MACDONALD, EDWARD C., merchant, financier, and industrialist; b. in 1810 or 1811, son of William Macdonald, a British army officer; d. unmarried on 25 Jan. 1889 at Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Que.
Edward C. Macdonald came of military stock: his great-grandfather had served under General James Wolfe* at the taking of Quebec and his grandfather with the British forces in the American Revolutionary War; his father did garrison duty in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Upper and Lower Canada. Where Edward was born is obscure, his birthplace being variously given as New Brunswick and Upper Canada.
It was at Saint-Jean, where his father had once been barrack master, that Macdonald pursued a remarkably successful business career. In the mid 1830s he opened a general store and drug store in partnership with his younger brother Duncan. The brothers, operating under the firm name of E. and D. Macdonald, gained a reputation as sound businessmen. They remained partners for over 50 years in a multiplicity of enterprises and were known locally as “the merchant princes of St. Johns.” The 1830s were a propitious time for Macdonald to go into business, for the village of Saint-Jean was about to enter into new economic prospects. A port of entry, advantageously situated on the Richelieu River at the foot of the navigable waters of Lake Champlain, it was connected in 1836 to Laprairie, Lower Canada, by the Champlain and St Lawrence Railroad, the first to open in Canada. The Chambly Canal, under construction in the 1830s, placed it in further direct communication with inland ports. It was not long before the Macdonalds were among the largest shippers of grain in the province.
While continuing as merchants, the brothers acquired real estate holdings. In the 1850s they opened a private bank. They were speculators, their money undoubtedly behind many a Saint-Jean venture, including the town’s first woollen mill, the St Johns Woollen Manufacturing Company, of which Edward Macdonald was president in the early 1870s. The mill was not rebuilt when it burned in the fire which swept through Saint-Jean on 18 June 1876, levelling almost the entire business section of the town.
What has given Macdonald a lasting place in Canadian industrial history was his backing of the St Johns Stone Chinaware Company. It was the first pottery in Canada to concentrate on the production of “whiteware” for the table, and the only one to remain in existence for any length of time; Edward Macdonald made possible its lifespan of some 25 years.
The man who originally promoted the idea of making whiteware in Saint-Jean was George Whitefield Farrar, the potter, but he lacked the capital to launch the audacious project and it was the Macdonalds who provided the major part of the $50,000 required. Edward Macdonald, who became the company’s first president in 1873, reported to the shareholders in 1875 that the company had satisfactorily disposed of an average output of 100 crates per month from the date of the initial shipment on 28 Aug. 1874. Optimism, however, was premature. It was a time of economic depression, and by 1877 Canada’s first whiteware pottery was bankrupt. Its history might well have ended at this point had Edward Macdonald not decided to buy the company outright. As proprietor he hired a new manager and brought in experienced designers such as Philip Pointon, an English-born potter who had worked previously at the Cap Rouge Pottery near Quebec City. In the first year of Macdonald’s ownership more than half the workers at the St Johns Stone Chinaware Company were Staffordshire men, bringing their experience and traditional skills to a struggling Canadian industry.
The company had been founded to make in Canada the tough, high-fired earthenware that had first been produced in Staffordshire in Regency times, and which was known by a variety of names, including “ironstone china,” “stone china,” and “white granite.” Plain, undecorated stone china of good quality accounted for the major part of the output, but the pottery also produced a considerable amount of hand-painted stone china. A specialty was a blue ware in which the body itself was coloured. In 1880 Macdonald copyrighted a design for a popular jug (produced in both blue and white) whose moulded decoration featured “A Fern sprigg running down each side. . . . Faced and reared with fleur-de-lis.” Orders were also executed for monogrammed table services and for presentation pieces. The company did a growing business in hotel and institutional table and toilet wares, competing, on a modest scale, with crockery imports.
Sustained by Macdonald money and benefiting from Edward’s complete freedom of direction, which he was able to exercise as proprietor, Canada’s pioneer whiteware pottery finally achieved financial success. From a bankrupt enterprise it was turned into one with a high credit rating, employing some 400 workers, and equipped with modern machinery. This venture into the unlikely field of potting – an industry notoriously unprofitable in Victorian Canada – highlights Edward Macdonald’s shrewd, effective pertinacity in business. Money alone, even when it could procure skilled technical assistance, would not have been enough to see the St Johns Stone Chinaware Company out of its early difficult years. The vision of whiteware potting in Saint-Jean had been George Farrar’s, but it was Macdonald who made it a commercial success. Within a decade of his death, after the company had been sold to a group of ceramists from France, it was again bankrupt.
The key to Edward Macdonald’s character was pin-pointed in the News and Frontier Advocate at the time of his death. A man who could never be prevailed upon to accept any public office (he left that to his brother, who was mayor of Saint-Jean), Edward was “at his office early and late . . . never so happy as when at work . . . it was with reluctance that he left his business for even a day’s recreation.”
[Much of the family information was obtained from the Macdonald family papers which were in the possession of the late Robert Howard of Montreal. e.c.]
AP, St James Anglican Church (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 28 Jan. 1889. PAC, MG 8, F77; RG 31, A1, 1861, 1871, Saint-Jean, Que. W. M. Ryder, Memoirs ([Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu], 1900), 68. Gazette (Montreal), 19, 20 June 1876; 28 Jan. 1889. La Minerve, 31 mars 1896. Montreal Daily Witness, 19, 22 June 1876. News and Frontier Advocate (St Johns [Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu]), 22 June 1876. County of Missisquoi and town of St. Johns directory for 1879, 1880, and 1881 . . . (Montreal, 1879). The Eastern Townships business and farmers directory for 1888–89 . . . (St Johns, 1888). Eastern Townships gazetteer & directory, for the years 1875–76 . . . (Montreal, 1875). The Eastern Townships gazetteer and general business directory . . . (St Johns, 1867). Illustrated atlas of the Dominion of Canada . . . (Toronto, 1881). J.-D. Brosseau, Saint-Jean-de-Québec; origine et développements (Saint-Jean, ), 250. Elizabeth Collard, Nineteenth-century pottery and porcelain in Canada (Montreal, 1967), 269–90. H. H. Lambart, Two centuries of ceramics in the Richelieu valley: a documentary history, ed. Jennifer Arcand (Ottawa, 1970), 13–16. Elizabeth Collard, “The St. Johns Stone Chinaware Company,” Antiques (New York), 110 (July-December 1976): 800–5.