Biography of Hon. William McMaster
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He who possesses a good name, a well earned reputation for probity, integrity, and high moral character, and of whom it can be said that all he has attained is attributable to perseverance and pluck, individual enterprise and sagacity, is far worthier a place in this volume than he who simply boasts a long genealogical record.
In this liberal age and country, ancestry, no matter how ancient or honorable, amounts to little in comparison with personal worth. Such a man, possessing these qualities, is the subject of our sketch, whose present high position, commercially, socially, and politically, is almost exclusively due to his own indomitable energy, coupled with abilities above the average, and an amount of tact and shrewdness in business affairs such as few possess. He has been fortunate because he has known when and how to use to the best advantage, that flood in the tide of men’s affairs, which the immortal bard has truly said, comes, sooner or later, to all.
Mr. McMaster was born in the County of Tyrone, Ireland, where his father, the late William McMaster, was a linen merchant, on the 24th of December, 1811. He was educated at a private school, the best the neighborhood afforded, presided over by a Mr. Halcro one of the most eminent teachers in the North of Ireland.
In 1833, bidding farewell to his native land, he set sail from Londonderry, bound for more promising fields, where the fruits of honest industry would be more apparent. Perhaps he had high aspirations, but however great his hopes, they were certainly below the realization, for long before reaching the biblical limit of man’s three score years and ten, he succeeded in making his name familiar in almost every household, as one of the greatest of our merchants and bankers. In other fields than finance and commerce, he has also been honored as few others have been who did not make politics a business, for he has filled, at various times, many important positions of public trust by appointment of the Crown.
He had intended to settle in the States, but was induced by the British Consul at New York, to come to Canada, where, at the age of twenty-two, he at once embarked in what proved a remarkably successful mercantile career. His first position was that of clerk in the wholesale and retail house of Mr. Robert Cathcart, in which he was admitted as a partner, after clerking little more than a year. He continued in partnership with Mr. Cathcart until 1844, when he instituted a wholesale dry goods house of his own. At that time Montreal was the principal distributing point both for Upper and Lower Canada, and it required time, energy, and the exercise of skill and caution, to secure any considerable portion of the wholesale trade for Toronto. The subject of this sketch was not the first to make the attempt to draw the trade into a new channel, but no one has done more than he to make the effort successful. Mr. McMaster’s operations were gradually extended, until the time came when it has been said that there were but few hamlets in Western Ontario whose merchants were not his customers to a greater or less extent. His rapidly expanding business soon required more space than was contained in the building in which he started, and he built and removed his stock to the building adjoining the Bank of Montreal. His nephews were at this time associated with him under the firm name of William McMaster and Nephews, and within a few years more their business had grown to such proportions that they were again compelled to seek more commodious quarters, and they erected the handsome edifice on Front Street, near Yonge, now occupied by A. R. McMaster and Brother, who succeeded the old firm on the retirement of Mr. McMaster to devote his whole time to other pursuits. Since then his attention has been directed almost wholly to purely financial transactions, for which his intellect seems to have been by nature peculiarly fitted, for no matter how varied have been the interests which demanded his attention they have always been within the scope of his master mind.
Among the many positions which he was called upon to fill, may be briefly mentioned the following: Director of the Ontario Bank and of the Bank of Montreal; President of the Freehold Loan and Savings Company; Vice-President of the Confederation Life Association, and Director of the Isolated Risk and Farmers’ Insurance Company. He is one of the organizers and heaviest stockholders of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and was elected its first President. During its prosperous career of nearly twenty years Mr. McMaster has retained his responsible position and no small share of the Bank’s success is due to his tact, shrewdness, and financial experience qualities which are more indispensable in banking on a large scale than in any other business. For many years he was Chairman of the Canadian Board of the Great Western Railway, an office by no means desirable or satisfactory, as his colleagues were in a position to carry such means as they saw fit, the only effectual way of preventing them being an appeal to the English Directors. When the growing dissatisfaction of the shareholders with the condition of the road led to a change of management, the Canadian Board was abolished, and when the English Board was elected, Mr. McMaster was the only Canadian retained. This honor indicates that his conduct as Chairman of the extinguished Board was regarded with much favor in England.
In politics he has always been a moderate Liberal, and though an interested observer of public events, he took no active part in political life until 1862, when he was elected to represent the Midland Division, which embraced North York and South Simcoe, in the Legislative Council of Canada. The members of that body had at first held their appointment from the Crown, but by a change of the constitution, effected in 1856, the elective system was introduced into the Council, the members of which were to hold office for eight years. Mr. McMaster was with difficulty persuaded to contest the seat, but having consented, prosecuted the canvass with such zeal as to astonish both friends and foes by the magnitude of his majority. Before the time came round for another election, Confederation was an accomplished fact, and the Dominion Senate was substituted for the Legislative Council, and he was one of the Senators, to represent Ontario, called by Royal Proclamation, May, 1867. In the Senate, as he did in the Council, he still continued to give the country the benefit of his liberal views and large experience, by attentive consideration of all measures calculated to benefit the public.
Senator McMaster has also found time to devote much attention to educational, social, and religious interests. In 1865 he was appointed a member of the Council of Public Instruction, and for ten years represented at the Board the Baptist Church, of which he is a prominent member. Since 1873 he has been a member of the Senate of Toronto University, having been nominated by the Lieutenant-Governor. His most practical work in the interest of education, however, was in connection with the Canadian Literary and Theological Institute, at Woodstock, of which he has been a very liberal supporter. He gave twelve thousand dollars to the building fund, and has continued by most generous annual donations to assist in meeting the current expenses of the Institution. This valuable Institution is now to be moved to Toronto, where a building is to be erected for its accommodation, to which Mr. McMaster contributes the further large sum of sixty thousand dollars. It remains to be mentioned his liberality in support of religious and church affairs, wherein his open hearted generosity is unsurpassed, affording a commendable example to others. Some time ago the congregation to which he belongs decided to erect a new and more commodious edifice on the corner of Jarvis and Gerrard Streets, one of the costliest and handsomest in Toronto, which will, as long as it stands, remain a memorial of Senator McMaster’s liberality, and of that of the equally liberal minded lady who has been his wife since 1871. Their joint contributions to the building fund amounted to over $60,000, and but for this large sum the undertaking would probably never have been commenced, or successfully carried out. Other worthy objects have also claimed a share in his liberality: the Upper Canada Bible Society, a purely non sectarian institution, of which he is Treasurer, receives his earnest support, both by liberal contributions and personal services. The Superannuated Ministers’ Society of the Baptist Church of Ontario, which he was mainly instrumental in founding, and of which he is President, owes its highly prosperous condition very largely to his liberality and excellent management.
Senator McMaster has been twice married; first in 1851, to Mary Henderson, of New York City, who died in 1868; and in 1871 to his present wife, Susan Melton, widow of the late James Fraser, of Newburgh, New York State.
In stature, Senator McMaster is somewhat above the medium height, with a physical development that favorably compares with his strong mental activity; with an intelligent countenance, friendly and expressive, through which is reflected a mind well stored with useful knowledge; and with a disposition generous and hospitable, he dispenses his great wealth with a free and bounteous hand when he deems the object a worthy one, and is alike beloved and respected by a wide circle of friends.