A Legacy of Character

The story of the Molson family, business builders for 150 years

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY March 1 1936

A Legacy of Character

The story of the Molson family, business builders for 150 years

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY March 1 1936

A Legacy of Character


The story of the Molson family, business builders for 150 years

ONE HUNDRED and fifty years ago—eighty-one years before Canadian Confederation—an English youth founded a business in Montreal.

John Molson was his name. The business he founded was a brewery from which was to grow other enterprises; enterprises meaning much to the development of a Canada in which Montreal was then a three-day postroad journey from Quebec.

John Molson also established a family.

The brewery is still where he built it. His direct descendants have, throughout a century and a half, operated it continuously. And the Molson family is known throughout the Dominion of today as having steadily upheld a legacy of character.

One hundred and fifty years ago, when, in a field on the edge of that fur-trading town, John Molson built his brewery, Canada’s population was 113,000. Montreal’s 8.000 citizens lived within fortified walls.

War with the American colonies was only three years past, George III was King of Great Britain, Louis XVI was King of France, and it was twenty-nine years before Wellington and Napoleon were to meet at Waterloo.

Montreal has grown and surrounded John Molson’s brewery. The road which passed by it is no longer the Quebec Post Road; it has changed its name twice, is now Notre Dame Street. But though the old brewery has almost disappeared—its vaulted stone cellars are still in existence—with modern buildings replacing it, only Molsons, five of them, have been its heads. It remains the product and property of one family.

This is not an imitation of Philip Guedalla. Neither is it a “success” story. It is the tale of a family, the Montreal Molsons, who through four generations have builded an enterprise and family fortune and wrought them into a tradition perhaps unparalleled on this continent. A family which, defying the adage “three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves,” has given Canada business leaders, legislators, philanthropists, soldiers; which built the first steamboat and helped pioneer the first steam railway in British North America; which gave directors to Canada’s first bank 112 years ago, later founding a bank of its own; which has helped establish churches, colleges, hospitals; which today, despite a century and a half of economic revolution, maintains within itself the first business it founded, its members among the most virile of our industrial captains.

An epic in business, it is primarily a study in character. One hundred years after the founding of the Molson

fortune, John H. R. Molson, on his deathbed, dictated this letter for the guidance of his family:

“The Molson family has maintained and preserved its position and its influence by steady, patient industry, and every member should be a real worker and not rely upon what it has been.

“Live within your income no matter how small it may be. Permanent wealth is maintained and preserved by vigilance and prudence and not by speculation.

“Wealth will not take care of itself if not vigilantly cared for.”

Thirty-six years later, Herbert Molson, present head of the family, of the fourth generation, which is richer, more numerous and more powerful than its predecessors, was able to add :

“We live in an age when the possession of a distinguished ancestry brings little but an obligation to more

than ordinary service; and those alone have any right to pride in their forebears who use the talents and the position which they have inherited for the good of their fellowmen.”

With this key to the Molson character, which sounds like sainthood but isn’t, we may begin their story.

On June 22, 1782, about the time Captain Bligh was setting out with his Bounty, a vessel, part of the “English Quebec Fleet,” arrived at Bic, landed there John Molson. an English lad of eighteen years hailing from Lincolnshire. The Lincolnshire Molsons were a family of substance with some means and property, and John Molson, orphaned but inheritor of a small estate, had come to Canada in quest of fortune. Montreal, to which he found his way, was almost entirely French-Canadian, echoes of the Conquest still upon it. Whether young Molson visioned its strategic importance from a business standpoint or merely had the Englishman’s tenacity, isn’t important. What matters is that three years later, when he had come of age. he was returning to Lincolnshire to wind up his estate; had become the owner of a malthouse and brewhouse in Montreal bought at a sheriff’s sale,” plus 400 acres in the State of Vermont. The business which was to remain and grow with the Molson family through 150 years had been launched.

Success at first was slow in coming. John Molson had trouble winding up his Lincolnshire properties, was pressed hard for money to maintain his new business. Luckily, he had begun modestly. His diaries show that on September 1, 1786, the first lot of Canadian barley for the season had come in from L’Assomption, at a cost of “five pounds or twenty dollars” for forty-one bushels: that a month later he had steeped thirty bushels of barley for the first time; also that one Christopher Cook entered his employ “at four dollars a month.”

And John Molson, in modern parlance, could “take it.” Buying logs and hogsheads from French-Canadians, often on credit, he toiled night and day, and three months later was writing:

“The speculation is now beginning to show in good ale and table beer—orders are by one-half more than can execute. There is nothing less required than enlarging the office which will brew only four hogsheads per week full employed.”

The “office” was enlarged. John Molson. disposing of his Lincolnshire properties one by one, used the money to develop his brewery. By 1788 he had bought the forty-foot lot west of his original property and, like it, running from what is now Notre Dame Street to the river; a year later, property on the other side with a ninetv-six-foot width. In the meantime he had courted, won and married Sarah Ineley Vaughan, had become the father of three sons, John, Thomas and William.

Montreal in these years cradled stirring history. The year 1783 had seen the founding of the North West Company, in opposition to the Hudson’s Bay Company; 1785 had brought the Beaver Club, whose magnificent festivities were among the most picturesque in the furtrading story. The Gazette, founded by Fleury Masplet, the printer whom Benjamin Franklin had brought to Canada in his attempt to seduce Canada from British allegiance, had turned from French to bilingual, and Loyalists from the States and Scotsmen from Scotland

were settling in the city. Montreal was changing from a seigneurial, local and almost feudal centre of commerce to the beginnings of the world-wide trade of the present day. And it was becoming English-speaking.

Molson’s business prospered with Montreal; so much so that by 1806 John Molson was writing D’Arcy Boulton (builder of the house in Toronto subsequently occupied by Goldwin Smith and now used as the Civic Art Gallery) at York about the purchase of land in Upper Canada for the launching of another brewery there. If the enquiries came to nothing it was because Molson, tasting of success, sought bigger worlds to conquer.

Canada’s First Steamship

CANADA was entering on the era of the “tall ships.” In the Maritimes, descendants of seafaring Loyalists, including the ancestors of Richard Bedford Bennett, were building the famed “clippers” which roamed the Seven Seas. Within a few years, Montreal, conscious of its maritime significance, had as many as four shipyards, was launching ships of from 200 to 250 tons.

The Molsons, father and son (John Molson, Jr.), watched the launching of these ships. Seemingly alone, or alone in Canada, they began pondering a question which was to revolutionize navigation—the application of steam power to the propulsion of vessels.

Over in the United States in 1807, Robert Fulton’s first steamship had sailed from New York to Albany. Down on Lake Champlain a year later the Winans brothers had launched the Vermont, operating her on the Richelieu to St. Johns in the summer of 1809. John Molson, jealous of the St. Lawrence’s position as a gateway to the North American continent, perceived the significance of developments in the Republic. He began planning a steamboat of his own.

The plan carried. Just how Molson financed his enterprise and how he built his ship, the records don’t tell. What

they do tell is that he built the Accommodation in Montreal in the winter of 1808-9, launched her the following summer, sailed her to Quebec in thirty-six hours in November that same fall. She was not merely the first steamboat to be built in Canada; she was the first steam vessel in the world to be completely built outside Great Britain, the engines of all her predecessors, including the steamboat of Robert Fulton, having been built by the British firm of Boulton and Watt.

John Molson didn’t stop with the Accommodation.

Instead, he put larger engines in the vessel, which plied between Montreal and Quebec; began correspondence with Robert Fulton; applied to the Legislature for exclusive rights to build and operate ships on the St. Lawrence—an application that was refused. By 1812 he had launched the Swiftsure, biggest steamboat afloat in New World waters.

Launching of the Swiftsure was a great national event. Canada was now at war with the United States, with British supremacy on the North American continent in peril. John Molson, the immigrant boy of thirty years before, providing speedier transport for His Majesty’s troops and supplies, was the “Man of the Hour.” As the Swiftsure slid down into the St. Lawrence the GovernorGeneral of Canada stood at attention, a band crashed out “Rule Britannia,” the thunder of nineteen guns shook the air. In May, 1813, the Swiftsure sailed proudly into Quebec, after a trip lasting 22 hours, with American prisoners of war.

The Molsons not only built ships; they navigated them as well. Master of the Swiftsure was John Molson’s son, William, not vet twenty years of age; John Molson himself being a captain in the Fifth Battalion of the Select Embodied Militia, and his eldest son, John, a member of the Royal Montreal Troop of Cavalry. The Molsons had begun that military service w'hich was to be continued by their descendants a hundred years later.

With the coming of peace and for decades afterward, the Molsons pursued their steamboat activities; the “Molson Line” became known over the North American continent. John Molson was not merely the prosperous brewer now, but, to Lower Canada, the “Bourgeois des Steamboats. By 1816 he had a seat in the Legislative Assembly and his ships dominated the St. Lawrence. Yet, steep as had been his climb and brilliant, it was but the prelude to other and even more challenging achievements in the Molsons’ stirring story. John Molson, combination of practical visionary and two-fisted fighter, went on to new conquests.

To the Canadian of those days the West meant Upper

Canada or Canada West, and the “Far West” meant Illinois and Indiana. The Saskatchewan meant little more to him than the Yangtze-Kiang. But although the Far West was not under his own flag, it dominated his thoughts as greatly as the North-West dominated the thoughts of his grandchildren half a century later. Canada sought its share of the Western trade. The Canadian provinces were thinly peopled, their revenues scanty, their credit low, but the example of New York, which had built the Erie Canal, stirred them to an effort to remove the barriers to navigation in the St. Lawrence, to hold the east-bound traffic of Upper Canada itself. John Molson, the pioneering spirit strong in him, turned his mind to railways.

In the ’twenties and ’thirties the Molsons operated, in connection with the Laprairie ferry service, a line of freight and passenger stages to the Richelieu River above the Chambly Rapids, establishing connection with Lake Champlain. This stage line was just the kind of link between two waterway systems which was considered the most suitable field for railway service in the early days of the steam locomotive. John Molson, hearing of the successful experiment of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1829, conceived the idea of the first steam railway in British North America.

In 1832, two years after the completion of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, a charter was granted by the Legislature of Lower Canada to the Company of the Proprietors of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, of which John Molson was the leading spirit, for a line from Laprairie on the St. Lawrence to St. Johns, sixteen miles distant on the Richelieu River, just above the rapids. From St. Johns, transportation to New York was easily effected through the Richelieu to Lake Champlain and thence to the Hudson. This portage road promised to shorten materially the journey from Montreal to New York. More than that—and the tning uppermost in John Molson’s mind—it would prove the possibility of steam railway service in Canada; open up a new vista for the future.

Construction was begun in 1835, and the road opened for traffic in July, 1836. John Molson himself did not live to see the first train move—he died a few months before—but his was the genius and energy which conceived the project, and his sons remained active in the enterprise.

The opening of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad was as great a national event as the launching of John Molson’s Swiftsure a quarter of a century before. Papineau, already thundering for responsible government, was among those present, and a vast concourse of citizens, journeying from miles around, watched the first train set out on its way. The rails were of wood, with thin flat bars of iron spiked on. These curled up on the least provocation, whence came their popular name of “snake-rails.” At first horse power was used, but in 1837 the proprietors imported an engine and engineer from England.

The Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad was at first operated only in summer, when its services as a portage route were most needed. After a decade of moderately successful working it was decided to lengthen the rail and shorten the water section of the route. By 1852 the rails had been extended northward to St. Lambert, opposite Montreal, and southward to Rouses Point on Lake Champlain. Twenty years later this pioneer road was completely absorbed by the Grand Trunk Railway. For ten years it had been the sole steam railway in Canada. A monument to Molson enterprise.

The Molsons Stand Together

A FAMILY that works together is invincible,” wrote one of the Rothschilds. John Molson instilled that creed into his sons. Again and again in his letters he showed a remarkable clannishness, emphasized that the Molsons must find their strength within themselves.

Yet he held, and to an extraordinary degree, the confidence of the public and, above all, of the small farmers, mainly French-Canadians, who did business with him. Thus in his Le Bon Vieux Temps, Hector Berthelot wrote of him:

“Old inhabitants recall seeing him, around 1820, wearing a blue toque, sabots and a homespun suit. He stood at the door of his brewery and stopped all the farmers coming into the city with grain in order to purchase it. ‘Le Père Molson’ enjoyed great popularity among French-Canadians because of his frank bonhomie and the honesty he showed in all his transactions with them.”

And French-Canadians voted for him. He was Protestant, of the hierarchy of Montreal English-speaking respectability. Yet in the elections of 1827, when the incendiaries of passion, race and religion shot jet flames into the sky, John Molson, candidate in support of the Governor and the Legislative Council, had both French and Catholic supporters. In his closing years he was rewarded for his services to the Constitutional party by

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nomination to the Legislative Council, where he represented the Montreal equivalent of what is called St. James Street now.

American barons, up from poverty and obscurity, built marble mansions along Fifth Avenue. John Molson sought for his family the gracious life of the Old Land. Me bought a noble mansion—the building is still standing on the northwest corner of Sherbrooke and St. Lawrence Streets; made his ships the most palatial to be found anywhere in the world; promoted the first theatre to be built in Montreal.

When he died, his will disclosed much of his character. It provided that the brewery property should go to his grandson, John Molson, “but if he dies before twenty-one, then to the next grandson named John Molson.” As the oldest grandson, John, the son of John, Jr., was not trained to the brewery business, the property passed to the next grandson bearing that name, who was John H. R. Molson, oldest son of Thomas, who at the time of his grandfather’s death was but ten years of age. Until he was twenty-one the business was carried on by Thomas and William Molson, under a partnership agreement.

John Molson’s Sons

TOHN MOLSON’S brewery, with his J other enterprises, had passed to good hands. John Molson, Jr., who became Hon. John Molson the Younger, had his father’s courage and foresight, plus a flair for finance. First member of the family to engage in the new type of business represented by the chartered bank, he joined the board of directors of the Bank of Montreal in 1824; by 1836 was leader of the movement to introduce gas lighting, chairman of the committee of management of the Montreal City Gas Company. At the same time he was investing extensively in house property, meeting the demands of Montreal’s expansion, the while being the most jx)tent of English-speaking business leaders who, in those stirring political years, came vigorously to the defense of what they regarded as the British connection.

By 1842 John Molson the Younger was the largest holder of the obligations of the City of Montreal. Yet. no mere couponcutter, he remained deputy chairman of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad; was a warden of Trinity House, a corporation managing the affairs of the St. Lawrence River; a director of the Bank of Montreal. When he died in 1860, the fortunes of the Molson family greater than ever, he left behind him a record for public service and philanthropy surpassed by none of his contemporaries, j Thomas and William Molson, less 1 spectacular than John, nourished the Molson tradition. Thomas, most expert i of the family in brewing, remained manager of the business for years, retired from it only in 1861. But he had numerous other interests, business and philanthropic; was famed for his benefactions. William, the youngest of the three sons, who outlived his next older brother by twelve years, was the only one of the three to witness the ’ tremendous changes that came with Confederation. He had fought against the rebels of 1837, and through all the political, social and economic upheavals that came with the succeeding three decades he was a member of the Board of the Bank of Montreal; president of the Lake St. Louis & Province Line Railway; an original incorporator of the Grand Trunk Railway; president of the Molson’s Bank from its foundation until his death in 1875.

To be Concluded