The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay
The City of London merchant company that founded a modern nation
|Arms of the Hudson's Bay Company © Paul D Jagger|
Among the merchant adventurer companies that were formed in London to develop trade in the emerging empire only one survives to this day as a trading company. The once mighty East India Company closed shop in 1874 after the Indian subcontinent came under Imperial governance, the New Zealand Company and the Levant Company are long forgotten and the Muscovy Company exists only as a charitable foundation, but the Hudson’s Bay Company remains a household name in the nation which it did so much to build.
Today no major town or city in Canada is without its branch of The Hudson’s Bay Company but the historic roots of this iconic Canadian retailer are firmly anchored in to the City of London where the Company’s headquarters were located for the first 300 years of its existence. It wasn’t until 1970 that the Company became a Canadian corporation and moved its governance from London to Toronto. This article explores the company’s role in building a modern nation and the lasting links with London and England.
Roots in the City of London
The Company was founded in the City of London on 2nd May 1670, initially under the name of The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England into Hudson’s Bay. The concept of a joint stock merchant adventurer company was by no means unusual for the period and there remain Merchant Adventurer companies in York and Bristol operating as social and philanthropic fellowships. The Company’s investors were all men of standing in society ranging from nobles of the Royal Court to the Lord Mayor of London and many City merchants such John Portman who is mentioned in the opening paragraph of the charter as a “Citizen and Goldsmith of London”.
The Company was in many ways structured in a similar fashion to a City of London Livery Company and its charter conferred the right to admit ‘Freemen’ to the Company conditional upon their entering in to a ‘corporal oath’ in the presence of the Governor of his deputy. This is hardly surprising considering the Company’s principal backers and that its customers in the City were invariably members of the Skinners Company.
The first Governor was His Highness Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a privy counsellor, Admiral of the Fleet and a founder of the Royal Society appointed by Charles II after the restoration. He served in office until his death in 1682. The second Governor was HRH The Duke of York, later James II - but the Glorious Revolution caused him to pursue other career options. Thereafter the Governorship passed to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries the Governors were a succession of successful merchants, bankers, barristers and politicians. The last British governor was Derick Heathcoat-Amory, 1st Viscount Amory who served in office until 1970. The London centric governance of the Hudson’s Bay Company was such that the first Governor to actually visit operations in Canada took office in 1931 and made a brief tour of trading posts in 1934.
From before its formal founding as a Royal Charter Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s headquarters was located in the City of London. Initially the Company’s officers and financial backers would meet either in London coffee houses or one of the Governor’s homes in the City. Very quickly the Company needed permanent premises in the City and a lease was taken on Scriveners’ Company Hall.
The Company moved several times but its headquarters remained in the City of London - close to its shareholders and bankers. By the mid 1920s the Company had premises on Bishopsgate (Hudson’s Bay House) and on Great Trinity Lane (Beaver House) the latter now being the Royal Bank of Canada Centre. The former of these two premises still exists in its original (1925) form and is adorned with Canadian symbolism and the arms of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Look up to the weathervane atop the cupola on Hudson’s Bay House and you will see a Beaver weather vane - the animal upon which the Company’s fortunes were built.
The Royal Charter
The Hudson’s Bay Company is privileged to have their original Royal Charter of incorporation that is now held in their head office in Toronto. The document is in excellent condition considering its age and recently featured in the Ray Mear’s documentary ‘The Company That Built a Country’ about the early exploration and opening up of Canada by the fur trading companies. When the Royal Charter was granted in May of 1670 one of its clauses permitted the company monopolistic trading rights in all the lands that have rivers and streams draining into the Hudson’s Bay. It cannot have been known at that time that the area encompassed by this clause would represent over 40% of what is now Canada - a truly vast area of untamed wilderness that extended from the Rocky Mountains in the West to Labrador in the East, Southward into what is now South Dakota in the USA and beyond the Arctic circle in the North including much of Baffin Island.
For many years the Royal Charter was kept in the Company’s boardroom at Beaver House (also called Beaver Hall) in the City of London. As a safety precaution during World War II the Royal Charter was relocated to Hexton Manor on the Hertfordshire / Bedfordshire border, home of the then Governor of the Company - Sir Patrick Ashley Cooper (the one who first visited operations in Canada). The Royal Charter moved to Toronto when the company’s governance ceased to operate from London. In 1996 the Charter underwent a period of conservation and analysis following a request by HRH Prince Charles to see the Charter during a visit to Winnipeg. A 1987 National Geographic Magazine article about the Company revealed that a former Private Secretary to HM The Queen confirmed that royal family still retain shares in the Company.
The Charter is now kept in a purpose built display case in the Company’s Headquarters in Toronto. When it was granted the Company was obliged to present two Beaver and two Elk furs to any member of the Royal Family who visited Hudson’s Bay Company lands - a remarkably good deal for what become the largest commercial landowner in the world. The last time this obligation was undertaken was in 1970 when HM The Queen visited Canada on one of her many tours. Two live Beavers were presented in lieu of pelts and The Queen donated them to Winnipeg Zoo.
From Fur Trading Posts to Department Stores
The success of the Hudson’s Bay Company relied on the supply of Beaver pelts to Europe. The under fur of the Beaver, when felted, is both insulting and waterproof, ideally suited to making outer garments especially hats. Whilst the fur trade existed before the foundation of the Hudson’s Bay Company it wasn’t until the formation of several competing fur trading companies that the Canadian wilderness began to open up to European settlers. The native people of Canada quickly took to trading with the European fur trade companies and the cultures of the native and European peoples intermingled. The native peoples benefited from access to metal tools and woollen clothing, the Europeans benefitted from the birch bark canoe and vital wilderness survival skills. Recent studies have shown that the native peoples were fully attuned to the commercial realities of trade with the Europeans - encouraging competition between different trading companies and being exceptionally discerning about the quality of European goods. Far from exploiting the native peoples, some native tribes actually monopolised the supply of furs to the trading posts.
The Hudson’s Bay Company wasn’t the only fur trading company operating in Canada and there was fierce rivalry between French and English companies, but the Hudson’s Bay Company out competed or politically out manoeuvred them all to become the dominant company. Many of the early Hudson’s Bay Company forts grew in to small towns some of which such as Winnipeg and Fort Edmonton grew in to modern cities. Modern interpretations of these early fur trading posts may be seen in Fort Edmonton and Heritage Park (Calgary) where Hudson’s Bay Forts have been faithfully restored. Through these trading posts the Hudson’s Bay Company did more than other to open up Canada and bring British culture to most of modern Canada.
By 1869 the Company had largely moved beyond its fur trading roots and agreed the return of its lands to the British Crown, which handed the lands over to the nascent Canadian government thus paving the way for the westward expansion of the Dominion of Canada former two years earlier.
The Hudson’s Bay Company has transformed over 345 years from a fur trading company running outputs in the most remote and inaccessible parts of the Canadian wilderness, operating as a de facto government agent to being Canada’s equivalent of The John Lewis Partnership - an upscale retailer of household goods and clothing serving middle class Canadians. The Company has recently introduced a range of HBC heritage branded products that are evocative of the Company’s history - canoes, paddles, blankets, pen knives and even hand axes!
Hudson’s Bay Company Flag - flown from their fur trading posts throughout Canada -
Image © Wikicommons
The Point Blanket
Of all the Hudson’s Bay Company merchandise, none has stood the test of time or been a more emblematic symbol of the Company than the wool blankets that were the mainstay of trade with the native people of Canada for much of the company’s fur trading period since 1780. The term ‘point blanket’ refers to the number of short lines or points sewn in to the woven wool blankets to indicate their size (and hence weight). A common misconception is that the number of points indicated the number of beaver pelts that the blanket was worth, and whilst the exchange value of blankets and pelts remained fairly stable there was no direct correlation between the number of points on a blanket and the number of beaver pelts it was worth.
The point blankets were first manufactured in England and remain so to this very day by A W Hainsworth and Sons of Pudsey in West Yorkshire - the same company supplies fabric for the scarlet tunics worn by the various British and Canadian regiments of Foot Guards and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Hudson’s Bay Point blankets can command very good prices at auction especially if they were manufactured for a particular event such at HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee. In 2002 the Company commissioned a book on the subject, simply titled ‘The Blanket’.
|The multi colour stripes of the Hudson’s Bay Company blanket © Paul D Jagger|
The Hudson’s Bay Company still sells their heritage point blankets and will ship world wide although annoyingly they have no outlet in the UK.
The Hudson’s Bay Company has been governed from the City of London by English and later British Governors for most of its history yet the Company is little known in the United Kingdom in modern times. Perhaps this is entirely appropriate given than its most important legacy is not in England, but rather the founding of a modern nation through was has been aptly described as the most important commercial contract in history.
One final link with the City and the Skinners Company is maintained, albeit a familial one. The current Chaplain of the Skinners’ Company is the son of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s last Chairman in London.
The Honourable Company
This City of London’s connections with Canada are maintained by The Honourable Company of Freemen of the City of London of North America, an association for Freemen living in Canada and the USA. The Honourable Company was founded in 1977 and remains in rude health, with a regular series of annual events held in Toronto. Although ostensibly a North American association, the membership is 98% Canadian. The Honourable Company is unique in having two Clerks, one in Canada and the other based in the City of London. Freedom of the City of London can be arranged through the Company, which maintains a close relationship with the Guild of Freemen of the City of London (a social club for Freemen who are not members of a Livery Company)
The Blanket: An Illustrated History of the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket (Tichenor, 2002)
Emperor of the North - Sir George Simpson and the remarkable story of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Raffan, 2008)
Company of Adventurers, Volume 1 (Newman, 1985)
Caesars of the Wilderness: Company of Adventurers, Volume 2 (Newman, 1997)
Hudson’s Bay Company heritage website
A map of Hudson’s Bay Company offices (and earlier meeting locations) may be viewed here
Note: This article first appeared in the newsletter of London Historians in 2016
During the writing of this article I learned that my father visited the Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse on Great Trinity Lane sometime during the late 1950s. At the time he lived in Gracechurch Street and as a young Boy Scout he openly carried a Bowie knife. Apparently it was all the rage for boys to cover the leather sheath of their knife in some Davy Crockett or Apache style covering. My father cycled to Great Trinity Lane and persuaded someone in the Hudson’s Bay warehouse to give him some offcuts of fur that he used to cover the sheath of his Bowie knife.