WHYTE, JAMES MATTHEW, businessman; b. c. 1788 in Scotland, son of James Whyte of Newmains, Lanarkshire; d. 9 June 1843 in Hamilton, Upper Canada.
Although James Matthew Whyte’s family background and early experiences are obscure, he apparently was born into comfortable circumstances and his family claimed some connection to the Scottish gentry through marriage. After receiving what appears to have been a sound education, Whyte entered military service, becoming a lieutenant in the 1st Dragoon Guards in 1806 and a captain in 1812. He resigned his commission three years later, but, according to his tombstone, subsequently served as a lieutenant-colonel of the Surrey Regiment of Horse.
In 1811 Whyte had acquired a plantation in Jamaica. Located near the town of Morant Bay and named Cave Bottom, it was not a large plantation and in 1817 utilized the labour of only 12 slaves. However, he had taken it over at a propitious time: following the Napoleonic Wars demand increased for Jamaican sugar and coffee. Whyte appears to have prospered and to have achieved some prominence in colonial society, since he served as a justice of assize and on the island’s Council. By the early 1830s the plantation economy was suffering from low prices, an overpopulation of slaves, and a growing sense of insecurity, heightened by the abolition movement in Great Britain and the slave rebellion of 1831. The outlawing of slavery in 1834 by the British parliament, with compensation to owners, afforded Whyte an opportunity to liquidate his assets and leave the colony.
Searching for new investment opportunities, he considered immigrating to the Canadas and in early 1834 departed Jamaica for Hamilton. He quickly became interested in the land market, receiving a patent on land in Cayuga Township in April. In January 1835 he sold the property to Allan Napier MacNab* for £500. Whyte became active, as well, in the promotion of Hamilton’s two major commercial undertakings, the London and Gore Rail Road and the Gore Bank. The latter was his major business interest. Although not involved in the early promotion of the bank, which had been initiated in 1833 and was chartered two years later, he was instrumental in getting it off the ground. On 1 Sept. 1835 he chaired a meeting of promoters which arranged for the opening of stock subscription books and on 26 November, with Colin Campbell Ferrie*, he was given authority to apportion stock and make arrangements for the election of directors. Whyte purchased 40 shares, valued at £500, and commanded the confidence of enough shareholders to be elected to the first board of directors in February. Ferrie had also been elected and claimed the largest number of shareholders’ votes, but the directors elected Whyte president in preference to him.
As president from 1836 to 1839, Whyte attended daily to the bank’s affairs and his administration encouraged confidence among its correspondents. Close relations were established with the Bank of Upper Canada, which withdrew from Hamilton in April 1836 and sold all of the discounted notes in its office there to the Gore Bank. Whyte himself enjoyed the support by proxy of several Bank of Upper Canada shareholders who had also invested in the Gore Bank, and he continued to exercise a power of attorney in their behalf after he resigned the presidency. Likewise, in September 1839, the London banking firm of Reid, Irving and Company felt that its effectiveness as the Gore Bank’s English correspondent rested on the firm’s confidence in Whyte’s direction.
Despite the efficacy of Whyte’s presidency, shortly after the bank’s incorporation conflict emerged among its directors. Initially, the local élite, which included MacNab, John Willson*, Absalom Shade*, and Whyte, controlled the board. Soon other directors, who were members of Hamilton’s commercial community, including Ferrie, Edmund Ritchie, and John Young*, objected to MacNab’s influence. He had sold land to the bank for its premises at prices many thought were inflated. As well, criticism of his conduct as the bank’s solicitor in 1838 resulted in the transfer of this responsibility to his partner, John Ogilvie Hatt. But most objectionable to the commercial faction, suffering as it was from financial difficulties following the collapse of 1837, was the preference given by the bank to MacNab on accommodation. The bank, it was charged in 1839, had accepted inadequate security for his liabilities, reputed to exceed those of all of Hamilton’s merchants combined. In response, the merchants, to maximize their voting power in the election of directors, attempted to have stock transferred among themselves and from out-of-province stockholders (who could not vote by proxy) to local supporters. The MacNab faction countered by challenging these share transfers in the Court of Chancery. Nevertheless, at the annual meeting of August 1839, the mercantile interests succeeded in electing a majority of sympathetic directors. Whyte, who had tried with some success to distance himself from MacNab, was re-elected president. But, faced with directors who opposed the policy exercised during his earlier tenure of office, he soon found himself in an untenable position and resigned from the board.
The mercantile group, with Ferrie now the bank’s president, proved itself as guilty as the MacNab faction in monopolizing the bank’s discounts of bills of exchange and promissory notes. In 1842 rumours were rampant in the press that the over-indebtedness of certain directors – Ferrie, Ritchie, and Richard Juson – threatened the bank. That year attempts were made on two fronts, as MacNab put it, to “capsize the needy crew” running it. Whyte and David Thompson were appointed to serve on a committee of shareholders to consider proposed revisions to the bank’s charter. Contention then moved into the provincial legislature, where Thompson, the member for Haldimand, chaired a committee, on which MacNab also served, with the same purpose. In September 1842 the committee proposed an amendment to the charter, authored by MacNab, which would have prevented the bank from discounting any “paper bearing the signature or indorsement of the President, or of any Firm or Co-partnership of which he may be a member.” Nothing, however, came of this challenge.
At his death in 1843 Whyte had attained a comfortable and highly respected position in Hamilton. He was well connected in London, England, and on occasion was able to provide MacNab, for example, with introductions to his acquaintances. Whyte’s home, Barton Lodge, built in 1836 on the brow of the escarpment overlooking Hamilton, was one of the town’s finest villas, and his library of more than 1,000 volumes must have been among the largest in the area. His estate was substantial. In a letter to his sister-in-law in 1827, Whyte, apart from calling himself an “inveterate snuff user,” referred to his status as an “expatriated old Batchelor”; however, in his will he bequeathed property to his “reputed son,” John Whyte of Jamaica. A Presbyterian, Whyte thought enough of the Reverend Alexander Gale* to leave him his silver plate. Besides his home, which was inherited by his brother, John Lionel, he owned real estate in Harwich Township and Picton, both in Upper Canada, and in Jamaica. He had £1,750 in Bank of Upper Canada stock and another £227 in unclaimed dividends. He maintained a cash credit in excess of £200 at the Gore Bank, but possessed only £100 in stock. He also held stock worth £320 in the British America Fire and Life Assurance Company and had lent more than £1,000 to various individuals.
Like other members of the gentry faced with few opportunities in Great Britain, Whyte had turned to the colonies. With capital brought from Jamaica, he was able to make substantial investments in the new financial institutions of Upper Canada and, thereby, to attain a prominence in finance and a standing in society which would not have been possible in the old country.
AO, RG 1, C-IV, Cayuga Township, concession 1 (North Talbot Road), lots 3–6; RG 22, ser.155. Haldimand Land Registry Office (Cayuga, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, North Cayuga Township, concession 1 (North Talbot Road), lots 3–6 (mfm. at AO). HPL, Clipping file, Hamilton biog. PAC, MG 24, D18. Burke’s landed gentry (1914), 453. DHB. G.B., WO, Army list, 1808, 1813, 1815. D. R. Beer, Sir Allan Napier MacNab (Hamilton, Ont., 1984). Victor Ross and A. St L. Trigge, A history of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, with an account of the other banks which now form part of its organization (3v., Toronto, 1920–34), 1: 173, 177–80, 205–8, 214.