Making Felt in Guelph: The Story of the Lancashire Felt Company
When it comes to Guelph industries, the Ward has been home to several well-known ones. People still remember working at IMICO, Woods, the Pickle Factory (Matthews-Wells) and Biltmore Hats. They had relatives who had jobs at the Guelph Stove Company, Gilson’s, Taylor-Forbes and Northern Rubber. However, the Ward was also home to other less talked about industries. Among these was the Lancashire Felt Company.
The Parent Company
Lancashire Felt was a Canadian subsidiary of a much larger concern. The parent company, Lancashire Felt Company, had been established in Denton, Manchester, England in 1865. Its products, as one ad stated, were “Fur and Wool Felt Bodies.” By 1932, the company decided to establish an agency in Canada. They set up an office in room 75 at 417 St. Peter Street, Montreal, Quebec. This was to be the company’s headquarters for the Canadian branch of the company. However, an actual factory was built, not in Quebec, but Guelph, Ontario in 1932.
Lancashire Felt Company of Canada, Morris Street, Guelph
The Lancashire Felt Company of Canada, Ltd. in Guelph was both a branch office and a factory. The Financial Times in January 1932 remarked on a “new industry for Guelph in the manufacture of wool fur bodies for men’s and women’s hats.” The machinery for this new factory was to come from England, in fact, “eight carloads of machinery, mostly imported from England” furnished the plant. The same information was repeated in April 1932 in Textile World. This article noted the following were personnel:
- President: P.G. Hodgson: From the parent company in England
- Vice President: A.W. Walter of Montreal
- Treasurer: E.F. Walter of Montreal
The company did have a Guelph supervisor. This was Lazare Louis John Jochimeck. He had formerly been associated with the Jochimeck-Drone Hat Co of Guelph in association with William Falconer Drone. Jochimeck is also listed as the manager of the factory at a Christmas party held on December 24, 1932, together with George Boardman, the factory’s foreman.
The initial intent was to employ 100 local men and women. The number was 150 in 1939. It continued to rise in the 1940s, reaching as high as 200. During WWII, the company continued to supply its wool felt and hat shapes for local millinery and hat firms, including Biltmore Hats. In 1949/1950, the company reached out to a new market, selling fabric squares for crafters. The type they advertised was Felt squares for “camcraft.” By 1952, Lancashire Felt’s products included wool felt, felt washers and leather and felt slippers.
Working Conditions and Management-Employee Relationships
The plant was always described as modern. In 1952, the machinery was the latest shipped from England. This was also noted in 1948. An article described the plant as “spacious, well-lighted and painted in bright, cheerful colours and the machinery is in the most modern design.”
According to the writer, the employees were well treated. They not only enjoyed morning and afternoon rest periods and group insurance. This covered sickness, accident indemnity, hospitalization and surgery for themselves and their families. The management at that time was said to have an excellent relationship with the workers.
What the article failed to include was the reason behind the benefits and the “excellent relationship.” It was not the company’s kindness, nor did it denote a responsible management. It was the result of the unionization of the plant years previously.
Unionization and the Strike of 1939
Lancashire Felt became a unionized shop six years after it opened. In 1938, the workers sought the right to join the United Hatters. The company refused to recognize the union, “allegedly” telling them so on December 3, 1938. The workers, of which 100 percent held union memberships, responded by going on strike 5 days later. Their demands included:
- Union Recognition
- A Closed Shop
- An Increase in Wages
- A Decrease in Hours
Mr. Isadore Drucker of the union came to Guelph to help. He also bore greetings and support from the unionized workers at the English firm.
Throughout the strike, accusations flew between the concerned parties. One Toronto paper reported the picketers had “molested cars owned by the officials at the plant. They had also “expressed threats.” These charges the union denied. They stated: We are merely picketing the plant in a peaceful manner…Truck drivers who come to the plant for hats are told a strike is on, and they immediately drive away.”
The weather during this strike was cold and chilly. Nevertheless, workers continued to show up for picket duty. A tent with a stove in front of it was placed near the picketers. Workers also kept warm and busy by playing rugby and soccer in Lyon Park which was across from the plant. These games and even pickets did not include women. Although women did comprise a large percentage of the staff, those in charge decided they were not to picket. They felt they should not “be asked to stand the discomfort of cold weather by parading in the picket lines.”
The strike ended on December 16, 1939. Before reaching this point, Louis Fine and O.J. Jannett, both representing the Ontario Department of Labour, the strike committee and management got together. This was on December 12. The following day, the strikers were paid a visit by John Noble, the Canadian organizer for the AFL. He addressed the crowd and presented a letter from Max Zariksky of the United Hatters’ International pledging moral and financial support.
The workers’ actions resulted in a contract on February 8, 1940. The men involved included the Union Representative of 1939. These were:
- Joseph A. Hohenadel, President
- John Gorman, Vice President
- Kathleen Andrews, Recording Secretary
- John Hoshooley, Financial Secretary
as well as the Executive Committee consisting of:
- Samuel McGill
- Clarence Nichols
- Mrs. Joseph Hohendal
- Anthony Bordignon
- Alan Blackburn
The contract granted the employees of Lancashire Felt what they had sought. Thereafter, there were no strikes or walkouts.
Becoming a Subsidiary
In 1952 Biltmore Hats expressed to its board of directors its intent to make Lancashire Felt a subsidiary. The two companies were not competitors. Rather, they were a symbiotic couple. By absorbing Lancashire Felt, Biltmore would be able to control the material they needed to make their hats. This would reduce the price considerably. Both companies also had the added advantage of having the same union representing their interests.
As early as 1947, there had been some crossover at the management level. Norman H. Duncan was secretary-treasurer of Biltmore Hats and secretary of the Lancashire Felt company. All these factors made the amalgamation easier. The two merged and, after a few brief years, Lancashire Felt ceased to exist as a separate entity. Jochimeck also was gone from company records. Although he seems to have remained in charge during the initial changes, he was no longer a driving force and retired from the business entirely.