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McMURRICH, JOHN, merchant, businessman, and politician; b. 3 Feb. 1804 near Paisley, Scotland; m. 4 Aug. 1841 Janet Dixon, and they had four sons; d. 13 Feb. 1883 at Toronto, Ont.
John McMurrich received his early commercial training in the Glasgow firm of Playfair, Bryce and Company. He was sent to Upper Canada in 1833 to work for the recently founded affiliate Bryce, Buchanan and Company at York (Toronto). From 1834 until 1837 he worked in the firm’s Kingston branch, then returned to Toronto as a partner in the wholesale dry goods firm of Bryce, McMurrich and Company. He had full charge of its operations in Toronto; his partner, John D. Bryce, resided in Glasgow and managed the British side of the business. Within the next decade, the firm became one of Toronto’s chief dry goods houses. By the 1860s, and perhaps earlier, it had come to specialize in staple British textiles, for which demand was sure and profit margins were modest.
McMurrich was a Presbyterian and in the disruption of the church in Canada in 1844 took the Free Church side. He helped found Knox Church in Toronto in 1844, served it for 32 years as an elder, and was among its most influential laymen until his death. He was also an active member of the City Mission Society, the Upper Canada Religious Tract and Book Society, and the Sabbath Observance Association, which he helped to organize in 1852. He was a generous contributor to charities, especially the Toronto Home for Incurables, founded in 1874.
A Reformer, McMurrich was an early political ally of George Brown*. In 1846, at a meeting of the St Andrew’s Society where Brown was under heavy attack for remarks he had made about Judge Archibald McLean*, McMurrich, an older and more established figure in the community, spoke strongly in Brown’s defence. On the formation of the Anti-Clergy Reserves Association in 1850, McMurrich became a member of the executive. When the Legislative Council became elective in 1856, he contested the Saugeen division, denouncing the government of Sir Allan Napier MacNab* and Étienne-Paschal Taché* as “the most corrupt Ministry that had cursed Canada at any period during the last twenty years.” He lost, but captured the division in an 1862 by-election called when the sitting member, James Patton, joined the ministry. He held the seat until 1864. In the late 1850s he worked closely with Brown in his effort to draw together Upper Canadian Reformers. At confederation, he was elected to the first Ontario legislature as a Liberal, representing York North, but he was narrowly defeated by Alfred Boultbee in the 1871 election and did not again run for office.
Toronto City Council appointed McMurrich as the Free Church representative to the first Toronto Public School Board from 1847 to 1849. He was elected unopposed to the board in 1858 for a two-year term. He stressed particularly that local government, like the provincial government, was becoming too costly, a theme he pursued in 1860, when he was elected an alderman in the city council and became chairman of its finance committee for one year. He was re-elected to the Public School Board in 1862, served on it until 1870, and was its chairman from 1865 to 1867 and again in 1870.
A charter member of the Toronto Board of Trade, McMurrich was often elected to its council and continued to be an active member even in the 1870s when many of his surviving contemporaries had reduced their role in it. Like many other Toronto merchants, he also sought to develop and sustain local companies, but his was an extraordinary record of involvement, especially in the 1860s and 1870s when he was president or vice-president of at least six Toronto firms. For some years a director of Toronto’s Western Assurance Company, incorporated in 1851, he became its president in the 1860s after it had suffered some “disastrous losses”; he retained the position until he died, seeing the company into much more prosperous times. He was founding vice-president in 1851, and later president, of the Commercial Building and Investment Society; he was also president for many years of a small allied company which when it was organized had links with early Reform politicians, the Home District Mutual Fire Insurance Company. In 1870 he helped reorganize the troubled Royal Canadian Bank and was a director from 1871 to 1875 and vice-president in 1872–73. He shrewdly sold his own shares in the company when it merged into the short-lived Consolidated Bank of Canada.
To a man as mindful of the metropolitan nature of Toronto business as McMurrich, transport and communications, after finance, were of prime importance. In 1852 when the Toronto and Guelph Railway was first organized, he unsuccessfully sought a seat on its board, but soon sold his shares to the Grand Trunk interests which were taking over the company. He was one of a group of Toronto businessmen who in 1857 organized the North-West Transportation, Navigation, and Railway Company. In 1859 he ran for its vice-presidency, was defeated by Lewis Moffatt, and withdrew from the company altogether the next year. He was director (1870–72) and vice-president (1871–72) of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, which was then under construction and already in financial difficulties. At about the same time he was involved in a takeover by Toronto businessmen of the fledging Dominion Telegraph Company; he became its president in 1870, held this post until 1876, and helped the company grow from a contractor’s speculation into a genuine competitor of the much larger Montreal Telegraph Company.
Each of the companies of which he was president or vice-president had a full-time official in charge of most management functions, but, as the Toronto Globe noted in 1883, McMurrich’s “incumbency of these offices was in no case a sinecure. It was foreign to his character to discharge any trust in a perfunctory manner. . . .” In taking on some of the positions he assumed, it is clear that he was not primarily seeking remuneration, and he was not, on the whole, a large shareholder in the companies that he headed; evidently he regarded such work to some extent as a public service.
McMurrich was an important figure in Toronto for over 40 years, especially in its rapidly expanding business world. By a “deliberate, conservative” strategy, he had avoided the perils of bankruptcy that ended the businesses of so many early merchants and had moved far beyond the wholesale trade. That he was able to do so suggests the importance to his later career of the two principal associates he drew into his Toronto firm, Samuel Gunn and J. S. Playfair. With his second son, George, they carried on the dry goods business for a few years after his death, but then wound it up. McMurrich lived to see his eldest son, William Barclay, a lawyer, elected mayor of Toronto in 1881 and 1882. Another son, James Playfair, became a distinguished biologist.
PAC, MG 24, D16, 23: 19782–85. Toronto Board of Education, Education Centre Library, Reference Services, Hist. Coll., Board of Trustees for Common Schools, Minutes, 20 Nov. 1847–29 Dec. 1849; Public School Board, Minutes, 18 Jan. 1854–4 Jan. 1861; 16 Jan. 1861–20 March 1878. Globe, 1850–60; 14, 16 Feb. 1883. Monetary Times, 1868–83. Dominion annual register, 1883: 320–21. Toronto directory, 1850–88. Wallace, Macmillan dict., 483. Careless, Brown. Centennial story: the Board of Education for the City of Toronto, 1850–1950, ed. H. M. Cochrane (Toronto, 1950). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, VI: 81.