SHARPE, THOMAS, mason, contractor, and politician; b. 14 March 1866 in County Sligo (Republic of Ireland), son of Mitchell William Sharpe and Jane Johnston; m. 24 May 1888 Mary Jane Cathcart (d. 1922) in Toronto, and they had at least three sons and four daughters; d. 10 May 1929 en route from Winnipeg to Lac du Bonnet, Man.
At age 14 Thomas Sharpe left school to be apprenticed as a mason. On completing his engagement, he became a clerk with the Provincial Bank of Ireland. After a year and a half there, he immigrated to Canada in 1885 and found journeyman’s work in Toronto at his original trade. Two years later he started his own company, taking contracts for paving and sidewalks. Early in 1892 he went out of business. Soon afterwards he arrived in Winnipeg, where he worked for a short time as a labourer and then as a bricklayer. He supported his trade’s union and in 1892 served on the committee that affiliated it with the American Federation of Labor as a local of the Bricklayers, Masons, and Plasterers’ International Union of America. In 1896 he went once again into contracting. Initially his business depended on contracts for laying the city’s first cement sidewalks, but subsequently it expanded into more general contracting and heavy masonry work. By 1901 R. G. Dun and Company judged him a good credit risk with $10,000–20,000 in business assets. In 1905 he accepted his foreman, W. W. College, as a partner and renamed the business Sharpe and College. The firm grew during Winnipeg’s boom. In 1911 its assets were estimated at $125,000–200,000 and it received a high credit rating.
The reorganization of Sharpe’s company had been necessitated as much by his involvement in municipal politics – two two-year terms as alderman from 1900 to 1903 and three one-year terms as mayor from 1904 to 1906 – as by the increase in his business. He had entered politics with the backing of Winnipeg’s wealthiest merchant, James Henry Ashdown, who nominated him for alderman. Noted for “his candour and free style” of speech, he frequently took controversial positions.
On the one hand, Sharpe agreed that Winnipeg should undertake its own construction when it could realize savings over tendered work. He urged municipal ownership of utilities and would claim responsibility for the establishment of the city’s quarry and asphalt plant. He recognized Winnipeg’s minimum wage by-law and he agreed that the city should do business only with those who employed unionized labour. On the other hand, the Voice, Winnipeg’s labour paper, charged that he simply accepted practices he knew could not be changed. His real sympathies, the Voice believed, were revealed in his defence of property qualifications for the municipal franchise.
Sharpe’s response to the public protest over prostitution that erupted during his first campaign for the mayoralty demonstrated his selective engagement in some issues. In November 1903 the Winnipeg Ministerial Association, led by Frederic Beal Du Val, complained that the Winnipeg Police Commission knowingly permitted brothels to operate in the city’s west end. Sharpe admitted that, apart from persuading council to take control of the commission when the issue had been first raised by the association two years earlier, he had “paid little attention” to the matter. After his election, he quickly pressed the police to close the brothels in the west end. Despite subsequent charges that the problem continued unabated elsewhere, he defended his record of prosecuting vice.
Similarly, Sharpe became defensive in 1904 when the city’s Department of Health reported an increase in typhoid which it attributed to inadequate sewers and waste collection. Sharpe, who had chaired the Board of Works, had campaigned on his record of expanding water and sewer services, so he took the report as a personal attack. He commissioned assessments from two outside experts and conducted his own survey of sanitation systems in large Canadian and American cities. Although the Department of Health’s evaluation was confirmed, he could claim leadership on the issue. In 1905 the city’s charter was amended to enable it to compel sewer and water connections. Thereafter, with an enlarged health department, increased appropriations for waste removal, and more rigorous enforcement of by-laws, the incidence of typhoid was substantially reduced. Sharpe drew the line at seeking a new source for city water, however, arguing that matters affecting the city’s economic development were more important. In 1906 he vigorously and successfully urged voters to approve the necessary appropriation of funds for the city to develop hydroelectric power for manufacturing [see Ashdown].
Sharpe was persuaded that municipal governments needed to achieve greater efficiency. Through his service on the executive of the Union of Canadian Municipalities from 1904 to 1906, his attendance at the conference of the National Municipal League of the United States in 1905, and his visits to major North American cities, he was aware of progressive trends elsewhere. In 1905, with the support of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, he proposed that the city establish a board of control, composed of four full-time members who could devote their attentions “in a business-like manner” to municipal affairs. A by-law to this effect passed in 1906.
Sharpe’s commitment to corporate efficiency ultimately led to more overt support for business and property interests. When its employees went on strike in late March 1906, the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company hired strike-breakers protected by private detectives. Crowds of sympathizers blocked the streets and threw stones at the streetcars. The company urged Sharpe to call out the militia and on the second day of the strike he agreed. He authorized troops with bayonets and a machine-gun to clear Main Street and was later reported to have called on them to fire above the crowd, only to have the cooler-headed militia commander ignore his order. “Gatling Gun Sharpe,” as the Voice labelled him, had clearly aligned municipal government with the interests of capital in a way that anticipated the events of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 [see Mike Sokolowiski*].
Choosing not to run again for mayor, Sharpe returned to business at the end of 1906. About 1912 he dissolved his partnership; he managed on his own the contracting business and various rental properties he had acquired. He continued to be active in fraternal organizations, having for some time belonged to the Independent Order of Foresters, the freemasons, and the Orange lodge, of which he was provincial grand master in 1907-8. In 1924 he served as president of the Winnipeg Conservative Association.
Thomas Sharpe had entered municipal politics at a critical juncture in Winnipeg’s history. Population growth had overburdened existing services and taxed the capacity of political institutions to respond to social problems. Supported from the beginning by Winnipeg’s business elite, he proposed reforms that adopted the evolving forms of business organization. His populist claims seemed increasingly to have a hollow ring as the city sided in public disputes with capital against labour.
AO, RG 80-5-0-165, no.13833. Manitoba Free Press, 6, 12 Dec. 1899; 17 Nov., 5 Dec. 1903; 5 April 1904; 6, 12 Dec. 1905; 11 Jan., 30-31 March, 2 April, 4-5, 18, 29 June 1906; 11 May 1929. Voice (Winnipeg) 14, 21 June, 5, 19 July, 16, 30 Aug., 27 Sept., 18 Oct., 29 Nov., 6 Dec. 1901; 24 Oct. 1902; 25 Nov. 1904; 17 Feb. 1905; 6 April, 23 June, 23 Nov. 1906. Winnipeg Telegram, 11 Oct. 1901, 27 Sept. 1905, 29 June 1906. Winnipeg Tribune, 9 Oct. 1901; 17 Nov. 1903; 11 Jan. 1904; 19, 22 June 1906; 11 May 1929. A. F. J. Artibise, Winnipeg: a social history of urban growth, 1874-1914 (Montreal and London, 1975). D. J. Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg: labour, industrial relations, and the general strike (Montreal and London, 1974). George Bryce, A history of Manitoba; its resources and people (Toronto and Montreal, 1906). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Directories, Man. and N.W.T., 1892, 1893, 1896; Winnipeg, 1913, 1917, 1920, 1928. The mercantile agency reference book . . . (Montreal), 1901, 1911.