KELLY, ROBERT, wholesale merchant and political activist; b. c. 1861 in Russell Township, Upper Canada, third son of James Kelly and Sarah Ann Mills; m. 1892 Lillian Catherine Craig (d. 1952), and they had a son and a daughter; d. 22 June 1922 in Point Grey (Vancouver).
The son of an Irish tailor, Robert Kelly was educated in the public schools of Russell Township. At age 16 he became an errand boy in William Petrie’s general store in Russell. A few years later he was promoted to clerk and also worked as a telegraph operator. In 1884, after seven years’ service, he became manager of a branch store and telegraph office in Finch Township.
In 1886 Kelly travelled to Vancouver, but did not find an opening to his liking. He went on to California and took up a position as manager of a general store and telegraph office in McPherson, just south of Los Angeles. After returning to Vancouver in 1887, he established a wholesale fruit and provision business with William James McMillan on Water Street in the heart of the city’s new wholesale and warehouse district. He left the partnership in 1889 and became a travelling salesman for Oppenheimer Brothers, the wholesale grocery firm of Isaac and David* Oppenheimer. While working for the firm, he made many contacts and became familiar with business opportunities throughout the Pacific northwest. In 1895 he left Oppenheimer Brothers and joined William Goldsworth Braid to form Braid, Kelly and Company, wholesale grocers specializing in tea and coffee. The partnership flourished, but lasted less than a year, since the brash, aggressive nature of the short, stocky Kelly did not agree with the staid, conservative Braid.
In early 1896 Frank Ross Douglas, a native of Lachute, Que., arrived in Vancouver seeking investment opportunities. An easygoing, cheerful, and tactful man, Douglas would be described a few months later by the Vancouver Daily World as “an able and progressive business man.” He soon met Kelly and in March, despite their differing personalities, they formed Kelly, Douglas and Company, wholesale grocers and tea importers. With $14,500 in capital and an $8,000 line of credit, they rented a warehouse and office on Water Street. Kelly acted as managing director of the company while Douglas travelled throughout the province securing customers. Though British Columbia was in the midst of an economic depression, Kelly’s intimate knowledge of the wholesale grocery business and the firm’s strategic location at the hub of the province’s new marine and railway transportation systems ensured the company’s success.
Kelly’s strong support of the Liberal party enhanced the firm’s fortunes. When in 1896 the Reverend George Ritchie Maxwell* became a candidate for the federal riding of Burrard, but could not meet his campaign expenses, Kelly agreed to help. He provided Maxwell with funds on the understanding that, if he won, he would direct government patronage to Kelly, Douglas. Maxwell was successful and when the Klondike gold rush began in 1897, the company received many large orders for supplies from the new Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier*.
In the ensuing years, Douglas spent each summer visiting the Klondike to meet clients and secure orders. Business was good, but on 15 Aug. 1901 he drowned when the Islander, the steamer on which he was travelling, hit an iceberg and sank in Lynn Canal, Alaska. Kelly carried on the business himself until August 1904, when he sold a 20 per cent interest in the company to Edward Douglas, an elder brother of Frank. Under the two men the company entered a period of rapid expansion.
British Columbia’s population doubled in the years between 1901 and 1911. This growth, coupled with the continued patronage of the Laurier government and the firm’s advantageous position in Vancouver, brought increased business and profits to Kelly, Douglas. The company supplied many small grocers across the province, as well as major department stores, mining and logging camps, and various work gangs. The company’s Nabob brand was registered in 1905 and soon became synonymous with high-quality pre-packaged teas and coffees. In 1906 the firm was reorganized as a limited liability company with a capital of $500,000. An extensive nine-storey warehouse was built on Water Street. The Kelly Confection Company Limited was established that year to market confectioneries. In 1909 Kelly, Douglas had 30 employees in its warehouse and 10 travelling salesmen. The following year the authorized capital was raised to $1,000,000 and branches had been established in all the major urban centres of the province. In 1911 the firm registered sales of over $4,500,000. It was one of the largest of its kind west of Winnipeg.
Kelly exerted much back-room political influence in British Columbia. In 1905 Vancouver Liberals had put his name forward as a candidate for the Senate. This gesture provoked the Conservative Victoria Daily Colonist into publishing a lengthy editorial that labelled Kelly “the Tammany leader,” a man “who gets what he wants every time,” and one who aimed to be “the political dictator of his party in this province.” When asked by the Vancouver Daily Province to comment on the Colonist’s remarks, Kelly stated that it was merely “good advertising.”
In addition to his wholesale grocery business, Kelly invested in a number of other firms and had substantial interests in the lumber and salmon-canning industries. Despite the severe business depression that prevailed in British Columbia from 1912 to the end of World War I, Kelly, Douglas and Company remained profitable. At the end of the war Kelly’s health began to fail and he took a year’s leave of absence from the management of the firm. His health did not improve and he died at his home in Point Grey on 22 June 1922 from cirrhosis of the liver.
Robert Kelly’s many mercantile skills and political ties in the booming economy of British Columbia before World War I had quickly made him both a political power-broker and a business leader in the province.
BCA, GR-2951, nos.1922-09-300764, 1952-09-003965. City of Vancouver Arch., Add. mss 54 (J. S. Matthews coll.), topical files, Kelly, Douglas and Co. Ltd. (02437). LAC, RG 31, C1, 1861, 1871, 1881, Russell Township, Ont.; 1901, Burrard, B.C., dist.D8. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 29 Dec. 1905, 23 June 1922. Vancouver Daily News-Advertiser, 3 Oct. 1897. Vancouver Daily Province, 29 Dec. 1905, 13 March 1906, 11 Dec. 1948. Vancouver Daily World, 20 June 1896 (souvenir ed.). Vancouver News-Herald, 11 Dec. 1948. Vancouver Sun, 23 June 1921, 17 Aug. 1953. Victoria Daily Times, 22 June 1922. Canadian who’s who, 1910. Bill Davies, From sourdough to superstore: the Kelly, Douglas story (Vancouver, 1990). Directories, Carleton County, Ont., 1884; B.C., 1889-95; Ont., 1884-89; Ottawa, 1866-67, 1870-73; Vancouver, 1888, 1896. R. E. Gosnell, A history o[f] British Columbia (n.p., 1906). Newspaper reference book. E. O. S. Scholefield and F. W. Howay, British Columbia from the earliest times to the present (4v., Vancouver, 1914), 3. Who’s who in western Canada . . . (Vancouver), 1913.