Wednesday, May 17, 2017

World War Wednesdays: The First World War Munitions Industry in St. Thomas and Beyond

Female workers making munitions at St. Thomas Metallic Vaults plant, St. Thomas, ON, during the First World War, Elgin County Archives
     Something I feel like I haven’t written much about so far is the industrial aspect of war and how the Elgin County area was implicated by manufacturing demands. I was a bit disappointed to find that there really isn’t much written on this topic in the local context, and hope to see some more resources in the future. This week, I’ve compiled what I was able to find in terms of the First World War! 

     To begin, I think it's of interest and importance to mention the state of hydroelectric power in Ontario at the time that the war broke out. As an example for all my local readers, the town of Dutton did not get hydro until August 1915, and was the first municipality in the province to receive its power by using the existing telephone lines along the Pere Marquette Railroad. When that was achieved, Dutton became the 121st municipality in Ontario to get hydro. Thus, hydroelectricity in the area was in its infancy at a time when it was on the precipice of its greatest possible demand. Great Britain had declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 (automatically including Canada as well), and as an historical record compiled by Entegrus observes, "To manufacture weapons of war, munitions factories needed ever greater amounts of power, The demands made on the Hydro Electric Power Commission system increased enormously."

     According to a pamphlet compiled from government records called "Shell and Fuse Scandals: A Million-Dollar Rake-off," "The history of the war shows that the British Government was quite unprepared, at its outbreak to furnish the necessary supply of munitions. Realizing this- strenuous efforts were made to manufacture quickly large quantities of shells to cope with this situation and the enormous reserves which Germany had for years piled up. Shells were of vital importance; shells meant protecting the lives of our Canadian and British soldiers. Shells were the one thing that was needed."

     The pamphlet also observes that "The Canadian Government was asked to assist in the manufacture of shells and were given an initial order of 200,000. The Government appointed a shell committee composed of four military and four civilian members [the Dominion Shell Committee]." recognizes that "having a strong industrial base was as important as having good men at the front. Furthermore, Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia, impressed upon the Dominion Shell Committee that all components of the shells to be used on the front be produced in Canada." However, the process of awarding manufacturing contracts was more complex than would be expected. The site highlights that industrial contracts for munitions production "were very difficult to come by as there was a very strict set of conditions and standards that had to be met, but again, the demand was for locally produced munitions." Contracts were secured through the efforts of local politicians and Boards of Trade, who had to impress the Dominion Shell Committee and Minister of Militia. 

     At that time, the city of St. Thomas was among a group of similarly-sized municipalities for manufacturing and industry which included Stratford and Guelph, which were cited as examples of 'organizing cities' whose wartime industrial production secured a viable economic future that would carry on into peacetime. 

     Elgin County Archives holds only one accessible example of a wartime munitions factory in St. Thomas, though I am sure there are others. This is the St. Thomas Metallic Grave Vaults Ltd. plant, which was located at 155 Curtis Street, on the northwest corner of Curtis and St. Catharine Streets (now the site of the St. Thomas Police and Administration of Justice Building). A publication by the Elgin County Board of Trade and Publicity Association from around 1930 describes the peacetime purpose was for the factory: "The St. Thomas Metallic Vault Co., in their large two story brick building, are making vaults of a new type for inclosing [sic] coffins for interment, which are burglar proof, the demand for which is growing apace." Here are some photos of the interior of the factory when it was producing shells for the war, ca. 1917:

     There is very little information regarding that period in the factory's history besides these images, or the rest of its operation. A St. Thomas Times-Journal article published February 18, 1961 was captioned: "St. Thomas Metallic Industries Ltd., a direct subsidiary of H.A. Astlett & Co. (Canada) Ltd. has been sheet metal fabricators in St. Thomas for over 49 years. The principal items manufactured being "ST. THOMAS" metallic grave vaults which are produced in various sizes and distinctive colors. In recent years other products such as roofers' maintenance kettles, road maintenance equipment, portable torches, salamanders, and steel door frames have been fabricated for municipalities, contractors and railroad companies. Equipment for the tobacco industry has also been made and custom machining done for local industries." 

     Please let me know if you have any more details to help me fill in the blanks! 
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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