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John Wilson McConnell fonds (P607)

1915-1960. - 294 cm of textual records. - 3970 photographs: 2411 prints, 1268 negatives, 291 slides.

Administrative History - Biographical Sketch:

Born in rural Ontario on July 1, 1877, John Wilson McConnell was given a Methodist upbringing. After working in retailing in Toronto for a time, he moved to Montreal at the turn of the 20th century to take up the position of local office manager of the Standard Chemical Company. In 1905 he married Lily Griffith, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, and they had four children: Wilson (born in 1908), John G. (1910), Kathleen (1918) and David (1923). McConnell worked as a stockbroker from 1909 to 1912. In 1912 he purchased the St. Lawrence Sugar Refineries and was closely involved in the establishment of the Canada Light and Power Company and Goodwins Department Store. In 1928 he became the owner of the Montreal Star newspaper.

He was very active in fund-raising in both world wars. He was appointed Director of Licences of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, a position he filled as a volunteer. He also made a $1 million donation to the Wings for Britain campaign (also known as the Spitfire Fund) set up to train and send pilots to Great Britain. A squadron was later named in his honour.

John Wilson McConnell sat on several boards of directors, including those of the Bank of Montreal, Canadian Pacific, the Sun Life Insurance Company, the International Nickel Company, Dominion Bridge, Holt Renfrew and Dominion Rubber. He also sat on the boards of a number of Montreal institutions, such as Montreal General Hospital from 1922 to 1937, McGill University from 1927 and the Royal Victoria Hospital the following year.

But Mr. McConnell was known above all for his philanthropic work and his great generosity. He took an active role in raising funds for a variety of organizations, including the YMCA, for which he raised $320,000 in a single 12-day campaign. He also made a donation to the United Church for purchasing land and erecting buildings and contributed to the establishment of several chapters of the Boys and Girls Club, besides making substantial donations to institutions such as McGill University (over $15 million toward the construction of the Engineering Building and the Montreal Neurological Institute) and the Jewish General, Notre Dame and Hôtel Dieu hospitals. He also gave generously to relief funds for victims of flooding in Manitoba and along the Fraser River in British Columbia.

When he died in 1963 at the age of 87, The Gazette referred to him as "one of the world's great philanthropists" and a person who had "played a key role in building the institutions of this city" [Montreal]. Many distinguished people, including prime minister Lester B. Pearson and former prime minister John Diefenbaker, remarked on his passing.

A biographical piece published several years after his death reads: "Although a rich man, he realizes that wealth is a responsibility and gives the possessor of it an opportunity of helping his fellow men and contributing to their happiness, as well as that of the nation of which they are citizens." (Source: Mel James, Canada Heirloom Series)

Scope and Content:

The documents in this fonds chiefly concern purchases and expenditures of the family of John Wilson McConnell between 1920 and 1960. The main series contains a large number of financial documents (receipts, invoices, etc.) related to the McConnells' daily activities. These documents bear witness to the affluent life style enjoyed by this Montreal family and to the donations they made to various causes. In addition to the invoices and receipts, there is a short series of letters and messages.

Another, smaller series contains archives on expenditures related to the family's four houses, including the decorating of them. A sampling of the Christmas cards received by the McConnells has also been kept as evidence of the family's personal and professional relations (the cards are from individuals as well as from companies). The fonds also contains a caricature of John Wilson McConnell done by Le Mesurier, along with photographs documenting the social milieu in which the family members moved, places they frequented, their travels over the years, receptions they attended, dignitaries they knew, houses they lived in, and more intimate, relaxed moments of their domestic life. The series of photographs contains a few distinctive items, such as prints of the Montreal photographer Rice, whose artistic work was destroyed.

The fonds is divided into the following series and subseries:

  • P607/A: Invoices and general expenditures
    • P607/A01: 1920-1925
    • P607/A02: 1925-1930
    • P607/A03: 1930-1940
    • P607/A04: 1940-1950
    • P607/A05: 1950-1960
    • P607/A06: Invoice-related correspondence
  • P607/B: McConnell family homes
    • P607/B1: Invoices and expenditures related to McConnell family homes
    • P607/B2: Documentation and information on decorating of various homes
  • P607/C: Christmas cards
  • P607/D: Drawings
  • P607/E: Photographs
    • P607/E01: Business
    • P607/E02: Governors General
    • P607/E03: Early photographs
    • P607/E04: Events
    • P607/E05: Leisure activities
    • P607/E06: Distinguished guests and friends
    • P607/E07: Portraits
    • P607/E08: Residences
    • P607/E09: Travels
    • P607/E10: Miscellaneous