HOLMES, BENJAMIN, businessman, politician, and public servant; b. 23 April 1794 in Dublin (Republic of Ireland), son of Thomas Holmes and Susanna Scott; m. 5 June 1819 in Montreal Élisabeth, daughter of Dr Daniel Arnoldi* and Élisabeth Franchère, and they had several children; d. 23 May 1865 at Montreal.
In 1797, Thomas Holmes, his wife, and his son Benjamin sailed for Canada. Their ship was subsequently captured by a French frigate and taken as a prize to Cadiz, Spain. The Holmes family, including young Andrew Fernando* born during the detention in Spain, eventually reached Canada in 1801. Little is known of their early life in Montreal, but it is evident that the family enjoyed moderate financial security, if not wealth. At age 18 Benjamin Holmes joined the firm of Henderson, Armour and Company as a clerk, and soon entered the employ of Horatio Gates and Company in the same capacity. However, the War of 1812 interrupted his commercial apprenticeship with Horatio Gates*. Probably influenced by his father’s earlier military career, Benjamin joined the Canadian Light Dragoons, receiving a lieutenant’s commission on 30 Jan. 1813.
Young Holmes saw action during the Niagara campaign of that year. His adventures terminated abruptly on 3 Oct. 1813 when he was taken prisoner by the advancing American army. Holmes remained confined at Frankfort, Ky, evidently until July 1814 when a general exchange of prisoners of war was effected. He subsequently received, on 8 Aug. 1814, a new commission as ensign with the Canadian Fencibles.
With the return of peace in 1815, Holmes briefly formed a commercial partnership with Benjamin Delisle at Perth, Upper Canada. However, in November 1817 he became a discount clerk with the fledgling Bank of Montreal, thereby commencing “one of the most interesting and most important careers in the early history of Canadian Banking.” By 1827 Holmes had risen to the position of cashier (general manager). As the bank’s day to day director for virtually the next 20 years, he contributed perhaps more than any other individual to the institution’s early development. Often arbitrary and inflexible in his procedures, Holmes’ adroit defence of his approach invariably overcame opposition. At the same time, his non-political, uncontroversial public stance was a decided asset during the late 1820s and 1830s when much of the local business community associated with the bank was openly hostile to the rising Patriote party. Nevertheless, with the outbreak of violence in 1837–38, Holmes, as lieutenant-colonel of the battalion of Montreal Light Infantry, actively participated in suppressing the rebellions, and thereby greatly increased his popularity among the Montreal English speaking community.
In the aftermath of the rebellions Holmes accepted public office, being returned on 8 April 1841 from the City of Montreal, together with fellow Tory George Moffatt, to the first parliament of the united Canadas. During the first session he concerned himself primarily with securing favourable financial legislation, in particular the renewal of the charter of the Bank of Montreal, from which he was on leave of absence. Despite Holmes’ reputation as an independent man of unorthodox manner, his unqualified public support, on 19 Sept. 1842, for the newly restructured and largely Reform ministry of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin* was thoroughly unexpected. “No dealer in prosy speeches,” Holmes bluntly explained his conversion: “He . . . had taken his seat in Parliament with prejudice for his guide – the veil had since fallen from his eyes, and he was ready to act cordially with gentlemen of French origin.”
The Montreal Tory press might coldly disapprove of Holmes’ “ratting,” but the Reformers praised his liberalism. During Montreal’s municipal elections of 1 Dec. 1842, the first since the city’s reincorporation in 1840, Holmes was returned as councillor from the West Ward, and later, in council, elected an alderman, in both instances with the enthusiastic support of the local Reform organization. His term as alderman expired in March 1846.
The value of Holmes’ political involvement diminished with the resignation of the La Fontaine-Baldwin government in November 1843, and, the Bank of Montreal having suffered in his absence, he resigned from the assembly on 1 Feb. 1844. As a politician, Holmes had largely ignored the occasional editorial barb in the Tory journals, and, once back in Montreal, he attempted to function routinely as the bank’s major administrative figure. In the autumn of 1845, however, his suspension of payments on the estimates of the apparently nearly bankrupt Board of Works was interpreted as a political act by the Conservative administration. Faced with government censure of the bank and personal abuse by the Tory press, Holmes resigned as cashier on 21 Feb. 1846.
Seemingly undaunted, Holmes, on 31 Aug. 1846, formed a partnership with John Young* for produce merchandising and railway promotion. In this politically less sensitive position he was more readily accepted by the local business community, and consequently exerted considerable influence within Reform circles. During the elections of January 1848, Holmes was returned to the assembly, together with the party leader, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, from the City of Montreal. Though disappointed at his omission from the Reform ministry, he actively supported the new government through the agitation over the Rebellion Losses Bill, and then broke with the party in 1849 over the annexation issue. Like fellow liberal Montreal businessmen Luther Hamilton Holton* and Jacob De Witt*, Holmes was more inclined to be Rouge than Reform. He signed the Montreal Annexation Manifesto and, on 12 Dec. 1849, helped to form the local Annexation Association, of which he was elected first vice-president. During the violent municipal election of March 1850, Holmes narrowly captured the West Ward for the annexationists but failed, in council, to win election as mayor.
With the exception of the Montreal mayoral contest of 1860 (he lost by 24 votes to the incumbent Charles-Séraphin Rodier*), Holmes had largely withdrawn from active politics by the mid 1850s. His commercial partnership had expired in December 1849, a victim of his annexationist activities, although his position within the business community had strengthened. An early promoter and vice-president of the St Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, Holmes became on its amalgamation with the Grand Trunk Railway in July 1853 vice-president of the latter, from which he resigned in 1858. By an unlikely coincidence, he was elected, in November 1853, a director of the Bank of Montreal as well, a position he maintained until his death in 1865. On 23 Dec. 1863, the ministry of John Sandfield Macdonald* and Antoine-Aimé Dorion* belatedly recognized Holmes’ previous political service by appointing him receiver of customs at Montreal. At the time of his death the bitterness that had once marred his public life had long since disappeared.
PAC, MG 30, D62, 16, pp.1–45. Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, II, 101. Hincks, Reminiscences. La Minerve, 27 mai 1865. Montreal Gazette, 21 July 1814; 24 Sept. 1842; 3 Feb. 1844; 4 March, 14 Sept. 1846; 13 March 1850; 19 July 1853; 24 May 1865. Montreal Herald, 24 May 1865. Montreal Transcript, 11 Nov. 1841; 24, 27 Sept., 3 Dec. 1842; 23 Feb., 1 April 1843. F.-J. Audet, Les députés de Montréal, 245–46. Chapais, Hist. du Canada, V. Denison, Canada’s first bank, I, 103, 266, 294, 393; II, 3, 22–31, 420. Dent, Last forty years. Hist. de la corporation de la cité de Montréal, (Lamothe et al.). Monet, Last cannon shot. William Weir, Sixty years in Canada (Montreal, 1903), 44.