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ROBERTSON, JAMES, merchant and manufacturer; b. 1831 in Campsie, Scotland; m. c. 1864 — Morris, of Sainte-Thérèse, Lower Canada, and they had four sons and two daughters; d. 18 Dec. 1900 in Montreal.

Born into a middle-class family, James Robertson studied at the parish school in Fintry, Scotland, and later at a private school. In 1843, at the age of 12, he began to learn the rudiments of business by working in a hardware store in Glasgow. He was hired in 1847 by Newton, Keats and Company as a clerk in their Glasgow branch office. It was not until 1857, a decade later, after many long years of work, that Robertson attained the rank of partner in the Glasgow firm of Alexander, Ferguson and Lonnie, which specialized in the manufacture of lead pipes. He was immediately put in charge of setting up an outlet at Montreal.

On 27 June 1857 Robertson opened a warehouse under the corporate name of Canada Lead Pipe Works in that city on Rue Queen, in the heart of the industrial suburb of Sainte-Anne. The following year, to ensure its efficient management he formed a partnership with William Brown, a metal dealer who had recently moved to Montreal. Their agency seems to have met with immediate success, probably because it had a monopoly with its goods on the colonial market, but also because of the credit margin it enjoyed with the head office in Scotland. Robertson quickly realized the immense potential that growing urbanization in North America held for marketing products related to the installation of water mains and gas lines. He therefore bought out his partners’ shares in 1862 for £4,000 and went into business for himself. His first venture was to add to his plumbing supply business a small lead pipe foundry with only 12 workers and steam-driven machinery. By 1871, nine years after the enterprise was founded, it had a capital of $200,867, an annual production valued at $117,317, and a work-force of 28. Robertson’s regular dividends had enabled him in 1869 to invest in a second business, specializing in the manufacture of saws of all kinds. The shop, which used steam-power, had 18 employees and an annual production valued at $36,273 in 1871.

Robertson was a cautious businessman and channelled part of his assets into real estate. In 1872 he owned a farm at Danville in the Eastern Townships, as well as a number of properties in Montreal, including the Peel Terraces, a block of buildings on Rue William that included the saw factory and warehouses, and the buildings on Rue Wellington where the pipe foundry was located. That same year he set up a pipe factory in Toronto at a cost of $98,827. As a well-to-do man with a fortune estimated at $407,663 and a good credit rating with the Bank of Montreal, he was able to face the world-wide economic recession of 1873–79 with no danger to the survival of his enterprises. He suffered a few losses in March 1876, when several local hardware merchants went bankrupt, but this setback did not prevent him, a few months later, from investing in setting up a pipe factory in Baltimore, Md.

From the late 1870s the firm of James Robertson faced such local and foreign competitors in lead-pipe manufacturing as Morland, Watson and Company of Montreal and A. K. Lissberger of Boston. Needless to say, this new development prompted Robertson to diversify the range of his products. His firm moved gradually into manufacturing plumbers’ compressed lead traps, and then covering cables for electric wires.

For Robertson, 1892 was a significant year: it marked the conversion of the firm he had founded into a joint stock company. Operating under the corporate name of James Robertson Company, it had a capital of $750,000 divided into 7,500 shares, most of which remained in the family’s control. The reorganization not only made it easier to raise new capital, but enabled James to bequeath some of his assets to his sons James, John, and Alexander. At that time the company owned shops in Montreal, Toronto, and Saint John, N.B., as well as a warehouse in Winnipeg. Apparently it was also engaged in the raw metal trade (iron, lead, steel, and nickel).

James Robertson remained president of the company until 1899, when ill health forced him to retire. He left a highly specialized metallurgical enterprise, which owed its rise to the new water, gas, and electrical utilities being installed in North American cities in the late 19th century. After a long and serious illness, he died on 18 Dec. 1900 at his home on Park Avenue. His funeral service was held two days later at St Gabriel Street (Presbyterian) Church, where he had chaired the session from 1885 to 1890.

Peter Bischoff and Robert Tremblay

Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Quebec, 5: 442; 7: 84. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Montreal, Sainte-Anne ward. Canada Gazette, 26 (1892–93): 1313. Canadian Engineer (Montreal), 8 (1900–1): 187. Gazette (Montreal), 19–21, 24 Dec. 1900. Montreal Daily Star, 19 Dec. 1900. La Presse, 18–19 déc. 1900. Canada directory, 1857–58. C. E. Goad, Atlas of the city of Montreal from special survey and official plans showing all buildings & names of owners (2nd ed., 2v., Montreal, 1890). Montreal directory, 1857–1900. F. W. Terrill, A chronology of Montreal and of Canada from A.D. 1752 to A.D. 1893 . . . (Montreal, 1893). Ève Martel, “L’industrie à Montréal en 1871” (thèse de ma, univ. du Qué., Montréal, 1976), 89, 96.

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Cite This Article

Peter Bischoff and Robert Tremblay, “ROBERTSON, JAMES (1831-1900),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_james_1831_1900_12E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_james_1831_1900_12E.html
Author of Article:   Peter Bischoff and Robert Tremblay
Title of Article:   ROBERTSON, JAMES (1831-1900)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   April 14, 2024