Sunday 3 February 2013

Sir George Stephen Bt and the Canadian Pacific Railway

Sir George Stephen Bt (1829-1921)
While driving home from a meeting the other day I watched a freight train glide past, paralleling the highway on its railway line, and it reminded me that I had a few train themed bookplates that I was planning to do a bit more research on.  I have always found that railway ex libris have been very desirable to both bookplate collectors as well as railway enthusiasts in Canada, and the armorial bookplate shown below belonging to Sir George Stephen Bt, is perhaps one of the most sought after ex libris in this category.

Sir George Stephen (5 June 1829 - 29 November 1921) was a Scottish Born Canadian who is best known to our history as the financial genius behind the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  He also served as President of the Bank of Montreal, and later became the first Canadian to be elevated to the Peerage of the United Kingdom.  Cousin to another famous Canadian, Lord Strathcona, and a personal friend of King George V, George Stephen, 1st Baron Mount Stephen, was also remembered fondly as one of the greatest philanthropists of his time.

Sir George Stephen's Bookplate 
Stephen's coat of arms reflected both his Canadian heritage as well as own industriousness.  He first got into the railroad business in 1877, which eventually led to his association with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  Along with a small syndicate of investors, Stephen poured millions of dollars into the tracks and persevered to see the CPR's construction through to completion in 1885.  For his amazing financial generosity (Stephen repeatedly lent the struggling government money for their railways) he was made baronet the following year, but soon after retired from the helm of the CPR in 1888.

Stephen's bookplate is listed in Franks (No.28013), but not in Prescott, which I find interesting as the plate was obviously engraved sometime after 1886 yet before Stephen's death in 1921.  It seems odd therefore especially given Stephen's celebrity status at the time as one of Canada and England's greatest philanthropists, that his bookplate somehow eluded the cataloguers.  Again, it makes me wonder how many others have also been missed.  The Artist of his plate is identified in Franks as Charles William Sherborn, the well-known English bookplate designer and later vice-president of the Ex Libris Society.

While a resident of Montreal Stephen had a marvellous Italianate style house constructed downtown in what was known as the "Golden Square Mile", a reference to an area where a number of wealthy residents at one time had their homes closely situated to one another.  Stephen's mansion took three years to complete and cost him $600,000.  Eventually turned into a private gentlemen's club in 1926, I was briefly a member when I lived in that city,and had the good fortune to attend several great dinners and parties there.  Today it remains an easily accessible landmark right in downtown Montreal, and I recommend if you're ever visiting that great city to take a stroll by the house.  It's a real joy to see up close.  Until next time...

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