PLUMMER, JAMES HENRY, banker and businessman; b. 19 Feb. 1848 in Mary Tavy, England, son of William Plummer and Elizabeth Williams; brother of William Henry*; m. 4 Sept. 1872 Annie McConkey in Barrie, Ont., and they had three daughters and four sons, one of whom died in childhood; d. 10 Sept. 1932 in Toronto.
James H. Plummer immigrated to Upper Canada as a boy in 1859, when his father was appointed mine manager at Bruce Mines, on the north shore of Lake Huron. Educated at Upper Canada College in Toronto, he began work there with the Bank of Montreal in 1866. He joined the newly formed Canadian Bank of Commerce the following year and served as a branch manager in Barrie, Brantford, and Ottawa. In 1876 he was made an inspector. Two years later he left the bank and, with a brother, went to Bay City, Mich., to enter the lumber business. He returned to Canada in 1882 as assistant manager in Montreal of the Merchants’ Bank of Canada. After four years he moved back to Toronto and the Commerce as assistant general manager under Byron Edmund Walker*. Plummer quickly took on additional responsibilities, including improving the institution’s business in Britain and negotiating the acquisition of the Bank of British Columbia. In 1894 he was selected to head the editing committee for the Journal of the Canadian Bankers’ Association. Plummer’s banking credentials gained him status among Toronto’s business elites. He was, for instance, a director of the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company, headed by Commerce president George Albertus Cox*, and of Mexican Light and Power, with which railway magnate William Mackenzie* and promoter Frederick Stark Pearson* were involved. A member of various clubs, he served as commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in 1900–1.
In September 1902 Plummer retired from the Commerce. Although overwork was stated as the reason, he was actually about to begin the most strenuous and prominent chapter in his career. In June 1903 he was appointed president of Canadian Lake and Ocean Navigation, a Mackenzie, Mann and Company subsidiary managed by his brother Frank. He also forged a connection with the young and ambitious financier William Maxwell Aitken* by becoming a director of the Royal Securities Corporation [see John Fitzwilliam Stairs*]. In March 1903 he had been named a director of Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron in Alabama, a move that presaged a new interest in the growing business of steel. In May Plummer was added to the board of the troubled Dominion Iron and Steel Company [see Henry Melville Whitney*], which was run jointly with the Dominion Coal Company by a syndicate headed by James Ross* of Montreal. Both firms operated out of Sydney, N.S. By December Plummer had used his extensive connections to displace Ross as president of Dominion Iron and Steel against a background of labour tensions, the negotiation of a new contract between the companies for the supply of coal, and their corporate separation (and consequent release of capital needed for expansion). He would remain president until 1916, his term marked by intrigue and controversy.
As part of his campaign against Ross and to ingratiate himself with the local business community, Plummer vowed to move Dominion Iron and Steel’s head office from Montreal to Sydney, a promise he would never keep. In fact, he spent most of his time in Toronto, where he and his family were socially and philanthropically engaged, though he eventually built a summer home in Sydney that was designed by the Montreal architects Charles Jewett Saxe and John Smith Archibald. With neither the inclination nor the experience to run the firm on a day-to-day basis, he recruited one of the most experienced local steel men, Graham Fraser* of Nova Scotia Steel and Coal, to manage the enterprise. As early as May 1904 Dominion Coal was using the ships of Canadian Lake and Ocean. An ally and expert in the industrial application of electricity, Frederic Thomas Nicholls*, likely had input on the steelworks’ power plant, mammoth cranes, and other hydro-driven forces.
The rivalry between Plummer and Ross resulted in increasingly strained relations between Dominion Iron and Steel and Dominion Coal. In 1906 the coal contract broke down. The resulting litigation, which centred on the quantity and quality of coal and contractual legalities, was prolonged and expensive. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council would decide in the steel company’s favour in 1909, thanks partly to the expert counsel of Toronto lawyer Zebulon Aiton Lash*. Even William Mackenzie, despite great effort and his financial interest in both companies, was unable to work out a compromise between the two men. Ross subsequently withdrew from Dominion Coal, and in 1909–10 the companies were reunited after a syndicate headed by Plummer (and which included Sir William Cornelius Van Horne* as vice-president, as well as Aitken, Edward Rogers Wood*, Rodolphe Forget*, and Sir Henry Mill Pellatt) bought a controlling stake in Dominion Coal. In late 1909 Plummer became president of both firms as well as the new holding company, Dominion Steel Corporation Limited. The merger, which also led to control of the Sydney and Louisburg Railway Company and the Cumberland Railway and Coal Company, paved the way for Plummer to complete a major plant expansion and necessary financial restructuring. To address the firm’s chronic indebtedness as well as to finance the merger, he juggled loans with bond and stock issues.
Originally, Plummer had supported Aitken in his quest to combine all the steel interests in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario. Aitken in turn recognized Plummer’s success in pulling his steel company out of the debt created by Whitney. However, when Aitken failed to take over Nova Scotia Steel and Coal, he promptly dropped his interest in the Maritime-based companies and concentrated instead on a merger involving smaller steel firms in Montreal and Hamilton, Ont. He ended up antagonizing Plummer by luring away his manager and a key customer, the Montreal Rolling Mills Company, and by creating a less indebted and more integrated competitor with a name, the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) [see Robert Hobson*], that reflected even loftier ambitions: an organization that extended across the country. Plummer launched a political attack on Aitken’s merger, alleging that Stelco, through its alliance with Canadian wire producers affiliated with United States Steel, posed a threat to Canadian sovereignty. The challenge did little damage, and Stelco rapidly became the most profitable steel company in the country. In the face of this competition, Plummer worked assiduously to enlarge the Sydney plant, introducing bigger coke ovens, more blast and open-hearth furnaces and Bessemer converters, new merchant and finishing mills, and a second power plant, a task largely completed by 1914. That same year, after much lobbying by Plummer and others, the tariffs on rods, abolished in 1911, were restored. Though opposed to the Liberal government’s proposed reciprocity agreement of 1911 [see Sir Wilfrid Laurier*], Plummer rarely, if ever, demonstrated partisan affiliation.
Regarded by one insider as “an able, and fair minded, financial man” and responsible for improving the security of Dominion Steel, Plummer was seen differently by critics of the firm’s largely absentee owners and by witnesses to his brutal crushing of strikes in 1904 and 1909–10 [see James Bryson McLachlan]. One colliery doctor described him as “an Englishman stubborn and cruel out of time and out of place in Canada.”
Plummer took over Dominion Coal at a critical time. The infamous and bloody strike that had begun on 6 July 1909 would last for over nine months. The company had used every tool at its disposal, from evicting strikers’ families from their company-owned homes to intimidation, even murder, by company thugs. Although some hoped that Plummer’s arrival would change the situation, Plummer was as determined as the old management under James Ross to break the strike and to eradicate the influence of the United Mine Workers of America. In January 1910 he convinced the Nova Scotia government to outlaw picketing at all coalmine sites affected by the strike. When the international president of the UMWA requested a meeting to discuss recognition of his union, Plummer’s reply of 8 Feb. 1910 was both blunt and uncompromising: “an interview with the representatives of your association is unnecessary, and in addition might be misunderstood and regarded as recognition of the United Mineworkers of America, which is against our policy.” Plummer’s steely resolve had its impact. By the end of February support for the strike was largely broken, though the final declaration of surrender would take another two months.
As contentious was Plummer’s continuing engagement with, and seeming preference for, central Canadian business interests. At the same time that he headed the Dominion Steel interests, he was president of Canadian Lake Transportation, vice-president of both Mexican Light and Power and Cox’s Canada Life Assurance, and a director of numerous other companies, including Canadian Explosives Limited. For some years his son Charles Hammond Ford, who died in 1910, had managed Canadian Lake. Such involvement invariably generated alliances, as well as resentments and potential conflicts of interest. Despite being identified as a Toronto capitalist, Plummer was recognized for what were described as his “services” to Nova Scotia with an honorary dcl by King’s College in May 1914. He subsequently endowed a fellowship in English at King’s.
During World War I, Dominion Steel and its earning capacity boomed. In the winter of 1914–15, after the Shell Committee of the Imperial Munitions Board (IMB) had asked Canadian Explosives for large amounts of picric acid and trinitrotoluene (TNT), Plummer, aided by American inventor Thomas Alva Edison, set up a plant to recover toluene from the coking operations of Dominion Steel, one of only two firms with the capability. Through the intervention of Joseph Wesley Flavelle of the IMB, the works also received orders for massive quantities of steel plate. In 1917 Plummer was appointed to committees formed in Canada and Britain to deal with the transportation of soldiers and their dependants after the war. His sons Thomas Herman and Maurice Vernon had served in British artillery regiments. A daughter, Mary Elizabeth, and Joan Louise Arnoldi, both lieutenants, went to England in October 1914 as field commissioners for the Canadian contingent. The following month they constituted the Canadian Field Comforts Commission, which distributed socks, tobacco, and other amenities to the troops.
Stimulated by IMB efforts to promote shipbuilding, new talks aimed at steel mergers in Nova Scotia had been initiated in 1915, at a time when Dominion Steel and Nova Scotia Steel and Coal were turning out nearly half of the nation’s primary iron and steel. A year later Plummer resigned as president, though he remained on the board. This involvement ended in 1920 with the absorption of the two Nova Scotia companies into the British Empire Steel Corporation (Besco), a takeover that Plummer and six other Dominion Steel directors opposed. Despite their public effort to block the merger on the grounds that the promoters purposely overcapitalized the venture in order to reap enormous profits, the dissenters failed and were unceremoniously excluded from the new board. With this repudiation, at age 72 Plummer retired from active business. Though in ill health, he would live more than a decade longer, dividing his time between Europe and Toronto.
Outside of business, Plummer, a prominent Anglican and devotee of sacred music, had briefly been choirmaster of St Thomas’s Church in Toronto and a delegate to synod. His interest in architecture was exercised in his travels with his family and the houses he bought or built throughout his career, including his purchase in 1907 of the elegant Sylvan Towers residence overlooking Toronto’s Rosedale ravine. A nephew remembered him as “reserved in manner” but “possessed of a tremendous family pride.”
Within months in 1928 Plummer lost both his wife and their son Thomas. Two years later his son Maurice would pass away. His surviving brother, Anglican clergyman, organist, and choirmaster Frederick George, to whom he was close, died in 1929. Plummer himself succumbed in 1932 to “senility” and heart failure and, with minimal attention from the press, he was buried in St James’ Cemetery in Toronto.
In addition to publishing numerous statements in the newspapers, James Henry Plummer authored Iron and steel in Nova Scotia ([N.S.], 1912), reprinted with changes from the Canadian Mining Journal (Toronto), 33 (1912): 605–8, and available in microform (CIHM no.80022), and Address by Mr. J. H. Plummer, D. C. L., President, Dominion Steel Corporation, Limited, at King’s College encaenia, 14th May, 1914 ([Windsor, N.S., 1914]). Although Plummer’s death registration (AO, RG 80-8-0-1328, no.6196) gives 9 Sept. 1932 as his date of death, his estate file (AO, RG 22-305, no.70851) shows 10 Sept. 1932. The death notice in the Toronto Daily Star, 10 Sept. 1932, says “Saturday, September 10th.” The 12 Sept. 1932 issue of the Globe refers to his death “over the weekend.”
AO, RG 80-5-0-24, p.277. LAC, R233-37-6, dist. Toronto Centre (116), subdist. Ward 3 (A): 1. NSA, MG 1, vol.2155, mfm. 15001 (J. D. Fraser, “Graham Fraser – his life and work,” between 1940 and 1945). Globe, 1903–32. Sydney Record (Sydney, N.S.), 1903. Toronto Daily Star, 1904–36. Canadian annual rev., 1902–20. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). Dominion Coal Company, Limited v. Dominion Iron and Steel Company, Limited,  Law Reports, Appeal Cases (London): 293–311 (Privy Council). Dominion Steel Corporation Limited, Dominion Steel Corporation Limited: a brief account of its coal and steel properties ([Montreal], 1912). W. J. A. Donald, The Canadian iron and steel industry: a study in the economic history of a protected industry (Boston, 1915). David Frank, “The Cape Breton coal industry and the rise and fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation,” in Cape Breton historical essays, ed. Don MacGillivray and B. [D.] Tennyson (Sydney, 1980), 110–32. Craig Heron, “The Great War and Nova Scotia steelworkers,” Acadiensis, 16 (1986–87), no.2: 3–34. E. J. McCracken, “The steel industry of Nova Scotia” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1932). G. P. Marchildon, Profits and politics: Beaverbrook and the Gilded Age of Canadian finance (Toronto, 1996). John Mellor, The company store: James Bryson McLachlan and the Cape Breton coal miners, 1900–1925 (Toronto, 1983). J. O. Plummer, Canadian pioneers: “history of the Plummer family” ([Toronto, 1958]). Victor Ross and A. St L. Trigge, A history of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, with an account of the other banks which now form part of its organization (3v., Toronto, 1920–34), 2. Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.2. Univ. College of Cape Breton, Beaton Instit., “Steel technology in Nova Scotia 1900–1965” (Sydney, 1991).