Sunday Work Laws in the 19th Century in Owen Sound and Grey County region were very strict, with no exceptions allowed.
Tomorrow is Sunday. This statement is not news, but our attitude towards this day has changed considerably over the years. Until a few short decades ago, the laws of the province of Ontario strictly prohibited most activities on this day of rest.
In the 1990s, many of us enjoy going to the movies on Sunday afternoon. When I was a youngster growing up in Owen Sound, the movie theatres were closed on Sundays. Sporting events, bingos, and shopping on Sundays are a relatively new phenomenon in this province. The Sunday work laws were strictly enforced with regards to activities on the official day of rest.
While researching the history of this area, I have come across many interesting examples of the exuberance with which the Sunday work laws were maintained and enforced.
Perhaps the most interesting example occurred in the mid-1850s when the priest who cared for the Catholic parish in Owen Sound was drowned in the St. Clair River. His replacement here was two young priests who arrived directly from France. These two young men were avid outdoorsmen who spent a lot of time hunting and hiking throughout this wilderness region.
One Sunday afternoon, these two young priests were out hunting in the forest on the west side of Owen Sound when another citizen saw them. He went directly to the magistrate in order to lay official charges against them.
Fortunately for the young clerics, the magistrate was more sympathetic to the naivety of the newcomers with regard to the Sunday work laws of their new homeland. He called upon them at the parish and explained their transgression. The young men were most apologetic and promised never to hunt on Sunday again. The magistrate dropped the issue.
In 1846, a man named Jones was fined for the transgression of the Sunday laws. As a Seventh Day Adventist, he believed that Saturday, rather than Sunday, was the day of rest. He worked most Sundays in areas that were remote to the settlement in order that he did not disturb his fellow citizens. However, one Sunday, his actions were noted by a neighbour, who was out for a walk in the bush. Charges were laid, and Mr. Jones was found guilty and made to pay a fine.
Often, the necessity of survival caused work to be done on the Sabbath. Unfortunately for the transgressor, the laws were seldom sympathetic to the need for Sunday travail.
One such event occurred when a man who lived on the Toronto and Sydenham Road brought his produce to the Inglis mill. He arrived late on Saturday and told Mr. Inglis that he had left his family at home without flour.
The sympathetic mill owner worked late into the night to mill the flour in order that the man's family would have sustenance. However, as the man was. returning home early Sunday morning, a concerned citizen detained him and brought him before the magistrate the next day where he was found guilty and fined.
Perhaps the most controversial event with regard to the Sunday work laws occurred in 1869. John Frost, a prominent citizen in Owen Sound, contracted a brick maker to make bricks in Frost's kiln. One Sunday, the brickmaker told Frost that, through neglect, there was not enough wood to maintain the kiln until more wood could be cut on Monday. Frost was also informed that if the kiln was allowed to burn out, it would probably be irreparably damaged. Faced with the prospect of having to build a new kiln, Frost ordered more wood to be cut. Once again, a concerned citizen rose in indignation, and had Frost summoned by the magistrate.
The controversy that followed embroiled the whole community. W.A. Stephens, who sat on the bench for the case, ruled that Frost's actions had not been unlike a man whose house caught fire on a Sunday. The dilemma he faced was whether he should work by carrying water to the fire, or whether he should adhere to the Sunday work law, and let his domicile burn to the ground.
The magistrate ruled that Frost's actions were justified in order to protect his property. The decision split the community and wrath and indignation were heaped on both the magistrate and Frost.
The laws concerning Sunday activities have been rescinded. However, the question of activities on Sunday still is a hot topic in some homes. At least tomorrow we will be able to watch our favourite football teams on television and the only indignation will come from ignored spouses.
A version of "Sunday Work Laws," originally appeared in my Local History column in the November 4, 1995 edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times.
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