Mrs. Wheeler's Boardinghouse

(1860) Formely located at the northeast corner of Bay and Sheaffe Streets

Typical workers' housing of the late 19th century

Machinists, engineers, telegraph operators, labourers, firemen, brakemen and other workers lived on this street. Most had a common employer — the Great Western Railway (GWR). GWR employees had felt a housing pinch since the 1850s. Many built shanties on GWR property. A lucky few owned simple frame houses. Only the engineers, conductors and highly skilled shop workers could afford a brick home; the rest rented or boarded.

Mrs. Wheeler ran a boardinghouse here that was home to 19 men, many of them GWR employees. At least three key members of the Nine-Hour League lived here. Much organizing must have taken place inside these walls.

One of Mrs. Wheeler’s boarders was James Ryan, a GWR machinist and a leader of Hamilton’s Nine-Hour League. Another was GWR worker James Ballantyne, president of the Dundas Nine-Hour League. Silas Wheeler, a GWR machinist, also lived here. For the Nine-Hour parade on May 15, 1872, he proudly paraded examples of his handiwork — two horizontal engines.

This boardinghouse also reveals a lot about the unstable position of women in the new industrial economy. Mrs. Wheeler was a widow. The Nine-Hour marchers passed the homes of 61 widows. Working-class wives often lost their husbands as a result of unsafe working conditions. Losing the male breadwinner spelled disaster, because there was no social welfare. Taking in boarders was one financial solution.

Widows were not the only women to take in boarders. A husband’s income was usually not enough to feed a family. Sons were often sent to work at a young age as apprentices, newspaper sellers, shoeshine boys or messengers. Sometimes, teenage daughters worked in textile mills or boot factories. Most often, they worked at home alongside their mothers. Many women were unwaged workers who gardened and preserved vegetables or raised pigs and chickens to help make ends meet. In fact, there were twice as many chickens as people in this working-class ward of the city in 1891.