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John Birrell, a successful merchant, doing a business in London for about thirty five years, and dying on the 15th of February, 1875, was a native of Lerwick, a town on the Shetland Islands, and was born April 12, 1814. His father was a Collector of Customs at Oban, Scotland. He received a good business education; spent some years as a merchant’s clerk in Glasgow, and about 1837 came to Canada, halting a short time in a store at Montreal, and then pushing west as far as Hamilton. There he clerked two or three seasons for Isaac Buchanan, and Young, Law and Co., and in 1840 settled in London.
He was a partner of Mr. Angus, the firm name being Birrell and Angus, until 1843, when he was alone in the dry goods business for about two years. Subsequently he formed a partnership with Adam Hope, who had removed hither from St. Thomas, a third person joining them, and the firm of Hope, Birrell and Co., did business for five or six years.
Mr. Birrell then opened, on Dundas street, a retail store, which was eventually merged into a wholesale house, on the south side of North, now Carling street. He was there burned out in 1863, and removed across the street to the large Craig building, which he soon purchased and where he traded until his demise. He was a man who watched his business very carefully and pushed ahead, his trade expanding as the country settled up. He was strictly honorable in his dealings with retail merchants, and usually made fast friends of parties with whom he had business transactions. At the same time, though very much absorbed in his business, he found time to give moral and material support to various local schemes of an important character.
He was President of the London, Huron and Bruce Railway, and was a leading supporter of that enterprise from its origin to its completion; was President also of the Huron and Erie Savings and Loan Society, and a Director of the Isolated Risks Insurance Company. Probably no man rejoiced more than he in the growth of the city of his adoption, or did more to encourage that growth.
Mr. Birrell was at one time President of the Liberal Conservative Association, and took much interest in politics, but was always more ready to help others into office than to urge his own claims.
His religious connection was with the Presbyterian Church, he being a Deacon of St. Andrew’s for a long period. He was generous hearted, kind to the poor, and highly respected by all classes.
While a resident of Hamilton, Mr. Birrell married Miss Maria Sunley, a native of England, and she has been the mother of ten children, seven of them surviving their father. The two sons, George S. and William H. Birrell, were early and carefully trained in the dry goods traffic, and are carrying on and extending the trade of the old firm of John Birrell and Co., favorably known throughout Western Ontario.
Two or three years after the death of Mr. Birrell (August 7, 1879), the London Daily Advertiser spoke as follows of the old firm and the present managers.
“For forty years Mr. Birrell had been connected with the dry goods trade of London, and he lived to see the wholesale interests he established grow with the growth of the city; to see it attain vigorous manhood, and he left in it a monument to his untiring business energy. The firm style remains the same, the co-partners being two sons of the founder of the house, Messrs. George S. and Wm. H. Birrell. The first named gentleman has been with the house for fifteen years, five years as an employee and ten as a partner; the latter has been a copartner for nine years. These gentlemen are thus thoroughly versed in the business; they have taken an active part in its development, and they now continue to give it their personal attention.”
Still later (April 12, 1879), the Commercial Review of Montreal thus spoke of the trade, growth, &c., of this highly reputable house.
“The trade which now reverts to this house has been the steady growth of years of close application. Increasing their facilities for supply with the increase of the population and wealth of the country, their splendid modern premises, located on Carling street, west of Talbot, have been but recently acquired. They consist of a substantial white brick edifice three stories and basement in height, and of compact appearance, having a frontage on the above street of about 125 by 190 feet deep, which gives four large flats for the storage of the large stock of goods they require to carry, and which comprises ample and complete departments of every material classified under the heading of general, fancy and staple dry goods, and comprising an extensive and varied assortment which lacks nothing which would enable them to execute the most varied order which the retail dealer, who is wont to cater to the most fastidious class of customers in any metropolis on this continent, could require. The bulk of the goods are purchased personally by the buyers of the firm from first hands in the English, French and German markets, from which importations are constantly arriving, as their trade necessitates constant importation in order to maintain their departments complete. A well matured system of correspondence and traveling connections, who are ever on the alert to purchase all the latest styles of goods, enables them to keep their departments supplied with the newest patterns of fancy and staple dry goods, simultaneous with their appearance in the London and Paris markets.”
After reading the above extracts from the comments of commercial writers in regard to this house, it is almost needless to say that both of these sons have first class business habits and qualifications, and are managing with marked success one of the leading jobbing houses in the city, Both are married, and have fine brick residences just across the river Thames, in the Township of Westminster, half a mile from their place of business. The widow also resides on the same street, and, nearly opposite her sons, in a stately mansion, with umbrageous surrounding, unsurpassed in this part of the Province.