DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

BUCHANAN, PETER, merchant; b. 25 July 1805 in Glasgow, third son of Peter Buchanan and Margaret Buchanan; d. 5 Nov. 1860 at Adamton House, near Monkton, Scotland, and was buried in Glasgow.

Peter Buchanan began his mercantile training in 1820 in the office of his father, a Glasgow merchant. Following his father’s death in 1826, Peter took charge of the family and liquidated his father’s business, which had lost heavily in the Caribbean trade. At the same time he entered the drysaltery business of Robert Laing in Glasgow. In 1834, after touring Upper Canada and the northern United States, Peter agreed to buy the wholesale dry goods firm of William Guild Jr and Company of Toronto with his younger brother Isaac*, who was a partner in the business. The firm was reorganized to form Peter Buchanan and Company in Glasgow, which handled finances and supply, and Isaac Buchanan and Company in Toronto, which managed distribution and sales. Peter, from his base in Glasgow, began withdrawing his funds from the Laing firm in 1834 and forced Isaac to retrieve his other investments in Upper Canada so that all their capital could be brought into the new business. It subsequently earned high profits, other lines of goods were added, and new branches were opened. In 1840, in a bid to control trade in western Upper Canada, Isaac and his partner Robert William Harris* compelled Peter to acquiesce in the formation of Buchanan, Harris and Company in Hamilton, which soon became in his opinion the largest mercantile house in the province. Branches were opened in Montreal in 1841 and in New York four years later.

Although Isaac was nominally his equal, Peter Buchanan was increasingly the business’s leading figure. It required large amounts of capital to support goods in transit and to cover debts due on sales, and Peter’s most important function was the management of its complex financial affairs in Britain. For the Buchanans’ fast-growing business much of the capital was borrowed. On the basis of his character and reputation Peter skilfully lined up credit from suppliers, banks, and mercantile middle men such as shipping agencies. He drew on these sources to make payments and used remittances from Canada, which tended to be seasonal and linked to the vicissitudes of the grain trade there, to repay business debts. Buchanan also sold the business’s produce consignments, supervised its buyers, and oversaw the shipment of goods from Britain. In contrast to Isaac, Peter generally advocated caution in business and pressed for the consolidation of gains, but he was undoubtedly ambitious and alert to new opportunities. The value of his capital in the business, initially £7,500, grew at an exceptional rate, exceeding £190,000 (Halifax currency) in 1856.

In 1838–39 and again in 1841–43 Buchanan lived in Toronto to direct Canadian business operations while Isaac handled affairs in Britain. During these years Peter actively spoke out on commercial matters, and joined Isaac’s social clubs and the local militia. Business brought Peter back to Canada a number of times thereafter, his longest stay being from May to October 1860, when the business was reorganized. Through Buchanan, Harris and Company, and his visits to Canada, he became the most eminent British businessman interested in, and known in, Hamilton, where the business’s operations were concentrated following the closure of the Toronto store in 1844. To assist Hamilton and his trade, Peter acted as London agent from 1845 to 1855 for Canada’s most successful early railway, the Great Western [see Charles John Brydges*]. Buchanan had no previous experience with railways, but he fast became an important figure in the company and handled financial negotiations with decisive ability. His greatest contribution came in 184952, when, with Robert S. Atcheson, an influential English businessman, he committed the railway company to an imaginative but calculated scheme for raising funds on the London market, traditionally suspicious of unbuilt colonial projects. The successful sale of convertible bonds, which appealed to British investors, enabled the Great Western to move rapidly ahead. As the company developed its own reputation and staff after 1853, Buchanan’s role as agent diminished, although in 1854 he joined the Great Western’s newly formed London board of directors.

In 1852 Buchanan had also been appointed agent for the Hamilton and Toronto Railway, a subsidiary of the Great Western, and, with prominent Londoners associated in the Great Western, he raised the funds for that line. The group sought large profits from this promotion and accusations of jobbery followed. Largely as a result of this criticism, construction was delayed for so long that sharply rising costs consumed the anticipated profits. To protect his interests Buchanan remained active in the management of the Hamilton and Toronto until it was completed and merged in 1856 into the Great Western, from which he then withdrew immediately.

During the period of his railway agencies Buchanan effectively utilized his high credit standing on behalf of other Canadian companies seeking credit. In the late 1840s he assisted the Upper Canada Trust and Loan Company in its search for British backing. As well he helped to secure better British banking connections for the Commercial Bank of the Midland District, which handled some of the Buchanan business. A reserved man, who never married, Buchanan was little known outside British business circles, where he did, however, receive recognition. He was a director of both the Buchanan Society (184952), a prestigious charitable and genealogical organization, and the Merchants’ House of Glasgow (184953). In 1860 he was elected a director of the Union Bank of Scotland.

Peter Buchanan’s mercantile standing cushioned somewhat the heavy impact of the commercial crisis of 1857 upon the Buchanans’ business enterprises in Canada and the failure that year of leading credit sources in Britain. Confronted with the business’s precarious position, he nevertheless moved to correct immediate financial and accounting problems, notably the low remittances received from the Hamilton branch under Isaac. In 1860 Peter’s implementation of drastic and often ruthless measures for reorganizing the business was abruptly halted by his untimely death. While hunting in Scotland he was accidentally shot in the leg by a nephew and subsequently died of tetanus.

The career of Peter Buchanan exemplifies with particular clarity the private mercantile links between Britain and Canada that were so important in the rapid development of the Canadian business system in his era.

Douglas McCalla

HPL, M. H. Farmer, “Calendar of the Buchanan papers, 1697–1896 . . .” (typescript, 1962). PAC, MG 24, D16; RG 30, 1–2, 5, 10–11, 19, 361. SRO, RD5/1113: 165–81. Williams & Glyn Bank Ltd. (London), Glyn Mills & Co., corr. received (mfm. at PAC). Daily Spectator, and Journal of Commerce, 22, 26 Nov. 1860. Times (London), 21 Feb.–12 April 1861. Glasgow directory, 1826–60. Notes on the members of the Buchanan Society, nos.1–366 (1725–1829), comp. R. M. Buchanan (Glasgow, 1931), no.131. P. A. Baskerville, “The boardroom and beyond: aspects of the Upper Canadian railroad community” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont., 1973). Douglas McCalla, “The Buchanan businesses, 1834–1872: a study in the organization and development of Canadian trade” (dphil thesis, Univ. of Oxford, 1972); “Peter Buchanan, London agent for the Grand Western Railway of Canada,” Canadian business history; selected studies, 1497–1971, ed. D. S. Macmillan (Toronto, 1972), 197–216; The Upper Canada trade, 1834–1872: a study of the Buchanans’ business (Toronto, 1979); “The Canadian grain trade in the 1840’s: the Buchanans’ case,” CHA Hist. papers, 1974: 95–114.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Douglas McCalla, “BUCHANAN, PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buchanan_peter_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buchanan_peter_8E.html
Author of Article:   Douglas McCalla
Title of Article:   BUCHANAN, PETER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   May 26, 2024