A Legacy of Character

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY March 15 1936

A Legacy of Character

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY March 15 1936

A Legacy of Character



WHILE the bank which for several generations bore the name of Molsons was not chartered until 1855, the Molson family had been bankers many years before. The Bank of Montreal

commenced business in 1817, and while the founder of the Molson family was not among its first directors, he was in 1319 a member of the larger board of the “Savings Bank,” which had its offices in the same building as the Bank of Montreal and was virtually a part of the same organization. Jast why John Molson was not among the first directors of the first Canadian chartered bank is not clear, but the reason may be guessed. All Molson enterprises up to that

date had been of the character that may be carried on by a wealthy family without issuing shares to the casual outsider. With a joint-stock bank one single individual or family could not maintain control; and the period held risk and uncertainty. At all events, it was not until seven years after its foundation that a Molson appeared on the directorate of the Bank of Montreal, and then, significantly enough, it was John, Jr., not John, Sr., who joined.

But, once joined with the Bank of Montreal, the Molson influence made itself felt. Two years after the election of John, Jr., the presidency of the Bank became vacant through the death of a friend and business associate of the Molsons, Samuel Gerrard. The times were difficult, with need for a strong hand at the helm, and John Molson, Sr., was prevailed upon to accept the office, his son quitting the Board to make way for him. Pie guided the destinies of the Bank until 1830 and remained on the Board until his death in 1836, when his son, John, was re-elected to the seat he had vacated ten years before. In 1853, John, with his brother, William, who had come to the directorate later, resigned to start Molsons Bank. Thus the name of Molson has been associated continuously with one or other of two chartered banks for 112 years.

But even while the founder of the Molson family was at the head of a chartered bank, the Molson family’s brewery firm performed many of the functions of a bank, and on a large scale. In those days little or no legislation governed the issue of notes payable on demand. Pleavy drain of gold and silver currency in and before the 1837 Rebellion caused a serious money shortage in the country, with all kinds of devices in the way of crude “money” issued by firms and individuals of all degrees of reliability and unreliability. The Molsons, enjoying the highest of credit, issued large

quantities of both demand notes and tradesmen’s tokens. A one dollar bill of the date 1837 bears the heading Molsons Bank, Lower Canada, and is numbered 2,098. The inscription is in both languages, and the English part reads: “Pay to the order of William Molson one dollar on demand, value received. Montreal, 15th Septr., 1837.” At the bottom the issuing firm is described as “Messrs. Thomas & William Molson Compy., Montreal.” Yet at this time there was no separate corporation with the title of Molsons Bank, and these bills rested on the general credit of the brewery firm and of the individual Molsons who composed it.

On October 1, 1855, came the Molsons Bank.

John and William Molson had previously resigned from the Bank of Montreal in 1853,

and received a resolution of congratulation from their late colleagues upon “having commenced a banking institution of their own under the new law.” William Molson was president and John Molson vice-president, and the first premises of the bank were at 19 Great St. James Street. Three years later, its operations having increased rapidly, it moved to a new building of its own on the same street, and by 1864 the bank, now one of the leading banking institutions in the country, built the stately edifice which still stands at St. James and St. Peter Streets, Montreal.

The times saw financial upheaval. The close of the Civil War, the struggles over Confederation, the adventures and risks of the new capitalism in a still frontier civilization —these had produced the severe commercial disturbances of 1867-70, and the Molsons Bank reduced its dividend rate in 1869, deciding at the same time to embark upon the branch banking business in Ontario, beginning with London. The venture proved successful, with further branches following in Owen Sound, St. Thomas and Sorel, and less than two years after the cut in the dividend the directors were not merely restoring the old rate but issuing half a million of new stock at a premium of five per cent, the while invading the banking field in Toronto, Morrisburg and Windsor. In the years following, with the exception of the difficult year of 1879, the career of the bank was one of steady, conservative progress.

In 1925, mergers being the order of the day, the Molsons Bank was acquired by the Bank of Montreal, purchase taking the form of two shares of Montreal and $10 in cash for even’ three shares of Molsons. It meant that the equivalent of one Molsons Bank share was worth about $170 at the time of exchange; and they rose to $280 in the high market for bank stocks in 1929.

The relations between the Bank of Montreal and the Molson family had been close for years before the amalgamation, Colonel Herbert Molson, the present head of the family, having joined the board of the Bank of Montreal in 1916. At the date of amalgamation, Frederick William Molson also joined the Bank of Montreal and was a director until his death in 1929. One hundred and twelve years after a Molson first joined Canada’s first bank, a Molson—Colonel Herbert—remains on its board.

Yet banking, like brewing and pioneering in steam transportation, did not end the Molson saga. The most epic chapter in the family’s story remained to be told.

A Family of Philanthropists

Æ OLSONS in their third generation showed no weaken-*-Yl ing of the family strain. Just as John Molson the First had been among the founders of the great Montreal General • Hospital, the second generation among the founders of McGill University, so the third generation strengthened the family tradition. Their benefactions alone, their contributions toward good causes, run like golden threads through the whole warp and woof of philanthropy in Montreal.

Most prominent figure of the third generation was John Henry Robinson Molson, eldest son of Thomas Molson. Nominated by his grandfather’s will to become the owner of the brewery buildings upon attaining his majority, he was educated at Upper Canada College, given benefit of travel. He entered into his inheritance in 1847, though the actual operation of the brewery remained for some years thereafter in the hands of his father. In 1863, upon the death of Thomas Molson, the brewery partnership was reorganized under the name of John H. R. Molson & Brothers, rapidly extending its activities, adding to them the refining of sugar.

And John H. R. Molson, like his father and grandfather, did not limit his horizons. He became a director of the Montreal Street Railway, of which he was one of the founders; a director of the Montreal City and District Savings Bank; a director of the Standard Life Assurance Company. Nor was he content to make money and

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A Legacy of Character

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hoard it. He gave generously to the Montreal General Hospital, of which he was a life governor, to the Verdun Protestant Hospital for the Insane, to the Fraser Institute; while his benefactions to McGill University—the Molsons are still contributing to it—were upon a scale so lavish, his interest in it so continuous and active, that he was offered the chancellorship, declining in favor of Donald Smith, later Lord Strathcona.

“Wealth will not take care of itself if not vigilantly cared for,” wrote John H. R. Molson on his deathbed. His brothers and their sons were loyal to that testament. The early Molsons had never resorted to the shady tactics which had built some of the great United States fortunes. Their descendants, the third generation of Molsons, never yielded to the follies of some of America’s nouveaux riches. At Delmonico’s in New York, throughout the ’seventies, some sons of industrial barons put gold bracelets in the napkins of their female dinner guests, put magnificent black pearls into their oysters, while cigarettes rolled into one hundred dollar bills were smoked as an authentic thrill. The Molsons, the fortune of their family accumulating steadily, shunned such prodigality. Not speculators or gamblers, never engaging in stock-jobbery, keeping the business of their founder strictly within their family, their outstanding characteristic was a sense of responsibility, a safeguarding of the culture and traditions which had come to them as a legacy. If the thing seemed heavily respectable and smug, it at least was better than profligacy.

As one follows the fan of the family through the third to the fourth generation, it is impossible to trace in detail their many and individual achievements. But there is scarcely a great permanent Montreal business institution today with which the Molson name is not connected, hardly a great Montreal public institution which has not known a Molson benefaction. Meanwhile the brewery business which John Molson founded 150 years ago remains with the fourth and fifth generations of Molsons,

Molsons in the Great War

THE PEOPLE here want to hear nothing now but fife and drum,” commented Jay Cooke somewhat gloomily in the American spring of 1861. About the same time, Judge Thomas Mellon of Pittsburgh, founder of “Mellon’s Millions, ” was sternly forbidding one of his sons to enlist for service in the line. The father’s counsel prevailed, and the son, James Mellon—like John Rockefeller, Pierpont Morgan, Armour, Gould, and the other gifted young entrepreneurs who were of proper age, sent substitutes to the draft armies of the Union, finding ways of displaying their patriotism without risking life or limb.

Different is the story of the Molsons. John Molson the First and his sons gave their services in the War of 1812, while their steamboats carried troops and war supplies between Montreal and Quebec. John Molson’s sons served in the Rebellion of 1837. But it was in the Great War that

the Molson flame of patriotism rose highest, when, in its earliest stages, no fewer than four Molsons were in the field, all of them simultaneously bearing the rank of captain.

The bare official records of the Molson family enlistments, appointments, promotions, wounds, decorations, are in themselves a proud story. Of individuals descended directly, on the father’s or mother’s side, from the founder of the Canadian family, with connections by marriage, there were thirty-four of Molson blood on active service. That they were fighting men all, and gallant, is told by the heroic fact that:

5 were killed in action

13 were wounded

2 won the D.S.O.

6 won the Military Cross

3 won the C.M.G.

1 won the Legion of Honor

1 won a K.C.B.

1 won the Croix de Guerre

1 was decorated by the U.S.


Few families in the Empire, surely, may claim a braver record.

The Molsons of Today

NARROW, somewhat shabby W Notre Dame Street East, in substantial stone and brick buildings, on the site where John Molson brewed his first hogsheads of ale 150 years ago, stands the Molson brewery today. There is modern machinery there now, modern methods of brewing, bottling and shipping beer, with production on a vaster scale, but the business codes and ethics of the first Molson remain, with the Molson hand upon everything, the old traditions undisturbed.

Through the Notre Dame Street entrance, the spot where John Molson used to stand in tuque and sabots in the 1780’s to chat with French-Canadians driving by with their grain, one finds oneself almost directly into the ground-floor offices of the brewery. One is struck at once by their drab simplicity. Great thick carpets, tapestries and oak desks, associated with captains of industry—none are here. They are as absent as those batteries of typists and secretaries, those efficiency “experts” and gadgets by which so many modem “go-getting” offices attempt to put on “side.”

Colonel Herbert Molson, C.M.G., M.C., head of the Canadian Molsons today, sits behind a modest, old-fashioned roll-top desk, which, except for a single telephone and a few scattered papers, has nothing upon it. Everything about the place is modest, conservative. For years and until a few months ago, the four Molsons in the brewery offices had one stenographer among them. There is no secretariat, no complicated telephone system, no array of dictaphones and bells. The bizarre and the blatant, those modem accessories which gleam and gloat—all are pleasantly absent. What one sees instead is solidity, taste, common sense.

That, and the contrast between an employer with direct personal contact with his employees and a business which is conducted through absentee control. The Molson brewery is in no sense a “soulless corjx>ration;” is hardly a business. It is

and feasting on the venison. The sight was much for him.

huiK watched them for quite a while from Colonei^ tree,” Kennedy’s story ends. “I into his Drew them all, but I didn’t want also step out intwj something to eat. I employees by their %ec[ feet 0f them and

Which explains, pt> all jumped up and sons have no labor troe. They told me to depression, there were no-jter, to throw off of work were distribute up my hands. So let go. If an employeven me some of mv went on just the same; il hem down to ^as provision for his family.! of the

older hands have grown, u'p with the business.

Conduct of the business—as the Molsons conduct it—is simple. There are no shareholders to be appeased, no dividends to be paid stockholders, no absentee owners seeking big gain. When the Molsons hold a directors’ meeting, the meeting is casual, seldom prearranged. It is a matter of the four of them dropping into the same office, chatting pleasantly, deciding what must be done. Every detail of the business is known minutely by each one of them.

And the fourth and fifth generation Molsons, like the generations before them, are more than brewers. Colonel Molson, among the first ciUzenship of Montreal, is head of the Mon’-real General Hospital, a governor of McGill, a director of the Bell Telephone Co* i.pany. To McGill, where he played K.yball and whence he was graduated aqoachelor of applied science, he gives rr jxh of his time, considerable of his monevj

The fcfnily has not grown “soft;” a fact it proved in the Great War, which it continues to prove in its devotion to work, in its interest in sport. Colonel Molson, hard worker for himself and for the public, finds time to attend McGill’s football matches, to help run Montreal’s famous Forum—of which he is a director—goes frequently to hockey matches, spends summer week-ends in his yacht or in the Laurentians. A governor of the Dominion Rugby Union, he is referred to sometimes as an “elder statesman of sport.”

This year, under Colonel Herbert Molson, the Molson Brewery is marking its 150th birthday. One hundred and fifty years, from George III to Edward VIII, through four generations, it has remained continuously in one family. It is something which, for this continent at any rate, is unique, perhaps unrivalled.

The key to it? It is found, one concludes, in the Molson combination of supreme values with material assets. John Molson the First was no medieval saint, and his successors have been business realists with their horizons bounded by hard facts, within which they have worked with single-minded purpose. But their secular moralities have been strong. Churchmen all, not in the pietistic sense but in the sense of belief in decent living, plus allegiance to integrity and to humanitarian instincts, they have been consistent supporters of good things—encouraging education, supporting charities and philanthropies; giving liberally of their substance toward noble ends. In a sentence, it is the story of a family which, above all, was taught to be responsible; which, prizing the trusteeship of a legacy of character, possesses what the world calls “background.”