Dynastic Doings

The Molsons: Their Lives & Times 1780 – 2000

By Mary Soderstrom

A review of The Molsons: Their Lives & Times 1780 - 2000 by Karen Molson

Published on April 1, 2002

The Molsons: Their Lives & Times 1780 – 2000
Karen Molson

Firefly Books
$40
cloth
416pp
1-55209-418-9

My husband jokes that it wouldn’t be wise for genealogists to mess around in our family’s past, because they might uncover a few horse thieves. In her elegantly presented, carefully researched study of the great brewing family, Karen Molson shows that it’s not just us ordinary folk who have a scandal or two hidden away. Early on she tells us that at a time when being a bastard meant social ostracism, John Molson didn’t marry the mother of his children until they were nearly grown.

Sarah Vaughn had recently fled the American Revolution when the aspiring brewer hired her in 1786 to be his housemaid for four dollars a month. He was 23 and she was 35, with a husband somewhere. Connected to the English gentry, she was nevertheless illiterate and sufficiently hard up to need a job. Sharing a bed must have been added to her duties rather quickly, because the first of Molson’s three sons was born in 1787. It wasn’t until 1801, when word came that Sarah’s first husband had died, that John and she married in the Anglican church and legitimized their children.

By then John was well on his way to building the financial empire that has never stopped prospering. Karen Molson explains the ins and outs of its growth – the brewing company, the steamship line, the railroad, the real estate and distilling ventures and the (recently downsized) hockey interests. The book excels in its portrayal of complex interfamily relations set against deftly drawn social vignettes. Told in the present tense, these jazz up what could otherwise have been a rather dry history.

Karen Molson is a seventh-generation Molson, born to the line begun by the original John Molson’s third son Thomas. She provides a family tree at the beginning of the book. This is a good thing, since the Molsons gave many of their children the same names – John, William, and Thomas were favourites – and several of them also married cousins. Several Molsons were dedicated journal keepers and letter writers, and account books and other financial records from the Molson companies have survived intact. Thus Karen Molson is able to show us just how far out on a limb young John Molson went to start up his brewery; she quotes from his increasingly frantic entreaties that money be set aside in trust so that he could pay for the equipment he had already bought. We also get a sharp picture of John II through his school reports, which remark that he was “a good Lad…but the most spirited one you can imagine. No fear of his fighting his way through the world.” To which the first John told his son: “it will ultimately a great advantage to you to be a man of education instead of a Blockhead.”

The book was not commissioned by the Molson family nor by any of their corporate interests, yet clearly Karen Molson had privileged access to many of the surviving family members and to private letters. So, while she may be frank about some of the family’s sexual peccadilloes – in addition to John and Sarah’s marital tardiness, she goes into detail about a Molson grandson who was caught in a hotel with a young woman of good family – don’t expect dirt about how the Molsons made their millions. In short, the book gives an entertaining view into the lifestyles of a rich and famous family over two centuries. Definitely more interesting than a story about ordinary horse thieves. mRb

Mary Soderstrom is an old leftie herself, and the author of a biographical novel about an Anglophone Patriot in the nearest thing to a revolution that Canada ever had: The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson and the Rebellion of 1838 (Oberon Press, 1998).

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