USBORNE, HENRY, businessman and seigneur; b. c. 1780; d. 23 July 1840 in Ryde, Isle of Wight, England
Henry Usborne was living in London by 1801 and was, in his own words, a “Large Manufacturer” in wood and a partner “in one of the principal Houses” carrying on trade with Russia via the Baltic Sea. The previous year the “Armed Neutrality” of Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, although temporary, had threatened Britain’s timber supply and alerted Usborne’s firm to the urgency of finding new sources of timber for Britain and the British navy, then at war with Napoleonic France. Early in 1801, therefore, Usborne moved to Quebec, probably the first important Baltic timber merchant to appear in the colony, and announced his “express purpose” of introducing a wood trade similar to that carried on with Russia.
In his first season Usborne purchased a large timber-storage area in Wolfe’s Cove (Anse au Foulon) at Quebec and acquired timber lands and sawmills; on the Rivière Maskinongé alone he bought an eight-saw mill and 2,000 acres, and he also applied for a grant of 6,000–10,000 acres there. At the same time he prepared cargoes for 1802, when he would send home seven shiploads of pine; by 1803 he was filling 20 ships. In the latter year a “Mr. Osborne, an English Gentleman,” built near Saint John, N.B., “a mill on the Russian plan . . . which works fifteen saws in a frame.” This was perhaps the pioneer gang-saw in Canada, and Usborne’s background suggests that he was the builder. In 1804 he purchased a further 2,500 acres of timber land on the Maskinongé. About that year Usborne began a steady program of shipbuilding, using master builders at Quebec such as John Goudie*. Between 1806 and 1809 he advertised space on at least eight different vessels sailing from Quebec, and in one month in 1809 no fewer than seven of his vessels arrived there in ballast, probably to load timber.
Lieutenant Governor Sir Robert Shore Milnes was struck by Usborne’s commercial “Spirit” and noted that from the outset he had shipped “a much greater quantity [of wood] than has hitherto been exported from Canada in one Season.” Milnes recommended Usborne warmly to Whitehall and stuck by him in 1803 when the shipwright officers of the dockyard at Chatham, England, decried his examples of Canadian oak as “unfit” for shipbuilding and repairs and suitable only for “inferior purposes.” However, artificial shortages created by a “Timber Ring” of British merchants soon produced a market for Canadian wood, and Usborne’s head start gave him great advantages. Yet, despite Milnes’s support, another London firm, Scott, Idle and Company, obtained in 1804 the first Admiralty contract for Canadian masts, spars, and bowsprits. Three years later their Lower Canadian agents, John Mure* and James Hare Jolliffe, complained that Usborne was “attempting to throw every impediment” in the way of their fulfilling their engagement, was cutting illegally on crown lands (which were reserved to their exclusive use for supplying Admiralty needs), and was talking “of going next season still more extensively . . . into the mast and spar business.” By 1809 Usborne’s expansion had induced him to make heavy purchases of oak and pine on both sides of Lake Champlain.
Usborne apparently led a moderately active social life at Quebec. He was a committee member of the Quebec Fire Society, entered horses in the Quebec Races, and acted as a president of a “Country party” held at Sturch’s Hotel in April 1808. His house was handsomely appointed, his cellars well stocked, and his stables filled. Among his possessions were “a Pipe of the Best Brazil Madeira that has been 7 years in Canada, . . . excellent fowling pieces, [and] a pair of Pocket Pistols”; by late 1808 he was parading around town in “a curricle built last Spring by one of the first Coach makers [in London], [with] a Harness Compleat of the latest Fashion.” In 1803 a short-lived son had been born to Usborne and the illiterate wife of a sergeant stationed in the town.
By 1809 Usborne considered his Lower Canadian operations firmly established. That year he returned to London to direct operations there and formed a new partnership composed of himself, his brother Thomas, and Thomas Starling Benson. The Quebec firm was handed over to Peter Patterson*, who had been in Usborne’s employ since 1805 at least. With James Dyke of Quebec and Richard Collins of Montreal as Lower Canadian associates and Usborne as his London partner, Patterson directed the firm of Patterson, Dyke and Company, which had its headquarters at Wolfe’s Cove. Under Patterson’s management the growth of Usborne’s Lower Canadian operations accelerated, notably with the acquisition in 1811 from John Goudie and Henry Black of a large sawmill installation under construction at the Chute Montmorency near Quebec. With Usborne’s capital and assistance Patterson subsequently expanded the size of the property by purchase and made the operation “probably as extensive as any in the world” in the opinion of a visiting American expert. The mills were among the most costly to have been built in the Canadas, largely because of the great zig-zag millrace, rock-cut and timber-lined, that fed them from above the falls; from the start they boasted several circular saws, apparently the first in Lower Canada. Patterson also expanded the firm’s timber-cutting, shipbuilding, and maritime transport operations.
Meanwhile, in London, Usborne had wrested one-half of the Canadian mast, spar, and bowsprit contract from Scott, Idle and Company, possibly in 1812 but certainly by 1815. To reinforce communications the organization of 1809 was replaced in 1815 by a transatlantic interlocking firm, composed of the London partners and Patterson and Dyke, operating in London as Henry Usborne, Benson and Company and at Quebec as Peter Patterson and Company. By 1818 Henry Usborne, Benson and Company had obtained the entire Admiralty contract, which included much timber in addition to masts and spars; the firm continued to enjoy the monopoly until 1822. In 1820 Usborne testified before a committee of the British House of Commons that since 1801 his firm had invested some £40,000 in sawn-timber operations in the Canadas. By the 1820s it was also once again obtaining timber from Russia.
In 1823 Patterson and Thomas Usborne left the firm, Patterson taking over the Montmorency mills. Henry Usborne kept the Wolfe’s Cove installation until 1831 when he sold it to Benson and an associate. He repurchased it in 1834 only to sell it again the following year to George William Usborne, said to be a brother but more likely a nephew. Henry’s money may have been behind the firm of Atkinson, Usborne and Company, in which George William was a partner, and that of Longley and Dyke [see George Longley]. Usborne also held lands in the Canadas, acquired for speculation or in satisfaction of debts. Some time after 1810 he had bought the 45,000-acre seigneury of Rivière-de-la-Madeleine, in the Gaspé, which was more useful for fishing than for lumbering. In the 1820s he was a director of the Canada Company, which, through the agency of John Galt, sponsored settlement on its vast holdings in Upper Canada, and he was a promoter of the abortive Lower Canada Land Company, which was to have been modelled on it [see William Bowman Felton]. By 1835, however, he had sold out of the Canada Company, and he was not among the shareholders of the British American Land Company, which had replaced the Lower Canada Land Company.
In England Usborne enjoyed the easy social and public life of a rich merchant. By 1816, when he married Phœbe Ann Birch, a daughter of the member of parliament for Lancaster and sister of a baronet, he had a country seat in Norfolk called Heydon Hall which dated from the 16th century. In 1824 he was high sheriff of Suffolk and had possibly already transferred his seat to Branches Park in that county. Ten years later he was leasing a mansion on exclusive Portland Place in London; he filled it with “plate linen glass china books pictures prints [and] wines,” and its stables contained several horses and carriages. By the time of Usborne’s death in July 1840, apparently while he was on a visit to the resort of Ryde, Branches Park boasted “Gardens pleasure grounds Offices and buildings,” and Usborne owned “farms Lands Tenements and Hereditaments” in Suffolk and Cambridge, and “Wharves and hereditaments in Canada.” To his wife he bequeathed £500, the use of all his properties, and the residue of his estate, and to his surviving daughters, of whom there were at least two, he left trust funds of equal value to be established from the proceeds – which he estimated would be around £20,000 – of the sale of his properties.
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Cite This Article
A. J. H. Richardson, “USBORNE, HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 7, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/usborne_henry_7E.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:
|Author of Article:||A. J. H. Richardson|
|Title of Article:||USBORNE, HENRY|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||June 7, 2023|