HBC Montage.


Logo. Logo.

Histories of the Hudson's Bay Company have been written by writers more able than I. Some have been good; others, in my view, not so good. This book is not a history, nor am I a historian. My account of my years as district manager is perhaps a stitch in a vast and complex tapestry created by Company men and women over a span of three hundred and twenty years.

In this preamble, I step out of my niche as narrator to comment on the role of the young apprentice clerks who carried the business of the Company forward to distant places, and to fill in some of the relevant background of the Fur Trade Department as it was in 1941.

Hugh MaKay Ross second from right.
Photograph from left to right: Charlie Klein, clerk at Brochet, Bill Garbutt, Hugh Mackay Ross, unidentified pilot at Brochet, Saskatchewan in 1950. From H. M. Ross Collection.

In 1879, the Company negotiated the sale of Rupert's Land-all the land around rivers flowing into Hudson's Bay, as described in the Company's Charter, granted by Charles II in 1670--to Canada for the sum of £ 3,000,000. It retained title to the lands surrounding each trading post, large acreages around such main posts as Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton, and one-twentieth of each township settled within the Fertile Belt.

The impressive total of lands received in the Fertile Belt was 7,000,000 acres, and starting in 1905, the Company retained the mineral rights when selling the land.

At first, settlement onto western land was slow but after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, it picked up. A vigorous advertising campaign sponsored by the federal government under Clifford Sifton, then Minister of the Interior, and the Canadian Pacific Railway was carried out in central Europe. Between 1898 and 1913, streams of immigrants mainly from Russia and central Europe poured into the western prairies. In 1874 the Hudson's Bay Company established a Land Department to handle the sale of the farming land it owned. The land was a valuable asset, providing more profit than the Fur Trade Department. It was believed in high places that the future of the Company depended on land rather than on fur.

Northern posts were allowed to fall into decay from lack of attention to repairs and replacements. Household furnishings were supplied at the very minimum cost. Because of the poor living conditions, few white wives of post managers were prepared to live in the North. Most traders married natives or half-breeds.

Because of the remoteness of some posts, inspections were few and far between. District managers or inspectors were able to visit each post no more than once a year. Stocks were allowed to build up to have goods to keep trappers from selling their fur to the free traders, and trapping advances increased yearly to the point where they were uncollectible. In short, the fur trade had not yet progressed from the nineteenth century.

In 1923, Mr P. A. Chester joined the Company as an assistant accountant on the staff in London, England. The following year he was sent to Canada to review the Company's accounting system. He was appointed Chief Accountant, Winnipeg Head Office in November 1925, and in October 1930 was named General Manager of the Company for Canada.

Mr. Chester supervised the Fur Trade Department from the time of Commissioner Ralph Parsons' retirement in 1940 until R.H. Chesshire was appointed manager in 1942. He became a member of the London Committee and Managing Director for Canada on August 29, 1946. His job was to bring the fur trade into the twentieth century and he went about it methodically. He believed that to keep a good man in the North that man must be provided with a comfortable home to which he could bring his wife, and a modern store to work in. A comfortable home meant a house with hot and cold running water, central heating, electric lights and an indoor flush toilet. A contented wife meant a happy husband who would do a better job for the Company.

John Watson, an architect, was hired by the Company to draw up the necessary plans, and gradually new buildings began to appear throughout the North. With the advent of the war in 1939 and a shortage of building materials, this program was slowed down but was completed immediately after the war.

Staff health was another of Mr Chester's concerns. All staff at the posts, including wives and families, were required to undergo a medical and dental examination every two years when they came on furlough. The Company paid for the examinations, but the dental work, using a dentist of their choice, was the individual's responsibility. Before returning to a post, a clearance examination by the Company-appointed doctor and dentist was mandatory. The first Company doctor in Winnipeg was Dr Kitchen, and the first dentist's, Dr's Garvin, Johnson and Brown.

Dr F. F. Tisdall and Dr J. Harry Ebbs, later assisted by Dr Elizabeth Chant Robertson and Dr T. G. H. Drake, were nutrition experts engaged to study the diets of post staff. During the winter of 1941-42, everyone was required to keep a record for one month of all meals and snacks taken. When analyzed, the results were anything but satisfactory. As a result, a supply of vitamin tablets was sent to each post to be taken daily by all members to augment their diets.

Special requisition forms for mess purposes were drawn up containing enough supplies for a completely balanced diet for one year. Sufficient choices were given in each category to satisfy every taste and included a special meal of Hormel canned whole chicken for Christmas and a canned ham for Easter and all the usual holiday trimmings. These were shipped separately, charged to expenses and were not to be mixed with the stock for sale. Allowances were made for posts such as Waterways, Alberta that had regular access to supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, but for inland posts and bachelor managers, these supplies were a godsend. Managers could order any special delicacies they preferred.

A story is told of one post manager whose progress, post by post, from the Arctic down the MacKenzie and Athabasca Rivers, could be traced by the quantities of Nairn's Oatcakes and Crosse & Blackwell's Herrings left unsaleable on the store shelves after his departure.

All the houses were completely furnished and a booklet issued listing minimum quantities of household items. These were checked by the district manager yearly, in co-operation with Miss Jessie Bacon, who was brought to Winnipeg from the Toronto buying office to handle the operation.

In 1940, salaries were changed from an annual wage with board supplied to a gross monthly salary with a fixed monthly deduction to cover the mess. The change was made in part to comply with income tax regulations. There had always been a retirement pension scheme but it was paid from a fund set up by the Company and no contributions were required from the employee. After the war, this was changed to a compulsory plan with both parties contributing a set amount. Some post staff objected. Up until then, all post staff retired at the age of sixty. The retirement age for staff in the retail stores, however, was sixty-five, so the retirement age covering Fur Trade and Retail Departments was standardized at sixty-five. Some of the old-timers who had been planning for and looking forward to retiring at sixty objected to the additional five years and the change in the pension scheme, and they were allowed to stick to the original plan.

The history of the hiring of apprentice clerks is of particular interest to me, having come in as an apprentice myself at age 18 from Rothes in Scotland.

For the first hundred years or so after incorporation in 1670, the Company had only a few trading posts in Hudson's Bay, and so required very few apprentice clerks. These young men were hired in the London area. It is interesting to note that an entry in the Minute Book of the London Committee dated March 8, 1683 reads,

'Captain Simson againe appearing and declaring his intentions for going to Scotland, was desired to use his endeavours to procure ten or twelve able young men twixt twenty and thirty years of age to serve ye Company in Hudson's Bay.'

There was a great need for labourers and tradesmen of all kinds at the forts and this need was supplied by great numbers of men from the Orkney Islands. For two centuries Orcadians played a major part in the development of the fur trade. They were picked up each year by the Company vessels at Stromness in the Orkney Islands en route to Canada. In 1798, sixty-three Orcadians--one apprentice clerk, forty-five labourers and seventeen tradesmen-left Stromness for Hudson Bay.

Most of the men worked for the Company for ten or twenty years, saved their salaries carefully and then returned to the Orkney where they purchased farms and were comparatively well off. Some of them stayed on in the service and, by sheer hard work and ability, made their way up the ladder from labourers to clerks and ultimately, managers of posts. A few attained commissioned rank.

After the union with the North West Company in 1821, more Scottish names began to appear on the lists of employees, possibly because of the hiring of friends and relatives of the North West element. In 1857, in his evidence to the Select Committee on the Appointment of Apprentice Clerks, Edward Ellice said,

'I took great care in former times to send out the best men we could find, principally from the north of Scotland, sons of country gentlemen, clergymen and of farmers.'

The difference between officers and men was great, and with few exceptions, only by beginning as an apprentice clerk could a young man hope to climb the ladder of promotion. In the new country, this created hardship for the half-breed sons of employees and George Simpson created for them a new rank--postmaster.

Hiring apprentice clerks in the Old Country went on in a desultory fashion, interrupted from time to time by wars and depressions. The Company maintained an agent in the northeast of Scotland, a fertile recruiting ground. In 1910, he was A. E.Milne, an Aberdeen Solicitor. He hired J. W. Anderson who sailed from Peterhead on the S.S. Discovery in the company of two others bound for Charlton Island. That same year, eight other clerks sailed from London for York Factory aboard the Company ship Pelican.

In the depression years of the 1930s, recruiting was confined to Canada by government request. R. J. Campbell, a Winnipeg boy hired in 1933, was one of twelve selected from 900 applicants. His monthly salary was 20 dollars a month plus room and board but I understand that for a short time this starting salary was cut to $15 per month.

After World War II, J. W. Anderson, seconded from his job as Manager, Eastern Arctic Division, made annual trips to Scotland on recruiting drives. He addressed high schools and academies and showed a film depicting the life of a fur-trade apprentice clerk. I still have two postcards he mailed me in October 1951. One reads,

'Enroute to Elgin, I called in at Rothes and had a delightful, if short, visit. Your folks in fine spirits. Why you should exchange the famous Speyside distilleries for Shea's Brewery in Winnipeg is more than I can fathom. The "romance of the fur trade", I guess.'

The second reads,

'At a meeting at Forres Academy yesterday, the Rector, A. B. Simpson [my former headmaster at Rothes] introduced me by telling the class of 'two famous men of the Hudson's Bay Company'. One was Lord Strathcona, the other was Hugh Mackay Ross. The Rector had some nice things to say about you and, you may rest assured, I had some too. So we both outshone ourselves saying 'nice things about Hugh Ross'. J.W. loved his little joke.

Sometime between 1938 and 1949, the apprenticeship system was abandoned. On June 14, 1949, Victor MacKay signed on in Scotland as 'clerk' for two years at a monthly salary of $80 less $25 board and lodging. On 2nd July 1957, George Fleming was hired as a 'trainee' for three years at the starting salary of $150 per month, less $50 room and board.

The large turnover in staff always worried me--not only in my district but throughout the fur trade. As an example, I came out in 1930 in a group of forty-four apprentices. By the mid-1950s there were, to my knowledge, only seven of us left: Don Wilderspin, Graeme Beare, Dick Howell and I were District Managers; Tommy Thompson was a department manager in Winnipeg Merchandise Depot and W.M.S. McLeod was a post manager. Matt Cook was transferred to Bay Stores Department. Only one--Bill Calder-has died and is buried in Iglulik.

In the early 1970s, Robbie Knox came out of Turriff, Aberdeenshire as one of a group of twelve. Ten years later, he was the only one still working for the Hudson's Bay Company.

There doesn't seem to be any particular pattern to explain the turnover, although many who had completed their five years apprenticeship in the Arctic did not come back after their six-month holiday in Scotland. Some just got plain homesick-and I knew all about that--and returned to the Old Country as soon as they could. Some got married and found their wives couldn't stand the isolation. Many obtained jobs either with free traders or outside firms or went into business for themselves. Some were employed by the Department of Indian Affairs as Indian Agents, or with other government departments. Their Hudson's Bay Company training stood them in good stead and made them naturals in finding jobs elsewhere. A lot of Canadian boys just could not stand being away from the bright lights of the city.

In a recent letter from Grande Prairie, Mrs R.J. Campbell says,

'My husband, Bob, joined the Company in 1933 and spent eighteen years with them before we went into business for ourselves. Bob often refers to the Company as his "university". It taught him bookkeeping, merchandising and the control of debt.'

Victor MacKay, after serving three years in the British Army, joined the Company in 1949. Born in Rosyth and educated in Dumfermline, Scotland, he served his apprenticeship in Saskatchewan, and later became manager of such posts as Green Lake, Stanley, La Ronge, Churchill, Inuvik and Red Lake. Yet he left in 1973. His great love was flying and Vic was one of the first post managers to buy his own private plane. He is now manager of the airport at Geraldton, Ontario. He tells me,

'Actually it was my business background and aviation experience that got me this job.'

George Fleming from Keith, Scotland, was the son of a Colonel in the British Army who lost his life in North Africa during World War II. A product of Gordonstoun School, he joined the Company on 2 July 1957 and, after serving as a trainee at various posts in Saskatchewan, he became the manager of Patuanak and then Stanley. He resigned from Stanley in December 1962 to go into partnership with Pat Campling, taking over the management of Red's Camps--a fishing operation run by Red Boardman, a local La Ronge man. Later George went on his own and built Hatchet Lake--originally a fly-in outpost from LaRonge-into one of the finest and best-appointed fishing lodges in northern Saskatchewan.

I liked the tow-headed Scot the minute I met him. He had the weirdest laugh I've ever heard and I have always called him 'Wee Geordie' after the hero of a film made in Scotland, starring Bill Travers. His mother came out from Scotland to visit him in 1961. In George's words,

'She arrived in a Cessna 180 full of groceries, sitting on a case of Carnation Milk. Mother stepped out onto the float, looked around and remarked, "What a God-forsaken place". And we looked upon Stanley as being the most picturesque post in Saskatchewan!'

Whether his mother's impression of the place had anything to do with George's decision to leave the Company, I don't know. But he was now busy and happy doing what he loves, running his fishing lodge near the border of the Northwest Territories.

There is a traditional belief that the best apprentice clerk is a Scotsman, preferably from Buchan--that part of northeastern Scotland that bulges into the North Sea--with a coastline stretching from Aberdeen via Peterhead and Fraserburgh, round to Banff and even as far as Inverness. This may be true but, like the universal image of Scots being tight-fisted, I suspect that most of the men who nurture this tradition originated from that part of Scotland themselves.

A story is told of how the masters of the Hudson's Bay Company supply vessels obtained apprentice clerks. Anchoring off the Scottish coasts, small boats were sent along the shore to set out traps. These traps, each carefully attached to a rock, consisted of quart-sized jars, slightly narrowed at the neck and half-filled with choice oatmeal. The boatmen then concealed themselves and watched as the young fellows drifted down to the shore to investigate. Finding the oatmeal in the jars, most of them grabbed a handful and gleefully raced home with their unexpected bonanza. And they were allowed to leave unmolested. But there were always two or three who grabbed such a large handful that they were unable to extract their fist from the jar, unwilling to let go of their prize. These were the lads signed on as apprentice clerks!

I must admit to partially accepting both these stories and I always tried to get a few of the Buchan lads for my district when a fresh bunch of trainees arrived in Winnipeg.

Be that as it may, I strongly believe that good men are where you find them. Any number of first-rate staff came from the City of Winnipeg, and a farm boy from the prairies needs to take a backseat to no one. He is honest and trustworthy and is no stranger to hard work. I know. I had several of them in Saskatchewan District.

I have been often asked the question, 'If you had your life to live over again, would you still work for the Hudson's Bay Company?' My answer is always the same. Yes. If conditions were the same as they were in 1930. At that time, there was an aura of romance about the fur trade. We were fur traders, not storekeepers. We travelled by canoe and dogsled and we mainly lived off the country.

I was in charge of Grassy Narrows for two years and had one visit by a district manager. During the four years, I was in charge of Temagami, I had only two visits. I was trusted to use my head and make my own decisions.

Nowadays, everything is modernized. Travel is all by aircraft or snowmobile and the paddle has given way to the outboard motor. No longer are there fur trade posts, but instead 'Northern Stores Merchandise Units', all in touch with their district office by telephone. There are specialists to assist you with accounts, credit control, merchandising and display. The romance is gone. I do not think I would like that.

Hugh Mackay Ross,
Winnipeg, February, 1989

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