ROBERTSON, JOHN, businessman and politician; b. in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1799; d. at Lawford Place, Mannington, Essex, Eng., on 3 Aug. 1876.
Before immigrating to Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1817, John Robertson married Sophia Dobie of Lancashire; they had six children. Starting as a clerk in Saint John under his uncle, Robert Robertson, he later became a super-cargo for Thomas Millidge* on vessels trading from Saint John to Newfoundland and the West Indies. When Millidge retired, Robertson joined Angus M’Kenzie to form the company of M’Kenzie and Robertson and to continue the business. Robertson formed partnerships with one or two others and by mid-century had become an independent entrepreneur in a variety of pursuits, not only in Saint John but throughout the province and internationally.
Early in his career Robertson became interested in the prosperity of Saint John and the province of New Brunswick. He ran unsuccessfully for the New Brunswick assembly in 1832. In 1836 he was appointed mayor of Saint John, and from 1837 to 1867 he was a leading spokesman for the city in the New Brunswick Legislative Council. He was, at the same time, a magistrate for Saint John. He was active in the Chamber of Commerce, often as president or a member of the council. He supported numerous projects such as the 1835 harbour bridge and the Saint John to Shediac railway. In 1859 he was one of the commissioners who recommended the removal of the provincial capital from Fredericton to Saint John. That same year he castigated the government for eliminating winter dredging in the harbour.
Robertson’s own businesses were thriving all the while. Typical of his operations was a sawmill at Saint John which was “one of the most complete on the continent.” It was destroyed in a spectacular fire on 5 May 1852. His interests included extensive mercantile transactions, lumbering, shipbuilding, shipping supplies, banking, insurance companies, and railways. He was president of the Victoria Coal Mining Company, a director of the Maritime Bank of the Dominion of Canada, local director of the Bank of British North America, and a director of the European and North American Railway Company. He was, in addition, the honorary New Brunswick director of the Atlantic telegraph company of 1858. He supported this project because he did not want it to bypass New Brunswick, a circumstance, he wrote, “I would think a great pity.” Because of such international contacts he was appointed consul in Saint John for Uruguay and Argentina.
Robertson was also active in the New Brunswick militia. He served in several regiments and rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the Saint John City Light Infantry. When the British were preparing to send troops to Canada following the Trent affair, he was in London where he presented the advantages of using Saint John as their eastern terminal. Not the least of these was the New Brunswick militia, and the facility with which British troops were cleared through New Brunswick on their way to Quebec was in large part the result of careful planning and coordination by the local organization. The high regard in which Robertson was held can be measured by the support he received from the officers and men for promotion over a senior officer in 1863.
In New Brunswick Robertson was regarded as a competent and indefatigable Scot who exhibited all the hospitality and independence usually associated with the type. A letter he wrote to Samuel Leonard Tilley* illustrates the point: “The taking of a man’s property without his consent, yea against his will, is a violation of his just right.” This was a firm comment on the method of government expropriation for railway purposes. Yet he saw the necessity for government regulations, especially of “banks and other corporations to ascertain the true state of such institutions.” In some respects he exhibited the paternalism of the laird, both in the hospitality he extended to his guests and in his real concern for the downtrodden. In 1862 he spearheaded a drive to raise money for Lancashire workers who were put out of work through lack of American cotton for the mills. His sympathy did not extend, however, to the owners and their “over-speculation in mills and manufacturing.” The real enemy to him was “the unmitigated selfishness of the Manchester School” who “expect the world to consume their cotton output [on] such terms as they would dictate – but besides and beyond all this they expect the Country to find their Raw Materials – to keep their mills going on terms that would leave them a profit no matter who suffers.” He was particularly aware of the dangers this system held for the colonies which “have suffered . . . by the Manchester School Legislation more than once.” Robertson’s efforts were directed toward increasing the trade of the colonies, even if it meant protection or closer integration into the American economy.
In 1867 Robertson was appointed to the Canadian Senate. He retired to Great Britain in 1874 and there served as a director of the Imperial Bank at Lothbury. He kept close contact with Canada, especially with St Andrew’s Church in Saint John where he had been an active layman and to which he continued to extend financial aid. At his death he left a North American estate alone of $390,000, and part of this was bequeathed to St Andrew’s.
Robertson’s career had been long, active, and prosperous. “His great success made his opinion a law to others on more matters than those of business.”
N.B. Museum, John Robertson estate papers, 1877–93; Tilley family papers, 1854–67. PAC, MG 27, I, D15 (Tilley papers), 1854–67. Saint John Daily News, 5 Aug. 1876. Can. directory of parliament (Johnson). Can. parl. comp., 1873. D. R. Jack, History of Saint Andrew’s Church, Saint John, N.B. (Saint John, N.B., 1913).