The Economic Engine of the 19th Century
In the 19th century, the shipyards on the Saint-Charles River played a key role in developing the Saint-Roch district. The thriving industry attracted many blue-collar workers, craftspeople, and day labourers. The number of French Canadian shipwrights grew quickly, and they contributed to the economic growth of their communities. But job insecurity and the abrupt end to this industry had serious consequences.
The golden age of shipbuilding
By the mid-1850s shipyards stretched along both sides of the Saint-Charles River, some 20 in all. From where you are now, you would have thought you were in the middle of one giant shipyard.
Aside from the proud sailing ships that were already built and ready for launch, the scene was rather a hodgepodge. Skeletons of ships under construction propped up by tangles of poles, nearby wharves, workshops, and workers’ homes, huge tracing rooms, piles of boards and beams, launch rails… The shipyards were real hives of activity during the main stages of construction, which is why they generated so many jobs: sawyers, joiners, caulkers, blacksmiths, and manufacturers of rope, sails, pulleys, and other products.
Harsh working conditions
In the best years, around 2,000 men laboured in the Saint-Charles River shipyards. They worked 70 hours a week, including Sundays and holidays, although around 80% of them were out of work six months a year and on bad weather days.
With the industry buffeted by wide annual fluctuations, workers were laid off and wages reduced when ship orders fell. Job insecurity made life difficult. In December 1840 a strike turned into a riot. Owners temporarily cancelled the pay cut that had been announced. But two years later, while a large loaf of bread sold for a sixpence, workers made only two shillings a day—four times that.
For most workers, wages were low, work was hard, and accidents were common.
Boom in wooden shipbuilding
The golden age of Québec shipbuilding began in the 1820s, spurred on by the timber trade that was developing on a large scale with the United Kingdom. Scottish and English builders like John Munn and John Goodie arrived from Great Britain with their skilled labourers and took advantage of favourable conditions to establish shipyards on the banks of the Saint-Charles.
Irishman Thomas M. Oliver was the leading builder with 123 ships completed between 1834 and 1877. His shipyard was located just to the east of the Dorchester Bridge. The shipyard of John Munn Jr., the second biggest builder for number of ships, was located next door. He made a name for himself in 1833 by providing his employees with brick row houses similar to those in British industrial cities. Some of these houses, which were very different from workers’ usual small wood homes, are still standing, notably at 255 avenue Daulac, not far from here.
By 1871 shipbuilding had made Saint-Roch the city’s most populous neighbourhood with 25,000 residents, a fivefold increase over 1820. At the height of the industry between 1850 and 1869, some 2,000 wooden ships were built in Québec City.
The role of French Canadians
The first French Canadian shipbuilders—the Brunelles, Gingras, Rosas, Valins, and the like—appeared in the 1850s. They came after the more affluent British pioneers. In total, French Canadians accounted for a third of the ships built in the city. The biggest French Canadian builder, Jean-Élie Gingras, ranked second in terms of tonnage (ship size).
An abrupt end
Wooden ship construction declined precipitously in the 1870s and stopped completely in the Saint-Charles shipyards by 1881. Saint-Roch and the entire city of Québec faced a severe economic crisis.