Notes on 40th Text for Reading Field: Lower

Canadian History, Week 7


Love it or hate it, the video that won’t go away: John Weldon dir., “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, produced by the National Film Board (1979), posted to YouTube by gf3k2, 7 October 2007.


Arthur R.M. Lower. Great Britain‘s Woodyard: British America and the Timber Trade, 1763-1867. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1973.

Arthur R.M. Lower‘s study of the eastern Canadian forest industries follows the rise and fall of the timber trade between Canada and Great Britain and illustrates the role of metropolitanism (or, Lower allows, “imperialism, if the reader prefers that word”) in Canadian history.[1] Although he emphasizes the social and economic aspects, he notes that the timber trade touched all aspects of history, during war and in peace.

The first half of the book is organized around Britain as a determining metropolis/market. Lower describes the initial reasons for seeking access to British North American timber, and then for prosecuting full-fledged, commercially viable staples extraction.

The North American trade in timber (beyond procuring masts), was imperially initiated when access to the traditional Baltic supply was threatened during the French wars from 1793-1815 (particularly during 1808-09 when Napoleon’s Continental System saw ports of the Baltic and much of the rest of Europe closed to Britain). The North American trade was subsequently embedded within Britain’s preferential trade structure. The trade was marked by protective duties (and, as Lower notes, other political economic and social practices, which, added together, might be variously described as ‘colonialism’). The duties served to protect home-grown monopolists during “the day of the great staples.” This was a long ‘day’ for Britain, running as it did from the 16th to the 19th centuries.[2] Responding to Britain’s figurative motto: “Ships, Colonies, and Commerce,” British timber ‘barons’ vied with Baltic princes and Russian czars — not by acquiring wooded estates (‘The Imperial Appanage’), to be carefully harvested, but by underwriting lumbering ventures, or buying-up product cut indiscriminately along the St. Lawrence River and up its tributaries.[3]

Prior to the introduction of steam technology, the wood was rafted to Quebec. As steam driven transport supplemented and then replaced sail, the cutting extended further afield. Eventually, cut wood was towed across the Great lakes and shipped by rail from the United States.

The timber duties were not as publicly debated as the Corn Laws but were as consequential in the minds of supporters of free trade and were targeted. Vested interests received a parliamentary blow in 1846. Robert Peel brought forward legislation that that reduced duties on raw materials to a nominal amount and “shattered the economic aspects of the old colonial system.” Earl Grey, in granting responsible government to the colonies “shattered [the colonial system’s] political aspects.”[4] Nevertheless, by the 1850s the timber trade proved to be well enough established that it survived the complete repeal of the differential duties by Gladstone in 1860, having moved through:

  • the production of square timber,
  • the production of deals for Britain and British merchants (nigh on secured by ‘The Executive Council of New Brunswick’),
  • the production of lumber for the United States (aided by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854), and profits for Montreal and Quebec merchants,
  • to the eventual multinational manufacture of pulp and paper for foreign and (presumably) domestic markets.


timber slide

Alice Mary Fulford, watercolour, “Timber Slide with Raft at Bytown, Canada West,” dated c.1851. Source: Library and Archives Canada, W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana, online MIKAN no. 2836397.


The book’s second half takes a closer look at the timber trade as it played out in Canada. Lower undertakes analysis of:

  • historic firms,
  • people,
  • technology — from tools used in processing, to means of communication, principally steam but he also notes the usefulness of the Atlantic cable in 1866,
  • and the beginnings of manufacture (principally of infrastructure such as timber slides and ships).

People’s occupations are detailed and set into a ranked classificatory system.



John James, oil painting, “ Portrait of Philemon Wright,” dated c.1800-1810. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1946-156-1. Wright operated successfully as a ‘timber baron’ & land agent in Hull Quebec.

At the apex of the industry in Canada were those apparently few timber makers (employers) with “considerable capital” at their command.[5] Most, as the New Brunswick experience makes clear, were relatively free-roaming speculators in the thrall of “capitalists of a rather predatory sort.”[6] Basically, anyone who wished to make a profit at the trade was best positioned if they had an opportunity to start as a well-connected merchant and make optimal use of their networks in Britain — family, financial and political. Lower posits an evolutionary trajectory whereby some representatives of London firms decided to stay in North America and, eventually, their branch of a firm became fully independent, though often only over generations.

At the lower end of Lower’s occupational taxonomy, just above the consumer, are the workers: millhands, shantymen, lumberjacks, raftsmen and river drivers. Lower further classifies these occupations along ethnic lines. He does not offer any explanation, beyond “Pride of calling,” as to why different ethnicities might predominate in any particular class at any given time – economic or geographic explanations are not delved into.[7]



Henry James Warre, wash, “ Lumbermen’s raft descending a rapid,” dated 1842. Source:Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1965-76-64.


The middle stratum of the trade is filled with shippers, agents, importers, brokers, and cullers, and the cast of characters is rounded put by:

  • rivers, whose direction of flow mattered a great deal,
  • and the Quebec wharf with its coves and waiting ships (near death traps that led Samuel Plimsoll to devise regulation according to a draught line marked on the hull).

Lower’s analysis is left of the Canadian historiographical centre, though for the most part, he avoids Marxist theory or terminology — that there was “conflict between merchant and settler [that] was just another chapter in the long feud that has gone on from the earliest days between the producer and the middleman” is as close as he comes. As a thesis explaining the timber trade in Canada, Metropolitanism leads to a straightforward conclusion. In pace and kind, Canadian development in this staples industry was closely tied to the rise and fall of the British market, and to the rise of the American market. As Lower puts it, the “dice are loaded in favor of the metropolis” in speculative industries – which the timber trade clearly was.[8] It was also an exploitative trade. Most ‘fortunes’ that were made went to coffers overseas or across the border. Little money was left in Canada aside from wages. Those were often permuted to consumer goods by way of truck. There was no concept of conservation. Timber was not perceived as a national resource.

The speculative nature of staples trades is what sets them apart, as arrangements which lead to economic ‘underdevelopment.’ The central problem, as Lower’s study indicates, is that both the products and the jobs that the timber trade supported disappeared “when the timber was done.”[9] Even so, it is equally clear that the trade served to support immigration – not merely in the transport of bodies on outward bound voyages of timber ships, but as a motivating force. There were young men who could regard the opportunity to work in the Canadian wilds chopping down trees as akin to participating in a gold rush. In addition, according to Lower, the timber trade “built St. John, Fredericton and the Mirimichi towns,” among other things. And, despite ongoing dependency on, and propensity for, staples production, Canada had its own economy and a high standard of living relative to other countries at the time of Lower’s writing (c. 1970). For Canadians of his time, the immediate, if ignored, dire consequences of their ‘hewer of wood’ history of development therefore seems to have been more environmental than economic.



“Last load of waney timber (white pine) to come off the Madawaska limits,” n.d. Pictured from left to right: C. Jackson Booth, J. Randolphus Booth, and unidentified man. Source: Booth Family / Library and Archives Canada / PA-120161.


Additional resources:

Herbert H. Kaplan, Russian overseas commerce with Great Britain during the reign of Catherine II (Darby, PA.: DIANE Publishing, 1995), Google books full text online

Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: from prehistory to global crisis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), Google books online preview


“Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus),” posted to YouTube by HCCForestryProf, 19 June 2008.

[1] Arthur R.M. Lower, Great Britain‘s Woodyard: British America and the Timber Trade, 1763-1867 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1973), 20.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 104.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Ibid., 145.

[6] Ibid., 167.

[7] Ibid., 186.

[8] Ibid., 250.

[9] Ibid., 157.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 7 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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