DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

BOUTILLIER, THOMAS – Volume IX (1861-1870)

d. 8 Dec. 1861 at Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

TURNBULL, WILLIAM WALLACE, businessman and philanthropist; b. 23 May 1828 in Bear River, N.S.; m. 13 June 1854 Julia Caroline Hatheway, sister of George Luther Hatheway*, in Maugerville, N.B., and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 26 June 1899 in Saint John, N.B.

William Wallace Turnbull was the second son of William Baxter Turnbull, whose grandparents had emigrated from Edinburgh, and Relief Ann Tucker, a descendant of loyalists. In 1846 he moved to Saint John, where he was employed as a clerk by W. D. W. Hubbard, an auctioneer. After less than two years he became a bookkeeper in the firm of G. and J. Salter.

In 1851 Turnbull started his own business as a wholesale grocer and provisions merchant, and a few years afterwards also engaged in shipowning and the carrying trade. Although he was described in an obituary as “the most successful merchant” in Saint John, he began Turnbull and Company with only $200 and, possibly because of “a good number of bad debts and unwise ventures” in his early business life, he spent many years before acquiring praise from the commercial community. Following the great fire of 1877, in which his South Market Wharf premises were lost, Turnbull moved to Ward Street and began a partnership with Joseph Flewelling Merritt. Six years later Gabriel Wetmore Merritt joined them. Turnbull was an active participant on the council of the Saint John Board of Trade, serving from 1867 to 1872 and from 1886 to 1887.

As a businessman in a city in the Maritimes during a period of economic change, Turnbull was most cognizant of the changes resulting from confederation. He was strongly opposed to the National Policy [see Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley], claiming that it wrung “large sums in taxes from the pockets of the people, without . . . [giving] them . . . any compensating advantages.” He favoured free trade as being “thoroughly sound in principle” and capable of working “the greatest good to the greatest number of our people.” Although not actively involved in politics, Turnbull, perhaps not surprisingly, was a Liberal.

James Davies Lewin, a fellow officer of Turnbull’s at the Bank of New Brunswick, was to observe after his death that he had always been “ready to adopt new methods and take up new lines of business.” In common with many others who sought avenues for investment, Turnbull was attracted by railways. He was one of the group that built the New Brunswick Railway from Gibson, opposite Fredericton, to Edmundston, relinquishing his interest in 1880. Turnbull also invested in local real estate. In 1892 he founded the Turnbull Real Estate Company, the first such company to be incorporated in Saint John, which at the time of his death was the largest owner of property in the city. About 1896 he sold his interest in Turnbull and Company to the Merritts, who reorganized the firm as Merritt Brothers and Company. Turnbull’s last business decisions thus reflected the declining profile of the wholesale merchants in post-confederation Saint John.

Although Turnbull devoted himself almost entirely to business, he also took an active role in several voluntary associations. A lifetime total abstainer, as a young man he had been a member of the Sons of Temperance, holding a number of offices in its New Brunswick division. He was elected president of the Saint John Protestant Orphans’ Asylum (later the New Brunswick Protestant Orphans’ Home) in 1884, a position he held until two years before his death.

Towards the end of his life Turnbull gave much thought to the possibility of establishing in Saint John a home for incurables, who at that time could seek refuge only in the poor-house. The year before he died he visited a number of such institutions in the United States. Noting that Saint John was no longer attracting large numbers of sailors, he offered to endow a home for incurables with $100,000 if the federal government donated the Marine Hospital for that purpose. After due consideration, Ottawa agreed, perhaps because it had learned that Turnbull had added a codicil to his will directing his executors to provide the funds for the home. The Home for Incurables, or, as it was popularly known, the Turnbull Home, was established in 1899 after Turnbull’s death. Turnbull had specified that “no one shall be disqualified as a beneficiary on account of race, sex, age, creed or color.” Preference was to be given to the destitute of Saint John, although those in medical need who could pay something towards the services would also be admitted. This “splendid benevolence” was the ultimate example of Turnbull’s generosity to his adopted city. His philanthropic legacy placed him among a select group of Saint John’s citizens.

Turnbull, who had been raised a Presbyterian, later attended Anglican services with his family but did not consider himself “a member of this or any other church” because “his mind [was] unsettled as to what [was] really the orthodox doctrine of faith and practice.” On the day of his funeral the wholesale grocers of North and South Market wharfs and Ward Street closed their businesses in order to attend the Anglican service at St John’s (Stone) Church for this “self-made man.”

Turnbull was survived by his wife and five children, one of whom, Wallace Rupert Turnbull*, pioneered aeronautical research in Canada in his laboratory at Rothesay, N.B. At the time of his death he was probably the wealthiest businessman in Saint John, his estate being estimated at $750,000. In addition to the bequest to the home for incurables and $10,000 to St John’s Church, he left substantial sums to his children. He instructed that the money for his daughters was to be for “the sole separate use of each of them and not to be subject to the management of their husbands.”

Elizabeth W. McGahan

N.B. Museum, Turnbull family, cb doc. PANB, RG 7, RS71, 1899, W. W. Turnbull. Daily Telegraph (Saint John, N.B.), 1, 27 June 1899. StJohn Daily Sun, 27, 29 June 1899. Saint John Globe, 3 May, 27, 29 June 1899. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.2. E. W. McGahan, “The port in the city: Saint John, N.B. (1867–1911) and the process of integration” (phd thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1979), 122, 763, 765. Harold McCullagh, A century of caring: the story of the New Brunswick Protestant Orphans’ Home (St Stephen [-Milltown], N.B., 1986), 147.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Elizabeth W. McGahan, “TURNBULL, WILLIAM WALLACE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/turnbull_william_wallace_12E.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/turnbull_william_wallace_12E.html
Author of Article:   Elizabeth W. McGahan
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   December 8, 2023