Workmen Houses 1900

The Shadow Culture: Working Class Life - 1870s-1900

Working Class Entertainment in Guelph, 1870 to 1900

Life was not all work for the working class but leisure hours were few and, although factories had “down times,” these so-called holidays were, like Christmas and Civic Holidays, unpaid. The result – although a wide variety of activities was available to all Guelph citizens, a clearly defined line drawn by cost and time, restricted who could participate where and when. What emerges is the depiction of the working class as a “shadow culture” – one that mirrors that of the upper and middle classes. For example, certain amusements such as “Warner & Henderson’s Double Circus, Museum, Menagerie and Roman Hippodrome,” or “Barnum’s Circus,” in 1874, “attracted all types of people. The parade through town was, after all, free. An entry fee to see the performances themselves, however, limited many workers from attending.

Picnics and Parades

Some events, such as the band concert series at Exhibition Park and Market Square in the 1880s and 1890s, were free. Then, there were the summer annual picnics held by churches and factories alike. From 1870 through to the 1900s and even until the present various workers and factories attended special group picnics. They also took part in excursions with the company or employees arranging for cheap train fares out of the city. Among the factories that took advantage of such days off were:

    • McCrae & Co. Woollen Factory in July 1876
    • Hepburn Boot and Shoe Co. employees in 1873 and 1874
    • Raymond’s did so in both 1874 and 1876
    • Bell’s Organ and Piano
    • Gowdy’s Agricultural Manufacturing 1882

Yet, whether it was a picnic or an excursion, these gatherings were planned so that no time was lost. Usually this meant holding them on a civic holiday.            

Many picnics and excursions took on a competitive flavour. Some were marked by a grand procession or parade out of the city. Each group attempted to outdo the other in size and grandeur. The parade in August 1882, by Raymond’s workers was a particularly memorable one.

The procession this morning was the largest of the kind yet seen in Guelph, comprising forty-four well-filled carrioles and carriages, besides twenty horsemen. The horsemen, wearing plug hats upon their heads and sunflowers in their breast, led off two deep. Following them came a carriole fitted up like one of the chariots seen in a circus procession and mounted in front with a large, gilded British coat of arms. In this conveyance were seated members of the City Band who played along the route. Then came seven of eight carriolles, and after them a long line of double and single carriages … About the centre of the procession came a dray covered over with canvas, carrying sewing machines, in which were seated men costumed as Turks, Chinamen and representatives of other nationalities. This represented “the markets of the world.” Last of all, but not least, was the provision van, labelled with letters worked in evergreens “Commissariat waggon – we take the cake.”

These events were possibly staged by owners in an attempt to maintain the workers’ allegiance to the company.

Church Socials

Many church socials, school affairs, and later temperance league events, could be attended for as little as 10 cents. Tickets for the Minstrel performance put on by the Guelph Catholic Union cost 15 cents in March 1888. St Andrew’s Presbyterian, in 1885, presented a concert in “aid of the organ fund” and on May 21, 1897, the Ladies of St. James  announced “A Fancy Fair” and musical evening at City Hall.

Summer and Winter Sports

Swimming was a popular summer pastime, skating a winter one. Both could be done without cost. Guelph’s rivers and various ponds were free to everyone. Goldie’s, Spence’s, Gow’s and Allan’s Dams were considered ideal spots. While Guelph did have restrictions on bathing dress (it must cover from the neck down), and place, there seems to have been little enforcement. Complaints were registered in the Guelph Mercury on the lack of council’s enforcement of the Bathing By-Law. While swimming pools remained unheard of, skating rinks were not. The Speed Skating Rink proved to be a popular place for skating and skating exhibitions.

Besides skating, winter promised the chance to toboggan. The more “civilized” preferred Evan McDonald’s Hill and belonged to the toboggan club. The working class availed themselves of the streets and local hills with Dublin and Cork Streets were both popular among the younger set. The local newspaper noted a number of complaints and cited several near misses. The change from gas lights to electricity in 1888 made the rides “more pleasant and safer,” but accidents continued. A boy, coasting down Gordon and Fountain Streets, knocked down and “badly bruised” a man in January 1889.

Curling and cricket provided an excellent example of class differentiation in sport participation. Factory groups and various crafts played the game avidly. Teams consisting of workers, tradesmen and craftsmen issued challenges to other teams, using the local media. In 1882, McCrae’s Woollen Mill fielded the McCrae 11, a cricket team composed of working members of the firm. Yet, these matches were not for medals or provincial prizes, nor were their members organized into the clubs that characterized Guelph’s higher classes. A worker in McCraes’ woollen mill could afford neither the time, nor the financial cost of attending the games outside of Guelph. The average worker with 10 hour days, earning about $2 a day, could not afford extracurricular events of this type.