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HEWITT, JOHN, cooper, labour leader, civil servant, and publisher; b. 10 Dec. 1843 in County Limerick (Republic of Ireland), son of William Hewitt, a shoemaker, and Jane Hicks (Hincks); m. 9 Nov. 1876 Elizabeth Thompson in Toronto, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. there 14 March 1911.

John Hewitt’s family emigrated from Ireland in 1847 and settled in Toronto, where John was apprenticed as a cooper in the early 1860s. He helped resist the Fenian raids of 1866 [see Alfred Booker*] and would maintain a lifelong connection with the Veterans 66 Association. Initially an Anglican, he was a member of Orange Lodge No.212 and the Ancient Order United Workmen.

While working in New York for three years in the late 1860s, Hewitt gained valuable experience in the labour movement. In 1868 he was a delegate to the National Labor Union, where he was elected assistant to William J. Jessup, corresponding secretary of the Workingmen’s Union of New York City and a correspondent for the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association. Hewitt’s relationship with Jessup, the NLU, and the fledgling Coopers’ International Union of North America provided him with fertile ideas on labour reform.

Back in Toronto, Hewitt helped organize CIU Local 3 and became its secretary. At a session of the international union in Baltimore in 1870, he was selected as its Canadian organizer. Throughout 1871 he travelled across Ontario organizing coopers; the following year he was elected a vice-president of the CIU. In February 1871 Local 3 had appointed a committee – Hewitt, E. S. Gooch, and James Judge – to meet with other unions and societies in Toronto for the purpose of establishing a central body. On 12 April delegates gathered in the Moulders’ Union Hall (in the Western Assurance Company Buildings at Colborne and Church streets) and formed the Toronto Trades Assembly. An emerging ideologue, Hewitt was its first president and, later, its corresponding secretary.

Some months after its formation, the TTA became embroiled in the “nine hour” movement [see James A. Ryan*]. At a rally in Toronto on 15 April 1872 Hewitt remarked that the hours of labour should be shortened “in order that the workingmen might have an opportunity to improve themselves intellectually and physically.” At the same time he provided the impetus for the founding of the Ontario Workman, a cooperative newspaper that appeared on 18 April. The following month he was a TTA delegate at a major convention in Hamilton, which, as the Canadian Labor Protective and Mutual Improvement Association, aimed to solidify labour’s gains. That summer labour leaders in Toronto, among them Hewitt and his Orange associate Edward Frederick Clarke, campaigned for the Conservatives in the federal election [see James Beaty*]. Drawing on his experience in the American movement, where he had been impressed by currency reform, Hewitt became the first Canadian labour leader to embrace the arguments of Tory populists in favour of protective tariffs.

Hewitt’s views on class, and undoubtedly much of his activity, were deeply influenced by the decline of his craft. In Toronto, at the Gooderham and Worts distillery where he worked [see George Gooderham*], hours and wages were dictated by Local 3; at its peak in March 1872, the local’s 96 members had complete control of the trade in the city. The next month, however, the union suffered a severe setback. According to Hewitt, the use of strikebreakers at the distillery produced drastic wage reductions. This employer’s offensive, together with mechanized production and economic depression, would lead to the local’s demise by mid decade. In the Coopers’ Journal in December 1872 Hewitt lamented that “labor-saving machinery” might better be labelled “labor-superseding machinery.”

Hewitt continued to promote reforms, in letters to the Ontario Workman. Since labour was the source of wealth, he wrote in March 1873, “none have a better right to that produced than they who have produced it.” He advocated the removal of the property qualification for voting and, to remedy social inequality, he proposed a cooperative system under which, “in time, all unjust systems that give man undue advantage over man must cease to exist.” He also continued to work for broader organization. With a view to establishing a national body, the TTA called a convention to meet in Toronto in September. Though only delegates from Ontario attended, the gathering voted to form a permanent body, the Canadian Labor Union. Hewitt was elected secretary, with John W. Carter as president and Daniel John O’Donoghue* as first vice-president, and also became a member of the constitution and rules committee. From these positions he encouraged opposition to the government’s system of assisted immigration. He objected strongly to paying to bring workers to Canada who would compete with the existing labour force.

After 1873 the TTA exercised a considerable degree of influence in labour matters, such as the use of convict labour and the repeal of the criminal law amendment act of 1872, which appeared to prohibit picketing and other forms of labour protest. Hewitt’s participation, however, declined. A prominent Conservative in St David’s Ward, where he lived, in 1873 he received a patronage position as a clerk in Toronto’s newly formed waterworks department; in February 1874 he formally retired from the TTA. In 1889 he did testify before the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital, where, in response to questions from his former labour allies John Armstrong* and Samuel R. Heakes, he reiterated his ideas on hours, cooperation, and monopolization.

After his retirement from the TTA, Hewitt extended his Orange and Tory ties. From 1877 to 1879 he was co-editor and part owner, with E. F. Clarke, of the Orange order’s influential organ the Sentinel and Orange and Protestant Advocate. He served as a master of his lodge, was affiliated for a time with the élite Royal Black Knights of Ireland, and in 1898–99 was the order’s county master. During his last five years he held the salaried position of treasurer of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Ontario West. Politically, he had been instrumental in securing labour representation (Clarke) on the Tory ticket in Toronto in the provincial election of 1886, and federally in 1896 he was a leader in the successful campaign of John Ross Robertson in Toronto East. At the time of his death at his home on Seaton Street in 1911, Hewitt was chief rating clerk in the waterworks department. Following a service at Bond Street Congregational Church, he was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

John Hewitt’s career after 1873 differed little from those of many other Tory place-holders, but as a young man he had played a major role in the nascent labour movement and in founding two crucial institutions, the TTA and the CLU. In his early years at least, he believed that “we have already seen the dawn of the day of Co-operation” for “the progress of the labor movement can have but one result, namely, justice and equal rights to all men.”

Gregory S. Kealey and Christina Burr

AO, RG 80-2-0-105, no.37264; RG 80-5-0-70, no.12955. DCB, Biog. subject file, Eugene Forsey, draft biog. Mount Pleasant Cemetery (Toronto), Tombstone inscription. NA, RG 31, C1, Toronto, 1871, St David’s Ward, div.1: 8–9; 1901, Ward 2, div.22: 9 (mfm. at AO). Evening Telegram (Toronto), 15 March 1911. Globe, 15 March 1911. Ontario Workman (Toronto), 1872–74. Sentinel and Orange and Protestant Advocate (Toronto), 1877–1911. Trades Union Advocate (Toronto), 11 Jan. 1883. John Battye, “The nine hour pioneers: the genesis of the Canadian labour movement,” Labour (Halifax), 4 (1979): 25–56. 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 Labor Union, Proceedings of the Canadian Labor Union congresses, 1873–77, comp. L. E. Wismer (Ottawa, 1951). Coopers’ International Union of North America, Proc. (Cleveland, Ohio), 1871–73. Coopers’ Journal (Cleveland), 1870–74. Dict. of Toronto printers (Hulse). Eugene Forsey, Trade unions in Canada, 1812–1902 (Toronto, 1982). G. S. Kealey, Toronto workers respond to industrial capitalism, 1867–1892 (Toronto, 1980; repr. 1991). David Montgomery, Beyond equality: labor and the radical Republicans, 1862–1872 (New York, 1967; repr. Urbana, Ill., 1981).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Gregory S. Kealey and Christina Burr, “HEWITT, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hewitt_john_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hewitt_john_14E.html
Author of Article: Gregory S. Kealey and Christina Burr
Title of Article: HEWITT, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: September 23, 2014