Child Labour Guelph, Working Children Guelph, Unhealthy working conditions, Factory inspector, Industries in Guelph, Factory work Guelph

Child Labou

Working Children

Child labour was an integral part of the 19th and early 20th century economy. Imported children - the Bernardo children and youths from Vimy Ridge, supplied the farmers with labour. The local children were found in shops and factories and on the streets - peddling papers, shining shoes, delivering parcels and messages and selling flowers. They worked in

McCrae’s Woollen Mills

Biltmore Hats


Raymond’s Sewing Machines

Bells Organs and Pianos


Stewart’s Planing Mills

Burr Brothers Furniture Factory

Victoria Wheel Works

Guelph Carpet Mills.


As part of the home economy, they became part of first the apprentice and later the factory system. During the mid to late 19th century, apprenticed or not, Guelph children put in long hours for very little cash. Under the early factory system children were absorbed as one cog in a ravenous wheel that had little or no interest in considering their wants or needs above the economics of production. No legislated hours or wages and no protection from unhealthy or unsafe, dangerous and/or toxic working conditions was available for them until the Factory Act of 1884.

Dangerous Jobs/ Cheap Labour

Many manufacturers opted to hire children over adults, women over men, because they were cheaper. Bell’s, Worswick’s, Massie, Weir & Bryce Confectionary & Biscuits, Raymond’s, Stewarts’ and McCrae’s all hired children. Lizzie Coutts at McCrae’s paid the price for working with dangerous equipment. She was grabbed by a machine and suffered painful injuries to her head and leg. Henderson was carrying out his daily tasks when he fell, breaking his forearm just above the wrist.  Fowke was operating a circular saw when he lost three fingers.

The Factory Law

The Factory Act of 1884 addressed several items in their attempt to protect vulnerable children.


                                                          It was illegal to employing any “child” under 14 in a factory, where more than 20 people worked.

                                                          It demanded that they be registered by their employer.

                                                          Girls under 18 and boys under 16 could not work in places considered dangerous to their physical health.

                                                          Children could no longer be forced to clean the moving parts of machinery.

                                                          Their hours were now restricted by law to no more than 10 hours a day and no more than 60 hours a week, with
                                                               an hour each day at noon for lunch.

As usual, exceptions to these rules were allowed. During the summer months, children of any age could be hired by canneries to do picking and preparation of fruits and vegetables. Other exemptions to hours and employment could be obtained from an inspector.

There were also the excuses made by the employers. They could argue that the child had lied about his or her age, that they hadn’t realized that all were to register, or that they had never thought to ask for a birth certificate. As an Inspector for 1892 remarked: “I found an inclination to employ boys without paying much attention to their age so long as they appeared sufficiently able-bodied to do the work required of them. 

Moreover, such legislation did not cover all types of work. Home work was not included remaining unregulated until the government was forced, by unions and child and women advocates, to realize the increasingly unsanitary and unsafe conditions of this form of employment.  Nor did the legislation address  factories of under five employees or any of the following occupations:

                                                           Newspaper sellers



Shoeshine boys

Store clerks

Alfred Addy was a newsboy in Guelph in 1882. So was Israel Asia Minor Brown. Neither of these boys had protection under the Factory Act, or such later legislation as the Shops Act.


Unhealthy Conditions


 Even for those children working on approved jobs at the accepted age, life was not healthy. In 1888, the Inspector for the Guelph region stated that “in some establishments I have found children and young girls seated on high benches or stools with no support for the back, and smaller children unable to rest their feet upon the floor; very tiresome positions in which to continue for ten hours daily and likely to cause crooked spines, round shoulders and contracted chests.In these and other places, children’s lives were at risk every day. One wrong move, slip up or freak accident and their life was changed forever. Take the case of Charles Davidson working at Burr Bros. Furniture factory in 1890. He was employed by a contractor, Mr. Liphards. The following is an excerpt from the Guelph Mercury:

   The boy  . . . had come down the elevator with a load of stuff and had started back. Whether he was watching    something in the shop below, and thoughtlessly clasped the running wire cable of the machinery with one hand, or whether he took hold of it unthinkingly to steady himself, or perhaps both, is not clear. Anyway, before he knew it, the wire cable had carried his hand on the pulley wheel, round which the cable ran. Instantly the boy grabbed the cable with the other hand in a vain attempt to stop it and prevent his hand from being carried round, but the inexorable power drew this hand in also, and the fingers of both hands of the poor lad were crushed to a jelly between the cable and the wheel, and nipped right off.

Nor was this the end of Charles Davidson’s sufferings. He was crushed between the elevator and the wall before the workmen below were able to stop the elevator. Charles Davidson lost four fingers from his right hand and three fingers from his left that day. He was “almost 14.” The Inspector for the Western District, commenting about this “heretofore unsuspected danger” and its result, stated, “It is most unfortunate for the poor boy, who is only 14 years of age to lose the best half of seven of his fingers, and so early in life. It will no doubt alter his future career - but for better or for worse who can tell?” His comments indicate the gap between two worlds - that of the Inspector and of the working class. Although the Inspector was genuinely concerned for the welfare of the workers in his district, he was unaware of the reality of their life and the actual conditions of factory work. These were the conditions for and the expectations of child labour as the 19th century drew to a close. In the early years of the 20th century, not much was to change.

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