RITCHIE, WILLIAM, merchant; b. 24 Aug. 1804 in Langton (Strathclyde), Scotland, son of David Ritchie, a farmer, and Barbara Gilmour; m. 1 Sept. 1834 Mary Strang, the daughter of a New Brunswick merchant, and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 17 Jan. 1856 at Middleton House (Lothian), Scotland.
Following an education at Mearns parish school, William Ritchie was employed in the Glasgow offices of Pollok, Gilmour and Company where he worked with his cousin Allan Gilmour*. His mother’s brother, Allan Gilmour Sr, was one of the founding partners in this firm of timber merchants. In 1821 Ritchie undertook a brief training in ship-draftsmanship at Grangemouth and in the following year, at 18, he travelled to British North America to work for Gilmour, Rankin and Company, a subsidiary partnership of Pollok, Gilmour at Miramichi, N.B. There, under the management of Alexander Rankin, Ritchie again worked with his cousin Allan, and with him was responsible for provisioning teams of lumbermen working inland.
In 1828 Ritchie accompanied his cousin and uncle on an extensive tour of the Canadas to survey the potential of the region. As a result of the voyage, two new Pollok, Gilmour companies were formed. According to the draft of a partnership agreement dated 1829, Ritchie, his cousin Allan, Allan Gilmour Sr, and the brothers John and Arthur Pollok became partners in Allan Gilmour and Company at Quebec and William Ritchie and Company at Montreal, each of which had a capital of £2,000, contributed equally by the five partners. Ritchie was responsible for the management of the company which bore his name, at a salary of £50 per year. While the Quebec firm under his cousin’s direction was involved directly in the timber trade and in the extensive shipbuilding business at Wolfe’s Cove (Anse au Foulon), William Ritchie and Company dealt in provisions and general goods. Ritchie’s firm was also responsible for managing the day-to-day trading capital of all the Pollok, Gilmour companies in British North America. The other partnerships drew their bills against William Ritchie and Company, who in turn drew accommodation bills on Pollok, Gilmour in London which were discounted with the banks in Montreal to meet the demands of the original bills. Ritchie’s ability to negotiate such arrangements was no doubt aided by his involvement as a founding director of the City Bank (of Montreal), which had been established in 1831 to break the monopoly of the Bank of Montreal and increase the availability of credit.
Ritchie’s trading enterprise at Montreal was successful, increasing from an annual profit of £3,383 in 1829 to approximately £16,000 in 1840, despite a general depression in trade in British North America at the end of the 1830s which saw other Pollok, Gilmour companies in difficulties. Ritchie’s brothers Arthur and Robert, who managed the firm Arthur Ritchie and Company, established at Dalhousie and Campbellton, N.B., since at least 1832, were particularly badly hit. Ritchie complained that his brothers and other Pollok, Gilmour companies insisted on holding more stock than they could ever hope to dispose of, while his cousin Allan felt that these firms had been “too liberal in their credits to the lumbermen and others quite undeserving” and urged a general reduction of capital. Arthur Ritchie’s firm separated from Pollok, Gilmour in 1842 and by the late 1850s he faced bankruptcy in both New Brunswick and Liverpool, England. Before these matters were resolved, however, William Ritchie had withdrawn from all business activities in British North America.
In 1837–38 an acrimonious dispute had arisen among the partners in Pollok, Gilmour which resulted in Gilmour Sr’s withdrawal from the firm in 1838. The dispute cut across close family ties: John Pollok, Robert Rankin*, Gilmour Jr, and Ritchie had all married daughters of New Brunswick merchant John Strang. Gilmour Sr was deserted by his protégé, Allan Gilmour Jr, in favour of the Polloks, but he found an ally in his other nephew, William Ritchie. The basis of Ritchie’s own dispute with the partners and his alliance with Gilmour Sr, despite the fact that, according to Gilmour Jr, “there never was two persons that disliked each other more than they did at one time,” was the draft agreement drawn up on Gilmour’s withdrawal in 1838 while Ritchie was still in Montreal. This agreement, Ritchie claimed, gave him an interest both in the British North American concerns and in the home company, Pollok, Gilmour and Company, and its subsidiary, Rankin, Gilmour and Company at Liverpool (established shortly after Robert Rankin assumed direction of Pollok, Gilmour). His claim was rejected by the partners of the reorganized firm but, urged on by the disaffected Gilmour, he threatened to prevent any business taking place in the Canadas, presumably by obstructing the credit facilities he had established at Montreal. He travelled to Glasgow in the winter of 1839 to meet the partners and also to obtain legal advice on his position. Following a number of meetings and some bitter correspondence, in which Ritchie’s conduct was described by Allan Gilmour Jr as “monstrous and disgracefull,” an agreement was reached. Ritchie renounced any claims against the company in return for a payment of £49,600, less £5,200 at his account with the businesses in the Canadas. The latter figure was the source of one final dispute between the former partners when it was alleged that Ritchie had concealed personal expenditures in excess of £1,500 in the firm’s accounts at Montreal. The resulting court case, centring on the interpretation of a number of draft agreements which had never been officially signed, dragged on for some ten years before being finally resolved in Ritchie’s favour in 1851.
Ritchie returned to Scotland with his wife and children in 1841 and purchased the estate of Middleton, near Gorebridge. As in Lower Canada, he remained essentially a private person, playing little or no part in public life. He devoted his energies to agriculture and arboriculture, purchasing additional land at Lambhill (near Strathaven) and leasing from Allan Gilmour Sr the farm of West Walton in Eaglesham. When he died in 1856 he left a movable estate of £13,919, with the majority of his heritable property in entail to his eldest son, William. His comparatively short business career relied for its success, and ultimately its failure, on the influence and genius of Allan Gilmour Sr. Ritchie’s major contribution to Pollok, Gilmour in British North America was the personal influence and skill he exerted in establishing the credit facilities which enabled the various companies to flourish. This contribution connected him with important developments in finance and credit introduced with the growth of commercial banking in British North America.
BLHU, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 9: 222. SRO, SC70/1/90; SC70/4/44. Strathclyde Regional Arch. (Glasgow, Scot.), T-BK/66; T-HH/77; T-HH/78. Univ. of Glasgow Arch., UGD 36/6/2. L.C., Statutes, 1832–33, c.32. Glasgow directory, 1830–60. 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 (Liverpool, Eng., 1908). Studies in Scottish business history, ed. P. L. Payne (London, 1967). Wynn, Timber colony. C. R. Fay, “Means and the Miramichi: an episode in Canadian economic history,” CHR, 4 (1923): 316–20.