The Butchers List, Working Conditions Guelph, 19th century Guelph, Factory Act of 1884, Sweatshops Guelph Ontario, workplace injuries Guelph

Townhouses are being built on the land at 249 York Road between Morris and Huron Streets. Beyond the tracks that subdivides the land is a parking lot. This property was once home to the Gilson Manufacturing Co. From 1906 to 1977, the plant produced a variety of items beginning with gas engines and ending up with a full line of washers and freezers. During its long life, it went from being a minor Canadian subsidiary of an American Firm - the Gilson Manufacturing Co. of Port Washington, Wisconsin, launched in 1850 by Theodore Gilson, to being a nationally recognized Canadian owned and operated company.

The American Branch Plant

The Gilson Company arrived in Guelph in late 1906 as a branch company. In 1908, the plant at York Road is described as having a floor space of some 13,700 square feet. It was constructed of brick. Sitting on a parcel of land covering 2.5 acres, it had room to grow. This it was do over the next few decades.

The newly built plant was at first operated by an American. Edward Barelman, transferred from the American plant, held the position of president and general manager when, in 1907, it produced its first “Made in Canada” Gilson gas engines for agricultural equipment. These included pneumatic ensilage cutters, Gilson Silo Fillers and Hylo Silos. To all appearances, they were identical to those made by the parent company in Wisconsin.

In addition, this early plant made chair fixtures (which they produced until 1961). According to its promotional material, it was a “leading manufacturer” in this line. However, it was the gas engines that drove their profit margin upwards.  For these, the Guelph company had both a selling point and slogan - one that stuck. It was “Goes Like Sixty.”

However, during these early years, all was not well with the workforce. The 15 moulders, members of local IMU 212, went out on strike in 1913 from May 19 until August 23. They were part of a protest staged by the moulders working in the foundry departments of two other shops: Raymond’s Sewing Machine Manufactory and Griffin’s. All were looking for a raise of 25 cents a day. This would increase their salary to $3.25. The moulders also expressed concerns over the intention of increasing the amount of advanced money for pieceworkers. Yet, while the disputes at Raymond’s and Griffin’s were resolved with a compromise, that at Gilson’s did not have such an ending. The company closed the foundry forever, putting the men out of work.

Becoming Canadian

In 1916, the ownership changed. Although John Gilson () president of the American firm, was listed as Vice President in 1919). The American Gilson’s was purchased by Harry Bolens (1864-1944). He was not interested in the Canadian company. Instead, it was bought by a group of Canadian investors including Horace Mack.

Horace Mack (1895-1959) was a Guelphite. He had started working for Gilson’s in 1911 at age-fifteen as an office boy. He parlayed hard work and determination into a career at the company, rising to become Manager of the Engine and Silo Feeder Depots by 1919 and president when Edward Barelman died in 1927.   During this period, he had the support of several men including R.K. Dawson (company director in 1919) Ferman and Stanley Koch (Koch was Secretary and Manager of the Tractor and Thresher Depots in 1919) and H. Cooper. Later Dawson was to become plant foreman then VP of the company.

Initially, both the American and Canadian companies produced similar products. They both made stationary gas engines. This was to change in 1917 when the American firm stopped making them. The Guelph plant continued to do so until around 1927.

Around the end of the First World War, Gilson had begun to manufacture farm tractors. They used Foote Brothers’ transmissions and Waukesha engines in their three different sized tractors:

1.   11-20

2.   12-25

3.   15-30

Tractor models included the Gilson Standard Tractor and the “Light Weight Dixie- Ace.” The experiment was short lived. With competition from other companies, it was not a viable product. After only manufacturing around 100, they stopped making them in 1922. Instead, a year earlier, they began to produce warm air furnaces and, in 1925, the first “Snowbird” Washer. In 1929, they added refrigeration units to their production line. It was to help them replace the revenue they had once achieved from making gas engines.

Along the way, Gilson’s created ad campaigns that stayed with the public. Although they only made three cars in the early 1920s, the slogan “Goes Like Sixty” remained a part of their iconography. In 1918, it was written beneath an ad for the “Gilson Standard Tractor.” Their furnaces were advertised with the catchphrase “Gilson Products make many warm friends.” In addition, a popular means of promoting their furnaces was through piggy banks in the shape of a Gilson Furnace.

The 1930s were trying times. Nevertheless, Gilson’s managed to keep operating. Even going so far as to produce the first ever standard production freezer in 1937. When the plant on York Road needed a new roof in 1930, the company chose to employ only local labour to do the repairs. They also borrowed as much money as they could to make sure the plant on York Road stayed open at least a few days a week. This was a company that, under Mack, seemed to care about its employees.

However, the two accidents recorded for Gilson’s also occurred during the 1930s. Until then the company has no known listed ones. On February 17, 1931, Reuben Hatley was killed when the wheel he was working on broke into sections. On July 6, 1939, William Elliott was working on a machine. It crushed his hand resulting in the amputation of 2 fingers.


World War Two

World War II was a time for expansion. During this war, Gilson’s became the go-to for refrigeration units. These were not domestic products. Rather, they were for Canada’s navy. In fact, Gilson refrigeration units were on all naval vessels built in Canada for the war. 

After the War ended, it dived into the production of domestic products – specifically electric washers, dryers, furnaces and refrigeration equipment. It was tied to a growing interest in modernizing the basic appliances in a home. Their ads proclaimed washers of various types including the ever popular Snow Bird line – even for those home that lacked electricity. In fact, Gilson’s became the acknowledged expert in both domestic and commercial refrigeration during the 1950s. It was in the late 1940s that plant square footage grew from 13,000 to 130,000 square feet allowing it to accommodate the escalation in their domestic product production.

Horace Mack and Bird Sanctuaries

Horace Mack was a naturalist. He worked with the Guelph Field Naturalists Club, the Grand River Conservation Authority and the Speed River Flood Control Committee. However, he is best remembered for the creation of the Eden and Niska Game sanctuaries in the 1930s and post WWII.

His company’s extensive grounds were home to various native and exotic wildlife. The well-manicured grounds were maintained by an Englishman, Mr. Copp. He also took care of the various “exotic” wildlife that were either penned on or roamed the grounds. These included a bear, dingo dogs and pheasants. In the 1930s, as times became harder, the company had to take measures to prevent the locals from poaching the wildlife.

On his properties located in Eden Mills and Niska (the latter then a short distance outside of Guelph), he established a place for breeding and rearing various types of wild birds and waterfowl. By 1952, a great percentage of the area surrounding the Niska property had been declared a federal wildlife sanctuary. After his death, the property soon fell into the hands of the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation. They purchased it in 1961, turning into a sanctuary. However, the costs of maintaining it were high. In order to defray it, they opened a portion of it to the public in 1961. This became known as the Kortright Waterfowl Park. However, poaching continued to take its toll of the waterfowl and in 2005 it was closed to the public. The birds were transferred to other locations over time. When the Grand River Conservation Authority took it over, they began the process of returning it to its natural form.

Later Years

Although the company had expanded its facilities, finally topping off at 130,000 square feet of floor space, it was sold once again in 1948. This time, the purchaser was the Robert Elder Company. Mack continued to work for the new owners as Chairman of the Board until his death in 1959 while Elder took over as president. It was under this new management that Gilson’s second strike took place. This time, it was over a wage increase recommended by the Conciliation Board previously. The company had not put the recommendations into place. The result was a strike on April 7, 1953. One hundred and ninety-eight household appliance workers walked out and formed a picket line. They stayed out until May 12 when the new agreement was reached. It contained a wage compromise to support both the company’s and the workers’ demands. 

At this point, Elder sold the company to A.L. Geller and several others. For whatever reason, they were not adept at managing it. In 1961, Gilson’s filed a bankruptcy claim for more than $800,000. The end result was the purchase of the majority of company shares by former employees in 1964:

·        A. James Kendrick – President in 1967

·        Cyril M. McDonald – Plant Manager for Gilson’s in 1967

·        Edward (Ted) C. Carroll - who was the service manager for Gilson’s in 1967

·        Russ F. Flanigan – who was treasurer for Gilson’s in 1967

·        James K. Simmons – who was the industrial engineer at Gilson’s in 1967

 They sold the original plant on York Road in 1966 and focused on producing freezers at their other facility.

By this time, the company had added another plant. This one was located at 53 Victoria Road at the junction of Elizabeth Street. Although Gilson’s was never a major employer along the lines of IMICO, it did hold steady over its existence at 100 employees. During a boom during the 1920s, the workforce rose to a fluctuating 250.

Gilson’s tried to shake up their product time in the 1970s. It added the Trashpak to its products line. Whoever, this did not have the impetus they needed and the company was once more up for sale in 1972. This time, the owners were McGraw-Edison of Canada Ltd. By this time, the Victoria plant was the only one in operation. It had reduced its product line to Gilson, Queen, Simplicity and Speed freezers. The number of employees had also decreased. On April 1, 1977, when the plant became a subsidiary and closed for good, only 50 worked in the Victoria plant. 

The Butcher's List: Working Conditions in Late 19th Century Guelph

Counting Up the Dead and Injured

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.

Workplace Reality

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. In fact, holding a job in the 19th century was often like playing Russian Roulette. Farm toil, construction work and factory labour presented dangers 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, Allan’s, and breweries such as Sleeman’s and Holliday’s. The more dangerous work was in moulding shops and factories using saws and cutting equipment.

Blaming the Victim

The wood cutting machinery of the time was dangerous. Workers lost fingers, hands, thumbs and even arms to a variety of tools including:



                                                     Buzz saws

                                                     Circular saws  

Stave cutter                                                                     

Planing machine

Gear cutter and other similar machinery or tools

This was not, as employers and, later, factory inspectors, would have it believed, the fault of the worker.  They were not all careless. It was the lack of protection. There was, at first, no guard between the blade and the operator. Even when protection was made law under the Factory Act of 1884, only the barest form was required. Protection, at that time, meant “as far as practicable, securely guarded.” This allowed leeway for owners and foremen alike to define sufficient protection. Combining this with the employment of green hands with little or no training, the result was predictable. In Guelph, over half of the accidents in factories were the product of buzz saws, planers, shapers and other sharp tools.

The Factory Act of 1884

The Factory Act, put into place in 1884, although intended to help reduce the accident rate, was ineffective in a number of ways. The definition of “Factory” precluded

                                                                     Home-based sweatshops

                                                                     Family businesses,

                                                                     Factories with less than 20 people


Offices and other types of work places

If a Factory Inspector desired to assess the safety of a home acting as a factory, he had to obtain a warrant or permission from the province’s Lieutenant Governor. Accidents in factories need only be reported if the worker were either killed or kept off work for more than six days. Technically, a worker could lose his arm on a Monday and be reassigned to another job on Thursday without the Inspectors hearing anything about it.

The Problem of Inspectors

Another problem concerned the Inspectors themselves. During the first three years of the Factory Act - from 1883 to 1885, the matter was moot; there were no inspectors. The three were engaged for the entire Province of Ontario, ensuring the process of examination and enforcement would be inefficient and insufficient. A boiler Inspector was initially lacking, thus allowing any problems in that area to be overlooked by harried inspectors, concerned with scaffolds, unprotected machinery, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, child labour and female workers. The attitudes of the inspectors and of the courts themselves was also a problem.

The 12th Annual Report of the Inspector of Factories for 1899 stated the following regarding proposed changes to the Act,

If an employee in a factory slips or falls on the floor of his work room or place and is laid off work as a result for six days, it is a reportable accident. I can see no object in having such reported. Whoever suggested that change did not comprehend the Act as it was?...No Inspector would think it necessary to visit a factory because he received a report that a worker was hurt by falling on the floor, when probably the cause of the worker’s falling lay in the fact that his boots were so worn down as to be dangerous . . .”

 Workers and the Law

This short-sighted and narrow-minded attitude was incorporated into the legal system. When the Factory Act was used to call employers to task, little or nothing was done. In cases where employees or their widows took the company to court, the judge, more often than not, found in favour of the employer. For example, when John Rudd of Guelph took Bell Organ & Piano to court for an injury done to him by a jointer (two fingers were removed), the decision said it was his own fault and the case was dismissed. The rationale given? The employer was not negligent. This ruling suggested that some sort of protection had been in place. In 19th century parlance, this meant two things: the safeguard was minimal and existed only so far as it did not interfere with production and Mr. Rudd knew the job was dangerous when he took it. The risks incurred were in the nature of the work itself. In his case and many others, the work place was a dangerous place to be. It was no wonder that the British referred to the accident lists as the “Butcher List.”

Women at Risk

Although, in the 19th century, women, did not work in foundries or carriage works, or any of the factories mentioned above, they had to contend with dangers in the knitting and woolen mills. Here, both men and women were faced with needles that went through fingers, heavy looms that produced back strain, and material floating in the air. Particles of cotton, wool and other fabrics were breathed in to later produce lung problems. The McCrae & Armstrong Woolen Mills, the Guelph Carpet and Worsted Mills, and Mr. M. Quinn’s Macdonnell St. Shirt Factory provided examples of what happened in such places in Guelph


Danger was all pervasive in the 19th-century workplace. The Factory Act attempted to address several issues, but its early forms did not go far enough. It was not until the 20th century, as the militancy of workers and labour organizations increased, that working conditions improved and the butcher’s bill was shortened.

Labouring All Our Lives   |  Privacy Statement