255-265 James Street North at Colbourne Street
Hamilton is widely known as an iron and steel town. But brass foundries have also been an important part of the local metals industry. A.M. Forster set up one of the city’s first brass shops on this site in 1873. Although it was a small shop when it began, employing only five or six workers, in 1855, the company was renamed the Hamilton Brass Manufacturing Company after it was purchased by a group of local investors and it began to employ more than 140 workers.
The streetscape of this section of James Street North was very different on May 15, 1872, when legions of workers supporting the Nine-Hour Movement for shorter work hours paraded up this section of the street from the north. The Freeman Block is one of the street’s oldest structures, yet it wasn’t built until a year later. At the time of the parade, this corner divided the city. North of Colbourne Street was mostly residential. To the south lay the city’s main commercial and industrial district. Many people had a short walk to work.
As the Nine Hour marchers filed up James, they saw McHiga’s Grocery on the east side at Barton Street East. They passed a few homes — a widow’s, a labourer’s, a bricklayer’s — dotting the street. Then they came to Mrs. Lefevre’s boardinghouse. Small businesses became more common across from the future site of the Freeman Block. Spectators leaned out the doorways of a milliner, shoemaker, blacksmith, baker and tailor to see the parade.
On the west side of the street, the marchers passed a few more residences around Barton. Just north of Colbourne Street, there was an extensive lumber yard. It probably belonged to William Chisholm, whose home stood on the site of the Freeman Block.
The area was not densely built up. A patch of forest lay behind the present Freeman Block. A large, open field lay behind the thin line of buildings on the east side of the street. More development began in 1873. The A.M. Forster Brass Foundry was built in what is now the central portion of the Freeman Block. Although it was a small company with just five or six workers when it began, 12 years later, it reorganized as the Hamilton Brass Manufacturing Company and employed over 140 workers. They used their metalworking skills to produce many items: the company’s cash registers, office fixtures, interior fittings, and engineers’, brewers’ and hotel supplies were sold across Canada and internationally.
The lumber yard soon came under the control of W.A. Freeman. He turned it into a vast building-supply yard, selling “everything in connection with any building.” Freeman bought the building occupied by the foundry in 1888. He added four-storey towers with pinnacles and pyramidal roofs at either end. His offices were in the north end of this monumental structure.
A major fire ripped through the building in 1903. It destroyed both towers and the tall roof. Many of the ornate additions were lost, but the large, round-arched windows at the north corner, the terra cotta panels and medallions, and the carriageway on the building’s north side survived. The brass company moved out in 1914, and its ground-floor space became home to retail enterprises. In 1924, the upper floors were converted to apartments. By this time, though, Hamilton’s downtown core was losing its industry to the city’s East End.