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The Original Investors of HBC

Who were the people who invested in Hudson's Bay Company? Most were financiers, noblemen and men active in the highest circles of business and the Royal Court.

In 1665 Pierre Radisson and his brother-in-law Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, accompanied by Colonel George Cartwright, whom they had met in Boston, arrived in London seeking backers for their proposed fur trading venture to Hudson Bay. It was not an auspicious time in the capital: an outbreak of plague had sent the city into a tailspin. Cartwright introduced the two to a number of influential men. Among these were Sir George Carteret and Robert Boyle.

Nonsuch Returns to London, 1669 by Norman Wilkinson, ca. 1943

Nonsuch Returns to London, 1669 by Norman Wilkinson, ca. 1943

Sir George Carteret was a self-made millionaire whose fortune had been built on the profits of piracy against the Cromwellians during the English Civil War. After the Restoration he was Vice-Chamberlain of the King's Household, Treasurer of the Royal Navy, Commissioner of the Board of Trade and MP for Portsmouth. He was also an important member of the newly-founded Royal African Company. Robert Boyle, the pioneering physicist famous as the discoverer of Boyle's Gas Law, was a founding member of the Royal Society, an association of scientists. He was also the son of the Earl of Cork, one of the wealthiest men in the country, and extremely rich in his own right. He would eventually buy into HBC in order to gain access to the scientific information gathered by its servants. It is unclear which of these two arranged to take the Frenchmen to Oxford where the Court had relocated to avoid the plague-ridden city. There they met King Charles II.

The proposed northern trade route caught the King's imagination and he put Radisson and des Groseilliers on a weekly stipend, placing them in the care of a young banker named Sir Peter Colleton. Colleton was the son of a Barbadian sugar planter and himself had colonial interests in the Bahamas and the Carolinas. Colleton escorted the Frenchmen back to London where he introduced them to the rest of the men who would become their initial backers. To quote one historian this group was not "a haphazard and spontaneous group of men who were attracted by the romance of their story, but a coordinated group with great interests in the colonial field, with considerable experience, and with a definite purpose."

Sometime in 1666 plans came together to underwrite a speculative voyage to North America to test the viability of the sea route and the potential of the trade, but Dutch domination of the seas precluded any voyage that year. The following year saw some progress but still no vessel set sail for Hudson Bay. Without a formal company structure yet in place to support such a venture, it was left to various individuals to advance seed money to keep the project afloat. Colleton undertook personal expenses for Radisson and des Groseilliers. Carteret bought a vessel for the voyage - the Discovery - although she proved unsuitable and was later sold at a loss. In October 1667 Francis Millington, a Customs Commissioner for the City of London, advanced money which was later credited towards the purchase of a share. So did his relative by marriage Sir Robert Vyner, Controller of the Mint, Lord Mayor of London and leading merchant banker of the day. John Fenn, Paymaster of the Royal Navy, started to contribute money for working expenses in December, 1667 and more came from John Portman, a prominent banker to investors in the Carolina and Bahamian colonies and Treasurer of those respective companies.

His Highness Prince Rupert by Studio of Anthony van Dyck, n.d. - Oil on canvas

His Highness Prince Rupert by Studio of Anthony van Dyck, n.d.
Oil on canvas

By 1668 a company was starting to take shape. Ledgers exist from that time and the initial expenses and investments are recorded. Great men of the Court joined these financial men of the city. Prince Rupert himself began to pay for a full share in June 1668, by which time the Nonsuch had already departed London. Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Ashley (later first Earl Shaftesbury), made his initial investment in August. Chancellor of the Exchequer and member of the Privy Council, he was a close friend of Rupert's and a partner along with him in a number of commercial enterprises, including the Royal African and Royal Fisheries Companies, as well as an investor in colonies in Barbados, the Bahamas and Guinea. William Craven, Lord Craven, had been a long-time supporter of the Stuarts, in particular of Rupert's mother Elizabeth, whose heir he was. A Privy Councillor, he too was an investor in the Carolina colony and the Royal Fisheries Company. Henry Bennet, Baron Arlington (later first Earl Arlington), was Secretary of State and an MP. George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, Lord of Trade and Plantations and Privy Councillor, had restored Charles to the throne. He also had interests in the Carolinas, the Royal African and Royal Fisheries companies. Sir James Hayes, personal Secretary of Prince Rupert, contributed money as well his deft organizing ability. Hayes was a barrister and MP with numerous investments, but functioned primarily as financial adviser to the Prince. Hayes would end up Deputy Governor of HBC and its largest single shareholder with a 20% stake. 

Other investors included Hayes' brother-in-law and MP Sir Edward Hungerford; Sir John Robinson, Lieutenant of the Tower of London; Sir John Griffith, a professional soldier and city magnate; Sir Paul Neile, a member of the Royal Society; William Prettyman, an adventurer to India; Sir John Kirke, the son of a merchant who had captured Quebec in 1828, and the only investor with firsthand knowledge of the North American fur trade.

The Nonsuch returned to London in October 1669 - almost four years after Radisson and des Groseilliers had first arrived there. But it had been worth the wait. Her success, the value of her cargo and the influence of the men who had backed her led directly to the granting of the Royal Charter the following year.