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Senator William McMaster (1811 - 1887):
Businessman, politician, banker, philanthropist

William McMaster was one of the most prominent businessmen in Canada, involved in wholesale retailing, and banking, including being founding president of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He was a Canadian Senator, and from his considerable wealth made large donations to a variety of causes, including many Baptist concerns. A keen supporter of education, he provided much of the funding for what became McMaster University, Toronto.

He was born in Strabane, County Tyrone, son of a linen merchant, also called William. He was educated privately and when about ten he was converted and seems to have the joined the Baptist church in Omagh, also in Tyrone. He worked as a clerk in a mercantile house before emigrating to North America. He arrived initially in New York, where he encountered the British Consul there, James Buchanan, from Strathroy, near Omagh in County Tyrone, who was frequently encouraging immigrants to settle in Canada, aiding them substantially to do so, and McMaster was happy to make the move, settling in York, Upper Canada, in August 1833 (the town was incorporated as Toronto the following year). He found employment as a clerk in Robert Cathcart's wholesale and retail dry goods firm (accounts differ as to the precise circumstances), and within a year or two of his arrival he was a partner in the firm. In July 1844, when Cathcart retired, he took over the business. Under his direction, which was shrewd and cautious - he was described as "probably the safest man in business in Toronto" - the business expanded steadily to be rated by 1860 as worth up to $800,000 and the largest dry goods concern in Western Canada. He employed two nephews from home one as his bookkeeper, the other his England agent.

William McMaster entered politics in 1862 when he was elected as a Liberal to represent the Midland division in the Legislative Council. His principal concerns were with the commercial expansion of Toronto and Canada West, and measures to improve the position of evangelical nonconformists, including his own Baptist co-religionists. In 1867 he was appointed to the first Dominion Senate and remained a member for the rest of his life.

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. 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 its rival, Montreal. He was an active member of the Toronto Board of Trade, having been on its council eight times by 1861. He held directorships in 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. However, he relinquished the management of the company in 1863 in favour of his nephews, though retaining a large financial interest, reputedly $400,000, the firm becoming AR McMaster and Brother

In the mid-1860s, McMaster and the Toronto business community moved to arrest the growing control of the Bank of Montreal in Canada West. McMaster and others purchased the charter of the Bank of Canada, which had been inactive since 1858, and from this built up the Canadian Bank of Commerce. McMaster 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 favoured approach was to seek growth at the expense of short-term profit, though several more impatient directors left for other banks. By 1872 the Canadian Bank of Commerce had established a large healthy business with a reserve fund of $1,000,000, second only to the Bank of Montreal. In July 1886 McMaster stepped down as president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce citing as reasons his poor health and the need for new men.

 Though some questioned his motives, McMaster undoubtedly donated generously to several causes, not least the Baptist Church. He also placed a high premium on education, generously aiding the Toronto Mechanics' Institute, and also the professional and ministerial training of Baptists. 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.

When a bill was introduced in the Ontario Legislature in March 1887 providing for the union of Woodstock College and Toronto Baptist College under the name of McMaster University, McMaster appeared before the legislature on its behalf and even before the bill was assented to on 23 April, he had made out a will leaving the bulk of his estate, some $900,000, as an endowment for the new university. Throughout the proceedings of building up the new institution to university status, McMaster had apparently privately favoured Toronto, the home of the Baptist college, as the site. The university did indeed find its first location in 1888 at McMaster Hall, Toronto, offering courses in arts and theology. Degree programmes began in 1890, with degrees first being conferred in 1894. In 1930, McMaster University moved from Toronto to Hamilton, the forty-first academic session opening on the present site. Its growth into an important Canadian educational institution gives a special significance to McMaster's philanthropy, an activity he came to late in life after having achieved prominence as an influential banker and businessman.

Barely five months after the bill establishing his eponymous University, on 22 Sept. 1887, McMaster was taken ill while attending a meeting about its affairs, and died later the same day.

Born: 24 December 1811
Died: 22 September 1887
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann; Mellon Centre for Migration Studies


History of McMaster University (; Dictionary of Canadian Biography; Kenneth McNaught: A History of Canada; CJ Houston & WJ Smyth: Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlements