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The Airmen's Stories - F/O H deM Molson

 

Hartland Molson, who has died aged 95, was a Battle of Britain pilot, an independent member of the Canadian Senate and head of the Dominion's most distinguished commercial dynasty. Over more than 200 years, the Molsons of Montreal created Canada's largest brewery; they financed its first steamboat and first railway; they owned their own bank, which printed their own currency; and they built their own Anglican church. While the expansion of the Canadian economy in recent decades has meant a decline in their dominance, the company, under Hartland Molson's chairmanship, expanded its operations across the country. A Molson Foundation was set up to fund philanthropic projects.
As a senator, Hartland Molson scored a rare legislative double with his younger kinsman Hugh Molson, a Tory minister under Harold Macmillan, who was created Lord Molson in 1961. When they met, their parallel upper house experiences became the subject of some discussion; and in the early 1980s, both demonstrated the same kind of sturdy independence. Senator Molson challenged Pierre Trudeau's ill-conceived constitutional changes, while Lord Molson led a rebellion against the Thatcher government's plan to amend local government legislation.


Hartland de Montarville Molson was born in Montreal on May 29 1907, the great-great-great-grandson of a Lincolnshire gentleman who laid the foundations for the family fortunes by going into the brewing business when he visited the city in 1782. After a trip home, he returned to Montreal with Lord Chesterfield's Letters to his Son and Theoretical Hints on an Improved Practice of Brewing. Young Hartland was a member of the fifth Canadian generation of the family, which had become so influential that it was said his father spoke French with a Bank of Montreal accent. The children believed that the family wire-haired terrier was so snobbish that it greeted visitors to the front door with a friendly bark and bit those who came to the back.


Hartland was sent first to Bishop's College School in Quebec, and, when the family settled briefly in Britain, to Charterhouse, where he was ragged for his gravelly Canadian accent and being the son of a brewer. After returning to Bishop's for a year, Molson went to the Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario, where he proved a promising officer, though he was shaken when another player died of a broken neck after tackling him during a football game. Molson became an unpaid apprentice at the Banque Adam in Paris in order to learn French, played hockey in Switzerland, then returned home to become a chartered accountant and learn to fly; a fellow pupil was the First World War ace "Billy" Bishop, VC, who was retraining on modern aircraft.


Molson started a charter flying business with Bishop then entered the brewery. After the outbreak of war, Molson joined the RCAF, and was posted to England with 1 Squadron, flying Hurricanes. His first day in action was August 26 1940, when the squadron flew into 60 German bombers; he escaped with five bullet holes in his plane after damaging a Dornier. A fortnight later he hit two Messerschmitt 110s, and on September 11 he destroyed a Heinkel 111. His final day in action was over Canterbury on October 5. Molson spotted two Me109 fighters hiding in the sun and, after knocking pieces from the wings of one, followed the other downwards; he was just about to fire, at a distance of about 100 yards, when tracer bullets from behind reminded him that he had failed to look back; the second Me 109 was on his tail. Seconds later his control panel disintegrated; he was hit three times in the leg. The plane whined out of control. Extricating himself from the cockpit to fall stomach downwards, he waited to clear the German fighters in case they attacked his parachute, then pulled the ripcord at about 7,000 feet. In a letter to his wife afterwards, Molson described how his speed slowed, and he felt as if he were on a child's swing, swinging back and forth in the breeze. He tried to use the metal ripcord as a tourniquet for his bleeding leg, but threw it away in disgust, only to look down in panic lest he had killed someone; there were, however, only sheep to be seen as he drifted to land softly "with a plunk" in a wood at Smarden, Kent.


I hobbled about 30 yards to a wide path and sat down, then started to call every minute or so. Soon I heard an answer, and about 10 minutes from landing half a dozen cockney soldiers were mothering me wonderfully.


As the survivor of 62 missions so early in the war, Molson was sent on a speaking tour in Canada and America, though the American flyer Charles Lindbergh was pointedly not invited to hear him address the Explorers' Club in New York, because he believed Hitler was bound to win. At 33, Molson was too old to return to Britain to be a fighter pilot; but he was given several commands in Eastern Canada, then became RCAF director of personnel and an honorary ADC to the Governor General, the Earl of Athlone.


The family firm to which Molson returned was already embarked on a period of change. An in-house union was set up, though the disputes' procedure specified that a Molson must be present at any meeting with management, and the company was listed on the Montreal Stock Exchange. As Hartland Molson was about to take over as president, the Toronto-based E P Taylor's Canadian Breweries launched a major offensive which cost Molsons a significant part of their market for a time. Molson then announced that the company was to start its own brewing plant in Toronto, though they reclaimed their lost custom with the launch of Golden Ale. From then on the company expanded across the country. Although these moves eventually led to the creation of the Molson Group in Toronto, Hartland Molson emphasised the family's commitment to Montreal, not only by chairing prominent local charities but by buying the city's hockey team, the Canadiens. He signed up the player Jean Beliveau to advertise the company's beer. On television the Molsons were to be seen sitting in the chairman's box at the Canadiens' home rink, the Forum, where Hartland's dignified figure could occasionally be seen pulling at his wife to sit down during tense moments in the play. When she once hurled a programme at the referee over a questionable decision, her husband was clearly mortified - but the crowd roared its approval. For Molson, the team and its arena was less a commercial property than a trusteeship for the hockey fans of the province, which meant it was a shock when he handed over the ownership to some younger members of the family, who later sold them on in 1971. This led to widespread public criticism of the family - though not of Hartland.


In 1955 he had received a call from a Mr St Laurent, whom he assumed to be a brewery salesman, only to discover that it was the prime minister Louis St Laurent, offering him a senatorship; it was accepted on the understanding that he would not be a party member. During his 38 years in the chamber, Molson was disappointed to find members increasingly toeing their party lines "like trained seals", and his plan to reduce the number of committees was dismissed by Trudeau. Nevertheless, it was a valuable forum for a man with a keen sense of duty who spoke well and had a quirky sense of humour. He attacked the espionage activities of many Russian diplomats in his maiden speech, and was no less vehement about a campaign denigrating "Billy" Bishop, which was clearly aimed at attacking the idea of heroism. A Canadian National Film Board production branding Bishop a liar won an American prize for documentaries, which led Molson to suggest that his Senate banking committee halt its grant and eventually had it relabelled a "docu-drama".


When the British diplomat James Cross was kidnapped, Molson was found on a list of future victims. In supporting the tough security measures resuscitated from the Second World War, Molson reminded the House that he was a representative of an increasingly neglected community - an anglophone Quebecois with French blood, who remained committed to the province where six generations of his family had flourished.


Molson was appointed OBE in 1946 and OC in 1995. He married, in 1931, Helen Hogg. After divorcing in 1938, he married Magda Posner, and later Margaret Meighen, who both died. He is survived by a daughter of the first marriage, Zoe Murray of Jersey, whose first husband was the 5th Viscount Hardinge.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph September 2002


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