Alternate Author Name(s)

Bryan Douglas Palmer

Document Type


Date of Award



Working class, Labor unions, Ontario, Hamilton

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Melvyn Dubofsky

Second Advisor

Charles E. Freedeman

Third Advisor

Sarah Elbert


The dissertation is a study of skilled workingmen in Hamilton, Ontario, in the years 1860-1914. It attempts a three-tiered task. Firstly, to establish the importance of the skilled workingman as an historical presence, and to outline the essential context within which the craftsman assumed this importance, that of industrial-capitalist development. Secondly, the study seeks to explore the culture of the skilled worker, as manifested in various forms of associational life, traditional forms of enforcing community morality and standards, patterns of shop-floor control, and strains of working-class thought. Thirdly, an attempt is made to chronicle the emerging patterns of class conflict, revealed in the nine-hour struggle of 1872, the upsurge of the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, and the ‘new unionism’ of the pre-World War I years.

While each of these themes is explored in various chapters, situated in self-contained units, it is the relationship among the sections that is perhaps the most important and interesting. Thus the processes of continuity and discontinuity in working-class life are central to the whole discussion. So, too, is the phenomenon of 19th century workers’ control, an important component of workplace life in any number of North American communities. Finally, it is the way in which culture is used, adapting to the changed environment of industrial capitalism, that stands as a central concern of this examination of skilled workers in Hamilton. Culture and conflict, then, are regarded as complementary components of the process of working-class life.

Skilled workers were chosen as the prism through which to view the processes of culture and conflict because they tended, in light of their workplace power and organizational strength, to serve as the cutting edge of the working-class movement as a whole. Hamilton, as opposed to other Canadian cities, seemed an appropriate focus because it exemplified the transformation from handicraft production to modern industry. And, finally, the seemingly cumbersome chronology, 1860-1914, was deemed necessary for it appeared important to glimpse the craft workers’ last stand against skill dilution, managerial innovation, and technological change, forces that gathered strength in the first decade of the 20th century. Against these developments, skilled workers posed the practices and panaceas of the 19th century. The war years, with their more consciously revolutionary activity, and the example of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, would cultivate new perceptions, forms of struggle, and political answers. But in the years 1860-1914, the craft response remained something of a unity.

Finally, my concerns with culture and conflict dictated a certain approach to the subject, and the utilization of certain kinds of evidence as opposed to other sources. Hamilton, as many social historians are well aware, has become one of the most intensely studied communities in North America. Michael B. Katz and his ongoing Canadian Social History Project have utilized quantitative data to launch one of the more sophisticated and exciting community studies in the history of social scientific inquiry. While Katz’s work tells us much, particularly about inequality, transiency, and social mobility, numerical data remains restricted in terms of what it can tell us about culture and conflict. It thus seemed fitting to probe traditional sources (newspapers, manuscript and archival holdings, and local records) to see what they could offer. While such material is truly impressionistic, it also proved to be strikingly rich, yielding an impressive collection of data that illuminate obscure corners of the 19th and 20th century world.