James Duncan – Charlottetown’s Biggest Bankrupt

The Duncan shipyard property in 1878 at the time of Duncan’s bankruptcy. Duncan’s house was on the corner of Prince Street with its conservatory. The property also included a residence to the west which dated to the 1820s. Image from the Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

Between the Steam Navigation Wharf (which had carried the names of Reddin’s Wharf and Pope’s Wharf) and the Ferry Wharf at the end of Prince Street  lies a property of some significance to the history of Prince Edward Island. Here the foreshore stood at the foot of a high embankment and the waters were relatively shallow so that any wharf would have to be quite long to reach the channel.  Instead of a wharf the property became the site of one of the few shipyards on the waterfront.

The Duncan shipyard saw the building of a number of ships but most of the vessels owned by James Duncan were built elsewhere and  closer to the raw materials required, many in the Mt. Stewart area.   However the Duncan shipyard was the site of the building of the largest ship ever launched on Prince Edward Island, the Ethel, which displaced 1795 tons when she slid down the ways and promptly went aground in June 1858. Luckily the 205 foot ship had to wait only until the next spring tides before she was freed.

Duncan Shipyard property in 1863. Detail from D.J. Lake Topographical Map of Prince Edward Island

Andrew Duncan and James Duncan (who may have been brothers) were both involved in shipbuilding in the 1840s. Andrew had a shipyard in Elliot River and was one of the Directors of the Steam Navigation Company. Their firm A.& J. Duncan & Co., which also included James Duncan Mason who may have been another relation, was dissolved in 1855 and reconstituted as Duncan, Mason & Co. with Robert Robinson Hodgson as a new partner. One of their first projects was the building of a large 3 1/2 story brick store on the corner of Dorchester and Queen Streets which still stands.

Duncan Building on corner of Queen and Water Streets. Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island 1880.

For the next two decades the firm reaped the benefits of the wood, wind and water economy  building and selling or managing dozens of vessels. James Duncan became a member of the Island’s Council and participated in a wide range of civic activities. Shipbuilding in PEI reached a peak in the late 1860s but leveled off and was relatively steady at a lower level through to the mid 1870s. However Island builders had difficulty matching their output with the market and prices and production dropped after 1875.  In 1878 only 35 vessels were built in the Island and about half were sent to Great Britain for sale. By the end of 1879 only 10 of these had sold and at unfavourable prices. James Duncan and Co. were caught with large debts and ships they were unable to sell at other than a loss. 

James Duncan House in 2005. Photo: City of Charlottetown

In October 18978 the Merchant’s Bank of Prince Edward Island pushed Duncan & Co. into bankruptcy and a loss of confidence in the bank, which was one of Duncan’s largest creditors, meant it almost went under as well, saved only by investment from other Island banks.  There were many significant losses. Two creditors were each owed more than $100,000; Sir James Malcolm who was Duncan’s British agent was owed $119,000, and the Merchants Bank was owed $146,000 (3.1 million and 3.8 million respectively in todays funds) Another 17 companies were owed more than $1000 each and many others faced losses at lesser amounts. For small businesses even a slight loss could tip them from profit to loss. The Duncan bankruptcy had a ripple effect as the effects spread across the community. The total amount of liabilities of bankrupt firms on Prince Edward Island more than doubled over the previous year.  Duncan & Co. was soon wound up but the assets brought in far less than was needed and the settlement was only 32 cents on each dollar owed. Carvell Bros., who had not been a major Duncan creditor, suspended their operations blaming the failure of many of their customers but they were able to re-open their doors by the end of 1879. Two of the Island’s marine insurance companies stopped writing new policies and crossed their fingers that they would have no major claims which would bankrupt them and luckily both survived.

James Duncan was briefly jailed and his assets were seized by creditors and liquidated.  These assets which included several ships, the Duncan shipyard property, and the Duncan property on Water Street including the contents were all sold for the benefit of creditors. Much of the property was purchased by Captain Ronald McMillan who built a coal depot on the shipyard site.

James Duncan Property 1873 (outlined in green). Note how the shoreline comes almost up to the buildings. Note building wing “form’ly the Foundry” and the blacksmith shop. The solid red line shows the property of the Prince Edward Island Railway. Dotted line shows possible route of railway extension to Great George Street. This land was expropriated in the 1880s.

Several of the Duncan properties still stand; the large brick double store on the corner of Queen and Dorchester Streets, Duncan’s residence at the corner of Prince Street and Water and the large building (now apartments) next door to the west which had originally been the store of Messrs. Waters & Birnie and which was likely built in the early 1820s.  It was also the site of the Phoenix foundry. The foundry and a blacksmith forge were still on the property in 1873 and were likely used in conjunction with the shipyard.  Other than the two residences traces of the estate and shipyard have disappeared under the Confederation Landing Park. James Duncan left Prince Edward Island soon after the bankruptcy and died in Scotland in 1889.


7 thoughts on “James Duncan – Charlottetown’s Biggest Bankrupt

  1. Willym

    Good morning Mr Holman. As always fascinating but particularly as we live in that building and knew only a tiny part of the history behind it. As I have done previously I would like to share it with friends both here and afar. As always with your permission as a direct link to the site.

    Will Hobbs
    140A Water Street

    1. sailstrait Post author

      I thought as I wrote this posting that it would be of interest to Laurent and yourself and you can certainly re-post it or pass it along to anyone you think may be interested.

  2. Willym

    Reblogged this on Willy Or Won't He and commented:
    As many of you already know we live in one of the older buildings along what was the waterfront of early Charlottetown. We knew that it had originally been the home of a Mr Duncan and then went through many changes of hands and purpose until today. In his most recent posting on Sailstrait Harry Holman, Island archivist, historian, and sailor extraordinaire filled us in on the early history of the property, the people and our surroundings.

  3. allan blatch

    a most interesting article as my great grandfather francis mutch bought the property in 1913 and moved into it in 1914 from the mutch farm and hotel in Stanhope.
    as an aside my grandparents built what we believe is the first cottage in Stanhope in 1926 which we bought back a number of years ago.
    .my grandfather f.allie allan mutch[son of francis] and his wife elizabeth [lamont] mutch finalized the sale from judge stewart and resided there for many years;[until the present owners i believe]
    my mother Cecelia mutch married frank stewart blatch and subsequent to the war and the familys return from Trenton [ R C A F] we moved into the house and lived there for many years in the upstairs apartment. it was all one unit prior to then.
    the stairs at the back of the lower apartment actually led to the upstair apartment which doorway was closed off after we moved to spring park and my grandmother continued to reside there after allie died in 1956. there was also a passthrough for the food from the kitchen to the dining room prior to a bedroom being built by the back stair.
    my father and grandfather worked for “bruce stewart and co ltd” a large machine shop next to the coal yard.
    i can well remember coal being delivered by horse and cart, ice being delivered by horse and wagon for the ice box,the roundhouse for the steam locomotives; we played there quite a bit and as the machine shop did a lot of work for the railroad all the engineers knew who we were.
    we have in our possession an abstract of title for lot 7 from oct 1812 until april 1926.we also have a conveyance deed from james Malcom of London England to james Duncan in 1865 for lot7 written on what appears to be parchment.
    this was in the family for many years in a folded condition,very brittle,so i had the paper lady work on it over many months to have it opened and scanned etc for preservation.
    also my grandmother wrote out the whole history of lot 7 before she passed at age 97.
    would love to look at the 132 water street apartment sometime when the pandemic is over so am adding my email ae@blatch.ca

  4. larrymuffin

    Hello Harry, thank you so much for this history of our current home. I really had no idea how fascinating it was and it certainly gives me a very different understanding of the house itself. I will re-blog it with credit to you for this excellent entry. Thank you.

  5. Pingback: James Duncan – Charlottetown’s Biggest Bankrupt — Sailstrait | Larry Muffin At Home

  6. Pingback: No better way to know Charlottetown… | Sailstrait

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