ARMSTRONG, JOHN BELMER, businessman, inventor, and politician; b. c. 1838 in Guelph, Upper Canada, eldest son of Robert Armstrong and Janet Scott; m. Margaret Dryden, and they had two sons, one of whom survived infancy; d. 11 Dec. 1892 in Guelph.
In 1834, a few years before John Belmer Armstrong’s birth, his father had established a carriage-making business in Guelph. After Robert Armstrong’s death in 1848, his widow handled the estate, including the carriage business, until 1861, when John returned from the United States to assume management of the business. He formed J. B. Armstrong and Brother with his brother David and they commenced operations that fall at their father’s premises on Macdonnell Street. They rented the location from their mother until 1868, when their youngest sister came of age and the family was free to sell portions of the estate. David withdrew from the partnership (when is uncertain) and John continued to operate the business, known in 1870 as both Guelph Carriage Goods and J. B. Armstrong and Company. About 1872 he entered into a partnership with Thomas H. Scarff and in 1876 the business was incorporated as J. B. Armstrong Manufacturing Company. In addition to its main plant the firm maintained divisions elsewhere in Guelph, one being the Guelph Carriage Goods, and a facility in Flint, Mich.
The sleighs, wagons, buggies, hearses, carriages, and carriage parts manufactured by Armstrong’s establishments gained a fine reputation. In 1870 the company won six first prizes at the provincial exhibition in Toronto. In all, 44 Canadian patents were taken out in the name of Armstrong or the company. These covered a range of improvements, including steel-processing techniques as well as other facets of the design and manufacture of carriages, sleighs, and farm implements. The image and financial stability of Armstrong’s business were important to him. Consequently, in his will in 1888, he stipulated that his son, Bertie, would not receive his full inheritance, at age 25, if he had not proved himself to be industrious and frugal or if his mother did not approve of his marriage.
Armstrong was one of a circle of businessmen and manufacturers of Scottish ancestory who had come to dominate Guelph’s industrial development and civic affairs by the 1870s. He attended St Andrew’s Church and was an active member of the St Andrew’s Society, the Guelph Board of Trade, and the Central Exhibition committee. In 1876 he represented the East Ward on the town council. He was an executive director of the Guelph and Ontario Investment and Savings Society, to which he loaned $60,000 in 1887, and a provisional director of the Guelph Junction Railway Company. Armstrong’s investments extended beyond the city. With local businessmen James Walter Lyon* and Robert Bathgate he bought and refurbished the gasworks in Winnipeg and then sold it at a $57,000 profit.
At the time of Armstrong’s death in December 1892, Scarff was no longer associated with the carriage company in Guelph and Robert Lindsay Torrance, Armstrong’s nephew, was vice president and assistant manager. Torrance replaced Armstrong as general manager. By 1892 $200,000 in capital stock had been invested in the company and its product lines were being distributed world-wide through agents in Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
AO, RG 22, ser.317, reg. M (1891–93): 448; RG 55, I-2-A, 1–6. Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 24: 202. City of Guelph, Ont., City Hall, Assessment rolls, 1855–1900; Council minutes, 1876. Guelph Civic Museum, Letter from J. B. Armstrong Manufacturing Company, Flint, Mich., to Gertrude Baily, 10 Nov. 1892. Guelph Public Library, Guelph and Ontario Investment and Savings Soc., minute-books, nos.2–3 (1876–91). NA, RG 31, C1, 1861, 1871, 1881, Guelph. St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Arch. (Guelph), Communion rolls, 1886–1902; Reg. of baptisms, 1827–52, 1858–72. Woodlawn Cemetery (Guelph), Burial records. Guelph and Galt Advertiser, and Wellington District Advocate (Guelph), 29 June 1848. Guelph Daily Herald, 3 Dec. 1888. Mercantile agency reference book, 1864–1900. C. A. Burrows, The annals of the town of Guelph, 1827–1877 (Guelph, 1877). L. A. Johnson, History of Guelph, 1827–1927 (Guelph, 1977).