McLAREN, WILLIAM PATERSON, businessman and philanthropist; b. 6 May 1810 at Stirling, Scotland; d. 7 March 1866 at Hamilton, Canada West.
Little is known of William Paterson McLaren’s parents and childhood. He was born in a region of Scotland from which emerged what a modern commentator has described as a “self-conscious new capitalist order of confident entrepreneurs.” McLaren arrived in Upper Canada around 1829 and by 1838 had established himself in Hamilton. He was one of the first of the major wholesale merchants to profit from Hamilton’s strategic location as entrepôt for the peninsular area. A major competitor, Buchanan, Harris, and Company, for example, did not open in Hamilton until the early 1840s by which time McLaren had developed strong community roots: his business was well positioned on Main Street and he had married a native Upper Canadian, Jane Evatt; they had at least four children.
As Hamilton expanded, so did McLaren’s business. In 1852 he reorganized his wholesale firm to include Adam Brown, a fellow Scot and his brother-in-law, as a junior partner. Brown represented the company in public and political affairs while McLaren forged extensive business links. After 1845 McLaren was involved in most of Hamilton’s important entrepreneurial activities. A co-founder of the Board of Trade in 1845, he became its vice-president in 1852 and remained a member throughout the 1850s. Much time was devoted to the promotion and operation of such financial concerns as the Canada Life Assurance Company, the Western Permanent Building Society, and the Deposit and Savings Bank. Although a director of other endeavours such as the Hamilton Gas Light Company, McLaren’s major interest outside his own firm was in transportation. He invested in Lake Ontario steamboats and was co-founder and director of the Burlington Bay Dock and Ship Building Company, but was particularly concerned with railways. Associated with the Hamilton and Toronto Rail-way soon after its formation in 1852, he was also one of the first merchants to become a director of the Great Western; for a brief period in the 1850s he was that road’s chairman. In 1857 he refused the presidency of the Preston and Berlin Railway but remained a director. At that time he was also on the board of the Hamilton and Port Dover Railway and had just resigned as a director of the Galt and Guelph Railway.
The business web spun by McLaren was strengthened by family ties. In addition to one brother-in-law in his wholesale firm, another, Richard Juson, a wealthy wholesale hardware merchant and nail manufacturer, was co-director with McLaren in seven of his business concerns. F. W. Gates, father-in-law of McLaren’s son, was on the Board of Trade and active with McLaren in two other business pursuits. Along with the merchant John Young* and financier Hugh Cossart Baker, McLaren and his associates formed one segment of Hamilton’s business élite. Another faction was grouped around Isaac Buchanan* and Robert William Harris. In addition to being mercantile rivals, these men often clashed over railway affairs. Indeed it was due to Buchanan and Harris that McLaren was eased from the boards of directors of the Hamilton and Toronto and Great Western railway companies.
Other than through his business endeavours McLaren was not much involved with the community in which he lived, and he had no interest in politics. He contributed to an educational scholarship, was a trustee of the short-lived Hamilton Ladies College, and he and his wife established the McLaren Mission, a Free Church Presbyterian bible school. In the tradition of successful families he constructed a mansion known as Oakbank, a “combination Gothic revival and modified Loyalist stone residence,” which housed the Prince of Wales during his visit to Hamilton in 1861.
Ill health forced McLaren to retire in 1860. Whether he was, as one obituary reported, “one of the wealthiest men in Upper Canada” is impossible to determine. His career does, however, offer insights into the nature of Upper Canada’s business élite: the interlocking through family relationships and the merchant orientation are clear; the co-existence of humble McLaren Mission and sumptuous Oakbank likely reflect its sense of priorities.
HPL, Ferrie papers; Hamilton biography, William Paterson McLaren; Index to census and assessment rolls. PAC, MG 24, 134; D16, 14; D24, J. H. Greer to Donald Bethune, 1 Oct. 1851; RG 31, 1851 census, Hamilton, St Lawrence Ward. Evening Times (Hamilton, [Ont.]), 8 March 1866. Examiner (Toronto), 1845–55. Hamilton Gazette, (Hamilton, [Ont.]), 1852–55. Hamilton Spectator, 1847–61; 8 March 1866. Canada directory, 1857–58. Hamilton directory (Hamilton, [Ont.]), 1853, 1858. W. H. Smith, Canada: past, present and future, being a historical, geographical, geological and statistical account of Canada West (2v., Toronto, [1851–52]). M. F. Campbell, A mountain and a city, the story of Hamilton (Toronto, 1966). Johnston, Head of the lake (1958). R. L. Kelley, The transatlantic persuasion: the liberal democratic mind in the age of Gladstone (New York, 1969).