WHITE, GEORGE, machinist and manufacturer; b. 4 Sept. 1834 in Shute, near Colyton, England, fourth of the ten children of James White, a blacksmith, and Charlotte Willmington; m. 2 April 1857 Susan Baker in Honiton, England, and they had nine sons, two of whom died young, and three daughters; d. 7 June 1913 in London Township, Ont.
A member of a “family who for generations had been engaged in the farm machinery business,” George White learned the trade of machinist in his father’s shop in Devon. In the spring of 1857 he immigrated to Upper Canada with his bride and settled in London, where later that year he entered into partnership with Emanuel, Edwin, and Eli Pavey to manufacture wagons, carriages, and small farm machinery. The firm was dissolved in 1864, but White carried on the business. He also acquired a farm-lot near London on the North Thames River. There, by 1871, he had set up a small, water-powered works for the production of “all kinds of bolts for Waggons Carriages Bridge[s] or any other.”
Meeting with some success, in 1875 White formed the Forest City Machine Bolt and Nut Works in partnership with Lucius George Jolliffe and William Yates, an inventor-machinist with an interest in steam engines. After Jolliffe left the partnership in 1876 and Yates two years later, White continued the Forest City Machine Works, specializing in boilers and stationary and portable steam engines.
By the 1880s steam engines were beginning to revolutionize the work of milling and threshing on Ontario farms: bought by one farmer or an enterprising engineer, a portable machine fuelled by wood or straw could power threshing equipment on several farms. Both White and his Forest City works were well prepared to meet this small but promising market. In response to provincial legislation regulating the operation of steam boilers and machinery, which most manufacturers opposed, White astutely offered farmers training at his shops, for a fee. Further stimulated by agriculture on the prairies, the boom in steam engines, from the mid 1880s to 1912, set the direction of White’s business, and portable engines and the much larger self-propelled or traction engines claimed an increasing proportion of the output at his King Street plant.
Conservative, uncontroversial, and evidently liked by his employees, White was determined to live by his “own resources.” This conviction was reinforced during a trip to England in 1882 by his dismay over the economic hardship that had visited his native village. As his close-knit family grew, his sons were taken into the business in London. In March 1889 George White and Sons was formed, with Arthur William, James Henry Baker (Harry), Hubert John, and Frederick John formally joining their father as executive partners in charge of a factory that employed some 40 men. Of White’s other sons, Ernest Albert eventually became a bookkeeper with the firm and George Edward manager of its branch in Brandon, Man.
Incorporated in 1897, George White and Sons Limited was only one of several producers of stationary, portable, and traction engines in southern Ontario, where the Canadian industry was concentrated. Though the firm was never a contender in the production of a full line of implements, White’s access in London to no fewer than four railways was a definite advantage in his specialization. In 1898 the firm absorbed the foundry and implement works of MacPherson and Company in Fingal, south of London, and with it, significantly, the well-known Challenge line of portable threshing machines.
Technically there was little to distinguish White’s simple but sturdy steam engines from those of his many competitors, among them Case of Wisconsin and, in Ontario, Abell, Sawyer-Massey, Bell, Waterloo, Waterous, Goodis, and Macdonald. Certainly the White firm was not innovative. Indeed, it prided itself on “simplicity of construction” and its ability to offer “only the most thoroughly tested articles, and those of established reputation, and nothing whatever of an experimental nature.” This reliability and small mechanical differences – features such as the much-advertised return-tube boilers and unique wrist-pin lubricators – were no doubt meaningful to many farmers. So too were the firm’s excellent threshers, development of machinery for the west, repair department, sale of used and repossessed machines, network of agencies, railway connections, and the almost contrived but plainly worded testimonials that invariably filled the company catalogue. The result was a manufactory that developed and held a modest share of the Canadian market and experienced gradual growth. In 1911 the Whites opened a new plant in London.
Apart from careful family management, relatively little is known of the corporate life of George White and Sons, or of White publicly. A quiet family man with a large residence on Stanley Street, he served on London’s Board of Health and Board of Trade and belonged to the London Gun Club; initially a Wesleyan Methodist, he became a member of St James’ Westminster Anglican Church. White died of pneumonia in 1913 at his rural homestead on the North Thames, Springdale Farm, which he had retained as a summer residence and “place of quiet retreat.” He was buried in Woodland Cemetery in London. His estate, valued at over $130,000, went to his wife and he was succeeded as president of the family firm by their son Arthur.
[The author is grateful to Peter G. White of Toronto for the use of his collection of White family papers, and to S. Lynn Campbell and David Hooton of the Ontario Agricultural Museum in Milton, Ont., which holds documentary and published material pertaining to the White business, in addition to several White machines. d.r.]
AO, RG 22-321, no.11387; RG 55-17-33, nos.331, 384, 1087, 1257, 1307, 1354; RG 80-8-0-496, no.21600. Devon Record Office (Exeter, Eng.), Shute, reg. of baptisms and marriages. Middlesex East Land Registry Office (London, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, London Township, concession 4, south half lot 5 (mfm. at AO). NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, London Township, div.4, schedule 1: 55; schedule 6 (mfm. at AO). London Advertiser, 9 June 1913. Directories, Canada, 1896/97; London, 1893; Ont., 1871. I. M. Drummond et al., Progress without planning: the economic history of Ontario from confederation to the Second World War (Toronto, 1987). History of the county of Middlesex . . . (Toronto and London, 1889; repr., intro. D. [J.] Brock, Belleville, Ont., 1972). Illustrated historical atlas of the county of Middlesex, Ont. (Toronto, 1878; repr. Sarnia, Ont., 1972). J. E. Middleton and Fred Landon, The province of Ontario: a history, 1615–1927 (5v., Toronto, 1927-), 4: 515–16. B. S. Scott, “The economic and industrial history of the city of London, Canada, from the building of the first railway, 1855, to the present, 1930” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1930). H. S. Turner and R. W. Irwin, Ontario’s threshing machine industry: a short history of these pioneer companies and their contribution to Ontario agriculture (Guelph, Ont., 1974).