PRICE, WILLIAM, lumber merchant and manufacturer of planks (deals); b. 17 Sept. 1789 at Hornsey, near London, England, third son of Richard Price and Mary Evans; d. 14 March 1867 at Quebec.
William Price’s parents, originally from Wales, moved to Middlesex at the end of the 18th century. The family probably belonged to the upper middle class, and although its financial situation was precarious after Richard Price’s death around 1804, William’s mother, with eight children to provide for, was able to count on friends important in business and government. After a few years at Hammersmith College in London, William began to study law under a cousin, a lawyer of the Inner Temple, but had to give up this career. At age 14 he became an employee of Christoper Idle, a prominent London businessman. Six years later, on 10 May 1810, he landed at Quebec as a clerk in a branch of the Idle firm, at a wage of £135 a year. Much of the correspondence between Price and his family and friends during these early years has been preserved. These letters show that he was well educated in spite of his interrupted studies, and that family feelings remained strong despite distance. William’s eldest brother David, who traded with Portugal and Latin America, assumed the role of father, and followed his younger brother’s career closely, lavishing advice on him and arousing his ambition: “If you get nothing but your salary by going to Quebec,” he wrote, “you are doing little better than stand still.” And, in another letter: “I trust it may please Heaven to strengthen us; that we may finally succeed and stand in due season on an independent footing.” This solidarity did not weaken with time: in 1817 William lent his savings to his brother Samuel who was on the verge of bankruptcy, and in 1843, when William himself was in difficulty, David went to Canada to give him moral and financial support.
Information on Idle’s business in North America is imprecise. It may be this firm that, at the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, obtained a monopoly on orders of Canadian lumber for the Admiralty. Price devoted most of his time to filling such orders, travelling through the forests of Vermont, the Ottawa valley, and Upper Canada to select timber for masts. Planks cut in Lower Canada’s sawmills completed the cargoes of square timber. The firm also imported wines and other goods, but the Quebec store does not seem to have had an important place in this trade.
Price’s first biographers note his services during the War of 1812. A major in the militia, he is thought to have raised a cavalry corps, organized an artillery battery at Quebec, and acted as a courier for Governor George Prevost*. In any case, he was in Halifax by March 1813, where he negotiated for his employer the purchase of five ships intended for the Royal Navy.
In 1815 Price took over management of the Quebec office from William Oviatt, who returned to England. In the years of recession that followed, he concerned himself with supplying food to the Maritime provinces and undertook some business on his own account in the West Indian market, but without conspicuous success. The Idle firm, badly managed in England, was close to ruin, and Price was looking for financial backers and a form of partnership to enable him to take advantage of the experience he had acquired during his first ten years in Canada. He finally decided on the proposal made by Parker and Yeoman, timber brokers in London. The agreement concluded on 1 May 1820 created three distinct business firms, one in London, the William Price Company in Quebec, and the partnership of Peter McCutcheon*, known as Peter McGill, and Kenneth Dowie in Montreal. Following a new arrangement in 1823, Parker and Yeoman was succeeded by a company formed by James Dowie and Nathaniel Gould, in London, which from then on financed the entire undertaking, chartered ships, and disposed of colonial produce. After Kenneth Dowie left for Liverpool, Peter McGill continued to trade corn on his own in Upper Canada. At Quebec, the William Price Company specialized in the export of timber. Each of the four partners, Price, McGill, J. Dowie, and Gould, received a quarter of the shares and profits in each of the three firms, although the capital invested was not equal. Price, whose sole contribution was a sawmill of little value not far from Quebec, was chosen because of his reputation as an experienced businessman and his technical knowledge. As he was to do the major part of the work at the port of loading, he levied a commission of 5 per cent on his operations, which was added to his share of the profits.
Until 1843 Price always acted in the name of the company. He drew bills of exchange on Gould and Dowie for advances to local contractors, the preparation of cargoes, and the purchase of operation of sawmills. Canadian banks accepted only short term bills, which the London partners had to honour as they became due, even if about 18 months had to be allowed between the first outlay and the payment for delivery of lumber in England. At the least contraction of the market, the accounts of the Canadian partners were liable to be overdrawn.
At the time Price concluded these arrangements, the commercial climate was still unsettled. In the British House of Commons, the Liberals were violently attacking the exorbitant preferences granted Canadian timber during the war as being no longer justified. But in 1821 a commission of inquiry recommended only a minor readjustment, and, reinforced by these tariff advantages on the British market, the colonial timber trade soon entered a new period of expansion. The company’s business followed the rhythm of general growth. After a quiet beginning, its volume of exports soared. It was exporting about 50 cargoes of lumber a year around 1827, then the average rose rapidly to 75, and from 1833 on nearly 100 ships left each year for England from Quebec and the ports of the lower St Lawrence. This represented a turnover of £70,000, and more.
Price was both an exporter of square timber and manufacturer of planks or deals. Bit by bit manufacturing outstripped strictly commercial operations, but the latter, as his first source of capital, was the foundation of his remarkable success. Like other Quebec lumbermen in this period, he bought from various contractors the pine and oak cribs that came down each spring from the Ottawa valley, Upper Canada, and the seigneuries upstream from Quebec. He often granted advances to his customers to help them set up a lumbercamp and dispatch lumber to Quebec, keeping their production for himself at a price fixed at the beginning of the winter. The loads were completed by staves and barrel hoops, as well as planks bought from local sawmills. The company had offices and a warehouse on Rue Saint-Pierre at Quebec, two roadsteads on the south shore, with wharves, breakwaters, and workshops, and a sawmill at Hadlow Cove. In the New Liverpool roadstead, at Lévis, the principal port of loading, there were some 60 employees during the shipping season.
A large part of the exports made by Price, perhaps the most important part, was intended for the shipyards of the Admiralty. Six or seven tenderers, representing large firms which had invested in the Canadian trade, wrangled over orders for masts and construction timber which would go as high as £150,000 or £200,000. Between 1830 and 1850 the firm of Brockelbank and Holt usually won out, and entrusted Price with the completion of the deal. These contracts, which extended over several years, were important for stability, because they reduced the impact of the commercial crises that jeopardized so many other colonial enterprises.
Most of the ships transporting timber to England were hired by Gould and Dowie, but the company also possessed a few barks and brigs, two three-masters, and several schooners for coastal trade. Between 1820 and 1850 some 40 vessels, built at Quebec and Montreal and in the shipyards of the upper St Lawrence, were registered in the name of Price and his partners. After 1850 Price apparently no longer equipped ships for transatlantic voyages, but he kept a fleet of schooners to serve his establishments, as well as steamships to tow sailing vessels in the Saguenay, and later on to link this region with Quebec.
Price deserves a special place in Canadian economic history primarily as a contractor. The profits realized in trade were gradually reinvested in sawmills and lumbering. Before 1830 the company bought almost all its planks from various small firms in Lower Canada. Price encouraged the owners to increase their production, financed them, and subsequently acquired the mortgaged sawmills. Thus, before 1838, the sawmills of Batiscan, Saint-Vallier, Bic, Rimouski, Métis (Métis-sur-Mer), La Malbaie, those of Anse-à-l’Eau and Moulin-Baude near Tadoussac, and those of Bytown (Ottawa) and Crosby in Upper Canada, were entered on the company’s books. Often co-ownership was involved and usually Price was the owner in fact long before he held legal title.
He was already an important contractor downstream from Quebec when he established himself in the Saguenay region, a vast untapped expanse which the crown leased to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Through one of his men, Alexis Tremblay*, dit Picoté, Price encouraged and financially supported a group of people from La Malbaie, who went to settle as squatters along the Saguenay. Between 1838 and 1842 this community, called the “Vingt-et-un,” built nine sawmills at the mouths of the principal tributaries of the Saguenay. By 1840 Price was having planks for England loaded there, and two years later repurchased all the sawmills outright. Large numbers of settlers soon arrived and, as Price had foreseen, the government had to yield to the pressure for colonization. In 1843 the lands were put up for auction.
With astonishing rapidity, Price bought all the sawmill sites in the valley and fjord, and along the north St Lawrence shore on both sides of Tadoussac. To take on timber, ships came as far as Grande-Baie, the most important manufacturing centre before 1850. As early as 1842 Price was associated with the enterprises of Peter McLeod*, which were located at the mouths of the Chicoutimi, Moulin à Baude, and Shipshaw rivers. A Montagnais on his mother’s side, Peter McLeod could claim his natural rights and install sawmills in the upper Saguenay, a territory the HBC was attempting to retain. Similarly, by concluding agreements with other contractors such as William Charles Pentland, Félix Têtu and Frédéric Boucher, and Édouard Slevin and James Gibb*, Price managed to extend his monopoly from Tadoussac to Bersimis. He also controlled the north shore from La Malbaie to Rivière-Noir. At the same time, he consolidated his positions on the south shore of the St Lawrence by going into partnership with Pierre-Thomas Casgrain and Nazaire Têtu at Trois-Pistoles and John Caldwell* at L’Isle Verte, and thus established himself in some ten villages between Montmagny and Cap-Chat. His partners were generally not in a position to export planks to England. So long as there were no other important outlets, Price’s connections in England enabled him to monopolize the whole market without difficulty, and to wait for the right moment to redeem the other shares, a process he had completed by about 1860.
To supply the mills, Price acquired substantial reserves of timber. On the south shore, he bought the township of Armagh and part of the Rimouski and Métis seigneuries, some 240 square miles, but still only a tiny fraction of the area being exploited. According to the policy in force from 1826 on, contractors exploited the forests of the province as agents of the public domain in return for the annual payment of felling dues. Price, a skilful and discreet man, was able to get round the officers of the crown, oust competitors, foresee the needs of his enterprise long before they arose, and thus put his hands on about 7,700 square miles of forest, in addition to timber limits in the Ottawa valley of an extent hard to determine. These immense reserves were concentrated on each side of the Saguenay and to the northeast of Lac Saint-Jean.
The turning point in Price’s affairs came in 1843, just after he had worked his way into the Saguenay region. Until then his partners had supported all his ventures, but suddenly relations became strained. The preference granted to Canadian timber was reduced and finally abolished, at a time when the English market was shrinking dangerously. The situation was aggravated by the near bankruptcy of McGill. Gould and Dowie ordered the liquidation of the company, limited the working capital until the final winding up, and insisted on full remittances at the end of each fiscal year. They criticized Price for his 5 per cent commission, blamed him for having tied up some £130,000 in sawmills, and ordered him to get rid of them forthwith. But in the middle of a slump, there obviously were no takers. The 1846 fire at Grande-Baie was a culminating stroke. So long as the William Price company had been borne along on the economic boom, the man had remained hidden behind a laconic business correspondence and uncontroversial balance-sheets. But when disaster struck, he made himself heard, and it was then possible to perceive what was behind his success. “If you fail or retreat or show your star to be on the wane, powerful enemies start up against you,” he scribbled on a memo pad. An obstinate man, he rejected all advice. He would not close his sawmills, he would not go to England to wait out the crisis quietly. Instead he appealed to his brother David, who advanced him £6,000 and came to Canada to help him clear up his accounts. For four years he fought unceasingly to get from banks and former partners the means to preserve his credit and the forest empire he was building for his sons.
He already had three sons working with him. Rather than abandon the fight, he declared in a letter to McGill that he was ready to sell Wolfesfield, send his family to the country, and go to live with his sons in the company’s offices. Wolfesfield, which he kept despite everything, was a magnificent property on the Plains of Abraham, acquired by Price at the time of his marriage in 1825 to Jane Stewart, one of the daughters of Charles Grey Stewart, a customs inspector at Quebec. The couple was to have 14 children. The father initiated the elder sons at an early age into his business, beginning with the technical side. When still young, they worked in the sawmills in the Saguenay and the lower reaches of the river. Price sent them to England as apprentices, and made them travel on the Continent and in Scandinavia to complete their training.
The old company continued to function while settling its accounts and narrowly escaped bankruptcy; at the same time Price used his credit with the government and the public to acquire new properties and timber limits in his own or his sons’ names. Business recovered, and in 1849 annual production of planks in all the mills downstream from Quebec reached £90,000; about half of this came from Price’s own sawmills. He quickly redeemed his partners’ shares, and in 1853 the old company’s timber represented no more than 10 per cent of exports. The founding of the company of William Price and Sons in 1855 was the realization of an ambition that had sustained him throughout his career.
He had no other ambition. He had been invited to be a member of the Legislative Council several times, but had refused. Politics were of no concern unless they served his interests directly, and for this end unofficial approaches were often most effective. As a young man he had many a good laugh over the debates that split the assembly of Lower Canada, and only a crisis as grave as the one that began in 1834 penetrated his indifference. He was a member of the subcommittee of the Constitutional Association formed at Quebec that year, but this brief entry into public life had no sequel. His contemporaries often said that in 57 years in Canada he scarcely ever took the trouble to vote. The fate of his business was linked more closely to imperial policy. Price and his partners followed attentively the “subversive” campaigns of the “Manchester school” that threatened their privileges, and they witnessed with dismay the collapse of the preferential system, but he was not among those who went so far as to advocate annexation. Moreover, his enterprises survived competition, and because of their geographical location long continued to be turned towards the British market.
At the end of his life, Price represented the Tory of the old school, for whom the motto was still “Ships, colonies, and commerce.” He had been one of the founding members of the Quebec Board of Trade, and was a member of the Baron Club, and of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, but his work scarcely permitted him to mingle with the British officers and businessmen in exile at Quebec. He readily derided those who conducted their affairs from the seclusion of their offices. Price was a man of the lumbercamps and log-runs. “I have,” he wrote to Dowie, “to find intelligent explorers and judge their reports, have roads planned and made, rivers cleared, lakes dammed, engage superintendents, contractors, engage men for them, buy their homes, cattle, hay, oats; engage schooners, . . . buy provisions. . . . I have to negotiate with the Commissioners of crown lands. It takes local influence, tact, vigilance. . . .”
As long as his strength permitted, Price spent most of his time at his businesses, making the trip to the Saguenay two or three times in winter by roads unsuitable for vehicles and sleeping in makeshift shelters. In 1861 the region already had about 12,000 settlers. It was a closed world which, except for the new agricultural enclaves to the south of Lac Saint-Jean, was entirely dependent on Price. Work in the sawmills and roadsteads in summer alternated with tree felling in the forest in winter. An improved sweating system totally cut these people off from the outside world, and bound them hand and foot to their master’s pleasure. One had to push farther and farther inland to find pine and spruce of a good size. The settlers sowed seeds in the tree-stripped and burnt-out areas of the Baie des Hahas (Baie des Ha! Ha!), and Chicoutimi became the new centre of activities. Price ruled the region; charitable when his men were docile, he was ruthless towards those who disputed his dominion. “Everywhere the nobility and generosity of the Master are proclaimed,” wrote Bishop Charles-François Baillargeon in a letter to him, on his return from a tour of the parishes and missions. Prominent citizens went further. According to Denis-Benjamin Papineau*, in Le Canadien: “This gentleman is without question the foster-father of this young settlement; his stores full of supplies and clothing of all kinds are open to everybody. It is eminently right that his humanity, his fairness and that of his agents, should win the confidence and hard work with which these poor people, in their zeal and gratitude, repay him.” There were, it is true, a few discordant voices in this chorus of praise [see Jean-Baptiste Honorat]. Rumour had it that Price had schemed underhandedly to get possession of McLeod’s holdings, and in 1849 a few daring settlers even signed a petition to the governor, denouncing Price’s monopoly of the land, saw and grist mills, and waterways blocked by booms. In the memorandum that he sent to Lord Elgin [Bruce] refuting these accusations, Price quoted testimonies of gratitude such as the following: “Grandfather Price, I came here with my wife, my eight children, and barely enough to eat. Now I am all right, thanks to you.”
Towards the end of his life, Price developed a fascination for agronomy. On every official visit to the Saguenay, there was an obligatory stop at one of his model farms. In other areas he could rely on well-chosen and well-trained managers, and on his sons, who were a credit to him. After he had been the representative in the assembly for the new county of Saguenay for a long time, David Edward was elected a legislative councillor in 1864. William Evan* lived more modestly in the Saguenay, and became well liked. Edward took care of the company’s interests in England. Henry, the only one to marry, left to carry on trade in Chile, while young Evan John* continued his studies.
At the end of his career the government had presented Price with a timber slide a mile long, which brought the logs from Lac Saint-Jean over the Petite Décharge into the sawmills. Thanks to this shoot, the firm still loaded 500,000 planks each year for England, while a variety of products – boards, railway ties, fence posts, battens, and shingles – was taken by schooner to Canadian and American markets. Did the old man know that the forests were being depleted, and that his sons lacked innovative ability? When he died at Wolfesfield in 1867, his long-established industry was no longer growing, but it had not begun to decline. The people of the Saguenay erected a statue to him on the heights of Chicoutimi. The country was changing rapidly, and was escaping the Prices. One by one the sawmills ceased to turn, but the family kept its forests and lands. Thirty years later a grandson, the second William Price*, came to the Saguenay to create the paper industry, reviving the fortune of the Prices and the economy of the region.
[The Archives of the Price Company Limited (Quebec) hold account books, correspondence, memoranda, contracts, some of William Price’s personal notes, and copies of various documents, maps, etc. The material is classified chronologically. A partial transcription of these documents by Mgr Arthur Maheux* is at ASQ. l.d.]
Bas-Canada, chambre d’Assemblée, Journaux, 1823–24, app.Z; 1828–29, app.V; 1834, app.A. Can., prov. du, Assemblée législative, Journaux, 1844–45, II, app.O.O.; 1846, I, app.A; 1847, III, app.E.E.E.; 1849, III, app.P.P.P.P. Quebec Gazette, 1806–21. Joseph Bouchette, The British dominions in North America; or a topographical and statistical description of the provinces of Lower and Upper Canada . . . (2v., London, 1832); A topographical dictionary of the province of Lower Canada (London, 1832). Langelier, List of lands granted. Notman and Taylor, Portraits of British Americans, III, 31–34. Raoul Blanchard, L’Est du Canada français, province de Québec (2v., Montréal et Paris, 1935), II. Arthur Buies, Le Saguenay et le bassin du lac Saint-Jean: ouvrage historique et descriptif (3e éd., Québec, 1896). Christie, History of L.C. IV, 21–23. A. D. Gayer et al., The growth and fluctuation of the British economy, 1790–1850: an historical, statistical, and theoretical study of Britain’s economic development (2v., Oxford, 1953). H. Y. Hind et al., Eighty years’ progress of British North America . . . (Toronto, 1863). A. R. M. Lower, Settlement and the forest frontier in eastern Canada (Toronto, 1936); The trade in square timber (Toronto, 1933), 40–61. Ouellet, Hist. Économique. [François Pilote], Le Saguenay en 1851; histoire du passé, du présent et de l’avenir probable du Haut-Saguenay au point de vue de la colonisation (Québec, 1852). Narcisse Rosa, La construction des navires à Québec et ses environs; grèves et naufrages (Québec, 1897). Louise [Saint-Jacques] Dechêne, “William Price, 1810–1850” (thèse de licence, université Laval, Québec, 1964). R. L. Schuyler, The fall of the old colonial system; a study in British free trade, 1770–1870 (London and Toronto, 1945). Horace Têtu, Résumé historique de l’industrie et du commerce de Québec de 1775–1900 (Québec, 1899). Tremblay, Hist. du Saguenay (1968). Arthur Maheux, “Un marchand de Québec: William Price,” La Revue de l’université Laval (Québec), IX (1955), 717–22. Victor Tremblay, “La fondation de Chicoutimi,” Saguenayensia (Chicoutimi, Qué.), 13 (1971), 59–61; “Le Saguenay il y a cent ans,” Saguenayensia, 13 (1971), 91–97.