Sir Hugh Allan (1810-1882)

Kt., of Montreal; Chairman of the Allan Shipping Line

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He was born in Scotland at Saltcoats, Ayrshire. He started work in 1823 at the counting house in Greenock used by his father who four years before had started what would become the famous Allan Shipping Line. He was afterwards apprenticed to a grain merchant in Montreal and in the employ of Millar, Edmonstone & Co., he acted as agent to the Allan Line back in Scotland. By 1835, he had become a senior partner in his firm that already had the largest shipping capacity in Montreal. As Allan furthered its interests into shipping, railways and banking, the firm became, "as good as a bank". From 1863, in partnership with his brother Andrew, Edmonstone & Allan became known as H & A Allan, of Montreal - a key cog in the Allan family's transatlantic empire.

In 1856, he established the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company (marketed as a Canadian firm, but financed by his family in Scotland) that wrested the Royal Mail contract from Samuel Cunard and won government contracts to transport many thousands of immigrants to Canada, cementing Allan's reputation as an empire-builder. But, in 1862 the British Secretary of War sued when it was discovered that Allan was charging five times more than his competitors to transport British troops and military equipment. His response was to seize the military cargoes, holding on to them until the suit was settled.

Having become an enthusiastic railway promoter and a key member of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) syndicate, he was forced to resign when it was discovered in 1873 that he had bribed Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in what was known as the "Pacific Scandal" that brought down the government - an ultimately costly resignation.

In 1864, he established the Merchant's Bank of Canada that funded his further sizeable ventures into communications, manufacturing and mining. He served as its President until his death, loaning himself money while paying himself interest; and, with offices in New York and London the Merchant's Bank quickly gained a reputation as one of the most aggressive on the continent. Among other notable presidencies, Allan was President of the Montreal Board of Trade and President of the Montreal Telegraph Company.

In 1871, he was knighted by Queen Victoria herself for his role in populating the British Empire and the development of ocean steam navigation in Canada. While he was no more corrupt than other capitalists of his era, there were an inordinate number of complaints filed against him at the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour to Capital in Canada: In his factories and mills, children as young as ten worked 12-hour days, barefoot through winter, earning just a dollar for a 6-day week which was even then held back for fines. They were whipped by their overseers, confined to 'the blackhole' for losing time and "apprentices were virtually slaves". Aside from child labour and low wages, other complaints highlighted unsafe working conditions and poor quality drinking water.

Hugh was married at Montreal in 1844 to Matilda, daughter of John Smith, a Scots-born dry goods merchant. Hugh's brother, Andrew, had married Matilda's elder sister and through the Smiths the brothers counted Hartland St. Clair MacDougall as their brother-in-law. Hugh and Matilda were the parents of eight daughters (to whom he willed £150,000 each) and four sons of whom his principal heir was Sir Montagu Allan who received half of the remainder of his estate (roughly £3.5-million) as well as the family home, Ravenscrag, that he extended to 72-rooms. The Allan's summered at Belmere, travelling to and from Montreal on their steam-powered paddlewheeler, Ormond.

Sir Hugh died at 27 St. Andrews Square, Edinburgh, while on a visit to his daughter, Lady Phoebe Houstoun-Boswell. His remains were brought back to Montreal where he is buried. By then, the Allan Line was said to be the largest private shipping firm in the world, but the title was in fact held by the Wilson Line of Hull in England who had 100+ ships in 1869. Hugh had lived just long enough to see the Allan Line claim two firsts: they put the first steel-hulled ship on the Atlantic (Buenos Ayrean, 1880) and built the first ship with bilge keels (Parisian, 1881). His businesses were ably, if less aggressively, continued by his brother, Andrew. Yet, despite leaving a fortune of circa £8-million, unlike other Scots millionaires in Montreal such as Lords Strathcona and Mount Stephen, Hugh's lifetime contribution to charity amounted to an insignificant £500. Today, the Allan name in Montreal is only remembered through the philanthropy of his son, Sir Montagu, who was at the helm when the Allan Line was sold and the Merchant's Bank collapsed. Like his brother, Andrew, Hugh's only grandsons to carry the Allan name died without children. 
Contributed by Mark Meredith on 07/11/2018 and last updated on 13/01/2024.
Portrait of Sir Hugh Allan, 1885. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada; The Canadian Dictionary of National Biography, by Brian J. Young; 'Sir Hugh Allan and his House on the Hill' by Bernard Epps for The Record, March 30, 1984.