Canadian Cottons

Formerly located on the east side of MacNab Street between Simcoe and Ferrie Streets

Cleaning and straightening raw cotton at Canadian Cottons

In 1870, F.G. Beckett opened a foundry that took up the whole block on the north side of Simcoe Street between MacNab and James Streets. After it opened, 50 workers produced engines and boilers here. The factory’s towering 109-foot chimney was a prominent landmark. In 1881, the building was sold and expanded into the Ontario Cotton Company.

By 1886, the factory employed 250 women and 150 men. They produced cottonades, shirtings, denims, tickings and awnings, as well as woven, fancy and plain ducks. In 1892, Ontario Cotton was merged into the new corporate textile giant, Canadian Colored Cottons (later renamed Canadian Cottons). Fifteen years later, 500 men and women worked here. The old factory was torn down in 1920 and a new one built between Strachan and Simcoe Streets. It was hard to miss this huge factory. It covered the entire block and stood four stories high, with towers at each corner.

North End residents often worked close to home. At 5 o’clock every morning, the whole neighbourhood awoke to the whistle of the new factory. “They used to blow the whistle all the time to start work, blow the whistle when our break time was, blow the whistle when it was time to go. You always knew what time it was by the whistle,” remembers one former employee.

Textile operatives spent long hours tending to looms, or to spinning or carding machines. Area resident David Nelligan remembers what it was like well into the 20th century: “When most other workers were just getting up, the mill workers started to work at 6:15 a.m. and they were still at it at 6:15 p.m. when mostly everyone else was at home, washed and part way through their supper.” Work here could also be dangerous. Fourteen-year-old Fred Hardy lost his hand in a carding machine on his second day of work in 1886.

Most of the workers at this mill were women. Young, single women would work for a few years before they got married. Their wages supplemented the low incomes of other family members. Once married, most women found the demands of family life made full-time work in the mill impossible.

The constant turnover of female employees often limited unionization at cotton mills. This was not the case at this factory, however. Women were active on the picket line during a five-week strike in 1890. Weaver Elizabeth Wright even knocked strikebreaker Mrs. Trope into Ferrie Street as she left work one evening.

By the 1940s, workers at this plant were formally organized as Local 7 of the United Textile Workers of Canada. A strike in July 1941 won the workers cost-of-living increases. By the early 1950s, the workers had moved to a rival union — the Textile Workers Union of America. Between 1953 and 1955, this union fought a number of pitched battles with employers. Unfortunately, the workers in this plant were part of a dying industry. Along with other textile plants in the city, Canadian Cottons closed down in 1959, throwing 900 area residents out of work.