The British American Bank Note Company
"The Early Years"

By:  Manuel J. Pires  (CPMS #961)


The British American Bank Note Company was formed in 1866, just one year before Canada's Confederation.  The company was established in Montreal by a group of engraving and printing craftsmen.  Before the company's creation, two separate groups went ahead with plans to start a Canadian company that would engrave and print postage and revenue stamps, bonds and other financial documents, for the nation in waiting.  These groups also recognized the opportunity to serve the bank note printing needs of Canada's chartered banks, which at the time had to go abroad for their paper currency requirements.  With a rapidly growing economy, further opportunity existed in the printing of bonds, debentures and other securities for companies and municipalities.

William Cumming Smillie was the leader of one of these separate groups.  Smillie emigrated from Scotland to Quebec at a young age.  He later moved to New York where he went on to become a successful script letter engraver.  Smillie began investigating the possibility of forming the British American Bank Note Company as early as 1864, by consulting with interested political leaders in Canada.  After receiving positive feedback, he formed his group, consisting of Alfred Jones (portrait engraver) and Henry Earle (designer and letter engraver).  The group went on to purchase a building in Ottawa and prepare it for handling the expected Government contract.

George Bull Burland was the leader of the second group.  In 1866, his group had been formed in Montreal and independently took out a charter to operate as the British American Bank Note Company.  Burland was a paperboy who went on to become a successful lithographer and businessman.  The charter must have come as a shock to Smillie, given that key political leaders had originally supported him in his endeavour.

Despite the tension between Smillie and Burland, the two groups were encouraged to merge.  And so they did.  The amalgamation of the two separate groups combined strengths in anti-counterfeiting techniques: steel engraving through Smillie's group; and Burland's lease of Matthew's Patent Green Tint - a special bank note tint created to hinder forgery.  Smillie went on to become president of the British American Bank Note Company, with Burland as the manager.

Although the first 30 years of the British American Bank Note Company was generally quite prosperous, the company was forced to write off bad debts due to many banks which failed during the period.  The early twentieth century also proved difficult for the company as business declined.  Eleven new banks were formed over the years 1901-1914, but 25 banks either went out of business or were acquired by other banks.  In general, the prosperity of the British American Bank Note Company has closely mirrored the health of the Canadian economy and general economic conditions.



The following vignettes are just a sample of the beautiful steel engravings that have been produced by highly talented and patient artists at the British American Banknote Company over the years.  The following scenes and portraits are quite attractive and many can help give us insight into dominant themes and individuals throughout Canadian history.





(1) Queen Victoria - Portrait by Alfred Jones (Director of BABN, 1867-69)
(2) Head Office and Plant - 945 Gladstone Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (1948-56)


"Ninety Years of Security Printing - The Story of British American Bank Note Company Limited, 1866-1956"

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