Sole Work: Guelph Boot And Shoe Manufacturers: Part 1

Originally, the making of boots and shoes was a craft requiring great skill and training. Like blacksmiths shoemakers had to go through an apprentice system. Shoemakers, who preferred not to be called cobblers (Cobblers repaired shoes only), used leather they usually obtained from a tannery. They cut and stitched the leather out of their shops which were usually their homes or a small shed/shop attached to it. A basic wooden form, called a last, helped to mold the shoe or boot into the proper shape.

The craft was portable. This allowed them to relocate if times were hard. Some shoemakers even travelled from door-to-door seeking customers. They would measure feet before returning home to make the shoe or boot. Many, however, stayed put. They might not even have a sign indicating what they did. However, everyone in town would have known where to find a shoe or bootmaker.

Shoe and Boot Making in Guelph

During the 1860s, shoe making was a very popular craft. The census for this decade clearly indicates that in Canada West alone 221 people declared this to be their trade. Of this number, 141 operated out of their home and/or attached workshop. They both made and repaired shoots and boots, although some stressed one over the other.

In 1851, a directory lists around 8 boot/shoe makers in Guelph. In 1867, the number had grown to at least 24. Among them, Francis Prest (later partner with Wm D. Hepburn), J.T. Brown and Company and Abel Parker were operating larger shops. This meant they employed as few as 2 or as many as 10 others. John Orme (once partnered with Gow), for instance had one known employee -Thomas Attow in his shop on Wyndham Street while Prest and T Brown had a larger workforce. Meanwhile, other shoe and bootmakers such as Robert Allan, Patrick Conway, Isaac Hornby, George Norris, Robert Sunley and William Wheatley worked from their homes.

This number of independent boot and shoemakers was to shrink as technology reduced the need for their skills. In 1870, the Street’s Indian and Colonial Mercantile Directory listed 3 major boot and shoe makers. These were:

1.   John Cridiford

2.   John McNeil

3.   Prest and Hepburn

In 1871, however, the census did not mention Cridford but named the following as boot and shoe factories:

1.   John McNeil

2.   Hepburn

3.   McMillan

Such companies were opting to use sewing machines over hand stitching. This meant they could hire less skilled individuals. It also resulted in shoe and boot making being removed from the list of males-only employment.  Boot and shoe factories could now hire women and, in doing so, reduce their expenses. This challenged the conceptions such craftsmen had about their work and their role. It created an environment in which sooner or later workers and employers would clash.

Unions and Strikes

Shoemakers in Guelph did organize. In fact, one of Guelph’s earliest unions was the Knights of St. Crispin #202 created in 1869. St. Crispin was the saint of shoemakers.  The name, chosen by shoemakers in Wisconsin in 1867 indicates this group harked back to the craft origins of such labour organizations, much like the Knights of Labor were to do.  It was formed to fight against the growth of shoe factories.

However, as the trade moved towards mechanization, skilled shoemakers were not seen as essential as they had been previously. With the growth of Boot and Shoe Factories, this union lost much of its ability to bargain for its members.

This is clearly illustrated by a strike that took place on Tuesday, December 9, 1873. Around 40 members of the St. Crispin’s Union, Local 212, went out at the Boot and Shoe Factory of Messrs. W. D. Hepburn & Company. The reason as provided to the Guelph Mercury: The firm was employing “a man unskilled in the business which is contrary to the rules of the St. Crispin Society…”

The owners did not concede to the union’s demands. JT Brown, foreman, stated the person the Knights were complaining about was doing work no shoe or boot maker did – crimping. Brown felt he was well within his rights to hire the man but, when the Knights demanded a meeting with Hepburn, he obliged.

The meeting did not go well. According to Brown in a letter published in the Mercury on December 11, 1873, “Mr. Hepburn’s reply was that so long as he paid the wages, he would employ whom he pleased.” Both Hepburn and Brown said they knew nothing about the rules governing the Knights of St. Crispin’s rules. Moreover, they had never followed them concerning hiring practices.

In the end, the company made no concessions. The union relented and the shoemakers returned to work on December 22. No changes were ever made in the hiring practice that had sent the workers out in the first place.

Unfortunately, poor economic times couple with increased mechanization in the boot and shoe industry meant employers and not employees had the upper hand in the workplace. The same was true across Canada. The panic of 1873 produced a depression that permeated businesses across the country. According to Leo Johnson, Guelph was hit particularly hard between 1877 and 1880. Recovery was not to occur until the mid-1880s. As for the Knights of St. Crispin – the American organization disappeared in around 1874 after continuously losing its fight against technological advances in the industry.

Hepburn and Company

Hepburn and Company manufactured both boots and shoes. The company was initially operated by Francis Prest. He joined forces with Hepburn in 1867. They offered “hand-made boots and shoes” from their facility on Wyndham Street. By 1871, they had 23 male and 6 female employees over the age of 16 producing boots and shoes for Guelph shops. In 1873, JT Brown was the foreman of the company. He left to form his own company. Hepburn’s remained in business until the early 1880s.

Hepburn and Company were not the only boot and shoe factory operating in Guelph. A few others provided their services during the latter part of the 19th century. Some even made it into the early 20th century. Even a few boot and shoe makers continued to offer their services. Several advertised their work as “custom,” – indicating they were still making their goods by hand and not mass-producing them.

JT Brown and Company

Guelph had two Brown’s in the shoe and boot business. However, it was John T Brown that ran a boot and shoe factory on Upper Wyndham. A Thomas Brown had a shop in 1867 on Wyndham which repaired and made a few shoes for its customers. Patrick Conway and Joseph Firestone worked for him. William Brown and Company originally had a general store in 1851 that also sold shoes.

However, Brown’s Boot and Shoe Factory was not established until 1883. By then, Brown had been practising his trade for several years. He had even worked as the foreman for Hepburn and company for several years, including during the 1873 strike. Originally from Ireland, he had a large family of 6 children and a wife to support in 1881.

Brown’s Boot and Shoe Factory was a larger facility than the one owned by Prest and Hepburn’s. In 1885/86, it had 22 employees. In 1887, 50 hands worked for Brown.   This was the year Brown had been thinking of moving his shop to Berlin (Kitchener). He changed his mind and stayed, surviving into the 1890s. In the OAC Review of 1889, Brown’s boasted they were “The only Factory in the city which enables us to sell below all others in prices as we sell direct to the consumers. Come and see, just one trial will convince you that Brown’s shoes outwear them all.”

McLaren and Company

Donald McLaren operated his factory out of a facility located at the corner of St George’s Square and Wyndham Street in 1882. He had purchased it from a Robert McGregor who, in 1873 had bought it from DW Hepburn. McLaren had arrived in Guelph from Scotland in 1862. He came first to Guelph where he set up his business. He remained here only briefly before moving to Montreal to set up a shoe factory.

However, things did not go according to plan. A year after moving to Montreal, he dissolved his business and moved back to Guelph. He set up shop in a three-storey building at 162 Quebec Street. This was the true beginning of McLaren & Co.


McLaren’s factory was small. In 1894, while it boasted it was the “manufacturers of and dealers in all finer grades of shoes, it only lists a workforce of five two more than the three employed in 1891. These were hired to produce “the finer grades of goods…” Although a shoemaker in the 1881 census, he stated he was a leather merchant in 1891. However, at least a shoe shop run by him was in operation in 1894 when McLaren lay claim to producing “fine grades of shoes, handling no inferior goods.”

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