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

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.

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