John Molson

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John Molson
John Molson Sr.jpg
Born(1763-12-28)December 28, 1763
Moulton, Lincolnshire, England, UK
DiedJanuary 11, 1836(1836-01-11) (aged 72)
Boucherville, Lower Canada

John Molson (December 28, 1763 – January 11, 1836) was an English-born brewer and entrepreneur in colonial Quebec and Lower Canada. He was the founder of Molson Brewery.

Birth and early life[edit]

In 1763, John Molson was born in the village of Moulton near Spalding, Lincolnshire, England.[1] His father John Molson senior (1730–1770) had, in 1760, married Mary Elsdale (1739–1772), the eldest daughter of Samuel Elsdale (1704–1788), of Surfleet. Her brother, Robinson Elsdale (1744–1783), was a celebrated privateer, whose unpublished exploits formed the basis of the novel by Frederick Marryat, The Privateersman (1846). Before the marriage, John Molson senior inherited a property known as Snake Hall,[2] in Moulton Eaugate[3] which consisted of a home and various outbuildings associated with 38 acres (15 ha) of land.

John Molson senior died on June 4, 1770. His will bequeathed properties to his wife and five surviving children. Under their marriage settlement, Snake Hall went to Mary, and was to then pass on to his eldest son, John, upon her death. She died on September 21, 1772. John senior had named four guardians and trustees for the estate; the young John Molson's financial affairs were overseen by his paternal uncle, Thomas Molson but in September 1771 Thomas turned over the duties of trustee and guardian to Samuel Elsdale, possibly due to poor health, as he died the following spring. Under Samuel Elsdale's oversight, Snake Hall was rented out to the benefit of their trusts. John went to live with a man named William Robinson, and at age 12 in 1776 was consigned to the care of a Mr Whitehead, who was paid for his board and education until 1780, when he turned 16. Writers have criticized Samuel Elsdale for his oversight but he seems to have performed his duties prudently, although John Molson plainly chafed under his guardianship.[4]

In 1782, at the age of 18, Molson immigrated to Quebec, in a ship that was leaking so badly he switched ships mid-ocean.[4] In 1786 he returned briefly to England, and it was during that year that Molson picked up the book Theoretic Hints on an Improved Practice in Brewing by John Richardson. Molson returned to Quebec with more money and a new mindset. Many British Loyalists were immigrating to Quebec from the United States. This new influx increased the demand for beer. Molson worked hard, staying up long into the night. He hired an apprentice, Christopher Cook, and a loyalist housemaid, Sarah Insley Vaughan. He married her on 7 April 1801 at Christ Church in Montreal after she had bore him three children.[5]

Sarah (1751–1829) was the daughter of Thomas Vaughan of Harnham Hall, Morpeth, Northumberland. She was the niece of Wilmot Vaughan, 1st Earl of Lisburne and through her mother's family, the Aynsleys, a cousin of the Duke of Atholl. She emigrated to the American colonies with her first husband, David Tetchley, but ten years later left him, and reverting to her maiden name, she made her way to Montreal, penniless, until taken in by Molson.[6]

Soon Molson’s beer was in such demand that according to one of his diary entries "Cannot serve half my customers and they are increasing every day." One of the major reasons for this was the wide appeal of his beer to different classes of Montreal society. High British officers had been drinking imported London porters and the city merchants preferred Bristol. Yet Molson’s beer was special as it was ‘universally liked’ (a quote from Molson’s diary). Molson soon began attending church. It was here that he met many influential and wealthy businessmen like fur trader James McGill, Joseph Frobisher, founder of the North West Company, and Alexander Mackenzie.

Career success and later life[edit]

Between 1788 and 1800, Molson’s business grew quickly into one of the larger ones in Lower Canada. During these years Molson and his wife had four children, John junior, Thomas (who died shortly after birth), another Thomas, and William (Billy).

By the start of the 19th Century, Molson’s small brewery had grown tenfold. Molson now had the money to improve his business by buying new technology. He toyed with the idea of buying a steamship after seeing Robert Fulton’s Vermont go down the Hudson. Molson’s steamship would be the first in Canada. Molson teamed up with John Jackson and John Bruce who would build a ship for Molson in return for putting up the money and part ownership. Built in Montreal (with engines produced at Forges du Saint-Maurice in Trois-Rivières) in 1809, Accommodation became the first steamship to ride on the waters of the St Lawrence.[1] This was a great feat for Molson but, from a business viewpoint, it was a net loss, costing ₤4000 by 1810.[7] Molson was determined to make money on his ships so he dismantled Accommodation and purchased two steamship engines from England. He combined the two engines and the remains of Accommodation to create Swiftsure, a magnificent ship that was seen as a vision of elegance. During this time Molson’s business continued to grow and the War of 1812 pushed sales even higher. Swiftsure was leased to the British army and brought in a supplemental income. In 1815, Molson was elected to represent Montreal East in the legislative assembly on the platform of building a wharf. Molson Canadian is the second oldest company in all of Canada.

A performance at Molson's Theatre Royal, Montreal, 1825

As Molson became more occupied by his multiple businesses and his seat in the assembly, his three sons began to take a much larger role in the companies. John Junior managed the steamships, Thomas was married in England and would frequently travel sending back tips and advice to his father, and William was in charge of the brewery. In 1816, Molson built Mansion House Hotel which coincided with the Assembly’s acceptance of the wharf. Molson’s hotel was only for those who could afford luxury. The hotel offered Montreal’s first library, boat rides on the river, well-furnished rooms and six-course dinners, famous throughout all of Montreal. In 1817, John Richardson, George Moffatt joined together to create the "Montreal Bank." The three offered Molson partnership in it but Molson refused for the backers of this project had just come off of multiple failed banks in the United States and he felt it was a risky investment. Molson changed his mind not long after and the bank became fully Canadian-owned when the U.S partners sold their shares after the U.S financial crisis in the fall of 1818. By 1822, the Montreal Bank had received a charter from Britain and chose to change their name to the Bank of Montreal.

In 1819, Molson had a short bout of sickness. It was during this time that he noticed the only hospital in the city, Hôtel Dieu, only held 30 beds. Molson proposed to the assembly that a new hospital be established that would contain 200 beds. Although the assembly denied his request there was much private support and soon donations came pouring in. By May the new hospital, the Montreal General Hospital, was opened on Craig Street (now Saint Antoine Street).

A crisis almost struck the Molsons in 1821 when the Mansion House Hotel caught fire; the books from the library were saved but not much more was salvageable. Molson was undaunted by this and had ideas to build an even grander hotel, a true testament to his character. While John junior and William took care of the businesses within Canada, Thomas was busy working in England. Thomas brought over 237 gallons of beer to London, England. The response was encouraging and Thomas brought another 1385 gallons on his next trip. Molson's had its first international market.

Photos of the masters of St Paul's Lodge 374 in Montreal. Molson is third from the left on the first line.

By 1825, Molson’s hotel was completely rebuilt and renamed the British American Hotel. After the hotel was completed Molson built a theatre adjacent to it. By November, Molson’s Theatre Royal was completed, the first theatre in Montreal. It seated 1,000 guests, presenting Shakespeare and Restoration authors and was also used for circuses and concerts.[8] Edmund Kean and Charles Dickens both performed there before it was demolished in 1844 to make way for the Bonsecours Market.[9]

Never resting, Molson continued to build his empire by purchasing multiple steamships and creating the St Lawrence Steamboat Company.[1] This fleet of ships was so big that it outnumbered all of those operating in the United States. In 1826 Molson decided to run against a young Louis-Joseph Papineau but resigned quickly after discovering the amount of support Papineau had from the French and the Irish.

On March 18, 1829 Molson’s wife Sarah Vaughan, died after treating her rheumatism with laudanum. Sarah became addicted to this opium-based painkiller and died from the effects. Molson sold the house they lived in together and moved on with his life. His four-year term as President of the Bank of Montreal (1826-1830)[1] ended and Molson did not run for a second. Even at the age of 67 Molson did not contemplate retirement; one of his biggest projects still lay ahead.

Since 1825, Molson had followed reports of the first railways being built in England. Molson had told the head of this project, Jason Pierce, that he was interested. Pierce did not forget about Molson's interest and in 1832 Molson's request for a railroad was accepted by the Assembly. The Champlain and St Lawrence Railroad connected the St Lawrence to the Hudson River, making the trip from Montreal to New York much quicker. This was the first railway ever constructed in Canada. Molson became the Railroad's largest shareholder.[1]

After his multiple successful proposals, John Molson was appointed to the Legislative Council of Lower Canada. He was considered part of the "Chateau Clique" as he was a rich English businessman. The people were losing their faith in English businessmen like Molson and were turning to men like Papineau and Robert Nelson, both members of the Patriote movement. A cholera epidemic struck Canada in 1832 and 1834 causing the railroad project to lose much of its momentum. Many businesses closed in Montreal but the Molsons continued work as usual. In 1833 Molson's hotel burned down again. This time though, Molson decided not to rebuild it.

Molson was appointed Provincial Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge of Montreal (Freemasons) by the Duke of Sussex by Letters Patent dated May 15, 1826 and installed in office by Claude Dénéchau on September 5, 1826; Molson resigned in 1833.[10]

After the second cholera epidemic, when things returned to normal, Molson’s railroad project began to gain speed. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see his last dream realized. Molson caught a high fever in December 1835. He wrote his will on January 10, 1836 and died that day. In his will, Molson named John Molson junior, Thomas Molson, William Molson, George Moffatt and Peter McGill executors. His body rests at Mount Royal Cemetery.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Martin, Joseph E. (2017). "Titans". Canada's History. 97 (5): 47-53. ISSN 1920-9894.
  2. ^ McCord Museum Snake Hall, Lincolnshire. Photograph: House, copied for Mrs Molson in 1868 (Anonymous) Retrieved on: 2010-06-25.
  3. ^ Historic England. "Details from listed building database (1147269)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
  4. ^ a b Hunter, Douglas. Molson: The Birth of a Business Empire. Penguin Books Canada, 2001. ISBN 0-670-88855-9
  5. ^
  6. ^ Molson, Karen. The Molsons: Their Lives & Times, 1780-2000. Firefly Books, 2001. ISBN 1-55209-418-9
  7. ^ Marsh, John. "Accommodation" in The Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1988), Volume 1, p.10.
  8. ^ Wilson, Edwin, ed. Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. 5th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2008. Print.
  9. ^ Canadian Theatre
  10. ^ "History of the Grand Lodge of Quebec". Grand Lodge of Quebec. Retrieved April 17, 2017.

External links[edit]

Business positions
Preceded by
Horatio Gates
President of the Bank of Montreal
Succeeded by
Peter McGill