Muir, James, banker; b. 11 Nov. 1891 in Sheriffmuir, Stobo, Scotland, son of William Muir and Jane Clark; m. 27 Sept. 1919 Phyllis Marguerite Brayley (d. 1961) in Montreal, and they had one daughter; d. 10 April 1960 near Peebles, Scotland.
James Muir was born into humble circumstances. His father was a roadman who worked on county routes in the Lowlands of Scotland. His mother had been a domestic servant. The family cottage was situated several miles outside of Peebles. Late in life, Muir would relish associating his New World success with his ancestral roots.
Red-haired Jamie attended the local one-room school from age four and a half until he was 12, and then he studied at the high school in Peebles. His dominie (teacher) there, William Forrest, left an indelible impression on young Muir; education was an introduction to the competition of life. Obituaries would claim that learning was reinforced by a “clout of the head” if a student’s memory faltered, and that in Forrest’s eyes, Muir was a promising student, “aye guid at tottin’ up figures.” Vigorous, manly sports such as boxing reinforced Muir’s approach to life; his nose was slightly crooked, the result of an opponent’s blow.
The classroom fostered in Muir a belief in education as the engine of personal advancement. For instance, later in life he would support the work of the Canadian Association for Adult Education under its dynamic director, James Robbins Kidd*. Like the classroom, the church also influenced Muir’s character. Every Sunday the family – Jamie had two brothers and a sister – walked six miles to St Andrew’s Church in Peebles. At the kirk, the principles of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, with its emphasis on uprightness and worldly activism, were instilled. In adulthood Muir would not be overtly religious, but the values of his Presbyterian upbringing – hard work, moral flintiness, and public rectitude – would echo through his life and be readily transfused into his financial career.
Muir’s formal education ended in July 1907, when he left school and joined the Commercial Bank of Scotland. He liked to tell the story of how he graduated from school on a Wednesday morning and then raced across town to the Peebles branch of the bank, where he applied for the position of junior and found himself sitting at a ledger desk by two o’clock that same day. His initial salary was £10 a year. This hurried arrival in the workplace created a legacy. Scottish banks hired their juniors at age 16, but Muir was only 15. He told his prospective employer that he had been born in 1890, a date that would follow him through much of his life. Later, his vanity would lead him to indicate that he had been born in 1892, thereby making himself seem younger. By serving with the Commercial Bank in Peebles for three years, Muir committed himself to a career that opened the door to the modern urban professional class, as banking did for many Scottish lads.
Employment in the Commercial Bank of Scotland inducted Muir into an already well-established culture. Dating back to the formation of the Bank of Scotland in 1695, Scottish banking was renowned for its stability and versatility in filling the financial needs of the country’s industry, trade, and domestic consumption. Its strength rested on a number of characteristics: a branch organization that allowed a bank to diversify its operations across the nation, the smooth exchange of notes between banks, joint-stock ownership, lending by cash credit, and the acceptance of interest-paying deposits. These features and their implementation were enshrined in practical handbooks such as George Rae’s The country banker: his clients, cares, and work, from an experience of forty years (London, 1885) and James William Gilbart’s The history, principles, and practice of banking (London, 1882), both works that had been revised and reprinted numerous times under various titles. Juniors such as Muir were expected to assimilate these guides as fervently as they had absorbed the Shorter Catechism. The goal was to produce a cadre of systematically trained employees who could be deployed throughout a bank’s network with the assurance that they would provide predictable service. The education of young bankers was a combination of on-the-job learning – keeping ledgers, manning the teller’s cage, and even mastering copperplate handwriting – and taking courses administered by the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland. In 1909 Muir met the organization’s standards and became an associate. His annual salary rose to £30. Although the Commercial Bank of Scotland, founded in Edinburgh in 1810, was one of the country’s most progressive financial institutions, Muir sought wider horizons. In 1910 he joined the London office of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China in the expectation of being sent overseas.
In 1911 a chance meeting with a Canadian in London drew Muir’s attention to the Royal Bank of Canada, which had opened an office in London two years earlier. The Royal, under the aggressive leadership of its general manager, Edson Loy Pease*, was fast asserting itself in Canada and internationally. Chartered just after confederation as the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax, it had moved its head office to Montreal, changed its name to the more cosmopolitan Royal Bank of Canada in 1901, and was rapidly expanding across the nation and abroad. This growth was fuelled by the procedures Pease’s predecessor, David Hunter Duncan*, had instituted and by the bank boys, as the young personnel, frequently of Scottish origin, were often called. The joint manager of the Royal’s London office, James Mackie, a fellow Scot, liked Muir’s credentials and offered him a job on the understanding that Muir would pay his own way across the Atlantic.
In January 1912 Muir landed in Halifax and proceeded to the Royal’s head office in Montreal, where he passed muster and was quickly dispatched as a junior to the branch in Moose Jaw, Sask. In photographs from these years he is attired as a respectable banker, wearing a suit, white shirt, and bow tie; others show him involved in baseball high jinks with fellow bank juniors. Like Peter Pupkin, the teller in Stephen Butler Leacock*’s Sunshine sketches of a little town (London and Toronto, 1912), Muir was becoming a member of the respectable classes, a professional, and a pillar of the community.
Banking was a much-regimented business defined by a hierarchy based on authority and skills. Muir climbed this ladder steadily and impressively. In 1916 he was transferred to Winnipeg, where he was appointed inspector. The position required him to audit the entire branch system, thereby offering him an intimate knowledge of how the whole bank operated. That same year Muir was made an accountant and, in another sign of preferment, in 1917 he was transferred to the head office in Montreal, where he could see the ebb and flow of national credit making. Unlike many bank boys, who were overwhelmingly a very patriotic group, he appears to have made no attempt to serve in the First World War, perhaps an early indication of his powerful ambition to succeed in business before all else.
The years immediately before the war had seen a spate of mergers that had consolidated Canadian banking into a handful of large institutions centred in Montreal and Toronto. The Royal Bank under Pease had proved to be the most adept in these manoeuvres, joining with strategically situated regional banks such as the Union Bank of Halifax (1910) while at the same time vigorously expanding across Canada and into the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe. By the early 1920s the Royal surpassed the Bank of Montreal as Canada’s largest bank, measured in assets. The Royal’s corporate culture emphasized the forced advancement of the next generation of managers. Muir was apt material. He conformed to the social pattern of Canadian bankers who were to be model middle-class citizens; their respectability was good for business. Juniors were prohibited from marrying until their salaries could support a family. (This regulation allowed the bank to deploy them around the country without encumbrance.) In 1919 Muir married in Montreal.
Like so many Scots before him, Muir began to make his mark in the ranks of Montreal’s anglophone elite. He also engaged in sports that flattered his emerging social status and at the same time gratified his own competitive nature. Golf and curling, both of Scottish origin, were the quintessential banker’s sports. In 1921 Muir took up golf and immediately earned a reputation for his aggressive play. “Run for your life,” a more leisurely golfer is said to have yelled on the course of the Mount Bruno County Club, “here comes Jim Muir!”
Muir’s managerial advance continued in 1923 when he was appointed inspector in Winnipeg for the Royal’s western region. In 1925 he was sent to its New York agency to become an assistant inspector. Frequent transfers and new challenges were part of the bank’s testing process for up-and-comers. In 1926 one of these challenges entailed a tour of El Salvador and Guatemala with Graham Ford Towers*, a young trade specialist hired from McGill University, in search of possible branch locations. That same year Muir was temporarily marooned at a snowbound train station in the Cordillera de los Andes while inspecting South American branches. In 1928 he became manager of the Royal’s main branch in Winnipeg, a crucially important location for the bank’s activities in the west. It would be his only front-line executive experience in retail operations, but it rounded out his education. In 1931 he was called back to the head office in Montreal, where he would spend the rest of his career.
As general inspector, Muir oversaw the bank’s entire retail operation. He therefore witnessed the immense strain placed on the financial system by the Great Depression. No major Canadian bank succumbed during the period, although Muir was privy to what were at times desperate measures to shore up the institution’s liquidity in these grim years. Canada’s lack of a government-controlled central bank had troubled the Royal since the last war, and when Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett* established the Bank of Canada in 1934, the Royal welcomed the initiative, especially since one of its own, Graham Towers, was appointed its first governor. Although the Royal Bank’s president, Sir Herbert Samuel Holt*, had become a symbol of capitalism’s failings in the depression, the organization had long held a progressive attitude towards reform of the nation’s monetary affairs. Bankers, Muir told the Advertising Club of Montreal in 1935, were not “a body of men sitting Midas-like upon a hoard of money”; instead they rendered Canadians “a devoted, faithful and intelligent service.” When Alberta premier William Aberhart* threatened to ride roughshod over Alberta’s banks, the Canadian Bankers’ Association dispatched Muir to Edmonton to participate in a series of radio broadcasts to counter Social Credit theory with the “plain facts.” At the same time the association commissioned political economist and humorist Stephen Leacock to head west to poke fun at Social Credit’s populism.
In late 1934 Holt’s failing health had delivered the Royal’s presidency into the hands of Morris Watson Wilson, a professionally trained Nova Scotian who had climbed the ladder from a teller’s cage to the head office. The following year Muir was appointed assistant general manager of the bank. Canadian banks used the Scottish nomenclature for their executives; Muir was now the chief operating officer and, in many minds, heir apparent. As such, he was central to the bank’s pivotal role in the administration of Canada’s financial policies during the Second World War – foreign-exchange controls, war-bond drives, the organization of rationing – and its internal adjustments to the strain of war, in particular to the employment of large numbers of women to replace men who enlisted. In 1944 he chaired the Canadian Bankers’ Association committee on post-war planning. The committee concluded that the banks were “likely to be interested to some extent at least in almost every phase of post-war reconstruction.” Muir counselled his more conservative colleagues to accept the new Keynesian economy with “graceful acquiescence.” The banks consequently participated in the interventionist economy by helping to finance programs for rural electrification, home improvement, and small business start-ups.
Wilson’s unexpected death in 1946 provoked a crisis in succession at the Royal. Muir, who had been named general manager in December 1945, was deemed still too young to take the helm and so the recently appointed vice-president, Sydney George Dobson, competent but unassertive, became president. The gentlemanly Dobson, however, lacked the competitive verve to push the bank into the burgeoning post-war economy with its strong possibilities for retail and corporate banking. In October 1949 Dobson acknowledged that the time had come “to make way for a younger man” and he stepped down. Muir, who had been made a director in 1947 and vice-president in 1948, took over as president in October. During the next 11 years he transformed the bank from an efficient but narrowly defined financial institution reminiscent of the Exchange Bank in Leacock’s turn-of-the-century fictional town of Mariposa into a more diversified and innovative organization that asserted its presence from shopping plazas to corporate boardrooms.
On the retail front, Muir promised to make the Royal “the bank with a thousand front doors.” Instead of expecting its clients to come to it, the bank would carry its wares to the people. Suburban branches with ample parking were opened in places such as Don Mills in Toronto and Pointe-Claire on the island of Montreal. Others were established in Refugee Cove (Happy Valley-Goose Bay), Labrador, as well as in Gander, Nfld, and similar towns where Cold War projects had brought prosperity. Existing institutions were redesigned to rid them of their gloomy interiors; the formidable tellers’ cages were replaced with more welcoming one-stop wickets. Advertising, once thought by bankers to be unseemly, was begun in part because their institutions now had more services to offer. The revision of the Bank Act in 1954 allowed banks to issue mortgages. Instalment loans were introduced for the purchase of major items such as cars. Responding to Canada’s galloping consumer society, the Royal in 1957 provided personal chequing accounts. Fees were now charged for service. Retail banking in Canada ceased to be a relatively passive economic function and became more competitive and entrepreneurial as the institutions vied for clients. Muir drove the Royal’s transformation forward, deciding that his persona was to be associated with the bank’s new boldness. In 1958, amid much publicity, he escorted a ten-year-old Montreal girl to a branch where he personally opened a savings account for her. Aware that the bank was viewed in Quebec as a bastion of anglophone Montreal business interests, he opened additional branches in the province (128 by 1960), produced the annual report in French, and befriended politicians such as premier Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis. In 1949 the Royal had 727 branches; by 1960 it had 917 spread across Canada and 1,018 when its international branches – stretching from Rio de Janeiro to Paris – were counted.
On the corporate front, Muir went looking for new business. As the economy diversified and regionalized, he realized that the bank could not rest on its traditional portfolio of major clients largely from central Canada – companies that included Alcan Aluminium Limited, Imperial Oil Company Limited, and Noranda Mines Limited – but must tap into areas of growth. He travelled extensively – after buying one of the country’s first corporate aircraft – in Canada and abroad to seek out new clients. In the west, he connected the bank with emerging energy companies such as Husky Oil Limited and Westcoast Transmission Company Limited. In New York he brought in clients as diverse as General Motors Acceptance Corporation and the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Nearer home, he landed business from Edward Plunkett Taylor*’s Argus Corporation Limited and the growing media empires of Roy Herbert Thomson* (who became Lord Thomson in 1963) and Jack Kent Cooke*. To reinforce these corporate connections, he worked hard at maintaining close ties with important figures: politicians, including Prime Minister Louis-Stephen St-Laurent*, cabinet minister Clarence Decatur Howe, and Premier Duplessis; central bankers such as Graham Towers; and brilliant corporate lawyers, among them Montreal’s Lazarus Phillips*.
In 1949, when Muir became president, the Royal had total assets of $2.3 billion; by 1960 these had risen to $4.3 billion. During the same years annual profits rose from $10.9 million to $19.5 million and the bank’s dividend more than doubled. Under the pressure of Muir’s aggressive expansionism, the bank’s staff swelled from 10,983 employees in 1949 to 16,662 in 1960. Through all these developments, he ruled with authority. There was a dogmatic centralism in his leadership. He delegated poorly and, many said, led through fear as much as by vision. In a decade when Canadian banking was beginning to expand into new areas of service more in tune with the consumerist ethos of the post-war period, including home mortgages and short-term loans, he clung to aspects of the old-school banking culture. He believed that bankers learned their trade on the job and he was averse to abstract education. He resisted hiring university graduates, believing that good bankers were made out of quick-witted high-school graduates. Although computers were beginning to make their influence felt, he distrusted anything that diminished the autonomy of bankers who were supposed to be masters of all that they oversaw. He also conformed to the deeply entrenched view that banking was a male trade, even though the 1950s witnessed an influx of female employees in retail banking. By 1960 the majority of the bank’s staff members were women, but they were largely part-time, non-executive workers who, given the gender attitudes of the time, were thought unlikely to meet the demands of banking as a full-time profession. Throughout the system women continued to be called and considered “girls.”
Muir’s conservative instincts were matched by a towering ego. He missed no chance to present himself as the humble Lowlands lad who had done well in the New World. “I think one of the most important requirements for success,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1956, “is to form a very definite idea of what you want to be, and to do so at an early age.” He took every opportunity to emphasize his pre-eminence. In 1952, before the bank unveiled his portrait in its Montreal boardroom, he had surreptitiously instructed the head-office electrician to diminish the wattage of the lamps illuminating the portraits of his predecessors. He travelled in princely style, flying around the country in a Vickers Viscount turboprop airplane and keeping Rolls-Royce automobiles in New York and London.
Despite his egoism and his traditional methods, Muir possessed an ability to recognize new opportunities and to make dramatic strategic leaps. In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, he astounded Canadians by visiting the Soviet Union. His trip in a small way promoted rapprochement with the Soviets, but more importantly it also allowed the Royal to underwrite Canadian wheat sales to them. In 1958 he went to China and reported with regard to the Communist Party that the “vast majority of the people of China have a government they want, a government which is improving their lot, … a government which stands no chance of being supplanted.” Shortly thereafter, the Royal opened a representative office in Hong Kong. At home, Muir sensed the need for the bank to present a more modern face and joined forces with Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau*, Canadian National Railways president Donald Gordon*, New York developer William Zeckendorf, and American architect Ieoh Ming Pei to conceive the Place Ville Marie complex, whose construction in downtown Montreal was announced in May 1958. The building – Canada’s first steel and glass corporate skyscraper – would signify the shift of Montreal’s economy away from the anglophone dominance of St James Street (Rue Saint-Jacques) and would give the Royal an iconic new head office dominating the Montreal skyline.
The late 1950s saw Muir at the peak of his eminence. He was awarded honorary degrees by Bishop’s College in 1955, Dalhousie University in 1956, and the Université de Montréal in 1957. He joined many corporate boards, notably those of the Canadian Pacific Railway and Thomson Newspapers Limited. In his homeland, he was feted for his achievement. In 1952 he became a freeman of the Royal Burgh of Peebles and in 1959 he was installed as warden of Neidpath Castle, situated nearby and celebrated by author Sir Walter Scott. Thomson invited him to join the board of the Scotsman (Edinburgh). Despite Muir’s tight-fisted personal philosophy of life, he lent his prestige and the bank’s money to many worthy causes, notably the Montreal General Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital. The newly formed Canada Council for the Arts asked him to head its investment committee in 1957. Mindful of his immigrant roots, he spoke out on the importance of “unity in diversity” within Canada and the need “to minimize parochial attitudes and habits of thought” which created barriers to national advancement. Although he seemed to realize that the demographic face of Canada was changing dramatically, he himself adjusted little, remaining unilingual and always projecting his Scottish persona. The Royal would actually start hiring staff from various ethnic groups and advertising itself as a culturally diverse institution in the 1970s.
Muir worked as if he would live forever. He gave little thought to executive succession. “The picture of slippered ease, of escape from the troubles and demands and fret of responsibility,” the Gazette (Montreal) wrote, “had no pleasure for him.” On 10 April 1960 the end came quickly. While at the wheel of his Rolls-Royce, driving in the hills above Peebles, he died of a massive heart attack. At his funeral in Montreal, the Reverend Rudolph John Berlis, paraphrasing Sir James Matthew Barrie’s famous remark that “the poor, proud homes” of Scotland were its “greatest” university, noted in his eulogy that in the “university of the Scottish home,” Muir had “learned the virtues of thrift, industry, independence; there he learned that a man’s word is his bond; there he learned directness of speech and personal integrity.” Muir is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Outremont (Montreal).
Royal Bank of Can. Arch. (Montreal) holds documents on James Muir’s career and on the bank’s operations during the years of his executive responsibility. Among these documents, to which access is limited, are minute-books of the board of directors, correspondence, speeches, reports on the bank’s policies and operations, photographs, and biographical materials (among them chronicles of his trips to the Soviet Union and China). Royal Bank Magazine (Montreal) contains many articles on Muir and the world of banking he inhabited, including James Muir, “The travail of the trans-Andean trail,” October 1926, and “James Muir, 1891–1960,” March–April 1960: 9. Canadian Bankers’ Assoc. (Toronto) has in its archives files on the activities in which Muir participated (such as File 87-501-27, concerning the campaign to counter Social Credit attacks on the federal banking system in the 1930s). The official journal of the association published many articles on Canadian banking policies and the challenges that the industry had to face during Muir’s career, such as A. W. Rogers, “The Bank Act revision proceedings – 1954,” Canadian Banker (Toronto), 62 (1955), no.1: 25–53, and on pp.54–64 in the same issue, W. E. McLaughlin, “Mortgage lending by Canadian banks: its background and introduction,” as well as articles on Muir, one being Miriam Chapin’s “James Muir,” 68 (1961), no.2: 38–48. Many books have been written on the general background of the evolution of Scottish and Canadian banking, notably S. G. Checkland, Scottish banking: a history, 1695–1973 (Glasgow, 1975) and E. P. Neufeld, The financial system of Canada: its growth and development (Toronto, 1972). The author’s Quick to the frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto, 1993) gives the bank’s history and analyses the role Muir played in its development.
General Reg. Office for Scot. (Edinburgh), Reg. of births, Stobo, 23 Nov. 1891. Instit. Généal. Drouin, Fonds Drouin, Anglican, Saint Stephen (Montréal), 27 sept. 1919. Gazette (Montreal), 11, 15 April 1960.
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Cite This Article
Duncan McDowall, “MUIR, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 18, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/muir_james_18E.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:||Duncan McDowall|
|Title of Article:||MUIR, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 18|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2013|
|Year of revision:||2013|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|