Custom House, Workers Arts & Heritage Centre

(1860) 51 Stuart Street

Custom House - Canadian Illustrated News

The Workers Arts & Heritage Centre (WAHC) is located in Hamilton’s former Custom House, now a National Historic Site. The Custom House was built to handle the trade flowing through the Port of Hamilton and along the new Great Western Railway line. In 1858, teams of highly skilled stonecutters, stonemasons, carpenters and other craftsworkers, along with plenty of day labourers, began work on a building the Hamilton Spectator called “an ornament to the city and a credit to the commerce of Canada.” Construction was completed two years later and the Customs Department moved into this finely crafted two-storey Renaissance Revival structure.

Work in the Custom House was closely tied to the port and the railway. The building opened with a staff of 17 men. They received and released any goods brought into the city that were subject to duties. This was a workplace where shirt-and-tie civil servants rubbed shoulders with more rough-and-tumble sailors, longshoremen and teamsters.

On May 15, 1872, building staff would have seen the massive parade of workers demanding reduced hours of work surge past the front doors of the Custom House. The Nine-Hour Movement parade drew 1,500 people and included this stretch of Stuart Street in its five-mile route. Each craft marched as a unit, holding up the tools of their trade and the products of their toil. They carried banners with slogans like “Relaxation gives dignity to our labour,” “Art is long, life is short” and “Nine hours and no surrender.” Everywhere they marched that day, thousands of people cheered them on from crowded sidewalks.

Alexander Wingfield was one of the railway workers marching in the parade. The experience moved him to write a poem, which appeared a few days later in the brand-new labour newspaper, the Ontario Workman. He called it “The Nine Hour Pioneers.” A few years later he got a job at the Custom House.

After the Customs Department moved of the building out in 1887, a series of middle-class tenants used the building to reach out to the working-class families of the North End. It was a public school for a few years, although attendance was uneven. Many North End families needed their children to work at home or for wages. Most Hamilton children quit school at 14 years old. In 1893, the YWCA took over the Custom House to set up a North End Branch. Classes in cooking, sewing and general housekeeping were held.

The building was often empty in the early 1900s. The Associated Charities of Hamilton took it over in 1908 to house victims of a serious economic depression. In 1911, the British Welcome League also applied to use it as a temporary shelter for recent immigrants. But the aging structure had fallen into disrepair, and the federal government decided to get rid of it.

In 1912, the Custom House began its new life as a factory. The vinegar company next door bought the building after its own factory burned down. In 1917, the Empire Wool Stock Company moved in, using the building as a factory to make yarn for the local knitting mills. Its manager was the owner of the vinegar works. Men and women punched the clock in this small textile factory for the next 40 years. In the 1950s, the building was again abandoned until the Reio family opened the Naples Macaroni factory. It was well placed to serve the local Italian community. As in the past, many women were able to find work here.

The factory was closed by the health department in 1979, and then sat empty and decaying, with a leaky roof and bricked-up windows. Between 1987 and 1992, the Custom House was partially renovated and reopened as a martial arts academy.

The Workers Arts & Heritage Centre bought the building in 1995 and undertook extensive renovations that restored it to its former glory. The successful and ongoing revitalization of Hamilton’s 1860 Custom House serves as a positive example of heritage preservation in the community. Inside, WAHC mounts exhibits that illuminate the history and culture of working people.