SYMES, GEORGE BURNS, merchant; b. 20 Jan. 1803 at Quebec, one of at least three sons of George Symes and Angélique-G. Cuvillier; d. 12 June 1863 at Montreal.
George Burns Symes’ father, a native of Tenby, Wales, immigrated to Quebec City and by 1801 had established his own forwarding business, George Symes and Company, dealing in wheat, rum, furs, and timber, and in passenger traffic. George Symes built up contacts with Montreal financiers such as Augustin Cuvillier* and by the 1820s the Symes Wharf at the foot of Cap Diamant was one of Quebec City’s busiest. Between 1818 and 1824 he served as master of Trinity House, which administered the Quebec harbour, regulated shipping, and arbitrated disputes between merchants. He was also a founding member in 1816 of the Quebec Exchange; it offered a reading room and the conviviality of a location in the basement of the Neptune Inn, but its primary purpose was to bring together merchants and ship captains: notices could be posted offering freight and charters and captains seeking a cargo made the Exchange their first stop.
Nothing is known of the early life of George Burns Symes. By the 1820s he was active in his father’s business and represented the company on the Quebec City Committee of Trade. After his father’s death in 1833 the firm was renamed G.B. Symes and Company; by the 1840s Symes had taken in a new partner, David Douglas Young, president of the Quebec Bank. After George Burns Symes’ death the company continued as D.D. Young and Company and subsequently as A.F.A. Knight and Company until it went out of business around 1880. Symes’ brother Robert was a Quebec retail merchant who specialized in furs, but also sold watch-guards, shoes, wheat, furniture, Welsh flannels, lambs-wool gloves, and “parisian negligées.”
As a general merchant George Burns Symes traded in commodities as diverse as pig-iron and lobsters. An 1847 advertisement showed imports of sail twine, carpeting, glass, paint, tea, soap, and cod oil. He exported, primarily to England, such goods as flour, beef, pork, candles, oatmeal, moccasins, and timber. In the early years he advertised passage on sailing vessels making the return voyage to Liverpool or Hull, England. In 1854 Symes, along with such prominent Montrealers as Hugh Allan*, Sir George Simpson*, and William Dow, became a founding director of the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company. As Quebec City agent for the steamship line, Symes offered first-class passage to Liverpool for $80. Symes was a shipowner of some significance. He and Young were owners or part owners of at least 16 vessels in the period 1841–63, including the 889-ton Clara Symes. He also invested in the Quebec and Richmond Railway and was a director of the St Lawrence Navigation Company. Banks were a crucial part of the commercial process for timber merchants, since their businesses required extensive credit advances to the timber-cutting companies. In 1844 Symes was a director of the Quebec branch of the Bank of Montreal and in 1861 a local director of the Bank of British North America.
G.B. Symes and Company, along with Peter Patterson*, Charles Aylwin, and Allan Gilmour*, took an early interest in the timber trade. The Symes’ timber cove was located at Spencer Cove (Anse au Foulon) next to the Allan Gilmour property. During the spring season, rafts arrived at the coves from upcountry. Once in booms the square timber was classed, although most of Symes’ timber was sold without culling. By May the coves were jammed with ships taking on their cargoes of oak and pine; in July 1851 three timber ships left the Symes’ cove on the same day. If the rafts were delayed, ships had to wait, stevedores became restless, and contracts went unfilled. In June 1850 a Liverpool merchant took suit against Symes for a two-week delay in loading.
Like his father, Symes served as a warden of Trinity House and as a member of the managing committee of the Quebec Exchange (1860). He was a member of the Board of Trade and his business partner, Young, served as chairman of the Board of Arbitrators (1851). Symes was also an active participant in the social, cultural, and religious activities of Quebec’s English speaking community. He was a founding director of the Stadacona Club (1861) and a member of the St George’s Society (1848). Symes loved horses and was president of the Quebec Turf Club (1844) and vice-president of the Quebec Races (1847) which were held every August at Ancienne-Lorette. He was also a keen participant in the Quebec Tandem Club. During the winter members gathered once a week at Place d’Armes to ride through the city and out to Sainte-Foy, Charlesbourg, or Montmorency. One Quebec City resident dismissed these Sunday excursions by members of the city’s élite as “a dull routine of driving up one street and down another, overturning pigs and frightening old ladies out of their propriety.” Symes’ brother Robert was also active in Quebec’s social life. A member of the Quebec Horticultural Society and paymaster of the 6th battalion of the Quebec City militia, he was a lifelong supporter of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, a founding member of the Quebec Temperance Hall Association, and the first treasurer of the St George’s Society, founded in 1835 to give financial assistance to English and Welsh immigrants and to help them “venerate the land of their forefathers.”
Little is known of the family life of George Burns Symes. For many years he lived in a fashionable house on Mont-Carmel St in the upper town. He retired from business in 1862 and after a short illness died in Montreal of “inflammation.” His body was brought to Quebec City by the Grand Trunk Railway. Obituaries referred to Symes as “the Merchant Prince” and speculated that his estate had a value of $500,000. His funeral service was held on 15 June 1863 in the Anglican cathedral and his pallbearers included Justice René-Édouard Caron*, Louis Panet*, James Bell Forsyth, and William Price. His remains lie in Quebec City’s Mount Hermon Cemetery.
ANQ-Q, AP-G-278/1; Greffe de J. G. Clapham, 12 juin 1850. ASQ, Polygraphie, XXXV, 14. Can., Prov. of, Statutes, 1852–53, c.62; 1854–55, c.44. Le Canadien, 15 juin 1863. Le Journal de Québec, 13 juin 1863. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 31 Dec. 1847; 5 March 1852; 30 June, 29 July 1856; 16 June 1863. Quebec Gazette, 20 Nov. 1833. J. E. Defebaugh, History of the lumber industry of America (2v., Chicago, 1906–7), I, 139. George Gale, Historic tales of old Quebec (Quebec, 1923), 165; Quebec twixt old . . . and . . . new (Quebec, 1915), 55. A. R. M. Lower, Great Britain’s woodyard; British America and the timber trade, 1763–1867 (Montreal and London, Ont., 1973), 220.