Working In Nineteenth Century Guelph
On Monday, February 3, 1879, Alfred Hallet arrived for work at Raymond’s Sewing Machine Factory and took his position at a gear cutting machine. That day, he had to place a belt on the pulley of the main shaft, a job he had done many times before. He stood up on the bench that held the gear cutter - the proper position to perform the task, quickly put the belt in place and began adjusting it. Then, he made a mistake. He turned around to see if the belt was correctly positioned. His fingers shifting slightly, were caught beneath the pulley. His left hand and apron followed, caught by the pull. Within seconds, his arm disappeared from view. Alfred’s screams brought several workmen, who quickly freed him. His body slumped to one side of the machine; his arm, torn off at the elbow, dropped to the floor on the other side. Alfred, son of William Hallet, was just 14 years old.
Working Reality 19th Century Guelph, Ontario
This was the reality of the work place in 19th century Canada. In Ontario, no factory legislation dictated protective measures for the workers until the Factory Act of 1884. There was no Ministry of Labour or department expressly focused on ensuring that workers could go to work every day secure in the knowledge that their environment was a healthy and safe one. In fact, holding a job in the 19th century was often like playing Russian Roulette. Farm toil, construction work and factory labour presented dangers of various kinds leading to health problems, loss of limbs and death. The least dangerous jobs were to be found in mills, such as Guelph’s Goldie’s and Allan’s, and breweries such as Sleeman’s and Holliday’s. This was due to the nature of the work. Few sharp tools were used. In the case of the breweries, new facilities such as Sleeman’s, were light and sanitary. This meant the air was clean and relatively free of floating particles that could clog the lungs. The temperature within these businesses tended to be consistent, without the extremes that produced increased instances of flus, colds and other respiratory illnesses.
The more dangerous work could be found in moulding shops and those factories that used saws and cutting equipment. Guelph had several moulding shops in operation in the 19th century: Robertson’s, Crowe’s, Wellington Foundry, Worswick’s and George Sunley’s Tin shop. In addition, some factories incorporated foundry work into their assembly of products. The Guelph Carriage Works, Cossitt’s Implements and Raymond’s had metal work to be done. At such foundries, workers were faced with a number of health and safety issues. Extremes of temperature were first on the list. Outdoors it could be -10 degrees centigrade while indoors the furnaces and fires kept temperatures at close to 90 degrees C. The older shops were cold and damp. Night casting of metals produced gas and smoke in a confined space with poor to no ventilation. This made conditions ideal for pneumonia and other respiratory problems.
Working Class life in 19th century Guelph, Ontario, Canada, reflected the nature of the employment as well as the culture of the time. The industrial revolution had resulted in increased mechanization of the work place. In the process, it had also reduced the value of workers. It was to take legislation and the creation of unions to restore some type of humanity into the workplace.
 For basic information on legislation in this section, consult E. Lorentsen & E. Woolner, “Fifty Years of Labour Legislation,” Labour Gazette, September 1950, and E. Tucker, Administering Danger in the Workplace. The Laws and Politics of Occupational Health and Safety Regulations in Ontario, 1850-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. Summations of the Factory Act and its changes are noted in several publications of the government, including the Labour Gazette (1900 -), Labour Legislation in Canada, and the Ontario Sessional Papers, particularly “The Annual Report of the Bureau of Industries” (1885-) and “The Annual Report of the Inspectors of Factories” (1888-).
- Discover Guelph working class and union history
Explore the world of Guelph, Ontario’s 19th century working class. Learn about the industrial revolution’s effect on the early union movement and the working conditions of the time period.