WRIGLEY, GEORGE WESTON, teacher, journalist, and social reformer; b. 24 June 1847 in Wrigley Corners, Upper Canada, son of Sylvanus Wrigley and Isabella Stoddard; d. 14 Jan. 1907 in Winnipeg.
For many bright, ambitious, farm boys in 19th-century Canada, teaching offered a way of escape from drudgery and limited opportunity and a route to a more promising career. That was certainly the case for George Wrigley, who was born and raised on his father’s farm near Galt (Cambridge). After attending local schools he turned to teaching, first in Brant and Waterloo counties and then, as principal, in London and Wallaceburg. His ambitions, however, drew him increasingly into public affairs.
By the early 1880s Wrigley was attracted to journalism and his first venture was quite naturally in the educational field. But his interests quickly broadened and in the mid 1880s he acted as editor of the Wallaceburg Valley Record and then of the Drumbo Record. In 1886 he founded the Canada Labour Courier in St Thomas, the first sign of the political and social radicalism that would be the hallmark of his life.
From the outset the Canada Labour Courier associated itself with the new labour organization which was springing up in large and small industrial centres in Ontario and Quebec during the late 1880s. This organization was the Knights of Labor. Founded in Philadelphia in 1869, by the 1880s it had established more than 250 labour assemblies in 83 cities and towns in Ontario. The Knights’ ideology was an amalgam of Christian meliorism, anti-monopoly sentiment, labour reformism, the economics of Henry George, and the principles of the cooperative movement. Only by “organizing, educating and directing” the power of the working people would “the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses” be prevented. Though the union refused to become a political party, its actions and goals were as often political and even utopian as they were trade-unionist in the conventional sense. The Knights were more radical in their quest for the establishment of the brotherhood of man, and more conservative in their reluctance to use the strike, than the American Federation of Labor’s affiliated unions, which eventually came to dominate working-class organization in both countries.
Wrigley may not have been a wholehearted supporter of the Knights of Labor’s goals when he founded his St Thomas newspaper, for he subsequently admitted that he had gambled on the future success of the Knights. But his paper failed in June 1887, even before the collapse of the Knights in the early 1890s, his readers apparently unable or unwilling to pay their subscriptions. The Canada Labour Courier had certainly been a business venture, but the nature of his Christian upbringing (his parents were Presbyterian though he drifted into more liberal, Social Gospel directions) doubtless made him sympathetic to the sufferings of workers in the emerging industrial-capitalist society. He later recalled that his brief involvement with the Knights of Labor set the course of his subsequent career. “My experience in St. Thomas,” he wrote in 1896 as another experiment in radical journalism collapsed, “. . . was of some service to me; for it was there that I realized that the conditions of life were such that injustice was being done to many, while a few were able to secure for themselves enormous possessions of money, goods and lands.” Only political action which united the tillers of the fields with the toilers of the factories, “who are . . . natural allies everywhere,” could eradicate injustice and establish a humane social order. That was the end to which Wrigley devoted the rest of his life.
If Wrigley’s goal had become clear by the 1890s, the means of achieving it remained elusive. In his unending effort to sow the seeds of reform among workers and farmers, he was loyally supported by his wife Sarah, a leader in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and his three sons, S. Edward, Cliffe, and George Weston. He joined numerous reform groups as an organizer and speaker. His real calling, however, was journalism. He earned a living by contributions to such mainstream publications as the London Advertiser, the Toronto Globe, and the Toronto Daily Mail and Empire. His writings also appeared in such publications as the Templar, a Hamilton temperance journal. But his most important journalistic activity was his editorship of the Canada Farmers’ Sun, which he established in London in 1892 to support a growing farmers’ protest movement.
In the late 1880s, with farm prices dropping and agricultural debt growing, a new organization made its appearance on the rural landscape of the province. The Patrons of Industry, like its predecessor the Grange, originated in the United States but rapidly spread into southwestern Ontario. In February 1890 Patrons associations from ten counties met in Sarnia to found the Grand Association of Patrons of Industry of the Province of Ontario, which immediately took steps to end its affiliation with the parent organization in the United States. By 1891 the Ontario Patrons had drafted a platform of reform demands, elected Caleb Alvord Mallory* as grand president, and established relations with developing Patrons organizations in Manitoba and Quebec. Later they would have links with the Maritime provinces as well. Growth was most spectacular in Ontario where, during 1892 alone, some 600 lodges were established.
The Patrons, in contrast to the Grange, adopted political goals from the outset but, somewhat paradoxically, refused to become a political party. At first they expected to convert one or both of the existing parties to their beliefs. When that prospect proved unlikely, the Patrons attempted to elect farmer candidates who, it was hoped, would be sufficiently numerous to hold a balance of power. Their platform was not extreme, or even radical, but it went well beyond what was acceptable to either Conservatives or Liberals. The Patrons called for retrenchment in government expenditures, reduction of the bureaucracy and simplification of the legal system, reform of the electoral laws and abolition of the Senate, termination of subsidies to railways, and tariff reform aimed at “reciprocal trade on fair and equitable terms between Canada and the world.” To these essentially liberal demands was added one evidently directed at the urban working class. Plank 10 proposed “effectual legislation [that] will protect labor, and the results of labor, from those combinations and monopolies which unduly enhance the price of the articles produced by such combinations or monopolies.”
The mushroom growth of the Patrons in the early 1890s gave George Wrigley an opportunity to return to radical journalism with the goal of promoting an alliance of tillers and toilers. In the spring of 1892 he began publication of the Canada Farmers’ Sun. The association between the Patrons and the Sun was solidly established immediately. Wrigley became a member of the Patrons and they, in turn, contributed to operating costs. Wrigley agreed in 1893 to devote “a total of three pages for the publication of exclusively Patron matter and selections from Press and People to keep our members thoroughly familiar with the expressions of men who are recognized as leaders of thought in the various branches of the social reform movement.” Two years later the Patrons acquired a half interest in the Sun, which then claimed a subscription list of 30,000. In May 1894 the editorial offices were transferred to Toronto, where space was rented in the Evening Star building. Wrigley now found himself strategically placed to play a central role in devising Patron tactics and in disseminating agrarian doctrines as well as his own eclectic range of reform nostrums.
The Sun under Wrigley’s editorship devoted regular, detailed attention to the various items in the Patrons’ platform. But equal, perhaps even more, space was given to descriptions and discussions of the extensive range of reform schemes advanced by critics of every stripe. Although Wrigley had his own favourite recipes for righting social wrongs he opened his pages to many others too. John Wilson Bengough* of Grip provided cartoons advocating the single tax; Thomas Phillips Thompson* attacked capitalism and supported the socialism of Edward Bellamy; Alexander Whyte Wright*, a long-time proponent of currency inflation or Beaverbacks, wrote on monetary reform; Marie Joussaye* explained the purposes of the Toronto Working Women’s Protective Association; and a radical Anglican cleric, the Reverend Charles Harper Shortt, expounded the similarities between Christianity and socialism. Nor did that exhaust the list; arguments for prohibition, the initiative and referendum, the labour movement, and women’s suffrage were all aired alongside repeated printings of the Knights of Labor statement of principles, the Omaha platform of the People’s Party of the United States of America, and the demands of the British Social Democratic Federation.
Although the Sun rarely engaged in the discussion of religious issues from a theological or sectarian perspective – the Patrons knew how divisive religious disputes could be – Wrigley and his contributors were nearly unanimous in their belief that the value of Christianity derived from its practical, social application. Indeed Wrigley believed that many congregations were dissatisfied with clergymen who devoted their sermons to expositions of “pure doctrine” and failed to apply their teachings to “presentday evils.” Successful preachers followed the opposite course. “And . . . if he makes his sermons short,” Wrigley concluded with a perfect summary of the Social Gospel, “he can quote with effect the great Exemplar of the Christian religion as authority therefor. The divinest sermon ever preached was the Sermon on the Mount. It was not long.”
For Wrigley, and many of the reformers who wrote in the Sun, the newly emergent industrial society was immoral and unjust, one that when judged by the ethical standards of the Sermon on the Mount was utterly deficient. Agriculture, which the Patrons and many other reformers believed was the bedrock of the good society – the source of “the two great essentials of life,” as the Patrons’ platform claimed, “food and raiment” – was especially threatened by monopolies which extracted punishingly high prices from consumers and paid producers at starvation levels. And while domestic monopolies stifled competition at home, the protective tariff ensured that none would come from abroad. The result, Wrigley claimed, was that Canada had become the plaything of the “big interests.” “When the act of Confederation was adopted it was supposed that Canada was being furnished with a proper form of government; that is, a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Instead of this we have a government of the people, by the representatives, for the classes who can pull strings.” A weak historical understanding was no obstacle to a powerful populist rhetoric.
Wrigley, and the Patron leaders, believed that the grip of the “interests” on government could be broken only by a political coalition of organized farmers and organized labour. In 1893, at the second annual meeting of the Patrons’ Grand Association, Brother Wrigley moved a resolution calling for direct political action. It passed, though local associations were left with the final decision about nominating Patron candidates. So, too, Wrigley played a leading role in negotiations which began in 1893 aimed at forging a coalition between the Patrons and the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada that would result in united political action. Toronto was the focal point for these discussions since it was not only the site of the Patrons’ headquarters but also the place where a variety of urban radicals, notably T. Phillips Thompson, exercised an important influence in the local Trades and Labor Council. Toronto was not the only centre where farm and labour leaders worked together, however. In Cornwall, for example, membership in the Patrons and the local Trades and Labor Council overlapped.
Wrigley was convinced that farmers and industrial workers shared common interests. In August 1892, commenting on the bitter Homestead strike in Pennsylvania, he wrote: “When capital finds one victim it gloats over the fallen foe, and immediately casts its meshes over the heads of new victims. When workingmen are defeated, farmers must fall with them and share their fate.” This being so, it was only logical that the victims of the monopolists should band together. After all, righteousness rested with the common people not merely because they were a majority but because they were the primary producers. The raison d’être of Wrigley’s populist project was summed up in an editorial of 22 May 1895: “The people need a new party, not united for pelf and plunder, not scrambling for the spoils of office, not struggling hard merely to hand over a lot of fat things to their own leading wire-pullers, but a party made up of independent men from among the farmers and the industrial interests of this country, who create the wealth, develope the resources and bear the burden of taxation.”
Negotiations between the farmers and the labour movement accelerated following the impressive gains made by the Patrons in the 1894 Ontario provincial elections: some 16 Patrons were elected. “Patronism is today the greatest power in the land,” Wrigley exulted, a little prematurely. During the Ontario campaign trade unionists and social reformers had supported farmer candidates and several labour leaders, witnessing the collapse of the Knights of Labor, scurried into the Patrons’ tents.
In fact, the Ontario election was not a harbinger of a reform spring; rather it marked the last days of summer. Under the ineffectual leadership of Joseph Langford Haycock the Patrons never found their feet in parliamentary politics. As the movement began preparations for the 1896 federal election, internal disputes came to a head. Serious mistrust between former Liberals such as grand president Caleb A. Mallory and former Conservatives such as grand treasurer L. A. Welch – discord that was frequently echoed at the local level – sapped energy and enthusiasm. Welch, convinced that Mallory was scheming to lead the Patrons into Wilfrid Laurier*’s camp, threw his support behind Sir Charles Tupper* and the Conservatives. For the Patrons, the election proved a débâcle: only three were elected.
Part of the problem, especially from the perspective of an advanced reformer such as Wrigley, was that the farm-labour coalition had never jelled. The Patrons’ platform offered little to attract working people other than the rather vague promises of plank 10. Efforts to broaden the platform by including the initiative and referendum (a Wrigley favourite), cumulative voting, women’s suffrage, and prohibition failed, leaving “labour reformers” such as A. W. Wright disillusioned and George Wrigley angry. In reality, the ideology of the Sun and the Patrons’ leadership had made little impact on the working farmers of Ontario for whom farm prices, mechanization, scarcity of farm labour, mortgage rates, and the tariff were the heart of the matter. Wrigley’s preachments had failed to radicalize them or even to persuade the majority of them to desert their traditional party allegiances.
Wrigley’s Sun was so closely tied to the fortunes of the Patrons’ cause that his departure from the paper was an almost inevitable consequence of the movement’s decline. The Sun’s coffers empty and its readership shrinking, Goldwin Smith assumed control in April 1896. The new owner shared none of Wrigley’s sympathy for the reform panaceas of the late 19th century. For Smith free trade, retrenchment in government expenditures, and free-market economics remained as valid at the end of the century in Canada as when they had first been revealed to him as the natural laws of mid-Victorian England. Wrigley was moved from the editor’s chair to the role of correspondent while he continued to work for the tattered remains of the Patrons’ organization. The high point of his life as a regenerator was now past. By early 1898 he had been eased out of his remaining minor role at Goldwin Smith’s Sun, a sad conclusion to his connection with a newspaper he had founded and edited with such bravado for a short four years.
Though disappointed, Wrigley remained an optimist and a fighter. Late in 1897 he had gathered his friends around him and founded yet another organ of reform opinion. Citizen and Country, which incorporated Social Justice, a struggling sheet dating back to the 1870s, was more a successor to the Brotherhood Era than to the Canada Farmers’ Sun. The Brotherhood Era was a paper which Wrigley had published and also inserted into the Sun as a supplement for a brief spell in 1895–96. Its purpose had been to appeal to an urban audience by concentrating on the social injustice of industrial capitalism. Its themes were the ones that dominated the pages of Citizen and Country: the single tax, land nationalization, equal suffrage, the eight-hour day, and opposition to militarism including Canadian participation in the Boer War. The heart of Wrigley’s position was what he called Christian socialism. Though sometimes criticized by the small groups of secular socialists who were beginning to appear in late–19th-century Canada, Wrigley probably spoke for many reform groups when he set out his position in an editorial of 11 March 1899 in Citizen and Country. “The multitude of social reformers in Canada,” he contended, “. . . are men and women who believe that the Church itself was the first Socialist body; that its Head and Founder was the first Socialist; that from Him we receive our inspiration as Social Reformers; and that unless we recognize His teachings and obey the laws of Brotherhood given to us by Him we cannot be true Socialists.” For Wrigley, and those who thought like him, Christianity was a recipe for social redemption.
In addition to writing, George Wrigley devoted himself to organizing social reform groups, particularly Social Progress clubs, an offshoot of the Canadian Direct Legislation League. In the summer of 1899 he travelled across the prairies to British Columbia and was struck by what he detected as a lively interest in social reform in the west. As support for Citizen and Country in Toronto gradually dwindled, the Wrigleys decided to move there. Their son, G. Weston Wrigley, who had cut his teeth in the reform cause while working at the Sun, had gradually been replacing his father at Citizen and Country, and the process continued at its successor, the Canadian Socialist, which they published briefly in Vancouver. By September 1902 George Wrigley had gone to Vancouver Island where he became an organizer for the American Labor Union; he transferred his allegiance to the Canadian Socialist’s militant replacement, the Western Socialist, later the Western Clarion, of Vancouver.
In 1904 George Wrigley suffered a succession of severe strokes; in September 1905 the family moved to Winnipeg, where one son, S. Edward Wrigley, engaged in business. The strenuous, ill-paid life of reform advocacy had taken its toll, leaving George Wrigley physically and materially weakened. He died on 14 Jan. 1907 and was buried from his home in Winnipeg.
George Wrigley’s life resembled that of many Canadian reformers in the years marking the transition from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. Moved by the injustices and inequalities which accompanied that change, Wrigley translated the religious values in which he had been raised into a sometimes vague, but always generous, reform message. Convinced that the times cried out for a Christianized social order, he devoted his life to propagating a vision of Canada in which farmers and workers would unite to drive monopolists and moneychangers from the temple. To the end of his life Wrigley’s irrepressible and unsuccessful quest for social regeneration rested on the conviction that “the tillers and the toilers are in perfect harmony.”
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