This Week in Peterborough: 1933

General Currie, Commander of the Canadian troops in France, and

General Sir Arthur Currie, during the Great War. (Image Source)

On to December of 1933, and it must be said that the news in the local papers remained dire.  Of course, the Great Depression was still in full swing, but there were also sinister developments in German politics to worry about…  And at home, a major hero of Canada’s efforts in the First World War passed away.  On the brighter side, and there was one, we will have some discussion of alarm clocks as an optimistic economic indicator, and meet for the first time — but by no means the last — a major Peterborough sports figure.  Read on!

“Death today claimed a great Canadian, a man whose achievements in war and peace are written into Canadian history.”  So wrote the Peterborough Examiner on November 30th, mourning the death from pneumonia of General Sir Arthur Currie, who had commanded, to great acclaim, the 1st Canadian Division and the Canadian Corps during the Great War.  Since returning from the War, Currie had been President and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University.  Locally, memorial services for Currie were held in Peterborough churches on December 5th, the day of his funeral in Ottawa, with local members of the military in full attendance.


Some irony, too, in the last line of that headline.  (Peterborough Examiner, December 1st, 1933.)

There is some irony in the fact that just as one of the major figures of the First World War passed away, Canadians were beginning to wonder if there might not be a second such conflict before much longer.  Most of the big international news this week in 1933 had to do with Germany, and there was great worry in the pages of the newspapers over what Chancellor Adolf Hitler was going to do next.  “Germany intends to free itself from the “diktat” of [the Treaty of] Versailles,” wrote the Peterborough Examiner on November 30th.  In particular, the newspaper drew attention to “[t]his question of German disarmament,” and, in an editorial the next day, raised the spectre of a “proud and nationalistic” foreign policy.  Historical hindsight, of course, reveals to us that the Examiner‘s editorialists were right to be worried.

But even with the momentous and ominous stirrings of the Nazi government in Germany, most of the column inches in the newspapers were given over to the ongoing Great Depression (by now referred to by that name, incidentally).  This was the heyday of the government work camps in Canada, and these were turning out to be every bit as appalling as one can imagine.  Paying little, and subjecting their inmates to dreadful wilderness living conditions, the camps provided only the barest possible solution to the unemployment issue.  On December 1st, the Examiner recorded that eight men working at a camp in North Monaghan had simply downed tools and walked off, although what the specific problem was in that case was never made clear.  The same article mentioned complaints about rats at another camp near Burleigh.

With the economic tough times, inevitably, came crime.  On the night of December 1st, four stores in Peterborough were broken into.  The next day’s Examiner reported that while little money was taken (the cash registers had been emptied when the stores closed), the burglars did make off with “several choice roasts of pork and beef and some cartons of cigarettes.”


A Depression-era work relief project underway near Ottawa. (Image Source)

One of the ways in which people attempted to avoid the depredations of the Depression was through self-sufficient country living — the “Back to the Land” movement enjoyed some popularity at this time.  It also enjoyed official support; Peterborough City Council had provided funding for two families to move to the bush country in northern Ontario and attempt to live on their own as the pioneers had.  Sadly, for one of the families at least, the program was a disastrous failure.  In the December 1st Examiner, readers learned that Mr. D.P. Ferguson and his wife had petitioned Council to be allowed to return home “before ‘we are frozen to death.'”  As the newspaper reported:

“The northern weather has beaten them.  Frost destroyed the crops they grew, Mr. Ferguson wrote, and all they had left was a scant supply of potatoes that were severely frost-bitten in the house by the cold weather of November 11 and 12.  ‘It has been down to 18 and 20 degrees below zero already, and it is only Fall yet.  There has been ice on the water every month except July.  All the families that were sent here are getting [emergency relief from the government].”

Adding to the Fergusons’ miseries was the fact that all the available firewood was green, and the house provided to them had originally been built as a summer cottage and never suitably fixed up for winter.


Peterborough Examiner, November 30th, 1933.

It was a bleak picture, then, but there was some good news to be had.  On November 3oth, the Examiner reported that the Western Clock Company, on Hunter Street near the Lift Lock, was producing 2600 watches and clocks per day, working six days a week with full-time staffing.  This represented an 82% increase in man-hours worked at the plant per month over the previous two years.  Even beyond the employment figures themselves, manager J.H. Vernor saw the high demand for clocks as evidence that things were improving:

“‘How else can one account for the demand for alarm clocks,’ he asked.  ‘People do not need to buy alarm clocks, unless they buy them for the definite purposes of being awakened in time for work.'”


Vintage postcard of the Western Clock Company building, Peterborough. (Image Source)

Vernor was careful not to go overboard with his enthusiasm, warning that “[h]e did not desire to create the impression that any new jobs would be created for those outside the present organization.”  However, here at least it appears that false hope was not a danger; business at the Western Clock Company remained strong enough that the plant expanded in 1935.

And there were some hopeful tidings from east of the city as well; the Province of Ontario had announced that construction was beginning on Highway 7 near Marmora, a project that would employ 450 men from the area.  Finally, on the national level, there was a smidgen of good news in terms of international trade possibilities.  On December 5th, 1933, the United States ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition.  Canadian brewers and distilleries had been, understandably, awaiting this move with great eagerness; the December 1st Examiner spoke of “making foreign trade flourish” in the wake of the repeal.

In the item about the Peterborough couple’s unhappy experience with the Back to the Land program, we noted that the early winter weather in 1933 had been a bit strange, with a severe cold snap in early November.  Since then, the temperatures had been abnormally high, and the weather rainy, and this was causing Peterborough’s hockey people some distress.  The Examiner described the situation on December 4th:

“Blue Monday! — and particularly so for all the hockey managers and players around here.  This screwy weather is enough to give ’em the jitters.  Not to mention the would-be ice-makers.  A month ago when we should have been getting mild weather and lots of rain, what did we get?  A rush order for ear-muffs and red flannels.  And now when it’s time to be out with a red schnozzle and a pair of skates, what does it do?  Yeah, what does it do?  Why, we get some nasty head-cold weather and enough rain to float a fleet of warships.  Rinks that were getting in nice sheets of ice now wouldn’t be recognized but for the side-boards.  Oh, well, that’s the annual headache for the hockey gentry.”


Cec Perdue. (Image Source)

The writer of the piece was a young sports reporter named Cec Perdue, who had just recently joined the newspaper’s staff.  We will certainly meet him again in this series — Perdue would write, and edit, Peterborough sports for more than 30 years.  He was inducted in the Peterborough & District Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.

While actually playing hockey might have been a difficult as December of 1933 began, there was still a great deal of organizing going on.  One interesting note in this regard: December 5th saw an organizational held to arrange a women’s league for that winter.  The proposed circuit would involve a team from the Keene and a handful of city-based squads, including one composed of workers at the above-discussed, and flourishing, Western Clock Company.

And that will do for 1933.  We are moving rapidly through the Depression here, and of course World War Two is not so far in the future of this series.  However, next time we will be looking at early December of 1934, and in the meantime you can read up on what was happening around here at this time of year in 1881!

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