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YOUNG, JOHN, merchant, business promoter, and manufacturer; b. 30 Jan. 1808, Galston, Ayrshire, Scotland, youngest son of James Young, merchant in Galston, and Margaret Mason; d. 20 March 1873, Hamilton, Ont.

In 1825, after finishing his education in Galston, John Young opened a small hardware business in nearby Kilmarnock with his brother James. Seemingly it did not prosper, and Young soon sought other employment. In 1828 he secured a post with Pollok, Gilmour and Company, Glasgow shipowners and timber merchants [see John Gilmour], who sent him to clerk in their new Montreal branch, William Ritchie and Company. William Ritchie* decided in 1832 to open a branch in Hamilton, which, though a small community, seemed best located to capture the trade of Upper Canada’s rapidly developing west. To run the new store, he chose John Young, whose ambition, ability, and, perhaps, modest capital made him an ideal manager. The business, known briefly as Young and Weir, then as John Young and Company, retailed dry goods, groceries, and hardware, sought wholesaling business in the west, and bought or solicited consignments of wheat, flour, staves, and ashes for William Ritchie and Company.

The west grew rapidly; Hamilton’s population, reflecting this growth, doubled twice in five years, and Young, with his strong financial support, took full advantage of his opportunities. But then his senior partners quarrelled, and the future became uncertain. In 1840, Peter* and Isaac Buchanan*, Toronto’s leading wholesalers, were establishing a Hamilton branch; to strengthen its management and remove a competitor, they asked Young to join them. He quickly accepted, for Isaac Buchanan had full financial support in Glasgow and offered the opportunity of certain expansion. In June 1840 Isaac Buchanan and Young opened Buchanan, Harris and Company, whose store Peter Buchanan described as “the largest establishment in British North America.”

Young’s capital in 1840 totalled $22,000. During his association with the Buchanans the business continued to grow with the west and his capital increased to well over $120,000. In the 1850s, Young and the Buchanans’ Montreal partner, James Law, sought greater recognition in the firm. Increasingly heated conflict with the Buchanans ensued, and late in 1853 Young and Law withdrew from the Buchanan firms to establish Young, Law and Company in Hamilton and Glasgow, and Law, Young and Company in Montreal. Glasgow, where both men were well known in mercantile circles, was their centre for finance and buying; their Hamilton outlet, under Young, sold wholesale groceries and dry goods; and the Montreal firm, under Law, sold wholesale groceries and hardware, dealt in Upper Canadian produce, and forwarded goods to Hamilton. Prosperity during the next three years, the peak of the 1850s boom, enabled Young and Law to establish their business solidly.

Like other successful merchants in Canada, Young was anxious to develop new financial institutions. A large shareholder in the Gore Bank, he was elected to its first board in 1836. He resigned his directorship in 1837 to protest lending policy, gained re-election after the crisis of 1837–38, but resigned in the early 1840s to save his own business reputation after again failing to force the Gore to alter its policy of lending heavily to its own directors. In 1847 he took the leading part in founding the Canada Life Assurance Company; for the next 20 years he was its vice-president and then, for five years, its president.

Although Young subscribed to the abortive London and Gore Railroad Company in 1834 and, through his connection with the Buchanans, played some part in the promotion of its successor, the Great Western, railways were not one of his central interests until 1856. Then, discontented British stockholders, seeking to consolidate the Great Western, began a revolution in the Great Western Railway Company. They asked Young, a minor shareholder untainted by previous involvement, to become vice-president of the railway and chairman of its Canadian board. He held both posts for ten years and was also a director of the Hamilton and Lake Erie Railway. In 1850, Young organized the Hamilton Gas Light Company, and for the next 23 years he was its president. He was a member of the executive of the Hamilton Board of Trade from its founding in 1845 until his death, and served as president from 1846 to 1852 and again in 1857–58.

In 1835, Young married Anne Coleman, daughter of an English gentleman farming at Paris, Upper Canada, and had several children by her. He captained a militia company in 1837. As his family, wealth, and social standing grew during the 1840s, he built Undermount, a large home on the newly fashionable mountainside of Hamilton. Outside business, his leading interest was the Church of Scotland. In 1833 he helped found St Andrew’s Church in Hamilton and, in the 1850s, he contributed heavily to its building fund; for many years he was its trustee and senior elder. He helped to found in Hamilton the Mechanics’ Institute, the Mercantile Library Association, and the Protestant Orphan Asylum. Young never took an active role in politics; although he was friendly with Allan MacNab*, he rejected compact Toryism and was always a moderate Conservative.

Like all businesses in Upper Canada, Young’s was hard hit by the commercial crisis in 1857–58. After the crisis, Hamilton’s trade failed to revive and the city’s challenge to Toronto and Montreal as a wholesaling centre was over. Young, Law and Company wrote off much capital, but the firm survived, and, by 1866, Young was ready to retire from trade. Three employees, Alexander Thomson, William Birkett, and John Bell, took over the dry goods business, and the grocery business was wound up completely. Young now turned to manufacturing, taking over Joseph Wright’s Dundas Cotton Mills. This transition was most unusual for someone of Young’s mercantile eminence, and it must be assumed that he acted to rescue tied-up capital, probably invested originally by Young, Law and Company as short-term commercial credit which Wright could not repay. Young, Law and Company continued in being, as manufacturers instead of traders.

By 1873, Young was said to have succeeded as a manufacturer, and he remained president of Canada Life and the Gas Light Company. At the time of his death he was at the head of Hamilton’s business community, a community whose growth he had done much to foster.

Douglas McCalla

Hamilton Public Library, A. W. Roy, “Newspaper clippings scrapbook,” 13. PAC, MG 24, D16 (Buchanan papers). City of Hamilton, Directories, 1853, 1856, 1858, 1862, 1865–66, 1870, 1871–72, 1872–73. City of Hamilton and county of Wentworth, Directories, 1867–68, 1868–69. Great Western Railway of Canada, Report of the directors, 1852, 1856–66. Scobie & Balfours Canadian almanac, and repository of useful knowledge . . . (Toronto), 1850–52. M. F. Campbell, A mountain and a city, the story of Hamilton (Toronto, 1966). A. W. Currie, The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (Toronto, 1957). C. M. Johnston, The head of the lake, a history of Wentworth County (Hamilton, Ont., 1958). John Rankin, A history of our firm, being some account of the firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Coand its offshoots and connections, 1804–1920 (2nd ed., Liverpool, 1921). Ross and Trigge, History of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, I. [W. J. Shaw], A century of service; StPauls Church (Presbyterian), Hamilton, Ontario (Hamilton, Ont., 1933). G. R. Stevens, Canadian National Railways (2v., Toronto, 1960),I. J. R. Holden, “Historical data re state and church in the county of Wentworth,” Wentworth Hist. Soc. Papers and Records (Hamilton, Ont.), III (1902), 44–71.

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Cite This Article

Douglas McCalla, “YOUNG, JOHN (1808-73),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/young_john_1808_73_10E.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/young_john_1808_73_10E.html
Author of Article:   Douglas McCalla
Title of Article:   YOUNG, JOHN (1808-73)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   February 20, 2024