Workers' Housing

Wood Street between James Street North and Mary Street

Skunks' Hollow, 1910

For the people who grew up in Hamilton’s North End before World War II, home was a very different place to what it is today. Fred Purser, Lil Seager, Florence Fisher, Ed Fisher and other area residents remember life in the North End.

Wood Street between James Street North and Mary Street has been a workers’ street for well over a century.Many of its first settlers were Irish and worked as labourers. In 1872, only six houses stood here. They were located on the north side of the street between James Street East and Hughson Street. The street filled up over the next two decades. By 1890, housing extended at least as far east as Mary Street.

For all of its history, the heads of most households on this street have been labourers. The families of longshoremen, watchmen, teamsters and truckers have also lived within these blocks. More skilled workers like glassblowers, carpenters, painters, firemen, engineers and metal workers have also made this street their home at one time or another.

Many of the original houses were poorly insulated, simple wood structures. One family claimed that a cold winter wind could “lift the linoleum six inches off the kitchen floor.” Some families were lucky enough to buy their own homes, but most rented. By 1930, only a third of the residents on this stretch of Wood Street owned their homes.

Geographically, this whole area was once full of small ravines. It was therefore shunned by more affluent Hamiltonians. “Skunk’s Hollow” was a couple of blocks away, around what is now the corner of Ferguson and Picton Streets. Much of this low-lying, swampy area had to be filled in with refuse and soil before houses could go up. These measures were not necessary on Wood Street. Its hilly terrain gave each new lot a distinctive shape and character, but presented other problems. In 1886, the street’s residents complained about its deplorable condition:

For the past four years the [city] council has promised to grade this street, but have failed to fulfill their promise. As a consequence, the residents of this neglected thoroughfare cannot lay their waterpipes and in the winter are obliged to carry water for domestic purposes more than half a block…there are no sidewalks, nor indeed any of the comforts enjoyed by the citizens in more favored localities where big bugs hold property.

Indeed, the comforts of home came late to most residents of this street and other parts of working-class Hamilton. The 1941 Census of Canada reported that most houses in the city had electric lights and running water inside their homes. However, one in five families still heated their house with a stove. Coal or coke was used as the chief heating fuel in 95 per cent of city homes. One out of every 15 households had no bath or shower. One in 10 families had no source of refrigeration; 40 per cent of households still cooled their food in iceboxes. Food shopping was a daily event for these families. Only half of the households in the city enjoyed the use of a telephone, car, or vacuum cleaner. These 1941 figures included the city’s middle-class and more affluent families, so the people of Wood Street were probably not even so well off.