MUNN, JOHN, shipbuilder, shipowner, justice of the peace, and politician; b. 12 March 1788 in Irvine, Scotland, natural son of John Munn, a sailor, and Mary Gemmel; d. unmarried 20 March 1859 at Quebec.
John Munn Jr’s father, a sailor, may have been the same John Munn who became a shipbuilder at Quebec. Munn Sr, the shipbuilder, died in 1813 or 1814, leaving a will in which he referred to John (known until then as John Jr) as his “beloved son” and gave him two-thirds of the estate. Yet in the post-mortem inventory of John Sr’s belongings, his widow declared that he had not “in this Province any natural heir”; moreover, John Jr was described by the notary as the deceased’s “copartner under the style or firm of John Munn & Son,” but not as his son. Despite the uncertainty of his parentage, John Jr was clearly related to the Munn shipbuilding family of Irvine; he was one of four members who immigrated to Lower Canada and became master shipbuilders. The three others, Alexander*, John Sr, and David were brothers, sons of the master shipbuilder John Munn (McMunn). During their lifetimes the four maintained close ties. John Sr arrived at Quebec in 1798, four years after Alexander, and set up his yard on the Rivière Saint-Charles in the faubourg Saint-Roch. David joined his brothers in or before 1803, but the following year established his own yard in Montreal. A fourth brother, James, was a Clyde shipbuilder for many years before moving to Sydney, Australia, in 1824.
John Munn Jr probably attended one of the several schools in Irvine, while effortlessly absorbing the maritime traditions and knowledge that life in a small town with two shipyards and a home fleet of 97 vessels would offer. In 1801, at age 13, he sailed for Quebec, where he presumably served an apprenticeship. By 1811 he had begun his career as a master shipbuilder in partnership with Munn Sr, during a time when shipbuilders were enjoying a measure of prosperity. The blockade of the Baltic had caused Britain to turn to British North America for timber, and additional tonnage was required to transport it. The Munns and other builders supplied vessels to British firms such as Mure and Joliffe and Whitfield, Coates. However, the Munn partnership was short-lived. John Sr died less than three years after its foundation.
John Jr did not immediately take over the Saint-Roch shipyard, although John Sr’s widow had sold her one-third share to him. Instead, it was rented to other shipbuilders until 1821. Meanwhile, the War of 1812 made different demands for vessels on the shipbuilders. Munn went to Montreal and during the summer of 1814 built 30 bateaux for the government with men hired at Quebec. His services were then sought for the construction of two frigates at the Kingston dockyard in Upper Canada, but his tender was considered too high and his delivery date too late. He returned to Quebec to supervise the construction of a brig for David and his partner, Robert Hunter, at the Cap Diamant shipyard used by Alexander before his death in 1812.
The time had come for Munn to strike out on his own account. Working first with John Sr and later under David’s wing, he had learned the ropes of shipowning as well as shipbuilding. After the launch of the brig built in 1815, he leased the Cap Diamant shipyard and began conducting business there. There is no record of any ships having been built by him at this time, although evidence suggests that he did undertake ship repairs. His decision to remain at Cap Diamant may have been taken because his own yard at Saint-Roch was unsuited to his activities. In 1821, after purchasing a 700-foot-wide beach lot with wharfs and sheds at Près-de-Ville, which afforded berths and other facilities for equipping, loading, and unloading vessels, he returned to his own shipyard.
At Saint-Roch the shipbuilding side of his career took on importance. Between 1821 and 1857 he built 32 fully rigged ships, 45 barques, and 16 brigs, ranging from 236 to 1,454 tons. The vessels built before 1830 were small, the largest measuring no more than 425 tons. After 1837 their considerably larger size reflected the changes in the shipping market. Yet, although Munn’s 1,257-ton ship of 1839, United Kingdom, was hailed as the largest vessel to have been built at Quebec (with the exception of Charles Wood*’s two huge unorthodox square-timber craft), Munn showed no interest in breaking records for size. In fact, the opposite seems to have been true for he was not among those who in the 1850s built vessels of from 1,500 to more than 2,000 tons. He belonged perhaps to the school of opinion which held that such vessels exceeded the limits of the tree.
Almost all Munn’s vessels were registered under his sole ownership and sent over to Britain where most of those not built to order were sold, many by his Liverpool agents and financiers, James, and later Duncan, Gibb. Some were operated by him for a number of years either on his own account or in partnership with others before being sold. Munn also had strong business connections with Glasgow through the firm Rodger Dean and Company, which at times provided financing in return for shares in the ships. In addition to shipbuilding and repairing, Munn occasionally bought stranded vessels for rebuilding and sale and, as a competent master shipbuilder, was solicited to carry out ship surveys for insurance and other purposes.
Munn was among the select group of Quebec shipbuilders whose high standards earned them recognition in Britain. When the United Kingdom arrived there in 1839, the Liverpool Mail wrote, “She looks most beautiful upon the water and her model and the symmetry of her proportions have been much admired by nautical men. . . . She was built by John Munn Esq. of Quebec, whose character, as a naval architect stands deservedly high in the Colonies.” Training under Munn was a privilege, and several of his apprentices made their mark. George Taylor Davie*, the sole 19th-century shipbuilder whose yard has survived, was sent to Munn to learn the trade. Aymerick Vidal, whose career began with great promise but was cut short by an accident, was his apprentice, as was William Simons, son of the Quebec master sailmaker Peter Simons and later warden of the port of Quebec.
Munn’s efforts did not go without financial reward and by the 1840s he was wealthy. He increased the size and facilities of his shipyard, acquired various other properties, and became known for his charitable nature. A strong supporter of the independent evangelical Presbyterian congregation at Quebec orginally ministered to by Clark Bentom*, in 1823 he had been among those who guaranteed the minister’s salary should the pew rents prove insufficient. Later he made a substantial contribution to the congregation’s St John’s Church. Yet his commitment to a church unconnected with the Church of Scotland did not prevent him from being one of the founders of Queen’s College, Kingston, originally set up as a seminary to train Presbyterian ministers [see William Morris]. He was a trustee of the new Marché Saint-Paul in 1829 and 1830. In 1837 he was appointed a justice of the peace. That same year, as a candidate opposed to the policies of Louis-Joseph Papineau*, he was elected to the House of Assembly for the Lower Town, but he did not sit long since the house was prorogued in August and the constitution suspended the following spring. He then turned to municipal affairs, representing Saint-Roch on the city council from 1840 to 1842. He was also active in various community projects. In 1847 and 1848 he was on the committee of the British and Canadian School Society of the district of Quebec and the board of directors of the Quebec Provident and Savings Bank, and meetings of the Union Total Abstinence Society were held at his shipyard.
The 1840s, however, brought problems, beginning with the first general strike of shipyard workers in December 1840, which lasted for three weeks. It resulted from the builders’ decision to lower the winter daily rate of pay to three shillings, a decision to which Munn was certainly an important party, and from the men’s determination not to work for less than four shillings [see Joseph Laurin*]. The builders maintained that the only way they could remain in the falling shipping market was to cut either labour or material costs, and the latter could not be cut without sacrificing quality. They may have been justified, but the men did not see it that way. In fact, Le Fantasque referred to “a famine pact against the working class.” Certainly, over the next two years the price of shipping declined even further and the men were grateful to have work, even at lower wages.
In May 1845 Munn suffered loss in the savage fire that gutted Saint-Roch. Afterwards, when the narrowness of the streets was held to be a cause of the extent of the fire, he offered to give the city 15-foot strips of land along three streets so that they could be widened, and to help finance the acquisition of land from other owners for the same purpose. He was fortunate to have safely launched the first steamboat built in his yard, the 115-ton paddle steamer Rowland Hill, and two sailing vessels earlier that month, although in retrospect he undoubtedly rued the day he entered the field of steam.
The Rowland Hill, the steamer Quebec launched from George Black’s shipyard in 1844, and the 374-ton John Munn, built at Munn’s yard in 1846, were all owned by the People’s Line of Steamers, a group of grocers and chandlers headed by John Wilson. Munn’s strong credit position had allowed him to borrow heavily from the Bank of British North America to finance the construction of the two ships. The People’s Line, however, had been over ambitious. Even though the three vessels were heavily mortgaged to Munn, the line was unable to pay its way, and in 1849 an agreement was made whereby Munn, who had notes to meet at the bank, took over the steamboats and certain properties belonging to Wilson, together with all the debts of the company. Far from solving Munn’s problems, before long the take-over and operation of the steamboats obliged him to sell off all his shipping and various properties in order to remain solvent. In debt to Duncan Gibb to the amount of £21,000, Munn finally handed over his shipyard to him in 1855 on the understanding that should Gibb sell it for a higher sum he would give Munn the difference. Fortunately, however, Munn’s death spared him from seeing the sale of the yard that he had spent so many years building up.
At the end of Munn’s career, his shipyard was very different from the modest one he inherited from John Sr. He had capped his acquisitions with the purchase of part of the yard belonging to his neighbour, John Goudie*, thus assembling the entire northeast corner of Saint-Roch, 11 1/4 acres with 1,650 feet of shoreline. A tide dock permitted timber to be floated to the premises, and four acres of booms supplemented his large timber and lumber yards. In all, six or eight vessels could be built in the double shipyard at the same time. The more important workshops – the forge, rigging-lofts, and mould lofts – were housed in large two-storey brick or stone buildings. One such building was almost entirely given over to a boilermaker’s shop. Similar buildings with backyards and sheds provided accommodation for 52 workmen and their families. Many of these tenements were serviced with running water, and compared favourably with similar accommodation built by the shipbuilder William Denny in Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1853. Like those in Dumbarton, the homes were not intended for the higher paid skilled tradesmen but were occupied mostly by labourers. As was customary, the shipbuilder lived on the premises. His cousin Elizabeth Allan looked after the substantial residence on Rue Grant, with flower and vegetable gardens and an area partly planted with fruit-trees, that he shared with his apprentices. The stable, coach-house, and brick offices stood close by.
During Munn’s long and active career, he built over 100 vessels, more than any other Quebec shipbuilder except Thomas Hamilton Oliver, but their 55,000 tons was exceeded by the production of Pierre-Vincent Valin*, Jean-Élie Gingras, and Oliver, whose careers began at a date when the average tonnage of vessels was greater.
Throughout his life, Munn was close to the men who worked for him and is said at times to have laid down vessels to provide work for them even when there was no prospect of making a profit. As his assets melted away, he became concerned for the future of his cousin Elizabeth and “in consideration of her long and faithful services in the care and management of his household and family” gave her all the furniture in his residence, as well as a small shipyard property and house in L’Islet. The “family” to which Munn referred may have been the family of John, David Munn’s son, who joined him in the shipyard at Quebec as a carpenter after his father’s death.
Following Munn’s death in 1859 his friends immediately established a fund for a memorial to him, and a fitting monument was erected on his grave at Mount Hermon Cemetery, Sillery, which bore the inscription: “To mark their respect for the modest values of an honest and good man Unassuming benevolent and liberal when in the possession of wealth Patient and uncomplaining When it took wings and Flew away.” In 1880 Elizabeth was buried beside him.
ANQ-M, CN1-74, 30 sept. 1807. ANQ-Q, CN1-16, 18 janv. 1809; 15 févr., 11 mars, 13 avril 1815; CN1-49, 9–13 juin 1812; 15 sept. 1814; 3 mars 1815; 22 déc. 1825; 21 juin 1832; 13 nov. 1848; 15 janv. 1849; 25 juill., 2, 15 nov. 1855; 29 mars 1856; 17 nov. 1857; CN1-116, 28 sept. 1849; CN1-197, 14 juill. 1821, 23 oct. 1823, 12 nov. 1831, 19 sept. 1834, 8 mars 1839; CN1-253, 8 févr., 8 août, 22 sept., 17 déc. 1814; 24 oct. 1823; CN1-256, 15 févr. 1794, 30 sept. 1798; CN1-285, 12 mai 1810, 25 janv. 1811. GRO (Edinburgh), Irvine, Reg. of births and baptisms, 1788. PAC, RG 8, I (C ser.), 734: 45; RG 42, ser.I, 183–203. Private arch., K. M. Richards and C. F. C. Seifert (Hamilton, Ont.), Information on the Munn family. SRO, RD5/161: 303. Le Fantasque (Québec), 10 déc. 1840. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 23 March, 1 April 1859. Quebec Mercury, 12 Feb. 1821; 7 Nov. 1839; 2 June, 4, 15, 24 Dec. 1840; 23 Feb. 1843; 6, 8–9 May 1845. Quebec directory, 1858–91. F. W. Wallace, In the wake of the wind-ships: notes, records and biographies pertaining to the square-rigged merchant marine of British North America (Toronto, 1927). B. D. Osborne, “Dumbarton shipbuilding and workers’ housing, 1850–1900,” Scottish Industrial Hist. (Glasgow, Scot.), 3 (1980), no.1: 2–11. P.-G. Roy, “Le constructeur de navires John Munn,” BRH, 39 (1933): 190–91.
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Cite This Article
Eileen Marcil, “MUNN, JOHN (1788-1859),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/munn_john_1788_1859_8E.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:||Eileen Marcil|
|Title of Article:||MUNN, JOHN (1788-1859)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||June 5, 2023|