Manitoba History: All Within My Power: The Life of William Forbes Alloway

by Tim Higgins
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 67, Winter 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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William Forbes Alloway, banker and philanthropist, was convinced that the city he helped create was as much responsible for his success, as he for its. So, near the end of a long and productive life, he decided to give his gratitude concrete form. The result was The Winnipeg Foundation.

William Forbes Alloway (1852–1930), initial benefactor of The Winnipeg Foundation.
Source: The Winnipeg Foundation

William Alloway’s grandfather, William Johnson Alloway, (d. 1829) built The Derries, the family estate in Ballybrittas, Queen’s County (now County Laois) in the Irish province of Leinster. [1] Among William Johnson’s six children was his second son, Arthur William Alloway, for whom an Ensign’s commission was purchased in 1824. [2] Given the turmoil caused by the famine, and that fact that, as second son, he would not inherit The Derries, it was not surprising that Arthur decided to emigrate. So, in 1855 the now Captain Alloway, his bride Mary and their two young sons—William Forbes (1852) and Charles Valentine (1854) joined the Irish diaspora, settling first in Hamilton and later moving to Montréal. Captain Alloway joined the Queen’s Own Rifles, a Canadian Militia Regiment, when it was formed in 1860, and served as a veterinary surgeon.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the British Empire was approaching its zenith. William and Charles grew up on tales of the Black Hole of Calcutta, the relief of Lucknow [3] and the Charge of the Light Brigade. [4] So it is little wonder that, when they were presented with the chance at Imperial glory, both boys were quick to enlist in the Wolseley expedition, sent by John A. Macdonald to establish Dominion rule over the former Rupertsland. After the resolution of the conflict with Riel and the Métis, Lt.-Colonel Garnet Wolseley departed Red River, but the Alloway brothers stayed.

In the fall of 1870, Fort Garry and the little village of Winnipeg to its north, was still frontier. Although the Hudson’s Bay Company had been responsible for administration in the colony, it had had no effective way of enforcing its rule. Riel’s Métis buffalo brigades had military discipline, which had allowed them to take the fort and hold it, but now they were gone, as were Wolseley and his regulars. The militias he left as garrison troops were, for the most part, English-speaking Protestants who shared an intense dislike for the Métis and French-speaking Catholics. The new Lt.-Governor, Adams Archibald, had only just arrived and had to organize an election in the new province of Manitoba before the end of the year.

What Archibald needed was a police force to begin to impose some order. For a young man with military training who had already decided to seek his fortune in this new country, policing seemed an obvious entrée. By the time the election was held on 27 December, Private William Alloway had become Constable Alloway, [5] assigned to guard a polling station and ensure the ballot box actually made it to the returning officer.

Being a policeman was certainly a way to gain respect and recognition, but it was hardly going to make Alloway wealthy. He sought other opportunities. On 8 May 1871, an advertisement appeared in the Manitoba Free Press announcing that William Alloway had opened a tobacco shop on Main Street. The Manitoban and Northwest Herald on 16 September 1871 advertised the services of William Alloway, Veterinary Surgeon. “Of course, I wasn’t a veterinary surgeon,” he told a friend years later, “but I’ll admit I loved the horses so much that it flattered me to have someone ask me to relieve the sufferings of a sick animal.” [6] Alloway did allow the initials “V.S.” to appear after his name in Winnipeg’s first business directory.

It was Alloway’s expertise regarding horses, as well as his entrepreneurial spirit, that finally allowed to him make, as he put it, his “first real chunk of money”; that is, funds not achieved through “the sweat of his brow.” [7] In August 1874, an announcement appeared in the Manitoba Free Press:

W. W. (sic) Alloway has returned from Montréal, bringing with him a magnificent carriage and pair for Mr. Mulligan. The carriage is extremely handsome and well got up, and has all the latest improvements and appliances, and is decidedly ahead of anything in the Province.

Mr. Mulligan was James Mulligan, a wealthy landowner who had commissioned William to obtain the coach and pair. Mulligan lived in Armstrong’s Point and had bought up much of the nearby land. To pay the $1400 bill, Mulligan offered a parcel of land that ran from Portage Avenue south to the Assiniboine River, between what is now Maryland Street and Walnut Street. Guessing even then that Winnipeg would be expanding west, Alloway accepted. When his guess eventually proved correct, he was able to sell the acreage for $30,000, which, in the late nineteenth century, made him a gentleman of means.

Early movers and shakers. William Alloway was among city officials shown in this collage of photographs from 1880. He served two terms on the Winnipeg city council, from 1876 to 1877 and again from 1879 to 1880, giving him intimate knowledge of how government worked.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Stovel Advocate Collection 148.

As a property owner, male and over twenty-one, William Alloway was now eligible to vote and run for public office, which he decided to do in 1875. The main requirement to be on city council at the time was that the aspirant should have real estate holdings worth $2,000 or more. Opponents of his candidacy were quick to point out his shortcoming in this area—despite the fact that he was now running a freighting business with firm North West Mounted Police and Canadian Pacific Railroad contracts and an inventory of rolling stock approaching 6,000 Red River carts, he controlled only $1450 worth of real estate. [8] Nonetheless, Alloway seems to have convinced the authorities his net worth was more than adequate to meet the property requirement. He was duly elected a councillor for South Ward in 1876.

Alloway served four terms as a city alderman, 1876– 1877 and 1879–1880. Although still in his 20s when elected, it was immediately clear to Council that he was not a man to be trifled with. Council minutes repeatedly record his animated “discussions,” particularly with Francis Cornish, a future mayor. A friend, interviewed years later, gives some insight into what Cornish was up against.

I remember how Mr. Alloway—Bill as he was called by his friends—used to get up and express his views. He was a frank fellow. I was attracted to him by the fact that he always came right out and said what was on his mind without any mincing. He was no diplomat and did not try to be. He never adopted any devious course. He was not studying to please this man or that man, this element or that element. He had been trained in a bluff, honest school. He thought outspokenness was the best policy to pursue; and when he was too warmed up to think, he followed it instinctively. [9]

Winnipeg was now a small city of 5,000 people and over 900 buildings, growing steadily as its isolation receded. Winnipeg now had a direct link to the American transcontinental railway system. Imports became cheaper, and travel to and from Manitoba a much less daunting proposition. The Dawson Road was now complete, giving access east to Lake of the Woods and allowing Winnipeg merchants to begin eyeing opportunities in farming, forestry and mining that were getting underway north of the Rainy River.

The city had developed an ascendant Anglo-Ontarian culture. Winnipeg saw its first “opera” house in 1872, its first indoor skating rink in 1874 and a local Turf Club in 1875, with William Alloway the first President of the club. [10] Alloway also rode “Cataract” (undoubtedly named with the Winnipeg River in mind) to victory in the steeplechase at the Club’s inaugural event. [11]

In a sure sign that an elite had already formed in Winnipeg, western Canada’s first private gentlemen’s club was organized in the city on 16 July 1874. The Manitoba Club was established as a refuge for men of means, a place where they could enjoy the company of their peers and, mimicking the tradition of the British gentry, escape the presence of women. The first permanent clubhouse was erected on Garry St. in 1881; Earl Grey opened the present establishment at Broadway and Fort in 1905. William Alloway was an early member.

The Other Alloway

Click to enlarge

Elizabeth McLaren Alloway

Click to enlarge

Elizabeth McLaren was born in Buckingham, Québec, one of thirteen children of James McLaren and Ann Sully. Her father was one of the leading citizens of the Ottawa Valley, having made his fortune in lumber and banking. By the time of his death in 1892, he was one of Canada’s richest men.

Her brothers were also well known in Québec, though for less desirable reasons. During a 1906 strike at the lumber operation they had inherited from their father, an attempt by employees to unionize resulted in the shooting deaths of two organizers. Largely due to the family’s influence, the shooters were acquitted and all 242 workers were blacklisted for decades.

Elizabeth most likely met William Alloway while he was visiting his own family in Montréal. The couple was married in September 1878 in Buckingham, and moved to Winnipeg immediately thereafter, taking up residence at The Derries on Assiniboine Avenue, where they lived for the rest of her lives.

One of Elizabeth’s first official duties as Mrs. Alloway was to accompany William south to Penza, Minnesota, for the completion ceremony of Winnipeg’s initial rail link with the outside world. On 3 December, along with eighteen other spouses of prominent citizens, she was invited to help drive the last spike. As reported in the Free Press the following day, after several attempts to swing a sledgehammer that would have typically have weighed between 10 and 20 pounds, she and the other ladies deferred to “a good-natured Italian named Paddy.”

Elizabeth’s career as a doyenne of charitable activities was much more successful. The McLarens were devout Presbyterians and once in Winnipeg, Elizabeth joined Augustine Church, which was built across the Assiniboine River from The Derries in 1887 and whose congregation had a strong call to mission.

Her first minister at Augustine, Dr. Andrew Baird, described her early childhood as having been “spent in the environment of a deeply religious home, and all her life she tried to live up to the traditions of that home. She was devoted to the religious services of the church and what they stood for: faithful in attendance at worship and to the precepts of Christian teaching.”

Elizabeth lived out her faith through her charitable work. She was an early supporter of the Children’s Home, personally maintaining a fourteen-bed ward there. She gave generously to further the work of the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission. And when the Victorian Order of Nurses received its Royal Charter in 1897, she took the Winnipeg chapter under her wing.

Unlike most married women at this time, Elizabeth had her own money outside her marriage, inherited from her father’s estate and completely under her control. In this sense, the Alloway charitable endeavours were a partnership in the truest sense of the word. It is clear that the decision to create a community trust named for the city they loved rather than after themselves and then fund it with the total equity of their individual estates was a joint one.

It was also completely in keeping with Elizabeth’s adherence to those Christian precepts referred to by Dr. Baird—do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Eighteen seventy-eight marked a turning point in William Alloway’s life, both commercially and personally. He had been making a very good living from the freighting business since 1873, but he could see the era of the Red River cart in transportation was rapidly coming to an end. For a man of Alloway’s acumen and drive, the opportunities presented by the arrival of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad were staggering. He had already been exploring other avenues of livelihood, dabbling in business loans and real estate. So by the time he was invited south to take part in the railway’s last-spike ceremony, he had already made his decision.

Accompanying him on this trip was his new bride, Elizabeth Maclaren Alloway. Elizabeth was the daughter of James Maclaren, an Ottawa valley lumber magnate and, in 1874, a co-founder of the Bank of Ottawa. William and Elizabeth had been married in September, after which he brought her back to Winnipeg to live in the house he had built for her. He called it “The Derries” after the family seat in Ireland. In another act of prescience, Alloway built the house at 407 Assiniboine Avenue, in the heart of the as yet undeveloped Hudson’s Bay reserve. [12]

Up until this time, Winnipeg’s elite neighbourhood had been Point Douglas, but when it became apparent in 1883 that the CPR mainline was going to run through the middle of that district, the area became much less desirable. The year before, the HBC had begun its demolition of Upper Fort Garry in anticipation of developing the reserve. [13] Their plan was for a genteel, upper-class district—everything that brawling, rowdy Winnipeg was not. This neighbourhood would be centred on a wide, tree-lined boulevard designed in the grand European style—the street we know today as Broadway.

The HBC sales pitch clearly worked. William and Elizabeth were soon joined by the Ashdowns, the Galts, the Schultzes, and the McDonalds; in other words, the wealthiest members of Winnipeg society.

The Derries, which means “place of the oak trees” in Gaelic, sat on a large river lot that provided sufficient room for a tennis court and other sports. Saturday afternoons became a sort of levee, as friends and acquaintances dropped round for entertainment and tea, which was served to all comers. [14] Due to the couple’s unfailing hospitality and their position as neighbourhood pioneers, The Derries soon became the early social centre of Winnipeg, a position it held until the core of wealth moved again, this time across the Assiniboine to Crescentwood, around the turn of the century.

The Derries. The Alloway residence at 407 Assiniboine Avenue was the setting for many an informal meeting through the years, including the one in February 1921 that launched The Winnipeg Foundation. After their deaths, it became part of the Foundation’s assets and was rented out for a time. Like many of the houses in the downtown area, it was eventually demolished to make way for an apartment block.
Source: The Winnipeg Foundation

Exactly how William Alloway became a banker is unclear, but it is not unreasonable to assume that Elizabeth had a significant role in the decision to do so. The Bank of Ottawa had significantly increased her father’s already substantial fortune, and she may have felt the business could do the same for her new husband. Whatever the reason, in that seminal year of 1878, Alloway opened Western Canada’s first private bank, located on the east side of Main Street near the present site of the Bank of Montreal’s Winnipeg headquarters.

Although Alloway was very confident in his own abilities, he was never loath to take advantage of experience. Therefore, just as he had partnered with James McKay [15] when he had gone into the freighting business, he now sought out Henry Champion, an old comrade from the Wolseley expedition. Champion had gone into banking directly out of the military, and had risen to the position of accountant for the Merchants’ Bank, the first chartered bank in western Canada. In 1879, they entered into an equal partnership, with William’s brother Charles, who had also stayed in the west, becoming a junior partner (20%) in 1885.

Alloway and Champion was a success from the beginning. As immigration increased rapidly in the 1880s, the firm was active in real estate and took financial advantage of the availability of Métis scrip. [16] Their refusal to become involved in the speculative land bubble that arose as the CPR approached Manitoba in 1881–1882, helped them avoid the subsequent collapse. It also left them in possession of a large inventory of “well selected farm lands” in every township in the province as well as in the North-West Territories, which were subsequently sold “at reasonable prices and on easy terms.” [17]

As operators of a private bank, Alloway and Champion were free to invest their capital as they wished. Among other endeavours, they acted as stockbrokers and became involved in currency trading. This latter activity became so lucrative during the great immigration years of the early twentieth century, that they opened a branch at 667 Main Street, near the CPR station, specifically to handle immigrants fresh off the trains. Staffed with linguists from Eastern Europe, this branch helped new arrivals convert their funds into Canadian dollars and send money to relatives in the old country. Eventually, the branch housed a steamship booking agency that helped bring in the families of immigrant pioneers.

As business expanded, the main branch moved—first to the West side of Main Street near the HBC’s new flagship department store in 1884, and then in 1905 to 362 Main Street. [18] This building, known citywide as the “bank with the golden doors” after its refurbishment in 1911, was everything the discerning customer expected a bank to be. Costing $116,000 to renovate, it was a building that “was all marble and granite, brass and bronze, and lined from floor to ceiling on all walls with pure Sienna marble, placed there by workmen brought from Italy.” [19]

By 1912, when Alloway and Champion was incorporated, it had an authorized capital stock of $3,000,000 and a reserve of $125,000. [20] Alloway and Champion Limited had become the largest private bank in Canada, and William Forbes Alloway a millionaire.

The fortunes of Alloway and the city that his bank helped to build rose in tandem. The small village of Fort Garry which he had first seen as a young soldier four decades earlier, was now a modern metropolis of 185,000 and the Dominion’s third largest city. As a member of the new bourgeoisie, Alloway took part in the activities expected of a British gentleman.

He maintained his interest in rowing, honed during the Wolseley Expedition. He served as President of the Winnipeg Rowing Club from 1891–1898 and he and Elizabeth accompanied the Club team to the Henley Regatta in London during the Jubilee year of 1897. Alloway was Master of the Hounds for the Winnipeg Riding Club, which hunted on land west of the present site of Mulvey School, part of which he had once owned. [21] He drove one of the first automobiles seen in Manitoba, and was a charter member of the Winnipeg Automobile Club.

The Alloways’ son, William Maclaren, was born in October 1880 and died in August 1881 at nine months of age. [22] The couple had no more children. They travelled extensively throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Europe. They often stayed with Elizabeth’s family in Québec and visited the original Derries in Ireland. They capped their travels with an around-the-world trip before the First World War broke out in 1914.

Like other men and women of their social class, the Alloways engaged in philanthropy and contributed to the growth of numerous social institutions. Alloway was an early supporter of the Federated Budget, the period’s equivalent of today’s United Way. He gave $5,000 a year, and made a habit of presenting his cheque in person early on the opening day of each annual fund drive. [23] Like most of his contemporaries, he had supported the General Hospital from its earliest days—he was a board member for over a quarter-century and served a term as President in the 1890s. His gifts to the institution are estimated to have been in the neighbourhood of $100,000. [24]

However, more than his contemporaries, William Alloway tended to take the long view. Even after war, disease and class warfare seemed to have ended Winnipeg’s dreams of Empire leadership, he remained profoundly optimistic in the 1920s, predicting:

There is another boom coming, and sometimes I think it is not far away. Having seen the development of this city since 1870—developments that have far surpassed every idea I had—I can have no doubt whatever regarding the future. The west must fill up with people through the coming years, and as the west fills up, Winnipeg must grow in importance, size, wealth and civic prestige. A great many values we have known in the past will come back—and be surpassed. Business in all lines will be brisk, and larger fortunes will be made in Winnipeg than were made by any of the old-timers in the past. [25]

This attitude also led him to a consideration of the future of municipal charity. Both he and Elizabeth were well aware of the social problems two decades of rapid growth had engendered in pre-war Winnipeg. On the one hand, even the Federated Budget depended to a large extent on the yearly decisions—and financial health—of people like him. On the other, bequest money set aside to address specific issues over the long term often remained unused when conditions changed—the so–called “dead hand” of estate planning. Surely, he thought, there must be a way to use the financial system that had made him rich to provide a permanent pool of wealth that could be dedicated to addressing social need.

It was during these deliberations that a new idea was drawn to his attention—a community trust, the first of which had been established in Cleveland in 1914 by an estate lawyer named Frederick Goff. As Goff later wrote in Collier’s Magazine:

How fine it would be if a man about to make a will could go to a permanently enduring organization—what Chief Justice Marshall called an “artificial immortal being”—and say: “Here is a large sum of money. I want to leave it to be used for the good of the community, but I have no way of knowing what will be the greatest need of the community 50 years from now, or even 10 years from now. Therefore, I place it in your hands, because you will be here, you and your successors, through the years, to determine what should be done with this sum to make it most useful for people of each succeeding generation.” It is the rankest hubris for anyone to suggest they can see/predict the future. [26]

Alloway was immediately struck by the elegance of the solution, and contacted his friend, lawyer C. P. Wilson, KC, to draw up a proposal that would suit Canadian regulations. The proposed trust would also require statutory changes in Manitoba; so, they asked Edith Rogers, Manitoba’s first female MLA, to introduce the bill in the legislature. It passed, and on 4 June 1921, William Forbes Alloway was able to confirm the establishment of the Winnipeg Foundation—the first community trust in Canada and only the second in North America.

William and Elizabeth Alloway contributed generously to the Winnipeg Foundation’s creation. William commented in the Manitoba Free Press:

Winnipeg has been my home and has done more for me than it ever may be in my power to repay. I owe everything to this community and I feel that it should derive some benefit from what I have been able to accumulate. It therefore gives me much pleasure to enclose my cheque for $100,000 “as a starter” for the Foundation. [27]

In 1921, this was an enormous gift. However, it was only the beginning. When Elizabeth died in 1926, she left her entire estate to the Foundation—over $800,000. Moreover, when William passed away in 1930, the Foundation received everything he had amassed over sixty fruitful years. In total, the Alloway bequest to the Winnipeg Foundation came to almost $2.2 million.

William Forbes Alloway was a fortunate man. Not many have the opportunity to be present at the birth of a new city; even fewer, the occasion to play a leading role in its building. Right time, right place? Of course. But in William Alloway, fate also delivered the right person—a fact for which all Winnipeggers should be forever grateful.

The cheque that laid a foundation. W. F. Alloway’s initial gift of $100,000 in 1921—roughly equal to $1.2 million in today’s currency—provided the endowment that enabled The Winnipeg Foundation to begin its philanthropic work.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Foote Collection #1982.


1. Queen’s County was one of sites of the Stuart Plantations, established in the seventeenth century to replace the Gaelic Catholic elite with English and Scottish landholders. The Plantations were one of many fruitless attempts to Anglicize Ireland.

2. The Connaught Journal, Galway, 22 July 1824.

3. Events occurring during the Indian Mutiny, 1857–1858.

4. 5 October 1854. Cavalry action during the Crimean War (1853–1856), made famous in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

5. Alexander Begg, Ten Years in Winnipeg: A Narration of the Principal Events in the History of the City of Winnipeg, 1870–1879. Winnipeg: Times Printing & Publishing House, 1879.

6. Winnipeg Tribune (hereafter, WT), 12 March 1938.

7. Peter Lowe, “All Western Dollars,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3 (1945–1946).

8. Manitoba Free Press (hereafter, MFP), 1 January 1876.

9. Ibid., 3 February 1930.

10. Begg, op. cit.

11. MFP, 29 May 1875.

12. The HBC had retained the land around Fort Garry south of Portage Avenue when it sold Rupertsland to Canada in 1869.

13. Gordon Goldsborough, Historic Sites of Manitoba: Upper Fort Garry. Winnipeg: Manitoba Historical Society, 2010.

14. Lowe, op. cit.

15. James McKay (1828–1879) was an HBC servant, guide, member of the Manitoba Legislature, and a founder of the Winnipeg Board of Trade.

16. Land scrip or money scrip was offered to the Métis inhabitants of Red River under the Manitoba Act in compensation for extinguishment of their Aboriginal title. Many Métis chose to sell their scrip, often for amounts well below its genuine value.

17. P. Hanlon, “William Forbes Alloway,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2000; Lowe, op. cit. Lowe points out that, in addition to acquiring land through buying and selling scrip, Alloway and Champion also profited from purchases at tax sales and real estate investments inside Winnipeg.

18. This address is the site of the present Winnipeg Commodity Exchange, popularly known as the Trizec Building.

19. George Waight, in conversation with Vince Leah. WT, 19 January 1980.

20. Hanlon, op. cit.

21. Daily Nor’Wester, 5 June 1894.

22. MFP, 25 Oct. 1880, birth announcement; 24 Aug. 1881, obituary of William MacLaren Alloway, age 9 mos., 28 days.

23. MFP, 3 February 1930.

24. Ibid.

25. The Financial Post of Canada, 23 October 1924.

26. Frederick Goff, taken from the article, “Who Shall Spend Your Money?” by Fred Kelly, Collier’s Magazine, 2 February 1924.

27. MFP, 5 June 1921.

William and Elizabeth Alloway were among a group of adventurous Winnipeggers who, in early September 1885, boarded the steamboat Princess for a two-week excursion on Lake Winnipeg, during which they visited Grand Rapids, Norway House and other points around the lake.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Events 125, N12132.

Page revised: 1 January 2017