Author: Shawn Day

Publication Date: 2003




Historic Guelph V43P47John McAteer, circa 1884.3

"Few words for our Town Innkeepers,
I hope you don't get tight,
Carry out your business decently from morning until night,
So our visitors by the thousands will return and [have] to say
They've been treated in our town of Guelph in a kind and friendly way."1
- James Gay, Guelph Poet and Hotel Keeper, 1875.



Volatile business cycles, fickle markets and a rapidly changing economy challenged hotel keepers attempting to run a profitable business in the late 19th-century Guelph. To succeed, the hotel keeper had to contend with much more than mere financial concern, however. Hotels faced additional challenges from Victorian moral rectitude and the stringent demands of the temperance movement. Temperance advocates cast the hotel as the site of illicit assignations, bar room brawls and drunken licentiousness. As a result, the hotel was subject to scrutiny by both police and liquor license inspectors. It demanded specialized skills on the part of the proprietor to negotiate the turbulent waters of moral crusaders plus the close attention of government license inspectors, and still turn a profit.


Many keepers were parents, and thus faced the additional demands of both raising a family and maintaining respectability within the community. We are reminded that hotel keepers also, "Founded voluntary societies and charitable organizations; they went to church and sent children to school; they read newspapers and discussed politics." The proprietors of licensed establishments, "Successfully integrated taverning with productive working lives and family responsibilities."2 Although under attack on several fronts, most keepers continued to prosper and even accumulate a significant amount of wealth. Throughout the Victorian era, Guelphites patronized the hotel, even during local prohibition, and demanded new functions such as a venue in which to conduct business, both private and public. The following story of a particular family, intimately involved in the trade during the period of this study, superbly demonstrates the real-life challenges and decisions faced by the Victorian keeper and his family. I am fortunate to have discovered the wealth of evidence they left behind and to provide a suitable tribute to their travails.


John McAteer arrived in Canada from Donegal, Ireland, in 1878 at the age of 28, along with his 60-year-old father, mother, younger brother, and sister. The family bought a house at 35 Galt Street in 1879. The municipal tax roll listed James McAteer Sr. as a labourer and his younger son, James Jr. as a grocer, operating out of a rented house on Neeve Street. James Jr. married in Canada in 1878. However, tragedy struck the young family when he died at the age of 28 in 1879, leaving behind a widow and newborn child. The elder son, John, became the hotel keeper at the Albion Hotel during 1881, a site well familiar to the citizens of Guelph today as it still serves assorted beverages at the corner of Macdonell and Norfolk Streets. John McAteer became the sole breadwinner for his mother and sister when his father passed away in August of that year.4


Historic Guelph V43P48

Photographs of the Albion Hotel, from 1900 and 2003, respectively.5


When John McAteer began operating the Albion Hotel, there were 18 licensed hotels in Guelph. There were also a number of unlicensed premises referred to by inspectors. Thirty years earlier, in 1851, there were over 40 identifiable taverns, inns, or hotels in a village with a population of 1,800. That equated to public space for liquor consumption for every 45 inhabitants. While there were fewer identified hotels in Guelph by 1871, somewhere between 30-40, there are licenses for only 23.6


John McAteer leased the Albion Hotel from the widow, Rosanne Waite, in 1881. During the next five years, he married and began to raise a family in the hotel, while also supporting his widowed mother and unmarried sister. He ran the Albion apparently successfully during that time but left in early 1886. The Albion sat vacant until J.C. Schmuck leased it nine months later. This change in leasehold may well have resulted from the adoption of local prohibition in the County of Wellington in April of 1886, Guelph being the first city in Ontario to enact it.7 Prohibition was in force for three years until repealed in 1889. This period saw a marked decline in the number of hotels in Guelph and more substantially in the countryside. John McAteer may well have been an immediate victim of this legislation. The municipal tax roll listed him as a livery owner in 1886.8 Despite an apparent change in circumstances, McAteer thus demonstrated his adaptability. The details surrounding how he found himself in the livery trade are not obvious, but what is clear is that within a decade of arriving from Ireland, John McAteer had amassed enough capital or credit to begin to build a substantial real estate portfolio. By 1888, he owned four residential properties and held interest in a number of commercial properties in Guelph. A demonstrable pragmatism in his actions suggests that he had the necessary business skills to deal with the business cycles of the era.9


Historic Guelph V43P49Photographs of the Western Hotel, circa 1900 and 2003, respectively.10


Within six months, McAteer was back in the hotel trade. In December of 1886, he became the proprietor of the new Western Hotel on Macdonell Street and provided $10,500 as surety against his leasehold. In early 1882 he took out an advertisement in the local business directory, in which he, "Invites his friends and friends to be made, to seek him out at the new Western Hotel, 'The best $1 a day hotel in town.'"11 McAteer was not a novice when he leased the Western Hotel. He had successfully run the Albion for a five-year stretch. During his time, 48 percent of the keepers in Guelph left the trade in less than five years. When he became proprietor of the Western, McAteer did not buy the hotel property. He leased the rights to run a business using the hotel. Leasing the hotel as a going concern appears to have been in the financial interest of the keeper. Capital appreciation on existing buildings was negligible in Guelph at the time but owning the right to reap the rewards of running a hotel could prove to be very profitable indeed. At a time when the average labourer's income was $393 per year and a teacher made just over $400 a year, John McAteer made a net profit of approximately $12,000 at the hotel.12


Historic Guelph V43P50

Chart of Revenue Sources, Western Hotel, 1895.13


The gross revenue at the Western Hotel was over $21,000 in 1895, of which over 50 percent came from sale of liquor and draft beverages. Roughly, 25 percent was derived from meals, 15 percent from boarders and the remainder, a paltry five percent, actually accrued from overnight stays by travellers. John McAteer paid a net rent of $600 a year to lease the New Western.14 Even with tax and licensing payments of $350, McAteer's largest expenses were for the upkeep of the hotel premises and labour costs. Liquor and food purchases accounted for a substantial amount, but for every dollar spent on liquor, food, or cigars by McAteer, he got four dollars back. Clearly, the revenue from the bar provided a very healthy return.15


By the time the McAteer family moved into the Western there were five children to feed, along with John and his wife Jane. Many of the family expenses, such as shelter and sustenance, were buried in the cost of running the hotel and additionally, as the children came of age they began to fulfill roles within the business. Later, they also contributed to the family income with employment outside of the hotel.16 The staff at the Western in 1889 comprised two bartenders, a day and a night clerk, a laundress and at least five domestics who functioned as chambermaids as well as servers in the restaurant. Not only did the hotel keeper have to choose employees well; his supervisory skills also became important.17 This is not to overlook the role played by Jane McAteer at the Western Hotel. She was responsible for the provisioning, which meant numerous visits to local grocery and specialty stores throughout the day to acquire supplies. She obtained groceries in a 'just-in-time' fashion depending upon the number of guests showing up that day. She also managed the books for the hotel after having taken a book-keeping course in the early 1880s. Jane placed classified advertisements for help in the local newspaper, cooked the meals for both her and her family, and managed the serving staff on an ongoing basis. She carried out all these tasks in addition to raising a family of seven. Her contribution to the success of the business was enormous.18


After ten years of successful operation of the Western Hotel, John McAteer sold the lease to Patrick Welsh. The sale of leases was commonplace and frequently functioned as a form of security against mortgages and loans raised by proprietors to fund hotel operations. On the tax roll of 1897, McAteer indicated that he had retired . There was a sense that he wanted to enjoy the fruits of his labours and spend time with his growing children. The family purchased a fashionable house on a large property in a respectable part of town. The children's letters and school assignments from this period provide a picture of a leisured lifestyle, in a house by the riverside, with pleasant forests in which they rode horses and ponies.20


Historic Guelph V43A51Photograph of John McAteer, 1907.21


Barring a short interlude at another hotel in 1902, John McAteer remained in retirement until 1907, when he made a brief foray into local politics. He served as council member for the St. James Ward. Fellow hotel keepers and brewers peppered Guelph City Council in the 19th-century. The influence of the liquor trade on council declined after Guelph's period of prohibition in the late 1880s, but there was a resurgence in the early part of the 20th-century. Hotel keepers such as Dennis Coffee and John Pipe, and brewers such as George Sleeman and Thomas Holiday, served in a variety of positions in local government. As Jarrett Rudy has stated, "Municipal politics [were] extremely important to the liquor industry since it was at the municipal level that the voters had the right to vote for local prohibition." Therefore, an active role in local government would have helped to protect existing interests and identified new business opportunities. As well, popular local appeal may have stemmed from associations made across the bar.22


The final chapter of the McAteer saga was less rosy. After being away for nearly two decades, the McAteer family re-entered the hotel trade in 1909. That year, John and Jane McAteer leased the American Hotel on Wyndham Street. It was a bit of an antique by that time, but was in a good location and more importantly, had a stable set of boarders. The McAteer family still possessed a substantial real estate portfolio when they leased the American. The move back into the trade seems to have resulted from choice, not desperation. The McAteers owned five residential rental properties in 1909. For a skilled hotel keeper such as John McAteer, the return on the commercial hotel property would seem to promise greater return on capital investment than rental of houses, despite the hotel's less than sterling track record.23 Constructed as a temperance hotel in 1846, the American failed as such and after a few years reverted to its builder. Between 1846 and 1909, it went through four owners and despite constant renovation, sold for less in each subsequent transaction. Additionally, and more importantly, prior to each sale, there was a regular pattern of increasing loans against the hotel to sustain its operation. This was not the norm for hotels in Guelph.24


Historic Guelph V43P53Photographs of the American Hotel, from 1905 and 1886, respectively.25


Within six months, the McAteers converted the lease, and purchased the American Hotel outright for $910,500. The underlying financial transaction was very complex. As part of the purchase of the hotel, the McAteers sold all of their other properties to the vendor of the hotel. In one stroke, John and Jane became solely reliant on a commercial property and Joseph and Elizabeth Wagner, former owners of the American, became residential property owners.26 It was a momentous event for the family. For the first time, John McAteer was the owner and operator of his own hotel. Expectations were probably high as McAteer took out advertisements to let the public know that a familiar face was running the American. He procured business cards, stationery, and guest registers and for the first time, the McAteer family in its entirety fulfilled staff positions in the hotel.27


Owning and running the American Hotel, however, did not provide the return that John McAteer had realized at the Western Hotel in the 1880s and '90s. Times had changed. Fewer people boarded at hotels after 1900 with the advent of the 'apartment,' and the American, which was long in the tooth, was not the fashionable hotel to stay at for occasional visitors. While it did get a share of the travelling public, revenues came largely from the liquor trade and from meals in the restaurant. The lack of diversity in revenue sources at the American left it particularly vulnerable to changes in liquor licensing regulations or the public taste for liquor.28 Prohibition was the 'death knell' for the American Hotel and for John McAteer personally. In 1976, with the enactment of the Ontario Temperance Act, the American fell on hard times. The quantity of non-intoxicating beverages purchased for sale declined to a mere dribble, and frequently there were weeks at a time when there were no recorded guests. John McAteer was in failing health during his last years and increasingly called upon his sons to manage the hotel.


Business directories listed John Jr. as the manager of the hotel by 1912, with Frank as the wine clerk and Ben, a porter at the Grand Trunk Station, also a clerk at the American. John Jr. enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916, and Ben moved to Manitoba. In April 1917, John McAteer died. Jane McAteer put the hotel up for sale the next year when Frank, her last son at home, was conscripted. With prohibition in force, hotels were not attractive investment opportunities, and it was not until 1921 that she was able to find a buyer.29 Jane McAteer was a shrewd woman, however. She managed to sell the stable portion of the hotel to a theatre development company. Using the returns from that sale, she turned the hotel into a series of street level shops and created three separate apartments on the upper floors. The revenues from the rental properties eventually allowed her to purchase a fine house on a fashionable street.30


Through the prism of the hotel, we have had a glimpse of one aspect of the Victorian business world from the inside. The fortunes of the McAteer family reflected the rise and fall of the hotel trade itself during this period. They experienced an early boom period. With the right combination of skills, good timing, and the participation of family members, success led to retirement from the trade. When the family decided to re-enter, it they may have had a dated perception of its viability, as in fact the hotel trade had entered a long, slow decline. John McAteer and his family unfortunately learned that despite their extensive experience and perseverance, hotel keeping was indeed a risky business.


*Notes: (editing in progress)

  1. John Robert Colombo, and Philip Singer. Master of All Poets: The Life and Works of James Gay, of the Royal City of Guelph, Ontario. Poet Laureate of Canada and Master of All Poets. QuasiBook edition (Toronto: Colombo & Company, 1996).
  2. H. Julia Roberts, "Taverns and Tavern-Goers in Upper Canada, the 1790s to the 1850s." Unpublished Ph.D. University of Toronto, 1999, p. 317.
  3. Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, 4N978.165.
  4. "Two sisters followed the family and arrived in Guelph, probably in the company of relatives in the early 1880s"; Guelph Public Library Archives, F2-2-1, City of Guelph Assessment Rolls, 1851-1951,1880; Guelph Daily Mercury and Advertiser, February 26,1879; Michelle Ducharme, "The History of the Albion Hotel (1856-1985)", Guelph Historical Society, Volume XXIV,1984-1985, p. 57.
  5. 1900, Ducharme; 2003 photograph by the author.
  6. These numbers come from a study of the business directories for the town, county and province, which indicate that there are only thirteen named taverns, but there are over fifty people identified as hotel, tavern or innkeepers in Guelph; Guelph Public Library Archives, F2-B-I, City of Guelph License [sic] Committee Minutes, 1869-1875.
  7. Ducharme, p. 56-58.
  8. Guelph Daily Mercury & Advertiser, 30 November 1877; Ontario: Sessional Papers, Report No. 14. Report upon the working of the Tavern and Shop Licenses Act, for the year 1886; Guelph Public Library Archives, FZ-2-I, City of Guelph Assessment Rolls, 1851-1951.
  9. 1900, National Archives of Canada, Murray Inch, 1.0736; 2003, photograph by the author.
  10. Guelph Public Library Archives, F2-2-I, City of Guelph Assessment Rolls, 1851-1889; Wellington County Land Registry Office, Instruments, detailing mortgages, between Robert Coulson, Mary Ann Coulson, Lillie Coulson, and John McAteer. 4437, 4708, 4867, 5196, SI9t, 689I.
  11. Wellington County Land Registry Office, Instrument No. E34666, Lease between Robert B. Coulson and James Hewer, then John McAteer, December 23, 1881, July 2, 1885, December 16, 1886. The details of the land transactions recorded at the Western Hotel are very complex. Careful examination leads to the conclusion that the leaseholder in each case took back a mortgage with the owner of the property for an amount closely approximating the insured value of the hotel. It remains up for conjecture as to which party this practice benefited. Further examination of the business practices of the owners could shed some light on whether the mortgages were simply a way for them to realize some liquidity on their capital investment, or whether the lessee benefited from some long-term security on any capital improvements they made to the hotel property itself; The Union Publishing Co.'s Farmers' and Business Directory for the County of Wellington (Ingersoll, Ont.: Union Pub. Co., 1887), flyleaf.
  12. See Chapter 2: The Physical and Social Geography of the Hotel Trade, Guelph Keepers Tracked for Persistence in Hotel Trade, 1851-1919, Shawn Day, "The Keeper's Trade: Skills, Attributes and the pursuit of the Hotel Trade in Late Nineteenth-Century Ontario", Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Guelph, 2004; Ontario: Sessional papers, Report on Labour and Wages, 1888; See Chapter 3: The Business of the Hotel.
  13. See Shawn Day, MA Thesis, Chapter 3: "The Keeper's Trade: Skills, Attributes and the Pursuit of the Hotel Trade in Late Nineteenth-Century Ontario", Revenues, Western Hotel, 1895.
  14. Wellington County Land Registry Office, Instrument No. E34666, Lease between Robert B. Coulson and James Hewer, then John McAteer.
  15. Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, AN 978.165, Flat Box, Expense Ledger for 1886-1891.
  16. Vernon's City Directory for Guelph, 1912-13, (Hamilton: H. Vernon, 1912).
  17. Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, AN 928.165, Loose Cash Slips, 1910-192r. The Union Publishing Co.'s Farmers' and Business Directory for the County of Wellington, (Ingersoll, Ont.: Union Pub. Co., 1882).
  18. It was quite common to find multiple entries at a single merchant during the same day for a variety of different comestibles. For example, from 1 Feb. 1895 to 27 Feb. 1895, on account with Jackson and Son, Importers of Teas, Coffees and Groceries, there were two days on which there were more than three separate entries for Mrs. John McAteer on two different daily occasions. Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, AN 978.165, Box 2, Loose Cash Slips, 1885-1895. While shopping patterns clearly demonstrated these frequent trips, further oral evidence was provided by Lenora and Violet Beswitherick, University of Guelph Archives, Huron County Oral History Project Collection, "General record of a collection of tape-recorded interviews discussing rural life in Huron County", Conducted by Catharine A. Wilson, 1981. The sisters recalled how their mother, "Tended to go to the store and get food as required when travelers showed up."; Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, AN 978.165, Flat Box, Practice Account Book of Jane McAteer, 1888.
  19. Ducharme, unattributed.
  20. Wellington County Land Registry Office, Instrument No. E34666, Lease between Robert B. Coulson and James Hewer, then John McAteer, December 23, 1881, July 2, 1885, December 16, 1886, April 1895; Wellington County Land Registry Office, General Ledger 11 for Plan 8 of the City of Guelph, indicated a variety of mortgages in the names of various hotel keepers at the original Western Hotel in the 1860s and 1870s, despite the fact that they did not hold title to the land, and merely leased the property from the actual owner. During this period, John Hewer, who would eventually build a new hotel further down Macdonell Street, registered three liens against his lease on the hotel, during a time when the actual owner, George Tatham, also mortgaged the hotel property.
  21. Guelph Public Library Archives, F2-2-1, City of Guelph Assessment Rolls, 1851-1951, 1897; Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, AN 978.165, Box 2, Genevieve McAteer's personal journal from the Loretto Academy. 1897.
  22. The Vernon's Business Directory for Guelph, 1902, (Hamilton: FI. Vernon, 1902) and surviving letterhead lists John McAteer as proprietor of the Victoria Hotel. In 1902, McAteer paid taxes o1fi205.22 on property valued at Fig. 400, comprising Pt. 1 Heffernan's Survey, St. George's Square, the site of the Victoria Hotel; Leo A. Johnson, History of Guelph - 1827-1927, (Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, 1977), Appendix 3; Guelph Daily Mercury, November 1907, p.1. Jarrett Rudy, "Sleeman's Small Business in Ontario's Brewing Industry, 1847 -1916"; Unpublished Master's Memoir, University of Ottawa, 1994, p.35.
  23. Wellington County Land Registry Office, General Ledger 11, Plan 8, Lot 73, August 1909, Lease between Elizabeth and Joseph Wagner and John and Jane McAteer.
  24. A. Leone Hinds, Pioneer Inns and Taverns of Guelph, (Cheltenham: Boston Mills Press, no date), p.12; David Allan, About Guelph: Its Early Days and Later, (Guelph: Private, 1939), p. 58; Wellington County Land Registry Office. Ledger for Lots 13/14 and 17, Plan 8, City of Guelph, County of Wellington; City of Guelph, County of Wellington; Guelph Public Library Archives, F2-2-1, City of Guelph Assessment Rolls, 1851-1951,1904.
  25. Robert Allen Maclean Stewart, A Picture History of Guelph. Volume 2, Guelph: Ampersand Press, 1978. GPLA, R.A.M. Stewart Historical Photograph Collection, F38-0-14-0-0-384 (cropped from original).
  26. Wellington County Land Registry Office, Ledger for Lot 73, Plan 8. City of Guelph, County of Wellington.
  27. Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, AN 928.16b Box 2, Business Stationary and Cards from American Hotel; Vernon's Directory for City of Guelph, 1912-13, (Hamilton: H. Vernon, 1912).
  28. Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Wellington, 1862 (Toronto: Irwin & Burnham, 1867), The Union Publishing Co.'s Farmers' and Business Directory for the Counties of Halton, Waterloo and Wellington, (Ingersoll, Ont.: Union Pub. Co., 1875-1893); Vernon's County of Wellington Gazetteer and Directory (Hamilton: H. Vernon, 1891-1931); See Shawn Day, Chapter 3 The Business of the Hotel, "The Keeper's Trade: Skills, Attributes and the Pursuit of the Hotel Trade in Late Nineteenth-Century Ontario".
  29. Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, AN 978.165, Guest Ledgers from American Hotel, 1914-1916; Vernon's County of Wellington Gazetteer and Directory (Hamilton: FI. Vernon, 1912-1917); National Archives of Canada. Department of National Defense, Attestation Paper, Instrument 324967, September 21, 1916. Particulars of Recruit Drafted under Military Service Act, 1917, Instrument 3132777, April 23, 1918; Guelph Civic Museum, McAteer Papers, 978.165 Box 2 AN 978.165, Box 2 Correspondence between Jane McAteer and solicitor.
  30. Wellington County Land Registry Office, Ledger for Lot 73, Plan 8. and Ledger for Lot 9, Plan 27, City of Guelph, County of Wellington.