WITHALL, WILLIAM JOHN, businessman and politician; b. 22 Nov. 1814 in Jersey; m. first 8 Sept. 1841 Elizabeth LeVallée, widow of Peter Bott, at Quebec; m. there secondly 5 July 1883 Eleanor Pickard, widow of merchant Richard White Longmuir; d. 24 Jan. 1898 in Montreal and was buried two days later in Mount Hermon Cemetery at Sillery.
William John Withall received a rudimentary education in his native village. On 30 April 1826, at the age of 11, he arrived at Gaspé, Lower Canada, to visit his uncle, a fisherman who also cultivated a small plot and worked as a woodcutter in the winter to eke out an existence. William’s mother died shortly thereafter and he was obliged to remain there. On Sundays he took religious instruction and lessons in French from a Methodist clergyman.
Around 1832 Withall, who had been earning his own living since he was 16, decided to go to Quebec. On the way, he stopped at Saint-Thomas-de-la-Pointe-à-la-Caille (Montmagny) and turned his hand to 36 occupations, including those of teacher, fisherman, and shopkeeper. In 1835 he went back to Jersey and took a long trip in Europe. He finally agreed to return to Gaspé to take charge of a Jersey merchant’s fishing station and store. Two years later he bought in partnership a huge tract of land on the northwest arm of the Baie de Gaspé in order to build a sawmill. Fearing that he might not find a market for his lumber, he sold his share and in 1840 decided that he would move to Quebec.
That year Withall opened a grocery store at 95 Quai de la Reine. He thus came in contact with James Gibb Ross*, an employee of Gibb and Ross, which specialized in the wholesale and retail grocery trade. Withall’s enterprise prospered and he gradually made a place for himself in the Quebec business community. He expanded the scope of his activities and apparently began to speculate. In 1848 he was one of the trustees of the Wesleyan Methodist congregation. Two years later he was on the managing board of the Union Building Society; he also set up a candle factory at 73 Rue Saint-Paul in partnership with Andrew William Hood. The two owned another business of the same type in Montreal, which employed 30 men and produced 10,000 boxes of candles and 20,000 boxes of soap a year. In 1851 Withall bought the Enterprise, which he used as a ferry and tugboat. He put money into mortgages and took an increasing interest in maritime affairs.
During the 1860s Withall continued to gain prominence in Quebec business circles. From 1861 he was a director of the City Building Society, and he represented Saint-Pierre ward on the city council in 1865–66. He was working more closely than ever with Ross, and in 1866 he became president of the Quebec Marine Insurance Company, established in 1862 by Ross and some associates. In addition, that year he was one of the founders of the Quebec Leather Manufactory, which specialized in making kid leather. He was appointed a director of the Quebec Bank and became its vice-president in 1869 when Ross moved up to the presidency. The two men would direct the bank’s destiny for the rest of their lives. In 1868 Withall was a shareholder in the Quebec Rubber Company, which manufactured overshoes and other rubber articles. From then on, he and other capitalists endeavoured to base the development of the city of Quebec on initiatives centring on its port and on the manufacturing industry. He was vice-president of the St Lawrence Tow Boat Company in 1867 and of the Quebec Street Railway Company from 1868 to 1884; a member of the Quebec Harbour Commission from 1869 to 1874, he served as president of the Compagnie des Steamers de Québec et des Ports du Golfe from 1870 to 1880, and of the same firm under its new name, the Quebec Steamship Company, from 1881 to 1884.
On emerging from the long depression of the 1870s, which had had a drastic effect on the economy of Quebec, the business community made every effort to extend the city’s hinterland and to strengthen the manufacturing sector. In 1876 Withall became a director of the Quebec and Lake St John Railway, of which he and the Ross brothers were the largest shareholders; he served as its president from 1881 to 1885. In January 1877 he and John Ross bought the Quebec Rubber Company, which they renamed the North American Works. Withall was chairman of the board, became the company’s sole owner, and then in 1879 sold it to a Montreal group who were partners in the Canadian Rubber Company of Montreal. In 1881 he was one of the shareholders of the Canada Worsted Company, which manufactured woollen and cotton fabrics, and in 1883 he held shares in the Riverside Worsted Company, another textile firm.
Since he had no sons to help him, Withall brought his nephew Thomas Angelo Piddington from London, England. After sending Piddington to study at Thom’s Private Business Academy, Withall taught him the rudiments of business. He turned his candle factory over to him around 1870. Piddington became his agent and represented him on various boards of directors. They occasionally went into partnership, for instance when they set up a tannery in Bulstrode Township. In 1884 Withall put his nephew in charge of his interests and moved to Montreal. There he supervised the activities of the Quebec Bank and the Quebec Steamship Company, being vice-president of both. From then on he operated in the closed world of high finance, sitting on the boards of directors of the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, the Canadian Rubber Company of Montreal, the Royal Electric Company, the Mount Royal Incline Railway, and various other enterprises. He made investments in the United States and in British Columbian gold-mines.
Withall died in Montreal on 24 Jan. 1898 and his funeral was held two days later in the Methodist church at Quebec. His career is significant in several respects. It illustrates, on the level of the individual, the rise of a self-made man; on the social and economic level, the transition from capitalism focused on trade to capitalism focused on industry and finance; and, on a regional level, the inability of the Quebec business community to counter effectively the spectacular rise of Montreal.
ANQ-Q, CE1–68, 8 sept. 1841, 5 juill. 1883, 26 janv. 1898. AVQ, Finances, Bureau des cotiseurs, rôles d’évaluation et d’imposition. L’Événement, 26 janv. 1898. Montreal Daily Star, 25 Jan. 1898. Annuaire du commerce et de l’industrie de Québec . . . pour 1873, J.-C. Langelier, compil. (Québec, 1873), 65. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), 1: 520–21. Montreal directory, 1884–98. Quebec directory, 1847–84. Marcel Plouffe, “Quelques particularités sociales et politiques de la charte, du système administratif et du personnel politique de la cité de Québec, 1833–1867” (thèse de ma, univ. Laval, Québec, 1971).