History of J.M. Forbes & Co.:
John Murray Forbes was born in Bordeaux, France in 1813, where his father Ralph was making another of many unsuccessful attempts to establish himself in foreign trade. The family moved back to Milton, Massachusetts in 1814, and older brothers Thomas and Robert Bennett Forbes soon went to work for their maternal uncles James and Thomas Handasyd Perkins at age twelve and were soon sent to sea, ultimately moving to work in the China trade at Canton (now Guangzhou) upriver from Hong Kong and Macao.
After several years at the progressive Round Hill School in Northampton the much younger John joined the Perkins firm at 13, and shipped out to China three years later. Arriving in China to learn of his elder brother Thomas’ death in a typhoon, John soon was pressed into the service of the China trade Mandarin Houqua, for whom he acted as intermediary with western merchants. Young John Forbes at eighteen looked older than his years due to early balding, and was able to work as peer to men far older than he in his service for Russell & Company, the successor to his uncles’ firm Perkins & Co.
Leaving China at twenty to return to Boston, John met and married Sarah Swain Hathaway (after being first smitten by her betrothed identical twin) before immediately heading back to the far east. He returned to settle in Milton once and for all three years later. JMF arrived in Boston to face the financial panic of 1837 and found that Russell & Co. was owed $400,000 by bankers who were unable to pay. This put Russell & Co. in a very tight situation and JMF was hard put to it to keep the company afloat. At the same time brother Bennett had a problem similar to Russell & Co. in that people whose notes he had endorsed were unable to pay, whereupon Bennett returned to China to recoup his losses. Paul Sieman Forbes, son of JMF’s uncle Col. James Grant Forbes, followed Bennett to China, where he succeeded Bennett and remained in charge of Russell & Co. for many years. Russell and Co. continued to do business with J.M. Forbes & Co., and ultimately was folded into the younger firm.
The Chinese Merchant, Houqua, with whom Russell & Co. conducted all or most of its business in China became disappointed in some of his dealings with Baring Bros. (the London banking house) and transferred much of his business to JMF with whom he had had close association in the former years. Houqua also placed a substantial sum with JMF to be invested for him in U.S. securities. This was carried on the books of JMF & Co. under the designation ASI. (American Stock Investment). The records are incomplete but the amount was probably in the order of $500,000 which would be equivalent in today’s value  to about ten million dollars. After the death of Houqua the account continued for the benefit of his son for many years.
The earliest surviving JMF & Co. ledger is dated Milton, 10 April 1838. It records transactions with Tom Wigglesworth, Geo. Trumbull, Joseph Cogswell, A. Heard, Baring Bros & Co., Russell Sturgis, Russell & Co., R.B. Forbes and many others. The entries refer to sales of tea and silk, the purchase of stock of Lowell Rail Road, of the cost of furniture in a house in Macao (China) to be refunded by — Hathaway, and pin money for JMF’s wife Sarah Swain Forbes. JMF Reminiscences records that JMF & Co. was involved with the construction of the ships Antelope and Coquette and later the auxiliary steamship Massachusettsof about 750 tons, one of the first Atlantic steamships. After several voyages she was sold to the U.S. Government for use as a transport in the Mexican war and thereafter continued in Government service for many years.
In the early years, the business was done by a number of individuals taking shares in separate ventures. There does not appear to have been a formal partnership until much later. In the middle 1840s JMF bought about a one-tenth interest in a railroad being built in Michigan. His associates in this venture were John E. Thayer, William Dwight, John C. Green, George Griswald, Esastus Corning and a young engineer J.W. Brooks who became general superintendent. JMF was president. At that time, the road was one quarter built. The individuals interested in Michigan Central Railroad contracted to build the Sault St. Marie ship canal around St. Mary’s Rapids thereby connecting Lake Superior with the rest of the Great Lakes. Mr. Brooks had charge of the canal construction as well as the building of the railroad but he got it finished within the time required in the contract.
JMF and others bought extensive timber land and mineral land in the Lake Superior area including the location of the famous Calumet and Hecla copper mine. JMF recalled that, with few exceptions, the speculation in timber and mineral lands was a failure, considerable work and risk with small net profit.
In about 1847 W.F. Cary of New York interested JMF in taking on the Mt. Savage Co. in Maryland. This property of about 5,000 acres contained coal, iron ore and limestone. It had good housing for personnel, one blast furnace in operation and others nearly completed, an iron mill, foundry, brick yard and good railroad connection. More capital was needed to commence production of rails, etc. Calls for more capital were frequent and this led to management by JMF in addition to all his other ventures and the China trade.
In the mid-1840s there was a potato crop failure in Ireland with widespread starvation reported. JMF obtained the use of the steamer Jamestown and with the help of the Boston community loaded her with potatoes. Brother Bennett took charge and she arrived in Ireland in time to benefit the hungry.
In the 1850s there was a great deal going on. There was a shortage of wheat in France. The French Government of Louis Napoleon sought the help of Baring Bros in London. Russell Sturgis, then a partner in Baring Bros asked JMF & Co. to find wheat. JMF had his agents on the Michigan Central Railway quietly buy up wheat. The matter had to be kept secret for if it became known that the French Government was the purchaser, speculators would have tried to buy up the wheat and raise the price. The value of the wheat sent was about five million dollars. In a letter to an agent JMF wrote “I have concluded to ship 50,000 barrels of wheat to Havre. Please charter ships.” JMF was building ships for Russell & Co. at this period.
In 1857, JMF was called to make haste to London to raise two million dollars for the Michigan Central Railroad. Baring Bros provided the money. Later JMF sold his interest in that railroad and the ownership passed to New York.
The trade with China in tea, silk, fire crackers, hemp and other merchandise continued at a fast pace involving shipments on twenty or more ships. The problems of the Mt. Savage Iron Works continued. Some new names appear in the book including E.J. Hale as a partner, James Joy in connection with the railroads and Charles Russell Lowell who was taken in to help with the extra work. It was intended that Lowell would take on the management of the Mt. Savage enterprise, but the Civil War intervened. (Note: Lowell soon became an officer in General Sheridan’s cavalry. During the Shenandoah campaign he had thirteen horses shot under him, four of them (including “Billy” from Naushon) in the battle of Winchester at Cedar Creek where he was killed. His promotion to Brigadier General arrived at his death.)
Toward the end of the 1860s decade the names of H.S. Russell and George Tyson appear; the former married JMF’s daughter Mary. Hale had been engaged to another daughter, Ellen Randolph Forbes. There was a bewildering array of railroad and real estate investments to manage and the remnant of the China Trade. Most of the work was done by Hale.
A change came with the advent of the Civil War. JMF himself spent much time in Washington but the firm continued its former activities and in addition, managed accounts for JMF’s sisters and cousins. Among them were the children of Paul Sieman Forbes: William Howell Forbes who married Dora Delano; Fanny who married Odilon Barrot; Mary who married Gaston Louis-Phillippe de Choiseul-Praslin; daughter Florence who crossed the Atlantic to visit her two sisters in France, became seasick on the crossing and never risked being seasick again; and last, Paul Revere Forbes who did not marry.
JMF’s mission to England during the war was to forestall the delivery of naval vessels to the South is recorded elsewhere. Secret plans for the relief of Fort Sumpter were communicated from Washington to Governor Andrew in Massachusetts through JMF & Co. by means of the private cipher. (Many years later JMF grandson William Cameron Forbes made use of the same code for particularly sensitive communications from the Philippines to Washington via JMF & Co.)
With the end of the war, JMF’s son William H. Forbes became involved with the firm. The China trade was only a remnant but there were plenty of other ventures. E.J. Hale, H.S. Russell, Tyson and Joy continued their participation.
At the end of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) Paris had been under siege for a long period and starvation was prevalent. A number of people subscribed to a relief fund. JMF went to Washington where he obtained from the authorities in President Grant’s administration the assignment of the U.S. Navy steamer Worcester to carry food to Havre under the command of Captain Perkins and a navy crew. In this period, J.M. Forbes & Co. managed the U.S. investments of Alexis de Toqueville and continued to do so for his widow until 1877. The ASI (American Stock Investment) account continued for the son of Houqua.
The array of some of the different railroads that had been acquired was consolidated in the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. During the Civil War and after, it had been managed by Brooks and Joy. JMF was Chairman of the Board. In 1875, JMF learned that his long term associate Joy, had formed a construction company and had executed a contract between it and the railroad which was highly disadvantageous to the railroad and, in effect, guaranteed a profit to his construction company at the expense of the railroad. A few of the other directors were in on the construction company. The others knew nothing about it. There was a first rate row. JMF pointed out the impropriety of this to Joy who claimed he could see nothing wrong and that he would run the construction company very economically. JMF mobilized a fellow director Griswald and his son WHF. They really stirred up the dust, got Joy and the others in his camp thrown out, the contracts cancelled and the railroad company back on the track. JMF tried several new people as president but they had indifferent success. Then he put in as president his nephew Charles E. Perkins, son-in-law of brother Bennett. After that all was well. (Note: Many years later, in 1921, JMF grandson Ralph E. Forbes, travelling with his family to Sheridan, Wyoming, was waiting for seats in the dining car when the steward came and told him that a table was reserved for his family, explaining that they always reserved a table for any of the family that were on the train. JMF & Co. must have passed the word.)
In the 1870s there appear to have been two sets of books, JMF personal accounts which are concerned with a large number of real estate investments in Florida, the middle west coal and oil land and many railroad stocks and bonds. The purchase of the yacht Fayal is recorded in 1872. In a different book, the trading by JMF & Co. with Russell & Co. in Shanghai and Hong Kong in tea and occasionally ginger and hemp is recorded. Sample division of balances:
April 1873 June 30, 1873
JMF 2,110 J. Walcott 8,928
E.J. Hale 4,221 J.M. Forbes 53,929
H.S. Russell 3,165 G. Tyson 53,747
WHF 3,165 J. Malcolm Forbes 59,430
E.J. Hale 2,470
By the 1880s a great many investments in real estate in the south and particularly in the west had been accumulated. Forbes Perkins & Scott (F.P. & S.) had many holdings along railroad lines and elsewhere in the west. South Platte Land, Utah lands, and Western Land Associations were formed. (Those were liquidated slowly over the next fifty years, the last being Lincoln Land Co.). Trusts were set up in 1883 for the benefit of JMF’s daughters Alice, Mary and Sarah with sons W.H. Forbes and J. Malcolm Forbes, and associate Nathaniel H. Stone as trustees. The entry of William H. Forbes into the telephone business as president of the National Bell Telephone Co. (later called American Telephone & Telegraph Co.) appears only as occasional purchases of stock in the company.
For many years the office of J.M. Forbes & Co. was maintained in the Sears Building at 199 Washington Street overlooking the old State House. All of the old journals and ledgers were stored there in a locked steel vault. When the time came to move, in 1966 to 53 State Street, it became impractical to move all of the ancient volumes. Some simply disintegrated in piles of loose leaves on the floor. By 1966, vast space was required to store the books which recorded every transaction in the China trade and in the account of every client from the beginning until that date. Many old records were disposed of. The second move to 24 Federal Street in 1980 resulted in more attrition and the requirements of various arms of the Government for records for their use preempted available space still further. There remain a series of representative ledgers now donated to the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School and to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
In the 1880s accounts and trusts managed for expanding family and the household and other living expenses of the clients occupy the books. In that period, J.M. Forbes & Co. acted as a bank and honored checks drawn upon it by any of the many people with accounts. Joy and Hale had gone. Nathaniel Stone was active. WHF was active with telephone business, and as Treasurer of Milton Academy, paying the salaries of the teachers and much else. The China Trade had almost faded. It its place are occasional ventures in wheat, pig iron, etc. JMF’s younger son J. Malcolm Forbes appears in the accountings. It is not clear when J.M. Forbes & Co. became a formal partnership. It appears that different people came in from time to time to share in particular ventures.
In the 1890s, JMF left more of the work to the younger ones. Probably Nathaniel Stone oversaw the routine trust business while WHF and J. Malcolm Forbes kept track of their separate enterprises and interests. There is a legend that JMF often rode horseback to Boston and left his horse in a livery stable. Several times he went to lunch with a friend and accepted a ride home in a carriage. Then he could not remember where he had left the horse. His groom was sent to look around at the various livery stables to try to find the missing horse.
After the death of WHF in 1897, several of the younger relatives were briefly associated with JMF & Co. It has been said that at various times, JMF grandsons James S. Russell and Waldo E. Forbes, and cousin John Forbes Perkins had taken part. JMF grandson W. Cameron Forbes was a partner in Stone & Webster, an engineering firm active in building electric utility plants, street railways and other large undertakings. His relationship with JMF & Co. was peripheral until the death of J. Malcolm Forbes; thereafter, although he was serving as Governor General in the Philippines, he maintained an association with the firm. After his return from the Philippines in 1914 WCF became the dominant figure in JMF & Co. The principal function of the firm had become the management of investments for a constantly increasing number of people. Trade in commodities had given way to investments in railroads, telephones, utilities and other industries.
In 1917, the Neponset Investment Co. was formed. It was what might be called a venture or private equity fund today. The purpose of Neponset, as described by WCF to partner and JMF great-grandson David Cabot Forbes, was to buy substantial interests in small promising enterprises and to provide wise direction and possibly financing to them. Among the holdings were Dana S. Courtney Co., Petroleum Heat & Power Co., Murray & Tregurtha, and Copper Range Co. Principal shareholders originally were Kidder Peabody and Jackson Curtis but by 1923 JMF & Co. became the headquarters of Neponset and managed it until its final liquidation in 1960. Sample account books for some of these firms survive in the Baker Library at Harvard.
Nathaniel Stone died in 1926 and family members Raymond Emerson and then Edward Cunningham joined the firm. WCF continued to be active in the firm until his departure to serve as US ambassador to Japan in 1930. After his return from Japan he took no further active part in the affairs of JMF & Co. although he remained a partner until his death in 1959. The first formal partnership agreement that has been found is dated 1931. Among its provisions is a prohibition preventing any partner from guaranteeing the obligations of other persons without the unanimous consent of all the members of the firm. The same prohibition survived in 1987. It followed the policy of JMF, who on starting the firm in 1838 was advised by an older relative to “be not too ready to put thy name on paper” and JMF’s own comment: “Give money if you have it, but be slow to write your name on other people’s paper.”
After 1890, the partners appear to have been:
J.M. Forbes 1838-1898
William H. Forbes 1865-1897
J. Malcolm Forbes 187?-1904
Nathaniel H. Stone 188?-1926
W. Cameron Forbes 1904-1930 inactive till 1959
Raymond Emerson 1927-1958 inactive till 1962
Edward Cunningham 1928-1970 inactive till 1972
David C. Forbes 1948-1984
David Emerson 1956-1986
Julian Crocker 1966-1989
R. Forbes Perkins 1972-1989
Roger L. Gregg 1982-2004
William N. Bancroft 1986-2009
Malcolm L. Davidson 1990-2015
David C. Warner 1990-present
Paul Elias 2005-present
Jeffrey L. Bernier 2015-present
It is of interest to note the evolution of investment policy over the years. Starting about:
1830: Trade in tea, silk, etc.
1840: Land and Railroads
1910: Heavy Industries
1960: Food & Drugs
1990s: Diversified Growth Stocks
David C. Forbes, April 1987
Updated by W.N. Bancroft, January 2003
Updated by Paul Elias, December, 2010, 2015