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SMALLMAN, JOHN BAMLET, businessman; b. 9 March 1849 in Clifden, County Galway (Republic of Ireland), son of James Knight Smallman and Eliza Switzer; d. unmarried 14 Feb. 1916 in London, Ont.

J. B. Smallman’s family emigrated from Ireland in 1859 and settled in London, where his father became active as a commission merchant. When John was 14 he was apprenticed as a clerk in a dry goods store. He remained there until 1877, by which time he had saved enough to form a partnership with Lemuel Hill Ingram, a fellow Methodist and a clerk in a local wholesale establishment.

The partners’ dry goods business began aggressively, specializing in the cheap goods made possible by rail transportation and factory production. Though it did not initially occupy a large store – Smallman and Ingram employed only five female clerks and one male supervisor in 1878 and had annual sales of $37,000 – the business was run according to the latest marketing advice. From the beginning the store had a refund and exchange policy; most sales were for cash; the owners practised month-to-month buying and maintained close control of inventory; and, instead of marking down stock, they bought cheaper lines when they wanted to run sales. As early as 1882 they were purchasing direct from British suppliers on cash terms. It was a store straight out of the retailing textbook.

And the business prospered. After a decade in operation, its trade had increased to $110,000, staff productivity had more than doubled (to $9,200 per clerk), expenses had fallen from 16 to 11 per cent of turnover, and profits were averaging a handsome 10 per cent on sales. Not surprisingly, Smallman and Ingram began to think of expanding. New premises were acquired in 1892, adjacent properties were purchased, shoe and toy departments were added (only to be discarded as insufficiently profitable), and then an even larger location was secured. By the turn of the century the store was employing more than 100 clerks.

At Ingram’s death in January 1901, Smallman bought his interest. A man with a firm sense of family enterprise, he immediately brought his nephew and two of Ingram’s children into the business. When Gordon John Ingram proved the most energetic of the second generation, Smallman incorporated the company in 1908, made him a shareholder and office manager, and let it be known that he was the heir apparent.

Consumers in the Forest City were more conservative in their buying habits than shoppers in Toronto or Hamilton. Consequently, dry goods, a dying trade in other places, remained in a relatively healthy state in London; there were almost as many dry goods stores there in 1905 as there had been a decade earlier. Moreover, several would outlive Smallman and Ingram.

This trend makes Smallman’s decision in 1904 to transform his store into a departmentalized emporium less understandable than it would have been elsewhere. Perhaps he was motivated by increased competition from the Kingsmill store across the street or by his intense desire to remain progressive; he explained to a journalist that London deserved at least one truly “up-to-date store.” Whatever the reason, by 1907 the business had been revolutionized. Like most department stores [see Timothy Eaton*; Robert Simpson*], Smallman and Ingram radiated confidence and wealth. Sheathed in red brick, stone trim, and plate glass, inside the store boasted staircases with marble treads, 96,000 square feet of selling space, a restaurant and soda fountain, public washrooms, a mail-order service, 42 departments, and 200 clerks.

It was, however, easier for Smallman to change the business than it was for him to accept a new role. The store was now too big for one man to manage, but, ever the 19th-century proprietor, he found it difficult to share responsibilities with any save family. This managerial conservatism became acute during World War I, when Gordon Ingram enlisted and Smallman attempted to run the business on his own. He experienced a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. On his release he tried to resume his duties but suffered a stroke; two weeks later, on 14 Feb. 1916, a second stroke killed him. His store, dressed in black crêpe, closed for three days; he was succeeded as president by Gordon Ingram.

J. B. Smallman had been a private person, in contrast to his elder and more outgoing brother, Thomas Henry, a London capitalist with extensive business involvements. Following their father’s death in 1880, John lived with his stepmother and two stepsisters. According to his obituary in the London Advertiser, he never mixed in politics. A member of First Methodist Church, he quietly supported numerous charities, among them the Children’s Aid Society and the Irish Benevolent Society; the bulk of his shares in his business were bequeathed to the Western University of London, Ontario.

David Monod

AO, RG 22-321, no.12485; RG 80-8-0-569, no.21642. London Public Library and Art Museum (London, Ont.), London scrapbooks, 5: 78; 23: 70–89. NA, RG 31, C1, 1901, London, Ward 3, subdiv.2: 5 (mfm. at AO). Univ. of Western Ont. Library, Regional Coll. (London), Smallman & Ingram account-books, journal, 1877–93. London Advertiser, 15 Feb. 1916. London Free Press, 12 Jan. 1901; 15, 17 Feb. 1916; 15 Feb. 1917; 1 Dec. 1944; 3 July 1945. S. P. Benson, Counter cultures: saleswomen, managers and customers in American department stores, 1890–1940 (Urbana, Ill., 1986). B. F. Clarke, “Case studies of the London elite” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., 1978), 181–82. J. L. Dampier, “Smallman & Ingram Ltd.: a history of the period 1877 to 1901” (research paper, Dept. of Business Administration, Univ. of Western Ont., 1935). Directory, London, 1894, 1905, 1914. Industries of Canada: historical and commercial sketches: London, Woodstock, Ingersoll, Guelph, Berlin, Waterloo, StThomas, Windsor, and environs . . . (Toronto, 1887). W. R. Leach, “Transformations in a culture of consumption: women and department stores, 1890–1925,” Journal of American Hist. (Bloomington, Ind.), 71 (1984–85): 319–42. M. B. Miller, The bon marché: bourgeois culture and the department store (Princeton, N.J., 1981). J. L. Santink, Timothy Eaton and the rise of his department store (Toronto, 1990).

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David Monod, “SMALLMAN, JOHN BAMLET,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smallman_john_bamlet_14E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smallman_john_bamlet_14E.html
Author of Article:   David Monod
Title of Article:   SMALLMAN, JOHN BAMLET
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   December 2, 2023