URRY, FREDERICK, architect, labour activist, editor, politician, and community leader; b. 6 June 1863 in Sandown, England, son of William Urry, a master mason, and Fanny Spanner; m. 7 July 1891 Eliza Ashmore in Birmingham, England, and they had two sons and a daughter; d. 2 Oct. 1927 in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ont.
Frederick Urry grew up in Birmingham, where he was articled in and then practised architecture. Along the way he received a strong education in the humanities. A Fabian socialist in outlook, he was active in the Independent Labour party. In 1903 Urry and his wife, the daughter of an “artist-in-oils” whom he had married at an Independent (Congregational) chapel in Birmingham, immigrated to Canada, hoping to find better opportunities for their children. They homesteaded in the Rainy River District of northwest Ontario for three years before moving to the Lakehead, then undergoing spectacular growth due to Canada’s wheat boom. Urry opened an architectural practice in Port Arthur, where prosperity had also brought labour unrest and social distress, especially among unorganized workers and the foreign-born. For the rest of his life he would devote himself to ameliorating these problems.
At first Urry attempted to synthesize three distinctive, sometimes opposing, approaches to social betterment: trade unionism, the Social Gospel, and socialism. Initially he found unions in Port Arthur to be in a “lamentable” state. After joining the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, he became its secretary and was its delegate at the meeting of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada in Winnipeg in 1907. In April 1908 he founded the Port Arthur Trades and Labor Council and organized a public celebration of the event at his church, St Paul’s Presbyterian, with John George Shearer as key speaker. Its minister, Samuel Crothers Murray, shared Urry’s views, and together they organized a lay “Brotherhood” to promote and debate the Social Gospel and the cause of labour. In one discussion Urry would explain that “socialism has for its object the co-operative commonwealth belonging to the whole of the people instead of the competitive system of capitalism.”
In September 1908 Urry attended three conferences concerned with social and working conditions in Canada. He represented labour at a meeting in Toronto of the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Moral and Social Reform [see Shearer]. Then he attended the founding meeting there of the Ontario section of the Socialist Party of Canada. Later, while in Halifax for the convention of the TLC, he learned of his nomination as the labour-socialist candidate for Thunder Bay and Rainy River in the upcoming federal election. Urry took only eight per cent of the votes, losing to James Conmee*; he also fell out with the SPC over his advocacy of “a fair day’s wage” instead of “abolishment of the wage system.”
Urry none the less retained labour’s esteem. At his initiative the TLC held its convention of 1910 at the Lakehead, with a number of sessions at the Finnish socialist organization’s new Labor Temple in Port Arthur, for which Urry had been a building consultant though not the architect. Backed by the labour councils of Port Arthur and Fort William (Thunder Bay), in 1911 he founded the Independent Labor party of “New Ontario,” ran as its provincial candidate (and lost), and launched the weekly Wage-Earner. He had more electoral success municipally, serving on city council in 1911, 1912, and 1914.
In labour disputes at the Lakehead, Urry often intervened personally or served on boards of conciliation. In 1909 a gun battle in Fort William between Canadian Pacific Railway police and striking, non-unionized freight-handlers, most from Greece and Italy, led to the riot act being read, the militia called out, and regular soldiers brought in from Winnipeg. Now a correspondent for the Labour Gazette (Ottawa), the journal of the federal Department of Labour, Urry arranged for the department to appoint a conciliation board. Its decision for the men was a hollow victory since, in 1910, the CPR barred southern Europeans from its employ. In 1912 “Brother Urry” wrote the minority report in a dispute between unionized coal-handlers in Port Arthur and the Canadian Northern Coal and Ore Dock Company. Conciliation failed. Violence and recourse to the militia marked the subsequent walkout and led militant labour organizers to call a general strike. The dispute ended with some concessions for the dockers, thanks to Urry. It was in such situations, his daughter later recalled, that he “would often be called out in the middle of the night. . . . He had a magnetic personality and could quickly take command and quieten the men. The police would be there with drawn revolvers, and there were often shootings and knifings. Mother would be so afraid of something happening to him. The men would never turn on him, but she was afraid a stray bullet might hit him.”
In 1913 Urry’s conciliatory skills failed to prevent a doomed strike by the street railwaymen’s union against the electric railway system of Port Arthur and Fort William. Violence on the part of immigrant sympathizers, the shooting of an onlooker by the police, and the hiring of armed guards led militants to call an abortive sympathy strike. Despite his moderating influence, Urry earned the enmity of civic leaders for being “inflammatory.” As well, he clashed with the radical socialists of the Social Democratic Party of Canada over “recognition of the class struggle,” its efforts to organize the entire waterfront, and its promotion of a general strike, which Urry saw as a last resort after conciliation had failed. In July 1914 he resigned from the editorship of the Wage-Earner and stepped away from labour politics.
When war broke out the following month he withdrew from the trade union movement itself. In 1912 he had denounced jingoism and the arms race; in wartime he differed from labour by becoming “a staunch imperialist.” Enamoured of the Royal Navy and an avid sailor, he had instigated and designed Port Arthur’s Sailors’ Institute, which was built in 1913. After the war he founded the Port Arthur Navy League and he served for many years on its executive.
Despite his withdrawal from labour, Urry still promoted the welfare of workers. After much professional sacrifice, he found regular work in 1918 as first superintendent of the provincial employment bureau at Port Arthur, a service he had long championed. In 1919 he made representations to the federal royal commission on industrial relations on the unacceptably high cost of living. That year and the next he acted for workers in strikes at the Port Arthur Ship Building Company Limited. Favouring industrial peace over closure of the shipyard, his counsel in 1920 saved jobs but broke the strike. In 1920 too he became president of the Port Arthur Board of Trade, an indication of the growing gulf between him and organized labour.
Besides his labour-related activities, Urry made countless contributions to the community at large. A member of Port Arthur’s school board in 1910 and 1923–26, he did much work for it as an architect, often without charge. Concerned about working-class youth, he sat on the board’s advisory vocational committee in 1917–19 and was its head in 1923–26. Against some opposition, he agitated successfully for a technical high school and, hoping to win the contract for its design, he resigned from the school board in 1926. The decision to give the job to an engineer specializing in grain-elevator design, Clarence Decatur Howe*, came as a “terrible shock” to Urry. He served as well as president of the Port Arthur Arts and Letters Club and on the library board and parks commission, and was president of the Thunder Bay Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra for six years before his death.
Frederick Urry left a modest architectural legacy of private dwellings and public buildings, particularly schools. His professional accomplishments, however, had been curtailed by his promotion of “the gospel of brotherly love” and the “co-operative commonwealth.”
[Only six copies of the Wage-Earner (Port Arthur [Thunder Bay], Ont.), the labour weekly founded and edited by Urry, have survived. The dates and locations for five of these issues are cited in Jean Morrison, “Frederick Urry: the wage-earner’s advocate,” Thunder Bay Hist. Museum Soc., Papers and Records, 14 (1986): 8–22; a sixth issue (25 April 1913) has since been donated to the museum by the author. Urry also wrote a regular column for the Port Arthur Evening Chronicle, of which only a few scattered issues have survived because the paper’s back files were destroyed when it was bought out by the Daily News in February 1916. j.m.]
GRO, Reg. of births, Ryde (Southampton), 6 June 1863; Reg. of marriages, Birmingham, 7 July 1891. Daily Times-Journal (Fort William [Thunder Bay]), 3 Oct. 1927. Jean Morrison, “The organization of labour at Thunder Bay,” in Thunder Bay: from rivalry to unity, ed. T. J. Tronrud and A. E. Epp (Thunder Bay, 1995), 120–41.