision, and evidence of the rise of Toronto and the decline of Hamilton. Donald Mackay, however, remained in Hamilton to operate a tailoring and retail clothing store in his own name until 1866.

The move to Toronto must have been successful for Gordon and the firm. In 1861 its operations were significantly diversified with the establishment of a cotton mill on the Welland Canal at Merriton (now part of St Catharines). This development allowed Gordon, Mackay and Company to offer a good selection of Canadian-made cottons of their own and other manufacture, unlike most of their competitors. From the beginning the Lybster Mills, as it was called, specialized in cheaper cotton goods, lines of production in which British and American manufacturers had less competitive advantage.

The expansion occurred at a fortunate time: the American Civil War effectively protected the Canadian market by disrupting the northern cotton industry and causing a cotton famine among English manufacturers. Inevitably the return to peace revitalized competition from the United States; the operations of the Lybster Mills were upset and indeed for several months in 1869 its works were shut down completely. In the following three years, however, the dry goods business prospered, creating handsome profits for both branches of Gordon, Mackay and Company. The firm opened new and larger premises in Toronto in 1870 and by 1872 Lybster Mills was booming, returning ten per cent on invested capital. Since the opening of the mill, the productive capacity had doubled with new machinery bought in England and with workers and managers attracted from the United States. Gordon and Mackay reorganized the firm in 1872 as a joint-stock corporation under the name of the Lybster Cotton Manufacturing Company in order to finance its expansion into a new stage of production, the bleaching of cotton goods. The company initially was capitalized at $250,000, with one-fifth retained by Gordon, Mackay and Company. The provisional directors of the new company were Donald Mackay, John Macdonald from Toronto, and, from Montreal, Edward Mackay, Andrew Robertson, and John Rankin.

The depression which began in 1873 had an adverse effect on this new departure. The Lybster Cotton Manufacturing Company continued to pay dividends of eight per cent on its stock, but its spinning and weaving capacity did not expand significantly as much larger cotton mills with financial connections in the Montreal commercial community were established on the St Lawrence River. The wholesale business of Gordon, Mackay and Company suffered as well during the depression. The dumping of British and American textiles on the Canadian market and attempts by British manufacturers in particular to bypass Canadian wholesalers through commercial travellers caused many of the smaller and less established concerns to go under. Gordon, Mackay and Company, however, was able to weather the crisis, if not to prosper as in its recent past.

Although the affairs of Gordon, Mackay and Company occupied much of his time, Gordon was president of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway from 1868 to 1880 and controlled the largest block of stock in it. Beginning in 1867, Gordon, with James Gooderham Worts, John Shedden*, and George Laidlaw among others, actively promoted narrow gauge railways as an inexpensive form of transportation and as an alternative to the Grand Trunk Railway. To Gordon’s subsequent embarrassment, the financial and operational realities of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce did not fulfil the optimistic projections for it. The dependence upon municipal bonuses and the difficulty of negotiating loans in Canada and of selling bonds at favourable discounts in England were aggravated by unforeseen construction costs and the depression of the mid 1870s. These problems put a considerable burden upon the railway and upon Gordon who took complete charge of the financial arrangements and made frequent trips to maintain the confidence of English investors. Probably the strain imposed upon Gordon by these financial difficulties contributed to the breakdown of his health that eventually forced him to retire from business during the last years of his life.

Of Gordon’s life outside business few details are known. While in Hamilton, he had been on the executive of the Hamilton Highland Society and he later became president of the Ontario Rifle Society. His religious affiliation was Presbyterian. In the 1870s he was politically active, one of the significant minority of Liberals who argued in defence of a protective tariff policy. He expressed this concern as early as March 1870 at a protectionist meeting in Toronto and to the Toronto Board of Trade the following year. In 1872 he ran unsuccessfully as the Liberal candidate in the riding of Peterborough West.

The career of John Gordon is an illustration of 19th-century links between a successful commercial enterprise and other business endeavours. The Lybster Mills, by providing a supply of textiles, and the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, by extending the limits of Toronto’s market, contributed to the commercial prosperity of Gordon’s company and to his personal fortune. Upon his death Gordon left an estate valued at $94,000 of which $40,000 was real property and $54,000 was personal property, principally stock in his businesses and railway shares.

David G. Burley

York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.4692, will of John Gordon, 26 Oct. 1882 (mfm. at AO). Can., House of Commons, Journals, 1876, app.3, Evidence of Andrew Robertson. Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers, 1871–72 II: no.29; 1874 (1st session), III: no.13; 1874 (2nd session) II: no.5; 1875–76, III–IV: no.33; 1877, IV: no.41; 1878, IV no.26. Globe, 6 July 1872, 20 May 1882. Mail, 15 July 1872. Monetary Times, 28 Nov. 1867; 25 June, 15 Oct., 19 Nov. 1868; 29 April, 12 Aug., 3 Sept. 1869; 1 April, 26 Aug., 2, 16, 23 Sept. 1870; 13 Jan., 3 Feb., 25 Aug., 22, Sept., 10 Nov., 22 Dec. 1871; 12 Jan., 6, 13 Sept. 1872; 17 Jan., 19 Sept., 21 Nov. 1873; 6 Feb., 18 Sept. 1874; 10 Sept. 1875; 3 March 1876; 2 June 1882. Dominion annual register, 1882. Masters, Rise of Toronto, 105, 110, 145.

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Cite This Article

David G. Burley, “GORDON, JOHN (1828-82),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gordon_john_1828_82_11E.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/gordon_john_1828_82_11E.html
Author of Article:   David G. Burley
Title of Article:   GORDON, JOHN (1828-82)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   December 5, 2023