PROUDFOOT, WILLIAM, merchant, banker, and investor; b. probably in Scotland; last known to be living in 1866.
The age William Proudfoot sometimes gave himself would indicate that he was born in 1802, but this is a late date for a man who signed the address of farewell from the inhabitants of York (Toronto) to Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* in 1817, who sat on the original board of the Bank of Upper Canada in 1822, and who was a magistrate by 1827. Coming to York, Upper Canada, about 1816 with no traceable antecedents, he almost immediately became a partner in the store of lawyer D’Arcy Boulton* Jr and continued the business alone after 1825, selling wholesale and retail groceries, wines, and dry goods. He retired in the late 1830s. He also collected land avidly, advancing loans on such security, and claimed “upwards of 70,000 acres” by 1858.
On the full organization of the British America Assurance Company in 1834 he became its governor (chairman), but gave way to William Allan* in 1836. Allan in 1835 had resigned as first president of the Bank of Upper Canada, tired of the political attacks the bank had had to sustain and of the supine or apathetic attitudes of his fellow directors. Two potential candidates with stronger claims than Proudfoot for the presidency of the bank, John Spread Baldwin* and John Henry Dunn*, were ruled out by the supposedly factious quality of their support; Proudfoot, on the other hand, seemed personally innocuous. Allan wrote privately that “Mr Proudfoot was not elected from the idea of his being by any means either equal to it or the best they could get. He was the only [one] who was a candidate for it. . . . Proudfoot has not stamina or nous.” It was his inoffensiveness, almost to the point of nonentity, which partly explains his survival in office through 25 more annual meetings of the bank. Threats to his position, such as those sparked by Samuel Peters Jarvis* in the financially stringent years of 1843 and 1848, were defeated because many shareholders felt the challengers to be far more reckless, ambitious, and opinionated than Proudfoot. What ultimately secured him, however, was the weight of proxy votes which absentees were persuaded by his long tenure to entrust to him and his associates.
Despite Proudfoot’s continuous presidency, the bank’s cashier from its inception, Thomas Gibbs Ridout, with his strong family and political ties in Toronto, had far more real and acknowledged influence. When Proudfoot wished as late as 1858 to borrow money from Glynn Mills and Company, the bank’s English agents, he still felt the need to introduce himself and to use Ridout’s name to establish his credentials. This letter and the few others of his which survive show Proudfoot deficient in cogency, orderliness, and information, which made the cashier’s influence both explicable and essential.
But neither Ridout nor Proudfoot was equal to the complexities of financing and politicking which the development of the Province of Canada forced on them. The Bank of Upper Canada had always been prone to over-extension of credit to the large landowners who were its directors and to their peers, and never more so than in the boom of the 1850s. The bank, moreover, received the government’s business after 1850, and this drew it into the ruinous role of agent for the Grand Trunk Railway and into other dubious or tangled government concerns, of which the frauds of the tycoon Samuel Zimmerman* were the most crippling. The bank became an abject dependent of its clients and creditors. Proudfoot and Ridout, bewildered by proceedings too vast and murky for them to fathom, stepped down in April 1861, Ridout dying soon after of exhaustion and Proudfoot trying desperately to appease his own insistent creditors.
Proudfoot had married Caroline Brooks Stow in York on 25 May 1833. By 1846 they had moved into the newly built Kearsney House on Yonge Street, possibly the most spacious residence in the Toronto of that day, and in it Mrs Proudfoot acted as hostess to parties of hundreds at bazaars, balls, and musical and theatrical entertainments. In the early 1860s, however, Proudfoot had to bind the house over to the bank.
Proudfoot’s last years are almost completely unrecorded. The final notice of him so far discovered, dating from 1866, suggests that he was once more speculating in lands north of Toronto. In the later 1860s his wife, her address usually given as London, Eng., was listed as a shareholder in various Canadian banks – moderate holdings which grew quickly. In 1872 she was referred to as “widow.” Yet, despite Proudfoot’s long span in the chair of the Bank of Upper Canada (and the civic, benevolent, and Church of England ventures he was invited to patronize), he left so little impress on the minds and memories of his contemporaries that his death apparently passed as unnoticed as his birth. He died, as he had lived, in conspicuous obscurity.
City of Toronto Archives, Toronto assessment rolls, St David’s Ward, Yonge St, 1845, 1846; St James’ Ward, Yonge St, 1860, 1861, 1865, 1866; St Andrew’s Ward, Adelaide St, 1864. MTCL, Samuel Peters Jarvis papers, Bank of Upper Canada papers, 1843, 1848; Larratt William Smith papers, transcripts of letters, 1848; diaries, 1856, 1858. PAC, MG 24, D16, pp.41715–893; D36; RG 1, L3, index. PAO, Macaulay (John) papers, 1835; Street (Samuel) papers, 1864. UWO, 128 (George J. Goodhue papers), J. R. Gowan to G. J. Goodhue, 4 April 1866. Can., Sessional papers, 1867–68, VI, no. 12; 1869, III, no. 6; 1870, III, no.6; 1872, VI, no.13 (returns of shareholders in Canadian banks). Scadding, Toronto of old (1873), 401. Town of York, 1815–34 (Firth). U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1832–33, app. “Report of select committee on the inland water communication of the province,” 90–101. Upper Canada Gazette (York [Toronto]), 5 June 1817. Toronto directory, 1833–66. Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, I, 25; III, 296–97. Ross and Trigge, History of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. “Historical sketch of the British America Assurance Company,” Canadian annual review of public affairs, 1911, ed. J. C. Hopkins (Toronto, 1912).