“One should never make one's debut in a scandal. One should reserve that to give interest to one's old age.”
- Oscar Wilde
Sir Hugh Allan was an extremely successful man who drastically improved ship technology, led a highly lucrative company, and was even knighted for his services to British and Canadian commerce. His many accomplishments, however, are overshadowed by an unfortunate incident in 1873 when he was linked with a national scandal. As is so often the case, he is remembered not for his life, but instead for a brief encounter with the public’s outrage.
Allan was born and raised as one of those infuriatingly privileged straight, white, rich men. Second of five sons, Alexander Allan and Jean Crawford had Allan on September 29th, 1810 at Saltcoats (Strathclyde), Scotland. He was obviously groomed to be a profitable member of society from day one, and was quickly put to work in the family’s Greenock counting-house of Allan, Kerr and Company at age thirteen.
Only three years later, Allan immigrated to Canada on his father’s ship to Montreal. At 21 years old, he became commission agent in one of Montreal’s leading importers: Millar, Parlane and Company. Allan easily climbed the corporate ladder, rising in rank mostly due to family connections (Can you say “unfair advantage”?) and “access to capital” (Good old-fashioned bribes!). Four years later the newly renamed Millar, Edmonstone and Company named Allan a partner.
Allan was not just family connections and bribes, however. He also helped dramatically increase revenue when he suggested the building of small schooners to be used on the St. Lawrence river. He and his company also improved ship technology, introducing some of the first non-propeller steamers.
By 1859 Edmonstone, Allan and Company, as the company was then called, was named “one of the Wealthiest concerns in the Province,” “as good as a Bank,” and run by “active, pushing” men. At this time, Allan reported his capital investment in the company at £3,500,000. Four years later, the company was renamed once again, this time as H. and A. Allan.
Not everyone was impressed with Allan’s business style, however. Canadian Biography Online1 reports:
In 1862 the British secretary for war, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, brought suit against Allan for “exorbitant” and “enormous” charges in conveying military baggage at rates at least five times those of other carriers. Allan responded in a “rough” and “overbearing” manner, seizing the baggage until the case was settled.
H. and A. Allan was not Allan’s only concern, however. He was also president of the Montreal Telegraph Company and a founder of Merchants Bank of Canada. And that's not all! To top it off, Allan was an owner of Nova Scotia coal mines, and Quebec and/or Ontario tobacco, paper, textile, and steel plants. When the railway industry became a viable moneymaker, Allan did not hesitate to get into that business, either.
Allan’s company depended heavily on the government in many different ways (government contracts, improved navigation facilities, direct subsidies, troop-carrying, mail, etc), so he was quick to oblige to officials’ every whim. (He once built a schooner with a piano and a seasickness-proof bed that adjusted itself for an official) In fact, his knighting in 1871 wasn’t solely for his contributions to Canadian and British commerce; it was also for his kindness and accommodation of the Prince of Wales.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s election in 1872 brought forth an exciting new business opportunity. The Prime Minister’s favourite pet project, the Canadian Pacific Railroad, was on its way, but who would pick up the multi-million dollar contract? The government encouraged competition by offering 50 million acres of western lands and 30 million dollars to any company willing to fund this ambitious project. A Toronto-based company attempted to procure the contract for itself, but H. and A. Allan snapped up the rewarding bill for itself in the end.
But the victory was short-lived. Allan had kept connections with American investors, and the Canadian public frowned upon this. Macdonald forced Allan to break ties with them, but when he complied, the Americans were outraged. They sold confidential telegrams and letters to Macdonald’s opposition, the Liberals, which revealed Allan’s $360,000 funding of the Conservative election. He paid thousands of dollars to secure the railway contract, including bribing George-Étienne Cartier, Hector Langevin and the big man, Macdonald himself.
Allan’s plans for the railroad dissolved, as did Macdonald’s hold in office. The whole debacle was called the Pacific Scandal, and it destroyed Macdonald’s career, at least for the time being.
So where did Allan wind up? With a scandal like that, it could only mean one thing: dying broke, lonely, and full of regret... right?
Err... not quite. He’d gotten married back in 1844 to a Matilda Caroline Smith, and before his death 1882, they had a total of thirteen children: nine daughters and four sons. Actually, the scandal had very little impact on Allan’s career. His shipping company was still thriving, and remained in business until after his death.
Allan may be remembered in history for his scandal, but as with any life, there is always more to tell than just one story.
Bowers, Vivien. Garrod, Stan. Our Land: Building the West.