RANKIN, ROBERT, timber merchant and shipowner; b. 31 May 1801 at Mearns, Renfrewshire, Scotland, son of James Rankin and Helen Ferguson; d. 3 June 1870 at Bromborough Hall in Cheshire, England.
Robert Rankin’s family were prosperous farmers in the Mearns parish. Between 1807 and 1813 Rankin received a good general education and a grounding in book-keeping at the Mearns school under James Jackson, an able dominie in the best Scottish tradition, many of whose pupils were to become business leaders.
In May 1815, after a few months in the counting-house of John Wilson, a Glasgow merchant, Rankin joined the office staff of the timber-importing firm, Pollok, Gilmour, and Company, at the thriving new port of Grangemouth on the Forth estuary, terminal of the Forth and Clyde Canal. The firm had been founded in Glasgow in 1804 by Allan Gilmour Sr and the brothers John and Arthur Pollok, also natives of Mearns. Rankin’s elder brother, Alexander*, had served it since 1806, and in 1812 had gone to Miramichi in New Brunswick to found the branch-firm of Gilmour, Rankin, and Company. It was through his brother’s influence that Robert Rankin had secured entry to the firm in the difficult post-war years of recession, and his rise was rapid. On 15 Dec. 1816 he was transferred to the head office in Glasgow, where he soon gained the approval of Arthur Pollok through his competence as book-keeper and accountant, and was appointed cashier of the firm at age 16.
By this time Pollok, Gilmour, and Company, through its Miramichi operations, had become the leading British firm in the North American timber trade. These operations had originally been planned by Allan Gilmour as a means of beating Napoleon’s Continental System, which prohibited lumber exports from the Baltic to Britain. Now the firm owned more than 50 vessels engaged in the shipment of lumber and employed 700 men in the forests and sawmills of New Brunswick. The scale of these operations increased steadily as the trade boomed, and in 1818 Robert Rankin was selected by Gilmour to go out to the Miramichi branch to gain experience in the colonies.
Young Rankin was clearly regarded as a “coming man” in the firm, and a possible future partner. Assiduous in his labours in the Miramichi office, he soon gained a reputation as a skilful administrator and a shrewd bargainer with timber contractors. In 1820–21 he made a “prospecting trip” to the Saint John River to assess the timber of the area and recommended to the head office that another branch-firm be founded at Saint John.
During his years in Glasgow and on the Miramichi, Rankin’s life was one of “Spartan self-discipline,” according to his nephew John Rankin, the historian of Pollok, Gilmour, and Company, who examined his personal expenditure book. In Glasgow he had lived carefully in cheap lodgings, but gave regular church donations and gifts to charity. He had also sacrificed on clothing and food to take French lessons, realizing he would be working in the British North American colonies. In his first years in New Brunswick he lived frugally and saved hard. Although he received only £45 from his deceased father’s estate in November 1817 after providing for his mother, by the end of 1822 he had accumulated nearly £400 in savings to his credit in the firm’s books, a sum which represented practically all of his annual salary for four years’ service on the Miramichi.
Rankin’s career as an independent entrepreneur began early in 1822 when Pollok, Gilmour, and Company decided to set up the branch-firm in Saint John that Rankin had recommended. He had made an arduous overland journey from the Miramichi to Saint John in the spring of 1821 to transfer his capital in bullion form, but on arrival decided that the time was not quite ripe for commencing operations. A year later, however, he judged correctly that there would be a new timber boom and set up the firm of Robert Rankin and Company in Saint John. Within ten years, by his shrewdness in purchasing timber and dealing in imports of foodstuffs and lumbering stores, he made this branch-firm the most prosperous and successful of the Pollok, Gilmour, and Company enterprises, which also flourished in Bathurst and Chatham, N.B., Montreal, Quebec, Restigouche County, and on the Miramichi. Unlike other branch-firm managers, Rankin had a completely free hand to conduct the Saint John operation as he saw fit. He became, in fact, the guiding intelligence in the colonies of Pollok, Gilmour, and Company, a vast concern which by 1838 operated 130 vessels in the timber trade – making it the largest British shipowning firm – and employed no fewer than 15,000 men in its sawmills, on its wharves, and in the forests; it owned as well 2,000 horses and oxen for draught purposes. In the early 1830s the firm shipped out annually over 300 cargoes of timber. At Saint John Rankin had added to his lumbering concerns the building of ships and the importing of textiles, foodstuffs, and building supplies on a large scale – reputedly for more than half of the numerous merchants in the town. His success in Saint John was so great that by the early 1830s he was even influencing affairs in the head office in Glasgow.
John Rankin, who knew his uncle well, ascribed his success to “his perfect mastery of figures and of book-keeping, his love of order, quickness of decision, close eye on the leading markets and articles of produce and the fact that he was not only a good buyer, but, what few men are, a wise and competent seller, who would not regret if the buyer had a profit.” It also appears that Rankin had a gift for clarity of thought and expression. His business letters were noted for their terseness and precision.
By 1830 Robert Rankin was wealthy and regarded as the leading shipowner and timber merchant of Saint John, but he continued to live frugally and unostentatiously. On 17 March 1829 he married Ann, daughter of John Strang, a prominent Scottish merchant of St Andrews, N.B., where, as in Saint John, commercial life was largely dominated by Scots. By 1837 he had prospered to such an extent that he was contemplating retiring, returning to Scotland, and purchasing a landed estate where he could take up livestock breeding, a pursuit which had interested him since his youth as a farmer’s son. This possibility was easily within his reach financially, since he had now considerable investments outside the firm, in British railways, mining, insurance companies, and shipping.
His plans were altered by a crisis in the affairs of the firm in Glasgow in 1837, following a bitter quarrel among the founders. Since all parties considered that only Rankin could settle the dispute and take the leadership of the over-all concern, he left Saint John in the summer of 1838 with his wife and family. In Scotland he speedily arranged to buy out Gilmour for £150,000 and to reconstruct Pollok, Gilmour, and Company. Rankin, his brother Alexander, and Allan Gilmour* Jr of the Quebec branch now became the controlling partners. At Rankin’s instigation, the head office was moved from Glasgow to Liverpool, to take advantage of the greater commercial opportunities there, particularly in the lumber trade, and a new subsidiary firm was established under the name of Rankin, Gilmour, and Company. In order to employ its large fleet fully in the winter months, branch houses were opened in New Orleans, La, and Mobile, Ala, where the company entered the rapidly expanding cotton trade.
As in New Brunswick, Rankin’s business acumen ensured the firm’s success in this new milieu. The diversification into cotton brought great profits, and by 1851 he was a member of the Dock Committee of Liverpool, the “inner ring” of influential merchants and shipowners. In addition to owning a fine residence in Liverpool, he had purchased the large estate of Bromborough Hall in Cheshire, where he engaged in cattle breeding and other rural pursuits. In 1857 he toured Canada and the United States with his family and was accorded what has been described as “an almost Royal reception” in many places, particularly in New Brunswick. Until his death in 1870, he remained in active control of the Pollok-Gilmour-Rankin “empire.” His prestige in Liverpool can be judged by his election in January 1862 as chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, described as “the highest honour Liverpool has to bestow.” In 1865 he set up his son James as a country gentleman, buying for him two large estates in Herefordshire.
In his later years Rankin’s public benefactions were numerous. He funded mechanics’ institutes, temperance societies, and orphans’ homes, and he contributed several large sums for the laying of the first Atlantic cable in the 1850s and 1860s. Early in 1869 his health began to fail, and despite a long Mediterranean trip the decline continued. The death of his daughter, drowned in Menai Strait, Wales, in August 1869, was a crushing blow to Rankin, who had already lost four of his seven children through childhood illnesses. He died the following June.
Rankin was a characteristic Scottish entrepreneur of his period, utterly devoted to his business with few cultural or public interests. His only outside interests were livestock breeding and the pursuits of a country gentleman in the last phase of his life. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that except in matters pertaining to trade prospects, he was narrow in outlook. According to John Rankin, he was taciturn and far from sociable. Yet his industry, commercial percipience, financial ability, and organizational capacity, shown in the colonies and later in Liverpool, mark him as one of the outstandingly successful businessmen of his time. The Canadian timber trade and the New Brunswick shipbuilding industry owed much of the amazing progress they made between 1820 and 1850 to his sagacity and tenacity.
General Register Office (Edinburgh), Mearns parish register, 1760–1801. Liverpool Record Office, City Council, minute books, 1851–55. University of Glasgow, Business History coll., Pollok, Gilmour, and Company, records. John Rankin, A history of our firm, being some account of the firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Co. and its offshoots and connections, 1804–1920 (2nd ed., Liverpool, 1921). C. F. Fay, “Mearns and the Miramichi: an episode in Canadian economic history,” CHR, IV (1923), 316–20. D. S. Macmillan, “The ‘new men’ in action: Scottish mercantile and shipping operations in the North American colonies, 1760–1825,” Canadian business history, selected studies, 1497–1971, ed. D. S. Macmillan (Toronto, 1972), 69–103.