GRAY, RALPH, soldier, tailor, businessman, politician, and seigneur; b. c. 1736–40, probably in Scotland; d. 27 Dec. 1813 in Beauport, Lower Canada.
Ralph Gray came to Canada during the Seven Years’ War as a regimental tailor with the rank of private in the forces of Major-General Jeffery Amherst*. He fought at Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), and at Quebec, where he served as an orderly sergeant; he was wounded in the attack at Montmorency Falls on 31 July 1759 and during the battle of the Plains of Abraham on 13 September. He later purchased his discharge, concluding ten years of military service, and by May 1761 he was established as a tailor on Rue des Pauvres (Côte du Palais), Quebec. In March 1764 he and his wife, Mary Ann Scott, purchased a stone house on Rue de la Fabrique, Gray paying in cash the cost price of nearly £600. On 23 Jan. 1765 he was appointed by Governor Murray* one of four sub-bailiffs at Quebec for a one-year term; he had been filling this minor constabulary position unofficially since late 1764, when civil courts were established. During his first years as a tailor, Gray provided a largely British and urban clientele with clothing fashioned from a variety of imported but commonplace woollen and cotton fabrics. His business prospered, and by 1769 he was advertising in the Quebec Gazette a larger and more sophisticated stock of materials, including Irish linens, silks, elegant European velvets, and a greater variety of woollens and cottons; accessory items such as handkerchiefs, hats, and table-cloths were also imported.
In the early 1770s Gray sought to expand and diversify his business interests. In February 1773 he petitioned, apparently unsuccessfully, for land to the rear of the seigneuries of Lachenaie and L’Assomption in the Montreal area. On 25 Aug. 1774 he bought from the Quebec merchant William Grant (1744–1805) the sub-fief of Grandpré, formerly known as La Mistanguienne or Montplaisir, at La Canardière, east of Quebec; he paid the full purchase price of £1,500 within four years. Gray thus joined the small group of British merchant-seigneurs in the province. Meanwhile, he was acquiring property at Quebec, in the form of a house on Rue Saint-Jean by adjudication in April 1774 and another in August on Rue des Pauvres by purchase for £200 from the merchant Samuel Jacobs*. Probably in 1774 as well, Gray entered into partnership with the Quebec merchant Duncan Munro, and in April 1775 they acquired from another Quebec merchant, John Bondfield, property and unpaid debts in the Chambly region. The partnership of Gray and Munro was terminated by 1 June 1775. Gray, now an experienced importer, expanded his business, announcing in June 1777 that he had opened a new store for the wholesale merchandising of a “full range of goods,” including drapery, hosiery, haberdashery, stationery, cutlery, and groceries.
By February 1778 Gray was sufficiently wealthy to be able to retire from business at Quebec to a home called New Garden at La Canardière; from there he managed the rentals of his houses in the city and intensified his property transactions. That month he sold the house on Rue Saint-Jean for about £550. In January he had rented most of Grandpré to the Quebec notary Charles Stewart for £132; in February 1779 Stewart purchased it for £2,000 sterling. The following month Gray sold for £600 another house acquired by adjudication, on Rue de la Montagne, and in April he paid more than £400 for a farm at La Canardière and a lot with two stone houses on Rue Saint-Louis. In May 1781 he exchanged a farm in the parish of L’Immaculée-Conception at Saint-Ours, acquired at a sheriff’s sale, for a lot and house on Rue Saint-Vallier.
As well as deriving income from his property transactions and the rental of his houses, Gray, like other merchants, functioned as an estate executor, property sales agent, and financier. In 1781 the local tailoring partnership of Ritchie and Ferguson was indebted to him for £1,058 and the estate of George Hipps owed him £703. In August 1784 he lent £500 to the postmaster at Berthier-en-Haut (Berthierville), Alexander McKay. In April 1789 Gray and eight others, including David Lynd, obtained letters patent for a toll-bridge, called Dorchester Bridge, over the Rivière Saint-Charles.
During the early 1790s Gray disposed of several of his properties at Quebec, but in October 1792 he was obliged to take back from Stewart much of Grandpré in partial payment of a debt of £1,650. Gray conceded several lots according to seigneurial tenure in an effort to exploit his sub-fief; in February 1800 he sold a large farm, part of which was in Grandpré, to judge Pierre-Amable De Bonne for £3,150 sterling. The following April Gray bought a house and three lots at Beauport, but from that time he appears to have lived off revenues generated from property sales, putting out part of his influx of capital in the form of loans.
By March 1807, when Gray drew up his will, it was obviously a man of substantial means who contemplated the bequests he would bestow. To his young nephew Benjamin Ritchie, son of the deceased tailor Hugh, whose estate was heavily indebted to him, he left £600 and a number of effects. To relatives, most of whom were in Scotland, he left £1,600 and two shares in the Union Hotel at Quebec. His largest beneficiary, however, was Ann Ritchie, Benjamin’s sister, who had for some time nursed Gray’s invalid wife and who was to receive £2,000, two shares in the Dorchester Bridge, Grandpré (now known as Montplaisir), and a farm in the parish of Beauport. The bequest was made on condition that she continue to live with, and nurse, Gray’s wife in addition to taking over from Gray the care of the indigent wife of a former tenant, and of an old slave, Néron Bartholomy, should he decide to remain in slavery after Gray’s death; should he opt for freedom but remain with Ann, she was to pay him £12 a year for his services as a freeman.
Until 1808 Gray had participated little in politics, although he had occasionally manifested sympathy with some of the political aspirations of the local merchant community. In May 1808, however, he invoked his 48 years’ residence at Quebec and his age, situation, and fortune to seek election to the House of Assembly. He had, perhaps, been caught up in the increasingly charged political atmosphere of the colony; in the assembly most of the Canadians, who formed the majority, were seriously disaffected and the colonial government was supported only by a small group of representatives, composed mainly of British merchants. On 16 May Gray and De Bonne, a known ministerial adherent and influential politician, were elected for Quebec County on the strength of their support in Beauport and Charlesbourg.
A major point of conflict in the assembly was the assertion by the Canadian majority that De Bonne, as a judge, was ineligible to sit in the house; Gray consistently supported the ministerial defence of De Bonne’s right to sit. Challenges to De Bonne’s eligibility were met by Governor Craig with dissolution of the assembly in 1808 and 1809. During the fiercely contested elections of 1809, Gray and 16 others were identified as composing a group favourable to the government by the newspaper Le Canadien, established in 1806 as the outspoken voice of Canadian political interests. Although the group’s number was significantly reduced in the elections of November 1809, Gray and De Bonne were re-elected for Quebec County. In the assembly Gray reaffirmed his support for Craig in votes on the control of civil expenditure and the eligibility of judges to be elected.
Faced with the assembly’s independent dismissal of De Bonne at the height of political crisis, Craig again dissolved it in February 1810. Gray, who was one of only a few members who commanded the governor’s respect, sought re-election despite ill health and the death of his wife on 27 February. In a strained electoral climate intensified by Craig’s seizure of Le Canadien in March, Gray articulated the British fear of Canadian social and political domination. Failing to comprehend the complex Canadian position and suspecting revolutionary motivation, he denounced the Canadian leaders as “Demagogues of faction” and condemned their nationalist aspirations as the seditious and “wicked machinations of a few evil disposed persons.” In a public address on 27 March the former merchant testified to the “rapid advances” made by Canadians since the conquest “under the powerful protection of the British Government.” He further defied the Canadian group by equating continued prosperity and political stability with assimilation and electoral support for candidates favouring the government. In the election, which lasted from 29 March to 3 April, Gray and Joseph-François Perrault*, a government official and pioneer Canadian educational reformer, were defeated. On 5 April the Quebec Gazette printed a letter, signed by Gray and Perrault, protesting electoral irregularity and recklessly identifying “the Congreganistes Sacristains and Beadles of the roman churches” and specific influential Canadian families as the agents of their defeat. Gray denied association with this rash letter, declaring that he had authorized only a statement of gratitude to his electoral supporters.
Following his defeat Gray returned to Millbank, a residence he occupied at Beauport. On 22 Aug. 1810 he married Phoebe (Phebe) Wallen, widow of James Frost, former captain of the port of Quebec. They separated, however, in February 1813; by the articles of separation, Gray, in order to satisfy his “natural obligation” as a husband “to find and provide the said Phoebe Wallen Gray with the means of living in a befitting manner,” promised to pay her £100 per annum for the duration of their separation. Gray apparently had no children from either of his marriages, but by 21 Feb. 1810 he had adopted an orphan, whom he had baptized Frost Ralph Gray and to whom he was, according to Craig, a “good father.”
Gray died unexpectedly at Beauport on 27 Dec. 1813 and was buried three days later from St Andrew’s (Presbyterian) Church at Quebec. He had been, according to the Quebec Mercury, a man “much esteemed for the goodness of his disposition and charitable acts.” In 1811 he had had to cut his Scottish relatives out of his will and reduce bequests to other heirs in order to take into account a smaller fortune and his second wife. Only his devoted niece, Ann, who had married Colonel John Thomas Zouch the previous year, suffered no diminution of bequests, and she inherited what was probably a sizeable estate. Phoebe Wallen, after receiving her first and only separation allowance of £100, was subsequently paid a life annuity of £126 per annum as specified in her marriage contract, even though by the articles of separation she had agreed to renounce its benefits.
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Cite This Article
David Roberts, “GRAY, RALPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gray_ralph_5E.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:
|Author of Article:||David Roberts|
|Title of Article:||GRAY, RALPH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|