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From forges to foundries: Guelph's working class history

In this Following Up feature we talk to local historian Bonnie Durtnall about her latest book Labouring All Our Lives and how Guelph’s working class helped shape the city we know today

There are few people as passionate about researching Guelph’s unwritten past than author and historian Bonnie Durtnall and her latest book takes a detailed look at the role working people played in building many of the city’s enduring traditions and characteristics.

“It is working class history,” said Durtnall of her book Labouring All Our Lives. “It deals with industry, but it doesn’t look at it from the perspective of the middle class or upper class owners, which was very common.”

Books and accounts commissioned by wealthy industrialists often overlooked the contributions and sacrifices their employees made to the city’s, and their business’s, growth and success.

“What it looks at is such things as working conditions, accident rates in factories and hospitalization, if they got that far,” she said. “It looks at women’s work, child labour and I even added chapters that weren’t in the original work, touching on housing in Guelph.”

One chapter looks at the different waves of immigration and how that influenced the industrial expansion and cultural diversity of Guelph.

“From when the English and the Scots arrived and the rift between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants that resulted in one of the major hangings in Guelph,” said Durtnall. 

Some, such as newly emancipated African Americans, Chinese and European Jews came to Guelph to escape crushing poverty, wars, racial violence and political unrest in their home countries.

“There is a little bit about the Germans and then, of course, the major group that came here, the Italians and The Ward. The Ward is constantly popping up.”  

Durtnall has spent more than two decades collecting records and data as well as interviewing people and recording first-hand accounts of what it was like to live and work in the city prior to 1950. 

“It was about 2004 that I put together a much smaller version of the book for the Guelph Labour Council,” she said. “It covered all the way up to the present because I was insane at the time.”

Only four copies of the original book were printed for the Guelph Labour Council’s archives. Nevertheless, Durtnall continued to accumulate more accounts and information including one-of-a-kind, primary documents and artifacts from the period between 1827 and 1950. A lot of the work has been posted on her website, but she felt compelled to share it more formally with the public in print.   

“I felt I really had to do this one,” said Durtnall. “My logic was, if I get hit with a bus tomorrow, who else would do it?  There is nobody who has ever done anything on Guelph labour history in such an extensive manner.”    

Guelph in 1827, as Durtnall reveals, was much like other new communities sprouting up in Canada at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. New technologies were providing new opportunities and replacing age-old traditions.  

“Guelph, in the early days, had dozens of blacksmiths,” said Durtnall. “A blacksmith is a craftsman. He makes everything including your tools, your agricultural ploughs. Everything you need, you can get from a blacksmith and then you have coming to Guelph, a new metal worker and that was the foundry.”

Foundry owners acquired patents for moulds that allowed them to mass produce the latest tools, ploughs, and other metal parts faster and more consistently than blacksmiths. The growth of foundries reduced the dependence on craftsman and increased demand for cheap unskilled labour. 

By the early 1900s, St. Patrick’s Ward, now known simply as The Ward, had become the industrial centre of the city. This was largely due to the efforts of wealthy publisher James Walter Lyon who bought much of the property between the river and York Road and offered incentives for businesses to build factories there. The remaining land was offered to private citizens and developers to build homes for factory workers. Some developers took advantage of the shortage of housing to profit at the expense of the working class.

“Housing has always been a problem in Guelph for the working class,” said Durtnall. “There was already an overcrowding issue, but it depends upon which culture you are looking at. For English and Scots, it was overcrowding. For some Italians it was just how they lived. It was a way of life and there was nothing wrong with it.”

Other traditions such as the subservient status of women and child labour were exploited by factory owners to get cheap and, in some cases, free workers. Long after the Factory Laws of 1884 outlawed child labour it remained a common practice especially during the First and Second World Wars when many able-bodied men were called to service.

Women were also expected to take the place of men in factories during war time but were quickly returned to “women’s work” or their roles as housewives in peace time.  

“The definition of what was women’s work has continually changed over the period,” said Durtnall.  “By the 1920s women are accepted doing clerical work. So, they would be typewriters. That’s the machine but it is also the name they originally called secretaries.”

The subdivision of labour allowed businesses to pay women less and that is one reason Bell Telephone chose young women to be switchboard operators or “hello girls” as they were called in the early days.

“Women were considered to be more pliable, and they had better voices for talking on the phone,” said Durtnall. “They were considered more pliable because they could take more crap from customers, the bosses and everybody else.”

Durtnall documents how the growth and influence of unions and organized labour played a significant role in improving the rights and working conditions of working-class women and men. Union negotiated contracts guaranteed, living wages, shorter work weeks and other employment standards we take for granted today. They gave workers leisure time and opportunities to form organized sports clubs and other community organizations that Durtnall calls a 'shadow culture.'

“I call it a shadow culture because people in the working class would try to do everything their 'betters' did, but they could not do it in the same way or on the same scale,” she said. “You couldn’t afford it, but there were factory clubs and they played hockey and baseball was the big one. The original Maple Leafs from Sleeman’s were originally working-class people.”

Labouring All Our Lives covers Guelph’s working-class history from 1827 to 1950.

“I was originally going to go further but I decided I can’t,” said Durtnall. “My favourite period and the period I am most familiar with is right up to the end of World War Two. After World War Two the world really changes again.”

It is tempting to think we’ve made great progress and look back at those simpler times with smug 20/20 hindsight but perhaps we should reserve some modesty and consider how future generations might look back at the contributions we are making with the technological resources we have now.

Nearly all of the factories mentioned in Durtnall’s  book have closed over the past 70 years and few, if any of the workers from that time are alive today. They were among several generations of workers in Guelph that made and exported products we mostly import now. Perhaps they still have lessons to teach us.

“I am starting on another book called We Used to Make Things In Guelph," said Durtnall. “It will be The Ward edition because I got lots of material from when Guelph began and all the way up.”