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THEAKER, JOHN WESLEY, streetcar conductor, union leader, and letter carrier; b. 21 Sept. 1866 in Glanford Township, Upper Canada, son of Charles Theaker, a farmer, and Mary Ann Mills; m. 20 May 1891 Mary Elizabeth Evans in Hamilton, Ont.; they had no children; d. there 3 Nov. 1915.

The prospect of a job probably drew John Theaker from his family’s farm in Glanford to nearby Hamilton. When he joined the Hamilton Street Railway as a conductor around 1891, it still operated horse-drawn cars; the following year it began electrifying its system. Unhappy with uneven shifts, long hours, and low pay, 51 of its 80 workers, Theaker among them, formed an “association for their mutual benefit and protection” a few months after the conversion was announced. On 7 Sept. 1892 a number of employees struck, but a settlement was soon reached.

In April 1899, apparently influenced by a street railway strike in London, Ont., HSR workers formed Division 107 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, a union based in the United States. By September all of the company’s workers were members. Relations between the union and the HSR deteriorated after the railway was acquired that year by the Cataract Power Company of Hamilton Limited [see John Patterson]. With antagonism growing, John Theaker was elected president of the division in 1904.

After expansion of Cataract Power’s transportation network to include two suburban lines, the union presented the company with a set of demands in August 1906. These included a pay increase, shorter workdays, and recognition of the union as a single bargaining unit on the HSR and the suburban lines. Arbitration produced recommendations in October which fell short of the demands, but the union agreed to abide by them. The company responded by reducing the length of shifts on the HSR but increasing their intensity and refusing the recommended pay increases. Following rumours that it was planning to hire the Pinkerton detective agency to break the union, Division 107 voted on 4 Nov. 1906 to strike; the 160 carmen who struck would be joined on the 8th by 20 shopmen.

Theaker was elected head of the strike committee. Although he advised the strikers to “act as respectable citizens,” there were violent clashes after the company brought in replacements to run the streetcars. Many citizens appeared to back the strikers; gangs stoned those who boarded streetcars and many supporters sported “We Walk to Win” buttons. On one occasion a crowd of 300 followed Theaker to hear an organizer imported by the union from Michigan, Frederick Fay, who had taken part in Winnipeg’s recent street-railway strike. On 17 November Theaker led a delegation to a meeting with Clyde K. Green, Cataract Power’s traction manager. Theaker demanded a new schedule and recognition of the union on all the company’s lines, and alluded to an investigation into the company’s affairs by the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board. Enraged, Green ordered the delegation to leave.

The worst violence occurred on the evening of 23 November. A crowd of nearly 10,000 people gathered outside City Hall, a streetcar was overturned, and then strikebreakers, more streetcars, and other HSR property were attacked. Around midnight, mounted militiamen, using sabres and clubs, charged the crowd. On the 28th Theaker and W. D. Mahon, the AASERE’s international president, decided to seek a mediated settlement. Two days later the ORMB ordered Division 107 back to work and the company to recognize the union and give the workers small pay increases.

The strike left the division split. In January 1907 Theaker, then 40, was re-elected president, but he had lost the support of many junior members, who evidently felt that the schedule devised following the strike favoured the older employees. Moreover, the arbitrated settlement broke down. In January 1908 the union complained to the federal Department of Labour that the HSR and the suburban lines had violated the agreements and that the HSR had fired Theaker on 7 January for such alleged infractions as issuing free passes. Although John Morison Gibson*, president of Hamilton Electric Light and Cataract Power Company Limited, offered him a job with that company, he refused to reinstate him in the HSR. The younger unionists made it clear they would not support their president. Said one of them on 27 January: “There will be no strike to get Theaker reinstated. He and some of the older men run things too much their own way, and the union as it at present exists is just a clique.”

The case went to a board formed under the new federal Industrial Disputes Investigation Act. Its report in April 1908 found for the companies, with the employees’ nominee to the board, John George O’Donoghue, dissenting. By this time, however, Theaker had evidently had enough. In March he had resigned as president and accepted a temporary appointment as a letter carrier in the Hamilton Post Office, a job that became permanent in March 1909.

On 3 Nov. 1915 he left the Bank of Hamilton building, where he had collected mail. As he steered his bicycle through the intersection of King and James streets, he fell. Behind him was a military transport truck, which ran over his head, killing him instantly. A mason, Oddfellow, and member of Emerald Street Methodist Church, he was buried in Hamilton Cemetery. He left an estate valued at $10,850, including three lots in Hamilton and an insurance policy with the Federated Association of Letter Carriers.

Thomas H. Ferns

AO, RG 22-205, no.9402; RG 80-5-0-191, no.12950; RG 80-8-0-576, no.35595. HPL, Clipping files, Hamilton – industries – Cataract Power Company; Dominion Power and Transmission Company; Scrapbooks, Hamilton Street Railway, vols.1, 7. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Glanford Township, Ont., div.1: 56; 1901, Hamilton, Ont., Ward 7, div.9: 1 (mfm. at AO). Daily Times (Hamilton), 4 April 1908. Hamilton Spectator, September–October 1892, August–December 1906, January 1907, January–April 1908, 4 Nov. 1915. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1915, no.30: 396. Canadian annual rev. (Hopkins), 1906: 289; 1907: 106. DHB, vol.3. R. L. Fraser, “‘We walk’: the story of the Hamilton Street Railway strike of 1906” (ba thesis, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, 1970). Labour Gazette (Ottawa), 7 (1906–7): 689; 8 (1907–8): 956–57, 1080, 1336–41. B. D. Palmer, A culture in conflict: skilled workers and industrial capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860–1914 (Montreal, 1979).

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Cite This Article

Thomas H. Ferns, “THEAKER, JOHN WESLEY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/theaker_john_wesley_14E.html.

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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/theaker_john_wesley_14E.html
Author of Article:   Thomas H. Ferns
Title of Article:   THEAKER, JOHN WESLEY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   February 24, 2024