HARRIS, ROBERT WILLIAM, merchant and entrepreneur; b. c. 1805 at Bogmount Grange, Crosskeys, County Antrim (Northern Ireland); d. 22 March 1861 in London, Canada West.
Robert William Harris was the son of a small farmer whose family traced its Ulster roots back to the late 17th century. At 14 he began working in a Dublin dry goods business. Subsequently he moved to Liverpool, then came to Canada in 1830 where he worked for William Guild Jr and Company, dry goods merchants in Montreal and, from 1832, York (Toronto). When Peter* and Isaac Buchanan* took over the firm in 1834, Harris, as an expert in the dry goods trade, proved indispensable and earned a partnership in their firm, Isaac Buchanan and Company, within a year. Harris’ responsibilities grew rapidly; in 1840 when the firm opened its Hamilton branch with John Young* also a partner, it was called Buchanan, Harris, and Company. Harris himself moved to Hamilton in 1844. In the early 1850s he became a partner with the two Buchanans in their principal firm, Peter Buchanan and Company of Glasgow, and spent much time in Liverpool managing Buchanan, Harris, and Company’s new office there. It had been his lifelong ambition to achieve such a place in the British business world, yet he was happier in Hamilton and settled there again in 1854. He had no capital in 1835, but by 1856 his capital in the business exceeded $360,000.
Harris’ integrity and growing business eminence, and Peter Buchanan’s support, led to his election as president of the Great Western Railway of Canada in 1849 and of various subsidiaries in later years. Harris saw his office as a form of public service, for which he declined payment. However, he did hope to assist Hamilton and his own business and to keep Sir Allan MacNab from making excessive raids on the company’s treasury. As the line moved from promotion through construction to operation, he was active in most policy deliberations, though C. J. Brydges*, whom Harris had helped to select as managing director, became the more important figure. By 1856, Harris considered that he could safely retire. Instead, when Isaac Buchanan sought to force the Great Western to build a branch along the strategic “southern route” from the Niagara River to Amherstburg and invoked Harris’ name in support of the idea, the Great Western’s board, which felt that no new branches should be authorized, demanded that Harris resign. It was a sad end to seven years of devoted service.
A shy man, Harris made few friends and never married. After the deaths of his brother and father, he took growing responsibility for his relatives in Ireland. He employed several nephews in the business and arranged a partnership for William Muir, husband of his favourite niece, Eliza Harris, in the London, Canada West, branch of the business. In so assisting relations he rejected the Buchanans’ argument that he was often misguided in his family loyalty. In 1837–38 Harris had commanded a Toronto volunteer company, but he consistently opposed what he termed “the compact” in Toronto and in Hamilton. Increasingly he was disillusioned by the corruption he saw on all sides in Canadian politics.
A riding accident in 1850 left Harris permanently lame. After 1856 his mental and physical health deteriorated, and the tendency was hastened by his railway reverses and losses suffered by the Buchanans’ business in the 1857 depression. In 1860, Peter Buchanan wrote Harris out of the business; he feared death was near for Harris and that the large payments he knew Harris had provided for in his will were beyond the business’ ability to pay. Harris, who now lived quietly in London with his niece, protested Buchanan’s action but to no avail. Nevertheless, his heirs ultimately realized $70,000 from the business before it went bankrupt in 1867, much less than the $300,000 Harris had provided for. Harris died dependent on others and largely neglected by former business acquaintances. He was buried in Paris, Canada West.
PAC, MG 24, D16; RG 30, 1–2, 5, 10–11, 19. Hamilton Spectator, 25, 27 March 1861. M. F. Campbell, A mountain and a city, the story of Hamilton (Toronto, 1966). Johnston, Head of the lake (1958). G. R. Stevens, Canadian National Railways (2v., Toronto and Vancouver, 1960–62), I. P. D. W. McCalla, “The Buchanan businesses, 1834–1872: a study in the organization and development of Canadian trade” (unpublished dphil thesis, University of Oxford, 1972); “Peter Buchanan, London agent for the Great Western Railway of Canada,” Canadian business history, selected studies, 1497–1971, ed. D. S. Macmillan (Toronto, 1972), 197–216.