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War Work

During both World Wars, the entire country became mobilized. Companies that once produced everyday items were retooled for war production. Guelph was no different than other communities across Canada. It showed its support for the war effort in a number of ways. Citizens and businesses alike bought War and Victory Bonds –some making it into a contest. They planted Victory Gardens. Children left school early. On those days, on weekends and/or on their days off, they joined factory workers to become “Soldiers of the Land.” They helped farmers plough, plant and harvest crops.

World War I

The burgeoning industries in Guelph attracted new workers. Many left their businesses to work in plants producing munitions e. g. Page-Hersey and Taylor-Forbes, where the pay was higher. This was not as easy as many first thought. One person writing during WWI remarked:

“I, myself have been in munitions since they started in Guelph, and, of course, have seen several young chaps who have left their places of business in the city, owing to the high wages paid in these plants, but it did not take much to sicken them, when it came to lifting a few shells, and they soon vanished back into the business world again.”

At Taylor-Forbes, which shifted over from the production of lawnmowers and other hardware to munitions, women took over the machines. Other companies followed suit. If they did not have women on staff, they were soon to do so as they began to rapidly crank out products for the war.  Guelph Worsted Spinning Mills, Sterling Rubber and Guelph Carpet Mills, continued to produce clothing and materials. The focus, however, had shifted from civilian to military. The manufacturing pace had to be picked up. The production of clothing and other comparable items made it essential to keep the plants running at all hours whenever possible. 

A shortage of workers was an ongoing problem, but not the only one. In WWI Guelph suffered a constant coal shortage. Food items were rationed, costs increased for even the most basic of necessities and scarcities of myriad items occurred.

For workers, while wages increased, working conditions did not necessarily improve. At Taylor-Forbes, for example, accidents occurred with regularity.  Yet, despite the difficulties, workers staged only a few strikes during this period. Six took place from 1914 to 1918 inclusively. Unions were trying to do their part to ensure the War was won. They wanted to be as patriotic as their employers. Among them was the highly active and dynamic International Moulders Union which had members at several of Guelph’s foundry shops including Crowe’s Foundry, the Guelph Stove Company and Griffins Foundry.

During this period, the most active strikes fell in the year 1917. The following went out:

       Grand Trunk Railway – May 7-14, 1917:  14 Freight handlers went out concerning wages

        Crowes, Guelph Stove Company and Griffin’s Foundry – July 21-26, 1917: 100 moulders went out over a wage decrease

         Page-Hersey – September 8-10, 1917: 150 machinists went out to protest a decrease in wages and an increase in hours

World War I did end with some gains for workers. Women had also performed work in factories that hitherto ignored them. Unfortunately, many of the gains made – such as higher wages, were to dissipate as the economics of the early twenties soon tanked.  Guelph industries and workers began to recover later in the decade only to be struck down by the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It was to take another World War to produce a recovery.

World War II

During World War II, Guelph underwent an industrial boom. The Guelph Mercury referred to it as “one of the greatest…in the history of the city.” Production, particularly war production, swelled the numbers living and working in the city. A variety of companies produced materials for the war, including munitions. Some other firms contracted their work out to larger firms in Toronto. The companies included:

         Callander Foundry: tank parts, gun mounts, naval equipment (components for Corvettes), radar supplies, hand grenades

         Canada Ingot Iron Company: Radio components

        Federal Wire and Cable: Telephone wire for communication in the battlefield

         Gilson’s: Bomb sights

         Hammonds: radio components including transformers

         IMICO: War Material

         Leland Electric Canada Ltd: War material

         Page-Hersey: Shell casings

        Sherer-Gillet Co: Shipping containers for automatic arms

        Steele Wire Springs: Fine fuse springs, heavy gun springs   

        York Wood Industries: Munition boxes

        Zephyr Looms & Textiles: Web equipment, belts, haversacks, frogs, parachute bags, canopy covers

Of these firms, Zephyr had several of the most lucrative contracts for at least 1940 and 1941.  For the latter year, the military contract was for $953,196.

At Taylor-Forbes, the VP and production manager, Craig Evans, was head of the Guelph Zone for Coordination of Industrial Production. The Guelph Zone included Acton, Elora, Fergus, Georgetown, Milton, Mount Forest and Orangeville. The plant itself was taken over by the Department of Munitions and Supplies in August 1942.

Growth of Industries

The increase in production resulted in the construction of extensions to several industries including Leland, IMICO and Zephyr. At work, the increased need for production meant extended hours and exemptions for increasing the hours women could work for “essential” industries. Strict rules were applied. When a worker took such employment, he or she could not leave their job without permission from the National Selective Service. If a worker wanted to join the military, the employer could refuse the request if s/he was considered an essential worker.

Other problems emerged during the war. Longer hours and the increased demand for products meant an escalation in accidents. The need to hire anyone, including green- hands, added to the potential for the occurrence of serious problems. Inspectors reported incidents of child labour. Overall, working conditions were far from favourable. 

Summers during the war were extremely hot. In fact, some factories were forced to slow down or stop production because of the sweltering heat. This was commonplace in foundries. 

Other issues created difficult conditions for the working class in Guelph. Chief among these was the increased cost of living. Complicating this was a scarcity of housing for workers – a problem that was endemic in Guelph. There were also issues surrounding wages and many companies refused to accept unions. 


The culmination of the various problems was not really a surprise. Workers went out on strike.  In fact, the number more than doubled that occurring in WWI.

Workers at Northern Rubber went out twice during the war (1939 and 1940). A sticking point was the wages in the new contract. Other strikes occurred at

          Guelph Carpet & Worsted – May 31-June 2, 1941, 35 workers over wages 

        Leland Electric – July, 1941 – 50 women

        Federal Wire & Cable – June 16-18, 1943: 153 workers over union recognition

        Biltmore Hats – Jul 28-August 7, 1944 – 12 workers over union fees not paid

        IMICO – August 11, 1944 – 360 workers over delayed ruling on wages by the government

        IMICO – February 23-26, 1945 – 414 foundry workers over wages and the war board’s decision

         IMICO – March 16, 1945 – 35 moulders concerning wages

       IMICO – June 26-July 2, 1945: 227 foundry workers against war board’s finding on wage increase

      Federal Wire – August 16-November 26, 1945:  246 workers over war board’s conciliation implementation

The end of the war meant a decrease in working hours. This was not so much to improve working conditions overall. Its intent, according to Mr. Ryde, a government official, was to make sure more people kept their jobs as the city and Canada shifted over into post-war production. 

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