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WATSON, WILLIAM, miller, businessman, and municipal politician; b. in Bannockburn, Scotland, son of John Watson, a miller in Bannockburn, and Helen Walker; d. 8 April 1867 at Montreal.

John Watson immigrated to Montreal in 1801 with his wife and five children. He established himself as a miller in the Recollets faubourg where water power was available from the Îles des Sœurs channel, and ground wheat and other grains for the local market and for export. Alexander Ogilvie, a relative of John, was brought into partnership in 1811, and the ties between the Ogilvie and Watson families were further strengthened when Ogilvie married John’s daughter Helen.

William Watson was brought into the firm at an early age, and when his father died in 1819 continued the partnership with Ogilvie. The business appears to have prospered in the 1810s and 1820s which was a period of general expansion for the export trade in Canadian cereals. In 1837 the mill was moved to the St Gabriel lock on the Lachine Canal, making it one of the first industries in Montreal to use the hydraulic power available from the Lachine rapids.

The Canada Corn Act of 1843 admitted flour produced in Canada into Great Britain at a nominal duty and as a consequence the Canadian milling industry expanded greatly. New mills were built all along the St Lawrence-Great Lakes system, many of them on the canals which were part of the system. The Lachine Canal enlargement of 1846 added an inducement to industrialists to select Montreal, and one of the largest mills to locate on the enlarged canal was that of Ira Gould in 1847. Gould, in partnership with John Young*, became a major Montreal manufacturer almost overnight.

Manufacturers such as Watson, Ogilvie, and Gould who had the capital to erect large, well-equipped, and heavily mechanized mills were able to withstand the transformations which were taking place in the industry in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Imperial policy no longer offered advantages to Canadian millers, but the domestic market for grains was expanding. Wheat yields in the Lower Canadian seigneuries were decreasing and millers such as Watson purchased wheat in the United States to satisfy the Lower Canadian market for flour. Upper Canadian wheat, which fetched higher prices, was milled for American consumers, while cheaper grades of wheat were reserved for the Maritime colonies. The Watson-Ogilvie mill provided a large share of the flour produced in Canada for these markets.

So prosperous had flour milling become during the early 1850s that Watson and Alexander Ogilvie greatly expanded their operations. In 1852 they erected the new Glenora Mill at their St Gabriel lock site. They took into partnership Alexander’s eldest son, Alexander Walker Ogilvie*, and, temporarily, James Goudie, Alexander’s brother-in-law. The new mill made flour, and also undertook custom work for a fee (normally 10 per cent) on other grains such as barley and peas. The Crimean War expanded demand for North American grain and flour in Britain and further opportunities for high profits were created by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 and the American Civil War in 1861. In fact, an adequate supply of suitable wheat was a growing problem for Montreal millers. When the productive capacity at the Glenora Mill was increased during the 1850s (by installing more millstones and renting more storage space) more agents had to be sent to Canada West to buy wheat. Another of Alexander Ogilvie’s sons, John, entered the business in 1855, and he devoted much of his time to scouting western Upper Canada for supplies of wheat.

Alexander Ogilvie died in 1858. The firm, which had become in fact an Ogilvie enterprise as William Watson, now an elderly man, had allowed his young, aggressive nephews to take over, became one in name as well, as A. W. Ogilvie and Company. Watson remained a partner of the-company, but the direction of its affairs had passed to younger hands. In addition, he had given up in 1857 the post of inspector of flour for Montreal, in which he had succeeded his older brother Robert in 1827.

Except for serving three terms as a Montreal City Council member (1843–45), Watson devoted himself mainly to business. Like most of his fellow Montreal businessmen, he had widely diversified financial interests. The inventory of his estate prepared after he died in 1867 provides an invaluable indication of how the typical mid 19th century Montreal bourgeois was involved in several different facets of the city’s expanding economy. It reveals that in addition to his interest in the flour mill, Watson possessed mortgages on real estate throughout the city, lots and rental properties for speculation, shares in an iron mine, intercity and street railways, and the Montreal Stock Exchange, and more than $18,000 in accounts receivable, most of it uncollectable. His holdings in real estate alone were immense; they included two farms on Montreal Island, one at Lachine and the other at Hochelaga, 13 farms in the Eastern Townships, eight lots in Montreal owned jointly with brewer William Dow, and 61 other lots on Montreal Island. He also owned 32 rent-paying properties in the city, which by 1867 were bringing him an annual revenue of nearly $10,000.

Aside from bequests to the Montreal General Hospital, the Montreal Ladies Benevolent Society, and Protestant Orphan Asylum, Watson, a bachelor, left his estate, including his share of the business, to the Ogilvies. At his death flour milling, which he had helped to establish in Montreal, was one of the city’s major industries, and the firm with which he had been associated was on the verge of large-scale expansion.

Gerald Tulchinsky

Private archives, Watson Ogilvie (Beaconsfield, Que.), Resources of the estate Watson, 1867–70. Elgin-Grey papers (Doughty), II, 472; III, 1193, 1198. Select documents in Canadian economic history, ed. H. A. Innis and A. R. M. Lower (2v., Toronto, 1929–33), II, 267, 284–85, 353–54. J. G. Clark, The grain trade in the old northwest (Urbana, Ill., 1966). Jean Delage, “L’industrie manufacturière,” Montréal économique, Esdras Minville, édit. (Montréal, 1943), 217. P. W. Gates, The farmer’s age: agriculture, 1815–1860 (New York, 1960). Hist. de la corporation de la cité de Montréal (Lamothe et al.), 205–6. R. L. Jones, History of agriculture in Ontario, 1613–1880 (Toronto, 1946), 135, 192, 216. C. B. Kuhlmann, The development of the flour milling industry in the United States with special reference to the industry in Minneapolis (Boston, 1929), 60–64. D. A. MacGibbon, The Canadian grain trade (Toronto, 1932), 10–22. D. C. Masters, The reciprocity treaty of 1854: its history, its relation to British colonial and foreign policy and to the development of Canadian fiscal autonomy (London and Toronto, 1936), 11011. Montreal in 1856; a sketch prepared for the celebration of the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (Montreal, 1856). The Ogilvies of Montreal, with a genealogical account of the descendants of their grandfather, Archibald Ogilvie, with portraits and views (Montreal, 1904). G. R. Stevens, Ogilvie in Canada, pioneer millers, 1801–1951 (Montreal, n.d.). “The development of the flour and grist milling industry in Canada,” Canadian Bankers’ Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 30 (1923), 488–95. [P.] D. [W.] McCalla, “The Canadian grain trade in the 1840’s, the Buchanans’ case,” CHA Historical Papers, 1974, 95–114.

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Cite This Article

Gerald Tulchinsky, “WATSON, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/watson_william_9E.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/watson_william_9E.html
Author of Article:   Gerald Tulchinsky
Title of Article:   WATSON, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   June 10, 2023