Working It Out:

Unions, Associations, and the Guelph Working Class


Author: Bonnie M. Durtnall

Publication Date: 1997

Edited: 2021



Orangemen preparing to march through Guelph, with banner for International Moulders' Unit No. 212 (Photograph courtesy of ARCHIVAL COLLECTIONS, GUELPH CIVIC MUSEUM).


In 1889 the Guelph recorder for the Ontario Bureau of Industries commented on the confused state of labour toward the end of the nineteenth century.


"There are a number of labour organisations here, composed as follows: Two K. of L. assemblies, stone cutters and masons' union, bricklayers and plasterers' union, carpenters' union, and moulders' union. Female labour has not an organisation of its own, nor... a part of any other. I am given to u¡derstand that the existing organisations are solid and in good order, but as all of them represent some trade and the proceedings are kept secret from outsiders, it is impossible to give numbers. They seem to be able to hold their own, especially the moulders' union."1


Labour organizations had not yet been moulded into the shape we now recognize. In places such as Guelph, various groups allowed the working class to pursue its goals of improved wages and working conditions. Most were imported, but Guelph also had one indigenous organization. The groups' rise and fall were tied directly to the pattern of economic development in Guelph.


After 1850 Canada, and Ontario in particular, had embarked on a major economic transformation.2 The process of industrialization across this new country was to introduce changes in the economic and social structures. For communities such as Guelph, the arrival of the first foundry acted as a catalyst to bring about changes in the social and economic spheres. The Guelph Foundry, started in 1847, epitomized the beginnings of and prepared the community for the process of industrialization that was to take place.


Foundries introduced into Guelph the newly emerging capitalist relationship between employer and employee. As craft tradition was supplanted by industrial ideology and methodology, a chasm developed in management and worker relations as each tried to obtain control of the workplace. Craftsmen and tradition were to face off against capitalists and elite middle-class values. Apprentices had spent years serving a master craftsman, and then worked as journeymen; they were at risk, as budding industries sought to bring in unskilled labourers and machinery to do their tasks.3



Guelph statistics from the Annual Report of the Bureau of Industries for the Province of Ontario, 1897, published in 1888.


The threat to workers was very real in the 1870s. The demands of new technology and the desire of employers to reduce costs created the atmosphere for deskilling.4 The war for supremacy, however, was fought out in the 1880s after a depression of the late 1870s contributed to the erosion of earlier labour advances. The conflict was waged through dialogues of confrontation between management and unions.


Conditions within workplaces in Guelph were not ideal' Statements made to the Bureau attested to this. In 1882 the Guelph collector for the Bureau of Industries remarked that many of the factories remained hazardous, "with little or no provision made for fire."5 Several factories increased the danger by locking their doors.


Armstrong Carriage works kept their doors locked and bolted all day in 1889.6 The recorder also remarks that women had their own water closets, but shared bathrooms. More importantly, in spite of the Ontario Factories Act of 1884, some Guelph factories still employed children. This was true for 1887, 1888 and 1889. The major exploiters of Guelph's young female labour population were the woolen mills and the sewing machine factories.7


Reports of accidents indicate the lack of safe conditions within many factories. Although the Guelph recorder noted several incidents, he downplayed their seriousness and absolved the factories of responsibility. (The companies that reported to him only noted one or two 'minor' accidents that resulted in burns or cuts.) In fact, he felt that most factories took safety measures, "as far as is consistent with utility." or, "as is consistent with the due performance of the work."8 This is reflected in his comments for the years 1887 and 1888. While noting that many at high risk were users of a wood 'shaper,' he also blamed most of these accidents on worker carelessness.


The local newspapers verify accidents in the workplace. On March 25, 1873, for example, the Weekly Herald reports that at Rainor's piano factory, a Mr. Hamilton had his face cut and his nose broken when working with a circular saw. In 1891 John Gilmore, while working with a saw at Bell's, received a large gash between his thumb and index finger, and in that same year John Robertson of Burr Bros. lost two fingers. In 1868 Joseph Guernon damaged more than a finger or a nose; he died when he fell into a vat of boiling linseed oil at Moreland, Warson & Co. saw factory.9


Another bone of contention for the workers, and hence for the unions, was the issue of wages and hours. The working week varied according to the company and its demands. In 1887 machinists worked 59 hours a week, 252 days a year for $454.36, while moulders worked more hours for more pay, making a total of $518 a year.10 In 1888 blacksmiths earned $10.42 for a week of 59.17 hours while carpenters made $10.96 for 59.23 hours, machinists made $10.96 lor 59 hours, moulders $11.17 for 58.89 hours, and painters $10.35 for 57.20 hours.11 By 1897 the wage/hours situation had not greatly improved. Weavers at Burrows Bros. Royal Carpet Works at Nelson Crescent made between $5 and $7 a week, with girls making $15 a month. Apprentices had to pay an initial $25 for the privilege of learning this craft.12 Unions were formed to help address discrepancies that kept wages low and hours long. With their legalization after 1872 they set out to improve the lot of working people. This included all issues that affected the workers.


Yet the rise of industrialization was not followed immediately by the legalization of trade unions. To protect their interests during this period of thirty or forty years, both workers and employers created various institutions. Some are documented; many are not. We know little about how working-class relationships were forged in small or medium- sized communities during industrialization.13 While the new labour historians such as Bryan Palmer have tried to reconstruct a working-class culture based on the growth of unions and associations, there are still problems in reconstructing working-class life and involvement in these various fraternal and union organizations. The lack of sources has hindered detailed study. This leads to somewhat speculative conclusions about the roles and functions of labour unions and associations, and of management, in Guelph during the mid- to late nineteenth century. By considering the relationships between the various associations and unions and the working and owning classes for the period 1850 to 1900, the behaviour of Guelph's industrial classes can be more clearly understood and placed within the context of Canada's industrial growth as a whole.



Report about the early activities of the local Mechanics' Institute, from The Guelph Advertiser, February 7, 1850.


One of the more significant associations of the early period of Guelph's industrialization was the Guelph Mechanics' Institute (GMI). It was founded in January of 1850.14 By 1858 it was one of 67 Mechanics' Institutes in Ontario.15 Technically, all 'mechanics' could become members. In Guelph, mechanics were among the founding members of the organization but the upper echelons, the directors, managing committees and finance committees, were 'mechanics of standing,' mechanics who ran their own businesses within the community. In other words, the GMI was led by the middle class.16


Therefore, the GMI fell into the Victorian category of paternalism, having both a social and 'political' purpose.17 The early meetings clearly state this agenda, the main objectives being the instruction of the working class through lectures, classes in reading and literature, and the creation of a library. on one level, the GMI provided a place where all mechanics could fraternize no matter what their social status. On the other hand, it was run by a middle-class, property owning group of people who set its agenda - including the cost of membership which was established at an annual fee of five shillings for adults and two shillings six pence for junior members.18 Although in 1876 there was a special rate for family members and live-in apprentices - for one dollar they could have the privileges of being a mechanic - a standard rate was usually set. This cost, common to Mechanics' Institutes across Canada, led the Bureau of Industries in 1887 to comment that "the fee of $2 in most cases acts as a barrier to men who labour for their bread."20 The GMI was open only to those who could pay.


The GMI was typical of many such organizations during this period. They attempted to improve the lot of the working man through education or at least edification. Lectures provided, cultural events held, and a library set up. A Mechanics' Band had been formed in 1848, and the GMI periodically sponsored cultural events including balls, concerts, and an annual art exhibit.21 A series of lectures was arranged on a wide range of 'edifying', topics, and a library had been established by March, 1850.22 The library proved to be a great success, and continued to grow long after the GMI ceased to be an active force. The increase from 250 volumes in 1850 to 740 by 1854 to 3,000 books in 1875 demonstrated Guelphites' interest in reading,23 an interest further attested to by the library's evolution into a Free Library in 1882/83.24


Many of the lectures were also popular. The 1850 series on Chemistry presented by the Reverend Mr. Spencer, and on Life Insurance by Mr. Baker, were well attended.25 In 1857 the GMI referred to a "course of lectures on ... interesting and useful subjects, by gentlemen known and distinguished for their attainments in science and literature." The topics over the period touched on astronomy, religion, education, and reading.26 There is no indication, however, that the topics of labour, the problems or even the benefits of industrialization, or the condition of the working class were ever discussed through this public forum.27 In fact, later the lecture and entertainment committees were combined to handle lectures and all forms of 'entertainment.'28


Not all the lectures were successful. The same applies to the classes initially offered. In the 1870s, the GMI began to offer evening classes in drawing and commercial business. The earliest classes mentioned in the Minutes (1877) had to be cancelled because a specific quota of men could not be met. But by 1878, these classes became popular, and by 1881 classes in penmanship, writing, mensuration, and book-keeping were added.29 These topics themselves reflected a change in the business sector over the time period. The board of education emulated the GMI example and began to offer evening classes in the late 1870s and early 1880s. In this way the GMI contributed to the development of the adult education system in Guelph.


Historians have debated the contribution of Mechanics' Institutes to working-class formation. Bryan Palmer, a labour histori­an, concluded that "[u]sually controlled by upper-class echelons, these institutions nevertheless provided a place where workers could sift the pros and cons of the new industrial-capitalist order through a filter that necessarily took some account of emerging differences."30 In Guelph such a positive impact upon the working classes was reduced by the annual fee imposed and controlled by the local elite. There is also the question of the orientation of these events. For instance, the 'Mechanic's Assembly' held on February 7, 1878, while hailed as a suc­cess by the 80 or 90 couples attending, was not an event the average worker could have attended. The last dance had ended at midnight on Wednesday, a work night. Confined to a nine or ten- hour work day, it is doubtful whether many would have been able to attend an event that allowed them so little sleep. It should also be noted that such events were not free for members. The only free rights of a member were the use of the library and reading room, and the borrowing of books.


Little is known overall concerning the activities and members of the GMI and the impact of the organization on employer/ employee relations. What is known is that such associations were popular and, if nothing else, provided the emerging industries with the chance to establish a higher profile within the community. Its membership notes the presence of such men as John Watt (Guelph and Wellington Foundries), Adam Robertson, Sr. (Guelph Foundry), Robert Melvin and William Mills (Mills & Melvin), John Crowe (Crowe's Foundry), John Inglis (Wellington Foundry), David McCrae (McCrae & Co.), Charles Raymond (Raymond Sewing Machines), J.M. Bond (Bond's Hardware) and Alex Bruce (Bruce & Son.)31


During the 1870s, however, the GMI seemed to lose its value whether as a control mechanism on the part of the middle class or as an organizational expression of the working class. The same decade saw the rise of early Canadian unions and the Nine-Hour Movement.32 Although historians have traditionally focused on the impact and behaviour of the movement within the larger industrial centres of Hamilton and Toronto, it should also be noted that communities such as Guelph played a part in this open acknowledgement of the shift in labour relations.33 Members of a local branch of the Nine-Hour League sent letters of support to the League headquarters in Hamilton on May 3, 1872.34 On May 28, 1872, a mass rally was held by the local group.35 The meeting was originally intended for the Town Hall, but when the premises proved to be too small, "an adjournment was made to the Market Square." According to the Guelph Evening Mercury, a crowd of "considerably over 1,000 people" attended to hear, among others, James Riley, founder and secretary of Hamilton's Nine-Hour League.36


The meeting began with an affirmation by a D.M. Martin: "That we, the working men of Guelph, do unanimously affirm that the nine hours movement has become a matter of urgent social necessity, and we pledge ourselves to co-operate with other Leagues throughout the Dominion in order to obtain it as speedily as possible."37 Members of the middle-class establishment such as Dr. Clarke and Thomas Brown, spoke against the measure, but workers such as Mr. Ryan and Mr. Gowanlock, who lived with the Robertson family of the Guelph Foundry, were in favour. In spite of some heated discussion, complete with cheers, jeers, and hisses, the resolution in support of the movement was carried.


The financial and emotional support for the striking moulders in Hamilton and the typographical workers in Toronto was not the earliest reaction by the working class to the changes created by industrialization. While the rallies and the League represented mass movements in which workers could express their concerns, an earlier club had addressed the issues of industrialization at a local level and in a less confrontational manner. The Workingmen's Club was truly working class in origin and nature.


The Workingmen's Club (WMC) was formed early in 187238 From its inception, working men were actually involved in this club at all levels. The president was John Read, who worked for Inglis & Hunter (Wellington Foundry). The company's first vice-president was Osgoode Anderson, a foreman at Crowe's Iron Works. This was not surprising, considering the history of strong workplace control attributed traditionally to moulders and iron workers in foundries. Nor was it unusual that Crowe's and Inglis and Hunter, the two largest foundries within the city, would be represented so strongly. Members of the executive and of various committees also came from McLeod & Wood's Factory, Raymond's No. 1 & 2 Factories, Boult's, Guelph's Machine & Tool Co., Harley & Murchy, the office of the Mercury, and Bell's.


The WMC was not a radical organization dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. On Wednesday, March 13, 1872, John Read, president of the WMC, addressed over 200 members "in their rooms, Day's Block." He summed up the key labour issues of the day, not only for Guelph but for Canada as a whole:


"Now, gentlemen, a word as to employees and employed. It has been said that our interests are identical. So they are, no doubt, in a very great measure. But how often do we see in practice the very opposite course pursued ... As regards capital and labour ... They both have their duties as well as their rights, they must go together, though often we see both pushed to extremes ... As to shorter hours of labour. This, gentlemen, has become a most important question ... I am of an opinion the hours of labour are too long, but I do not see the justice of demanding that they shall be shortened by the day. I think if we see the desirability of getting something shorter on the Saturday; after consulting and reasoning with our employers in a right spirit I think we may succeed."39


How long the WMC existed and how effective it was can only by hypothesized. Too few sources remain to allow a thorough analysis of its impact on Guelph and its industries. In 1886, several Guelph factories still held to a nine-hour work day, six days a week. A Guelph collector for the Bureau of Industries remarked that while some shops gave employees from one o'clock on Saturday off, others continued to work nine hours on Saturday. Those with the half-day off made it up during the week, and those who worked a full Saturday were paid for one extra hour.40 The same pattern held true for the summers, when hours were reduced on Saturdays and made up in the evenings.41 Yet it is unknown how much this situation was affected by the lobbying efforts of the Guelph Nine-Hour League and of the Working Man's Club, or by the humanitarian tendencies of different employers.


Even if it proved to be just another manifestation of the early labour unrest in Canada in the 1870s, the WMC nonetheless represents an institution in which working-class men played significant roles in both formation and leadership. Admittedly, men such as Read and Anderson were highly placed within working-class society, but they were still working men, and not part of the industrial elite.



Report from the Guelph Evening Mercury, Mar.7,1872, about the public entertainment given by the Working Men's Club. The paper devoted about one and a half columns to the text of Mr. Read's speech. His address was followed by recitations and solos, including a "great spoon solo" by Mr. Smith.


The impact of these various groups is difficult to discern because the involved parties kept few records, and the media provided little coverage. This also applies to two earlier 'unions' in Guelph. Little is known about either the Tailors' Union, founded in 1858, or the Knights of St. Crispin #202, organized in 1869, probably, in part, because they were illegal. Both were first mentioned in the Guelph City Directory of 1873. The names of several members are provided, but nothing else.


Labour consciousness erupted in 1872. Even the blacksmiths in the area held a conference, at Mount Forest in 1872.42 Guelph reflected the national sentiment in the 1870s, and in the 1880s when unionism was once again revived. After 1880, Guelph entered the international union movement, gaining the International Moulders' Union (1881), the Labourers' Union (1885/6), the Knights of Labour (1884), the Guelph Trades and Labour Council (1884/85), and some secret associations such as the Ancient Order of United Workmen (1880).43 By 1886, the Collector for the Bureau of Industries described the situation in Guelph as follows:


"We have here the Knights of Labour, the molders' union the laborers' union and one or two associations; but being very secret organizations, it is difficult or impossible to get or give satisfactory reports. There are two assemblies of the K. of L., comprised of men from every trade and occupation in the city, and they are a strong body, able in every respect, mentally and numerically, to give a good account of themselves. Some of the members of the K. of L. hold prominent positions. The moulder's union is a very strong body, having complete control of their business ... Organized labour here has been the means of preventing any cut in wages, and also of preventing strikes."44


All of these labour organizations were directed towards improving wages and working conditions.


One of the 'secret organizations' referred to above by the Guelph collector was the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW), established in 1880. This fraternal association had been founded in Ontario in Meadville in 1868. By 1886, there were 12,000 members in the province; this figure had increased to 17,000 members by 1889.45 By 1897, the AOUW had split from the parent group in the United States to become its own entity.46


The AOUW differed from other associations. Like the Masons, it considered itself a 'secret society'; therefore, little is known about its activities. It was also a more expensive organization to join, with fees that were considerably higher than those of the GMI. Annual dues of $14 would have prohibited many working-class men from joining.47 Yet its membership and even its governing bodies included a wide variety of working men, such as Alex Cordiner, a mechanic; Morris Chayter, a polisher at Bell's; A. Sweetman, a turner; James Naismith, an accountant; John Walker, a moulder at Crowe's; Robert W. Stewart, a carpenter at Raymond's; D. Scroggie, a part owner of Scroggie and Sons; and Peter B. Bryce, a doctor.48


The incentive to come up with the money was not purely social. While the fee allowed members to take part in the meetings and to attend ceremonies, special events such as 'Declaration Day,' and entertainments, the real attraction for the cost-conscious was the $2,000 insurance policy that came with membership.49 No doubt the fact of belonging to a secret society was in itself an attraction and provided its members with useful connections. Lodges extended throughout Ontario, and meetings and outings meant that members were in touch with each other.50 Furthermore, in the Masonic tradition, the installation of new officers and the promotion of others involved the participation and approval of the Grand Commander of Ontario ensured that ties between the fraternal organization in Guelph and 'brotherhood' throughout Ontario were constantly reaffirmed.


The AOUW was also similar to the Masons in another aspect. It directed the members' efforts towards charitable work in the community. The Reverend G.R. Trunk speaking to the society at the Methodist Dublin Street Church on October 27, 1889, remarked although he did not know much about the AOUW, he was aware what they did within and for the community. He saw them as a 'bound together for self help.'51


The first AOUW lodge was soon followed by others within the community. By 1885 Guelph had three affiliated AOUW lodges: the Wellington Legion #18 with 35 members, the Guelph Lodge #163 with 80 members, and the Royal Lodge with 140 members.52 The AOUW cloaked itself in ritual. This was an accepted part of fraternal associations and was taken up by such labour groups as the Knights of Labour.53


The Knights of Labour (KOL), like the AOUW, took the respectable form of a secret society to promote unity among the membership. As labour historians Palmer and Kealy have noted, the KOL, in adopting elaborate rituals, cemented ties among working people who associated ceremonies with fraternal organizations. The secrecy of ritual also protected members.54


The KOL was one of the most influential new union bodies in Canada during the 1880s. For 30 years it maintained a high profile in labour activities and politics. Between 1875 and 1907 it appeared in towns all across Ontario, including Guelph in 1884. Its philosophy in places such as Guelph was recorded by "Lignum Vitae" in an 1886 edition of the Journal of United Labour. He wrote:


"The masses are beginning to believe us when we tell them this endless toil for a miserable existence was never intended by an all wise creator. I wish I had ... more time that I could go out to these people and invite them into an Order whose object is the complete emancipation of all mankind, and lift ... the yoke of subjection, and often tyranny of the few."55


Guelph members of the KOL adopted the philosophy of 'no strikes,' and the trappings of knighthood. The group also continued the policy of community involvement and improvement that had earlier been an integral part of the GMI. In other words, they held meetings at which prominent speakers addressed topics intended to enlighten the workingmen. For example, D.J. Donoghue, was a prominent member of the Canadian Labour Union, ex-president of the Ottawa Trades Council, former leader of the Toronto Typographical Union, and previously elected independent member in Ottawa. In December of 1885, he spoke about the American roots of the KOL, and its present role.56 The KOL also started a 'Workingmen's Benefit Society' and a 'Workingmen's Sick and Accident Benevolent Society.'57 For $11 a year, a member of the KOL had access to an insurance policy of $100 to $500. The group arranged for the maintenance of a KOL Hall, and as late as 1890, its meetings enjoyed large attendance. In 1886 and 1892, at least one of the two local assemblies (LA 2980 and 4703) sent representatives to the Toronto meetings of the Trades and Labour Congress.58 The group was still doing well 'numerically and financially' according to the Guelph Daily Mercury in 1890,59 although membership declined towards the end of the decade.


In Guelph the KOL aligned itself with the local Labour Council, as with the case in Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton. The Guelph Trades and Labour Council (GTLC) originated in 1884/1885.60 At that time its chairman, E.J. O'Brien, asked its membership and all concerned working men to scrutinize carefully their choice in the upcoming aldermanic elections. The council encouraged that votes be cast only for those who favoured the working class, the building of the Credit Valley Railroad, tax and water exemptions (but not financial grants) for incoming industries, and the Toronto Mail newspaper or companies with similar 'cast iron' rules. Prohibition and the Scott Act were a concern to many, but the GTLC would not take sides. Instead, they stated that workers were to vote for the 'Best Man' in this instance.61


During the first year of its existence in Guelph, the GTLC flexed its muscles in the labour force. Wesley Copeland complained in a letter to the Guelph Mercury that he was being unfairly set upon. The GTLC was urging a boycott of his non-union shop, siding with the wishes of the Barbers' Union.62


Trade and Labour

Platform submitted by the Trade and Labour Council to aldermanic candidates, indicating the issues of interest to the working classes. (Printed in the Guelph Evening Mercury, December 15, 1885.)


Not long before, the government had struck a Royal Commission to study the relationship between capital and labour,63 and in 1886 the GTLC, together with the KOL, presented a number of talks on the subject of capital and labour.64 On April 30, 1886, for example, the KOL officially sponsored A.A. Carlton, and his talk was well-attended.65 The Guelph Daily Mercury remarked that the GTLC occupied important seats on the podium, and that its president introduced the speaker. This meeting, like many others hosted by the KOL and the GTLC, focused not only on issues of the day such as hours and wages, but also on the role of the KOL in labour matters. A large meeting earlier that same year (March 25,1886), had featured two prominent men, Daniel J. O'Donoghue and Alfred Jury; the latter had been involved with the original Canadian Labour Union and was connected to the KOL and to the Toronto Labour Council. Both men impressed upon the Guelph audience the view that the KOL was more interested in solving problems than in causing them. They encouraged arbitration over strikes whenever possible, and desired, "a fair division of the profits" from the capitalist system. In its earliest years, the GTLC immersed itself in working-class affairs, but then it disappeared from view, to re-emerge on March 16,1894.66


By this time there were several unions in Guelph. The Guelph International Moulders' Union had formed in 1881. In 1885 there was also a Barbers' Union, in 1888 a stone masons' and brick layers' union, and a carpenters' and labourers' union. Other groups, such as the cigar makers, supported their 'striking brethren' in Toronto and Brantford in 1878. In 1897 workers at Burrows Bros. Royal Carpets Works walked out,67 and more strikes are recorded in Guelph for the 1900s.


What then can be said about the unions, associations and clubs that expressed the interests of Guelph's working men during the mid-to-late 1800s? These organizations responded to circumstances facing workers not only in Guelph, but throughout Ontario and in Canada as a whole. The Guelph Mechanics' Institute was similar to other such institutes that sprang up across the province. The GMI had many foundry owners as prominent members, as directors, or sitting on the controlling bodies. The Ancient Order of United Workmen, the International Moulders' Union, the Knights of Labour, and the Guelph Trades and Labour Council were neither radical, nor dissimilar from the larger bodies with which they were affiliated. They were organizations that expressed locally the broader concerns of Canadian labour. In only one instance did the orientation of workers in Guelph vary from that of the mainstream movement. The Workingmen's Club was a Guelph-based group, formed and managed by working-class men. Offering an alternative to the more radical Nine-Hour Movement, the WMC indicated a divergent strain within the local labour movement. It emerged out of the turbulent times of the 1870s, when Guelph's foundries had reached their peak in production, and it reflected the change in Guelph's industrial climate. The WMC was formed as a response to the need to address labour issues within the community. The group was directly acquainted with Guelph's factory and foundry system, and economic structure. The WMC was an early response by working men to.the challenges of capitalism. This organization was not to last. Yet workers were to adapt, and to approach the labour questions in fewer forms during the 1880s and beyond.



*For record of notes see original text.