The North Western Coal & Navigation Company’s first president – William Lethbridge

Who is William Lethbridge, and why is our city named after him?  It all starts in southwest England around the turn of the nineteenth century…

 

The Lethbridge family lived on a farm called ‘Wood’ near a small village named South Taunton, in the county of Devon (Devonshire).  William was born in 1825 into poverty and had a tough upbringing, and several unfortunate circumstances (including the death of Mr. Lethbridge, and one of William’s brothers) forced them to leave the farm and relocate to nearby Tavistock.  There, Mrs. Lethbridge earned a living for the family by teaching at a dames school (a private elementary school).  But the children, or at least the eldest son, William, showed promise far beyond his prospects.  From the school where his mother worked he obtained a scholarship to attend St. John’s College in Cambridge.  From there he went to the University, where he passed a ninth wrangler (a wrangler is a term at the University of Cambridge to describe a student who gains first-class honours in the third year of the University’s undergraduate degree in Mathematics) to the Bar association.

 

One of his classmates at the University, W.H. Smith, the son of a bookseller.  Smith conceived the idea of the colossal railway bookselling business (newsstands at railway stations selling books and newspapers) which has expanded over the years and still bears his name to this day (https://www.whsmith.co.uk/).  When Smith took over the family business, he invited Lethbridge to go into the book selling business with him – at first as his manager, and then as partner.  Lethbridge did well in the business world (including a nice large house in London’s Strand Portman Square), and made many friends including the Canadian High Commissioner Sir Alexander Galt.

 

As the most powerful Canadian in Britain, Galt’s prestige connected with the elite of British capitalism.  Canvassing the posh Victorian parlours and drawing rooms, proposals were built to entice the financing necessary to establish the first large scale mining venture on Canada’s prairies.  As recalled by a couple of executives, “there were few who had faith in this country and during a period when in was necessary to go about London on one’s knees in order to get money for development work in our Northwest Territories.”

 

On April 25th, 1882, the North Western Coal and Navigation Company (NWC&NC) was incorporated in England under the “Companies’ Acts, 1862 to 1880,” to undertake mining at the coal properties in the Northwest Territories.  As Lethbridge had the most shares into the company he had the honour of being named company president and having the community of Coalbanks renamed in his honor.  Galt recognized that tone way to keep investors connected to their investment as well as to thank them by naming towns, roads, etc after them.

 

At the time of his retirement, he decided to purchase his former childhood home.  Wood was bought back from the bank and re-built as a country house for Lethbridge.  In his retirement years he also served as a Justice of the Peace, and as High Sheriff of Devon.  He passed away at the age of 78 years on March 31st, 1901 and was buried at the parish of South Taunton.  A lifelong bachelor, William left an estate of £ 400,000 (approx. $646,000 Cdn) and the property to the children of his sister.  Today, you can rent a room at his former residence and think about this man who went from poverty to wealth and had a hand in developing southern Alberta.  And ironically, William Lethbridge never came to Lethbridge.  In fact, he never came to Canada, but since he was busy running several companies it would make sense that he just didn’t have time.  It has been recorded though, that his nephew (who was named after his uncle) did visit Lethbridge with governor general Lord & Lady Aberdeen in 1894.


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All images and content are copyright Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission. Special thanks to Chris Doering for reviewing & editing!

Portrait of William Lethbridge – by Anthony F.A. Sandys (Frederick Sandys) – 1882

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