LYMBURNER, ADAM, merchant, militia officer, colonial agent, and politician; b. 1745 or 1746 in Kilmarnock, Scotland; d. unmarried 10 Jan. 1836 in London.
Adam Lymburner came to Quebec to take over the business of his brother John, who had disappeared at sea in 1772. John had arrived in the new British colony by 1761 as a result of mercantile associations with Brook Watson* and Robert Hunter, the latter a London merchant with connections among Ayrshire men in the Quebec trade. He had built up operations that included sealing, whaling, and salmon fishing from posts on the remote Labrador coast. Established at Quebec, Adam immediately engaged in the triangular fishing trade. Typical was an arrangement in 1773–74 whereby Hunter purchased a ship for George Cartwright*, a Labrador merchant, who dispatched it to Cadiz, Spain, for wine that Lymburner would market at Quebec, where the ship took on, for Cartwright’s post at Charles Harbour, bread and other supplies generally “cheaper . . . than in England.”
During the American invasion of Quebec in 1775, Lymburner served in the British militia, rising to the rank of second lieutenant. In October, with other officers, he “insisted” that Governor Guy Carleton* compel resident Americans either to leave the city or to take up arms in its defence. By early December, however, Lymburner had resigned from the militia; historian François-Xavier Garneau* has caustically asserted that he fled to Charlesbourg, but his reasons for resigning and his whereabouts that winter remain obscure. On 31 December his house on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot, in Lower Town Quebec, was the scene of vicious combat.
At the end of 1775 Lymburner’s commercial interests extended from Britain well into the Canadian interior. He owned one of the 11 vessels then engaged in the Quebec trade (3 were owned by Hunter) and was involved in the fur trade from Montreal. In 1776 he provided security on the licence of a Montreal fur trader supplied by Hunter, and two years later he hired a clerk for Jean-Étienne Waddens*, who was also supplied by Hunter and was connected to John McKindlay*, an Ayrshire “relation” of Lymburner. In 1787 Lymburner was the Quebec agent for Richard Dobie*, another fur trader.
Although Lymburner’s fishing posts were hit hard by an American privateer in 1779 and “fail’d” in 1782, they remained the central element in his import-export business. By 1783, in association with William Grant* and Thomas Dunn*, Lymburner and his brother Mathew dominated sealing along the Labrador–Gulf of St Lawrence coast. The return of peace that year increased competition for fishing locations, and Quebec’s merchants, led by the Lymburners and Grant’s nephew David Alexander Grant, pressed for official action against intrusions by American vessels, a concern that lasted until at least 1785.
About 1781 Lymburner had brought his brother and John Crawford, their nephew, into his business as clerks. Strictly trained by Adam, who intended eventually to return to Britain, Mathew became his junior partner and with Crawford carried on operations (mainly the fisheries) from about 1786 or 1787, functioning in a commercial chain that included Hunter in London and McKindlay and William Parker, another Ayrshireman, in Montreal. Mathew’s involvement allowed Adam to travel, mostly through the United States, and to throw himself into the province’s constitutional debates, for which he had exceptional social and political “abilities,” as remarked in the diaries of aspiring merchants Joseph Hadfield and Robert Hunter Jr in 1785. Constantly polite, and hospitable despite chronic asthma, Lymburner possessed a “usage du monde,” as Hunter put it, that stood him in good stead with most of Quebec’s “first characters,” British and Canadian. In June Hunter was impressed by Lymburner’s account of a recent American tour, including a visit with George Washington, and struck as well by Lymburner’s “fine head of hair instead of a wig he used to wear.”
On constitutional matters Lymburner shared the radical concerns of such merchants as George Allsopp* and William Grant. During an unruly debate in the Legislative Council in April 1784 over the introduction of habeas corpus, Lymburner was among a small group of men who clamoured for admission to the council chamber. In November he signed a petition for a representative assembly which quickly became the basis of sustained agitation for reform. To an investigation in 1787 into the administration of justice [see Sir James Monk*] he recounted his losses as a result of appearances in the Court of Common Pleas; judge Adam Mabane* described him with disdain as “one of those subjects who left the province in November 1775.” Following on the investigation he was sent by Canadian and British committees to London to press the petition of 1784 and repeal of the Quebec Act, judicial reform, and the institution of English commercial law. Seen by Carleton, now Lord Dorchester, as a “decent sensible man” with “no hostile intentions to administration,” and equipped with instructions from the committees, he arrived in London in December 1787.
Lymburner lobbied persistently to have the constitutional issue brought before parliament. Acting with a group of influential merchants, notably Hunter Sr and Watson, he marshalled and drafted documentation (including a pamphlet in 1788), challenged contrary positions, and spoke eloquently before the bar of the House of Commons. Faced by ministers concerned with European and broader imperial questions and with such domestic issues as the trial of Warren Hastings for corruption and cruelty in India and George III’s bouts of presumed insanity, Lymburner lamented the lack of interest demonstrated by British politicians in Canadian affairs. His argumentation, often bordering on blatant propaganda, stirred up the parliamentary opposition, however. “Mr [William] Pitt was as roughly handled and closely pinned down as ever he was in that House,” Lymburner reported to the British committee at Quebec in May 1788. “I have . . . ,” he claimed with some exaggeration, “opened the eyes of ministry with regard to our Province.”
Lymburner’s efforts to maintain a close correspondence with the committees in the colony were made difficult in 1788 by their inability to agree on instructions to him. To its support of the program of 1784 the Canadian committee added a request for the restoration of the province’s general laws as they had existed at the time of the conquest. As well, it demanded that the Roman Catholic Church be released from the “King’s Supremacy” (as imposed by the Quebec Act) and that the properties of Quebec’s religious communities be confirmed. Alarmed by these instructions, Quebec’s attorney general, James Monk, considered naïve Lymburner’s supposed belief that commercial interests could ensure a British majority in an assembly. He advised Watson to keep a cautionary hand on the zealous agent, whose commercial association with many Canadians, he told former attorney general Francis Maseres*, probably biased his representations. Lymburner, however, needed no control; he prudently submerged the Canadian demands and the differences in his instructions.
More problematic for Lymburner was the division of the province, a key part of the closely kept constitutional plan devised by Home Secretary William Wyndham Grenville in 1789. Lymburner strenuously opposed partition, preferring instead coexistence of the sort displayed by Scotland and England. During the spring of 1790 he vainly tried, through mps Thomas Powys and Charles James Fox, to discover the full details of Grenville’s plan. The following year he lobbied futilely with Grenville, his successor Henry Dundas, and former under-secretary Evan Nepean, pressing his original demands. On 23 March 1791 he appealed impassionately at the bar of the Commons for a “united Province,” asserting that two governments would create debilitating expense and that the proposed provinces were linked geographically and economically. He added, prophetically, that since the only ocean ports would be in the lower province the colonies would become enmeshed in fiscal dispute. Claiming to represent both Canadian and British colonists, he played down the fact that the British would politically be in a minority in the new lower province by concentrating on past grievances: “the exhausted and impoverished State” of the province, arbitrary government, and legal and judicial uncertainty. His plea against division falling on deaf ears, he later shifted his attention to representation in the assembly of the lower province. With typical initiative, he submitted a plan to Dundas calling for Montreal and Quebec to have seven members each, a proposal Dundas dismissed outright. Nevertheless the Constitutional Act of 1791 contained some of the reforms that Lymburner had urged on behalf of the British and Canadian committees.
Lymburner’s efforts did not go unrecognized. On 16 Sept. 1791, while still in England, he was appointed to Lower Canada’s Executive Council. Three months later Quebec’s merchants gathered at the Merchant’s Coffee House to pass a resolution of thanks. The following year he was posted as a candidate for Lower Town Quebec in the new province’s first general election, but he was defeated in absentia. Though he would later claim credit for the introduction of a representative assembly, in the early 1790s it was his reservations about the constitution that claimed attention in the Canadas. In 1794 a disheartened Upper Canadian loyalist, Richard Cartwright*, wrote to Isaac Todd* that “experience has almost made me a convert to Mr. Lymburner’s opinion . . . that the country would be found unequal to support the expence of two Governments.”
Lymburner remained in England after 1791 with a “Complaint of an Asthmatic Nature – for which he was informed the severe cold of the winters in Canada was extremely . . . pernicious.” While recovering there, he took every opportunity to tender to government his views on Lower Canadian affairs. His paper on the Anglo-American tensions of 1793, which typically had no evident effect, did illustrate his grasp of the complex relationship between commerce and transatlantic diplomacy. In 1799 he returned to Quebec. Having ignored a warning from Dorchester in 1794 to attend the Executive Council or resign, he attempted to take his place in July but on a unanimous motion was ignominiously barred for non-attendance. His petitions to Britain in protest proved fruitless.
Despite his absences in England, Lymburner had remained lucratively involved in the Labrador fisheries. In 1795 he sold his commercial properties in Lower Town Quebec to his brother, who would continue in the salmon and seal trades until about 1823. Vigorously managed by Mathew, the Labrador posts were operated under two main companies: Lymburner and Crawford, until after the latter’s death in 1803, and the New Labrador Company from 1808. Adam, in addition to registering several vessels with his brother and William Grant, helped finance and supply Mathew’s activities, in part from Joseph Hadfield in Britain; however, the full extent of Adam’s concern remains unclear.
In 1807 Lymburner returned permanently to London, but his interest in Lower Canadian affairs remained undiminished. He corresponded over the next 16 years with Roman Catholic bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis*, who respected his advice on church-state relations and praised him as “a friend of the Catholics, although Protestant.” Plessis, however, almost certainly did not share his friend’s view of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches as “fellow labourers in different parts of the same vineyard.” Lymburner’s letters display his propensity to flatter and charm, and the bishop probably exaggerated his influence with British politicians despite Lymburner’s confession in 1810 that since his return he had been avoiding them. At the same time Lymburner’s separation from Lower Canada made it difficult for him to comprehend the “acrimonious” state of politics there during the governorship of Sir James Henry Craig*. In 1814 he deplored the fact that the Canadas did not maintain authorized agents in London to inform ministers of affairs as did most colonial assemblies.
The 1820s were for Lymburner years of continued, almost nostalgic, interest in Lower Canada and of severe rheumatism, which he linked to his inactivity during winters there. Drawing upon his substantial wealth, he toured Europe in 1822, only to be shocked at how deep the seeds “sown by the french revolution” had put down roots. His spirits revived later that year when Plessis invited him to oppose an imperial bill for uniting the Canadas, which had originated among the lower province’s civil servants and British merchants. Now viewing the Constitutional Act of 1791 with a sense of personal achievement, he favoured preservation of Lower Canada’s distinctive interests. Effort on his part was unnecessary – fortunately, for he was confined to his home. He advised Louis-Joseph Papineau* and John Neilson, sent in 1823 to oppose the union, that the bill generated little interest at Westminster. “The Delegates will experience some of the difficulties I had to encounter 33 or 34 years ago to get the present constitution for the province,” he wrote to Plessis. “No cause of any importance can be supported here without great exertion of body and mind, because the people here feel little interest in the affairs of distant colonies. . . . The great object is to instruct the speakers fully on the facts of the case. . . . But my time of activity is past. It is a new scene for Mrss Papineau and Neilson.”
Lymburner died on 10 Jan. 1836, at about age 91, and at his request was buried in St George’s Church, Bloomsbury (London), alongside Alexander Auldjo*, a long-time friend from colonial days. Lymburner bequeathed sums and annuities totalling £88,150 to numerous nieces and nephews, their children, the children of friends, and others. Properties in Kilmarnock, including those inherited from his father, were left to a grandnephew there.
[Adam Lymburner is the author of a pamphlet printed in London in 1788, no copy of which has been positively identified. This item is possibly A review of the government and grievances of the province of Quebec, since the conquest of it by the British arms . . . , which is generally attributed to Francis Maseres, but reflects Lymburner’s style and specific interests. He is also the author of Paper read at the bar of the House of Commons, by Mr. Lymburner, agent for the subscribers to the petitions from the province of Quebec, bearing date the 24th of November 1784 . . . (Quebec, 1791). There is a portrait of Lymburner at the MTRL. d. r.]
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Cite This Article
David Roberts, “LYMBURNER, ADAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lymburner_adam_7E.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:||LYMBURNER, ADAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 27, 2023|