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Making Furniture In Guelph: The Burr Brothers
Bonnie Durtnall

Making Furniture In Guelph: The Burr Brothers

In 1872, Burr and Skinner operated a furniture factory in a newly constructed 2-storey building on the north side of Oxford. With a workforce of between They manufactured a variety of furniture including bed frames. The business did well, expanding in size b in 1880, 1882 and 1886. The building expansion in 1882 merited a mention in the local paper. It referred to the “large extension” as being of stone and “adjacent to the north side of the old building and being 40x73’ in size.” The addition doubled the capacity.

The new building consisted of four floors. The ground floor as well as much of the second floor contained machine rooms. The third and fourth floors were reserved for carvers and cabinetmakers. The machinery in this new structure was built by Cant and Gourlay of Galt.

Myron and Franklin (Frank) Burr, a previous foreman of Raymond’s Sewing Machine Factory, worked in partnership with F. H. Skinner to ensure the manufactory was a success. In the debate about the value of tariffs in 1879, both Burr and Skinner voted in favour of such government measures. They felt it was beneficial to their business, if not for others.

The partnership of Burr and Skinner did not last into the 1880s. Frederick B Skinner went into politics becoming a member of Guelph’s council (1882-1886). The Burr Brothers continued to manufacture furniture for the Ontario market. They also sold it locally at a retail outlet operated by two Skinner brothers - Frederick Bowden and George Henry Skinner, sons of Hugh and Catherine Skinner, on Wyndham Street. The company also sold furniture across Canada “from Halifax to Vancouver.” They did send a “carload of furniture” to Vancouver in November 1875 and, in February 1893, had several orders from the North West Territories, Edmonton, Nelson British Columbia and Toronto.

The Threat and Result of Accidents

Working at a furniture factory was no easy job. These “horny handed sons of soil” – as an 1882 article referred to them, were expected to operate machinery that was not protected by any safety device. Some years were worse than others were. Although no accidents seemed to have been reported or noted for 1885, the local paper reported on October 7, 1886 that four workers at the Burr Brothers were on the sick list as a result of cut fingers.

In fact, cut fingers does not describe the incidents to several workers suffered from the operation of saws and other edge-tools. In March 1887, C. Love lost the tip of his thumb to a jointer. He fared better than Frank Motes who lost his left thumb to a buzz saw in the same month or H. Alls who had his index finger removed by a jointer in November. Andrew McCrae serves as an example of one of the worst-case scenarios. On April 16, 1884, a jointer cut three fingers of his right hand. They had to be amputated. Two years later, on February 28th, a buzz planer removed the only remaining finger on his right hand.

However, Charles Davidson and Thomas Hurley provide a glimpse of the worst that can happen when safeguards are not in place. The December 17, 1890 accident to Davidson, who was working for a contractor, is described accordingly by 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 of Factories 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.

As for the older, more experienced Thomas Hurley? On May 29, 1896, Hurley was working at Burr Brothers. A pulley caught his arm and sucked it and him in. He dies from the internal injuries he suffered.

Picnics and Other Events

While life was hard for workers, not all ended in tragedy. Picnics, celebrations and Christmas gatherings tended to provide occasions for celebrating the company and each other. Even if you view them as paternalistic – a means of solidifying bonds among workers and between employees and their company, they still provided workers with a chance to enjoy life. This combination of pride in company and work shines in a picnic held on August 22, 1883. The article, under the title “Picnic” provides the following information:

The employees of Burr Brothers factory are making big preparations for their annual picnic, to be held at Puslinch Lake, on Friday. The procession will start about eight o’ clock from the factory, thence along Suffolk Street to Woolwich, and then along Wyndham Street to Market Square, and on to the lake. The City Band has been engaged for the occasion, and most of the livery rigs are engaged.

A further example of workers and employers celebrating together also had paternalistic ties. When the addition to the factory was almost completed in July 1882, employees and employers gathered together in the nearly completed factory. Here, they danced and dined until the wee hours of the morning. The Burr Brothers had even hired an orchestra for the event. It consisted of  "violins, a bass fiddle, clarinet wind and baritone" - instruments that not only resulted in an excellent sound but was to herald what the new extension meant - an increase in the "number of employees to meet the requirements of their trade." 

Canadian Furniture Manufacturers Takes Over

Burr Brother Furniture Company operated with a certain success until 1901. In that year, Myron Burr sold the premises and its contents to Canadian Furniture Manufacturers Ltd. It was the largest furniture manufacturer in Canada. Through amalgamation and purchases, it boasted at least 21 factories in Ontario. It also had one shop in London, England. The centre of business in 1911/1912, however, was Woodstock. Canadian Furniture Manufacturers moved in to the Burr facilities and began to produce the same line of furniture. However, their stay in Guelph was short-lived. Under the presidency of R. Harmer and VP of JR Shaw, the company left the city in 1912. However, during these years, the only strike the company ever had took place.

The Strike of 1901

The strike of January 20, 1901 was brief. The workers wanted reassurance they would receive the back pay due them. They also brought up questions about the wages they were to receive. The strike, if it could be termed that, only resulted in work stoppage throughout the plant for several hours.

Arguably, by the time of the strike, the role of furniture factory employee had altered from what had begun under the Burr Brothers. The amalgamation and continued introduction of technology had seriously eroded the craft and skill-base of the workers, reducing them to factory labourers.

Later Use of the Facilities

After the industry folded, removing the work elsewhere, the building acted as temporary facilities for several Guelph industries including

1.   Dominion Casket

2.   Leland Electric

3.   GNF Metal Products

The site became home to Oxford Lodge in 1981.

 

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Samuel Carter And The Royal Knitting Company

Samuel Carter (1860 – 1944) arrived in Guelph in 1882 after spending about a year-and-a-half in Philadelphia. He had been born in Ruddington in Nottinghamshire, England, a village where the main industry was hosiery. After a brief time boarding in a hotel, he settled on a cottage on 60 Manitoba Street in St. Patrick’s Ward joining forces with a partner whose name may have been Greenside or Grenside. This stone building was to act as a small-scale hosiery knitting mill from 1883 until around 1894/95. This was the start of what was to become known as the Royal Knitting Company.
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