Hon. William McMaster

Plot G, Lot 1
Mount Pleasant Cemetery

William McMaster, the son a linen-draper, was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, on December 24, 1811. He gained some experience as a clerk in an Irish mercantile house before heading to North America. Following a brief stay in New York, McMaster arrived in Toronto in 1833, and went to work as a clerk in the wholesale and dry goods firm of his uncle, Robert Cathcart. Within a couple of years, he was a partner in the firm, and, when Cathcart retired in July, 1844, he took over the business. McMaster’s skill in recognising opportunities and to his ability to move in time with important commercial trends did much to further his success. Decisions he made in 1844, to concentrate on wholesale dry goods and to move his company to Yonge Street, were shrewd ones. The dry goods trade, located at the southern end of Yonge Street, would prove to be one of Toronto’s most profitable lines. An enterprise such as McMaster’s fulfilled the requirements of a population clamouring for imported goods. In 1850 the business cleared $10,000, but apparently did not as yet rank among the largest general wholesalers in Toronto. The agents of R. G. Dun and Company reported McMaster’s wealth to be in the $300,000–$400,000 range in 1853 and in the $600,000–$800,000 range in 1859. McMaster resisted the temptation to expand beyond his financial resources and his caution enabled him to emerge from the recession of 1857 with his business intact. Early in his career he had been described by Dun’s agent as “probably the safest man in business in Toronto” and later reports repeated that his judgement could be relied upon for any credit he requested. By 1860, when the dry goods wholesalers had emerged as the wealthiest merchants in the city, McMaster’s company was considered by R. G. Dun to be “the largest Dry Goods Concern in Western Canada.” Having no children, McMaster had taken two of his nephews from Ireland, Arthur Robinson McMaster and James Short McMaster, into the business as bookkeeper and English buyer respectively. They became his partners in the firm William McMaster and Nephews on 1 March 1859 and J. S. McMaster took up residence in Manchester to oversee the English interests of the company. William McMaster entered politics in 1862 when he was elected as a Liberal to represent the Midland division in the Legislative Council. His sympathies lay with men such as George Brown and other Reformers concerned with the commercial expansion of Toronto and Canada West. He was drawn as well by their interest in measures to improve the position of evangelical Nonconformists, including his own Baptist co-religionists. In the spring of 1867 he served on the central executive committee of the newly revived Reform Association of Upper Canada and became a director of its Toronto branch. He received an appointment to the first dominion Senate and remained a member for the rest of his life. When he spoke in Senate debates, his comments were succinct and usually related to subjects that concerned him personally: banking and finance, bills affecting companies with which he was associated, and matters touching him as a Baptist. By the early 1860s William McMaster and Nephews, originally an “active, pushing” business, had come to be regarded as an old firm dealing with an established clientele. This change may well have led McMaster, who had spoken of retiring as early as 1859, to expand his commercial interests. He relinquished the management of the company in 1863, though retaining a large financial interest, reputedly $400,000, and the firm became known as A. R. McMaster and Brother. In the process of building up his business William McMaster had contributed markedly to Toronto’s metropolitan development and to its attempt to wrest control of the central Canadian economy from Montreal. He was an active member of the Toronto Board of Trade, having been on its council eight times by 1861, after which he left the representation of the McMaster interest to other members of the family. During the late 1850s and the 1860s he was also a director of the Ontario Bank, the Wellington, Grey and Bruce Railway, the Canada Landed Credit Company, and the Toronto and Georgian Bay Canal Company (after 1865 the Huron and Ontario Ship Canal Company). He was a member of the first board of directors of the North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company in 1858. The rivalry between Montreal and Toronto also played an important part in McMaster’s decision to pursue a banking career in the 1860s. Even though he accepted an appointment as a Toronto director of the Bank of Montreal in 1864, McMaster was distressed by the dominance of the bank in Canada West. Under the leadership of its general manager, Edwin Henry King, the bank was restricting the amount of credit available in Canada West by withdrawing capital to accommodate a constantly increasing business with the provincial government; in January 1864 the government transferred its account to the bank. Two years later, the Bank of Montreal was the only bank to take advantage of new legislation enabling banks to surrender their notes in favour of those issued by the government; it thus became the sole agent for issuing the government notes. In the uncertain days which preceded the failure of the Bank of Upper Canada in 1866 and the Commercial Bank of Canada in 1867, McMaster and the Toronto business community moved to arrest the growing control of the Bank of Montreal in Canada West. McMaster and Archibald Greer, the Toronto manager for the Bank of Montreal, after remonstrating in vain with the bank against these policies of credit restriction, withdrew from it to establish a bank designed to meet the credit needs created by King’s actions. The charter of the Bank of Canada, which had been inactive since 1858, was purchased, and in August 1866 amendments to this charter were obtained which changed the name to the Canadian Bank of Commerce and revised the required capital stock from $3,000,000 to $1,000,000. Unlike many of the banks proposed during the period, the Canadian Bank of Commerce had little difficulty in filling its initial subscription of shares. McMaster had brought to the new bank both the support of the Toronto business community and his own reputation as a shrewd businessman with private dealings on the New York and London money markets. His agents, Caldwell Ashworth in New York and J. S. McMaster, who moved his office to London’s financial district, took on the international business of the bank. By 1872 the Canadian Bank of Commerce had established a “large healthy business” and had built up a reserve fund of $1,000,000. In addition, it had absorbed the initial costs of opening new branches: 19 in Ontario, one in Montreal, and one in New York to facilitate “transactions in exchange.” Two years later when the province slipped into a recession the growth of the bank slackened but McMaster and his fellow directors met the situation with confidence. In July 1886 McMaster stepped down as president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce at its annual meeting, citing as reasons his poor health and the need for new men. His success in business and finance attracted numerous directorships for McMaster. The triumphs McMaster engineered in business and finance were augmented by the work he undertook on behalf of the educational and religious needs of the Baptist constituency of central Canada. Unquestionably McMaster placed a high premium on education. The senator generously aided the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute. He served on the senate of the University of Toronto after 1873 and represented Baptist interests on the Council of Public Instruction from 1865 to 1875, roles which earned him commendations from Egerton Ryerson, superintendent of education. In addition, he served for many years as treasurer of the Upper Canada Bible Society, a non-sectarian organisation. During his lifetime, McMaster supported a number of causes with large donations. As a member of Bond Street Baptist Church, McMaster helped finance their building of larger facilities at Jarvis Street Baptist Church. He also helped finance Beverley Street Baptist Church, which is now Toronto Chinese Baptist Church, and a number of other Baptist churches in the Toronto area as well as the building of Toronto Baptist College in McMaster Hall on Bloor Street. (Later it was renamed McMaster University funded by a large endowment upon his death). Through his wife, financing was also provided for the Hospital for Sick Children. McMaster served in the Canadian Senate from 1867 to 1887 as a Liberal. He died in Toronto on September 22, 1887 at the age of 75.

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