ARMSTRONG, JOHN, printer, labour leader, and office holder; b. c. 1845; d. 22 Nov. 1910 in Toronto.

According to his obituary in the Toronto Evening Telegram, John Armstrong was born on Seaton Street in Toronto. The World, however, claimed that he had been born in County Monaghan (Republic of Ireland) and had come to Canada with his parents, who settled in Toronto in 1852; Irish origins are supported by census returns. Armstrong’s parents may have been John and Elizabeth Armstrong. As a widow, the latter lived with John until her death in 1889 and they are buried together in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

As a young man Armstrong entered the composing room of George Brown*’s Globe to be apprenticed as a printer. He became an activist in the printers’ organization, the Toronto Typographical Union, even before he was inducted as a full-fledged member on 9 May 1866. In January 1865, while still an apprentice, he had chaired a committee appointed to “ascertain the cost of getting up a soiree.” Hence, Armstrong showed early his intention of being an active participant in union concerns. This design was apparent the following year too, when he nominated William W. Hambly, who won election as president of the TTU. In 1872 Armstrong himself was nominated for president, but in this first attempt he went down to defeat. The event that threw him headlong into union affairs was the city-wide TTU strike for a nine-hour day, which began on 25 March 1872. Armstrong was one of 22 union printers arrested on the charge of conspiracy as a result of George Brown’s invoking of an archaic English law against combinations of workmen, then still applicable in Canada.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald*, with his customary political shrewdness, hurriedly came to the rescue of the indicted men by replacing the old “conspiracy act” with a Canadian version of the more protective British Trade Union Act. He thus won for himself and the Conservative party the unlikely support of labour. For Armstrong the performances of the Liberal Brown on the one hand, and the Tory Macdonald on the other, probably generated his staunch Tory allegiance. His only lapse occurred between 1884 and 1886, when the union came into conflict over wages with the Conservative Toronto Daily Mail, where Armstrong had been employed since 1872. In fact, after labour’s tactics against the Mail had shifted from commercial boycott to intensive political opposition to Tory candidates supported by the newspaper, it was Armstrong who led the labour defection from the party. When this strategy showed signs of success, Macdonald intervened. Armstrong came back to the fold and was able to arrange a truce between the printers and the Mail.

Armstrong became one of the leading figures in the TTU and in the labour movement generally. Year in and year out, his name is to be found among the names of those who were officers of the union. He held the position of TTU president twice, in 1875 and during the 1893–94 term; he was corresponding secretary in 1892. He took on tough and demanding jobs. For instance, he served as chairman of the investigating committee, which he had helped to inaugurate; it looked into the eligibility, reliability, and past record of candidates for membership. After 1874 no one could join without the approval of this committee. Armstrong was instrumental too in founding in 1879 and operating the guardian committee, the secretive arm of the TTU that handled dealings with foremen and employers in an effort to regain some of the ground lost due to the “nine hour” strike and the depressed conditions of the 1870s. Armstrong also reached the highest office of the International Typographical Union: he was president for the 1878–79 term. Only two Canadians ever managed to achieve the leadership of this organization, Armstrong and William Blair Prescott (1891–99). Armstrong’s contribution to the international community of printers was his strong endorsement of a universal strike fund, and his influence in attaining that objective was evident. He also served three terms on the ITU executive.

A trail-blazer in the organization and operation of labour federations, he was a frequent TTU representative to the Toronto Trades and Labor Council and was its president in 1882, and he was always active, in the work of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada. He was, in addition, a member of the Knights of Labor. As president in the 1880s of the Female Shoe Operatives, which he described in 1888 as Toronto’s “only women’s union,” he promoted the organization of female labour and equal wages for equal work.

Armstrong’s record in labour activities and his Tory connections were instrumental in his landing a position on the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital, set up by the Macdonald government in 1886 [see James Sherrard Armstrong*]. Bitter factionalism on the commission between the labour appointees and those chosen to represent capital resulted in two final reports. Armstrong authored the labour version, which was also the majority report. Some of the measures he recommended were tougher laws on childhood labour, boards of arbitration to settle disputes, workmen’s compensation throughout Canada, shorter hours, and support for unions. The leanings of Armstrong and his prolabour allies on the commission may explain why their recommendations were almost wholly ignored.

Following the election of a Conservative government in Ontario, headed by James Pliny Whitney*, Armstrong was appointed in October 1906 secretary of the provincial Bureau of Labour. Under his enthusiastic direction, no fewer than five branch offices were opened in larger towns and cities, and an employment bureau was established. He was adamantly opposed to private employment agencies because he did not believe that profit should be attached to the function of employment placement.

In the latter years of his life, Armstrong electioneered for the Conservatives in many ridings in Toronto; he himself ran unsuccessfully in Toronto East in the provincial election of 1894, but as a labour candidate with the backing of the Patrons of Industry. In addition to his labour and political affiliations, he belonged to the Orange and masonic orders; in religion, he was a Wesleyan Methodist who later joined the Church of England.

Either Armstrong’s private life was bland or he kept that part of his existence out of the public domain; his whole being seems to have been wrapped up in his union and related activities. He died at 5:30 p.m. on 22 Nov. 1910. He had been ailing for some months from liver and kidney disease. He left an estate worth about $1,770, of which $1,575 was in the form of bank deposits. Though he was survived by at least one sister, in Brantford, Ont., the bulk of the estate was bequeathed to one Minnie Lambert, and included Armstrong’s furniture and books, his patented coffee pot and the patent rights on it, his shares in the Labor Temple Company, his badges and banners, and whatever salary he was entitled to receive from the government. Lambert was a clerk with T. Eaton Company, and both she and Armstrong had resided at 274 College Street, she as a boarder, he as a roomer. They were not married – Armstrong remained a bachelor all his life – but the fact that they lived in the same house and that he left her almost all his valuables hints at a close relationship.

Sally F. Zerker

John Armstrong is the author of “Sketch of the early history of No.91,” in International Typographical Union, Souvenir for 1905; fifty-first session I.T.U., held in Toronto, Canada, August 14 to 19, 1905, under auspices of Toronto union, No.91 ([Toronto?, 1905?]). A copy of this booklet is preserved among the papers of the Toronto Typographical Union Local 91, which remain in the union’s custody. A microfilm copy of the collection, which also includes the local’s minutes, is available at AO, F 1272.

AO, RG 22, ser.305, no.24638. Mount Pleasant Cemetery (Toronto), Burial records, plot E, sect.49, lot 4. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Toronto, St David’s Ward, C-3, 96, no.349. Daily Mail and Empire, 23 Nov. 1910: 4. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 23 Nov. 1910: 11. Globe, 19 April 1872; 23 Nov. 1910: 8. Industrial Banner (London, Ont.), November 1906. Ontario Workman (Toronto), 21 Nov. 1872. World (Toronto), 23 Nov. 1910: 1. Canada investigates industrialism: the royal commission on the relations of labor and capital, 1889 (abridged), ed. G. [S.] Kealey (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1973). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Directory, Toronto, 1870–1910. Eugene Forsey, Trade unions in Canada, 1872–1902 (Toronto, 1982). G. S. Kealey, Toronto workers. G. S. Kealey and Palmer, Dreaming of what might be. Desmond Morton with Terry Copp, Working people (Ottawa, 1980). Ont., Bureau of Labour, Report (Toronto), 1905–10 (the reports for 1906 and 1910 contain photographs of Armstrong); Chief Election Officer, Hist. of electoral districts (1969), 468; Public accounts (Toronto), 1906: 11. S. F. Zerker, The rise and fall of the Toronto Typographical Union, 1832–1972: a case study of foreign domination (Toronto, 1982).

Cite This Article

Sally F. Zerker, “ARMSTRONG, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 25, 2024,

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Author of Article:   Sally F. Zerker
Title of Article:   ARMSTRONG, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   July 25, 2024