Peterborough General Electric Plant

Women working on primers at the Canadian General Electric Co. Ltd. plant in Peterborough, ON, ca. 1914-1918. Archive Reference MIKAN 3371002. Used with permission from Library and Archives Canada.

Built in 1892, the Canadian General Electric (CGE) plant in Peterborough, Ontario has been an institution in the community for over 100 years. CGE elected to establish its main plant in Peterborough due to an existing hydro-electric station which was installed four miles north of the city. Throughout this period, the plant employed thousands of Peterborough residents and workers from across Canada, and produced everything from engines and motors to small appliances and electrical equipment. Its initial purpose was to design and manufacture electrical motors and transformers, equipment for street railways, electric lamps and ultimately expanded to manufacture all electric accessories. Located in the heart of Peterborough on Park Street North, between Wolfe Street and Albert Street, the approximately 50-acre CGE campus had a significant manufacturing footprint, which included machine shops, metal presses, and foundries. Due to its manufacturing capability, the CGE plant was of great importance to the supply chain during the First World War, and was re-tooled in 1914 to begin producing munitions. At the time, the population in Peterborough was approximately 24,500, of which CGE employed between 1800 – 2200 – making the CGE the largest employer in Peterborough and surrounding areas, the next being Quaker Oats at 500 – 600. Initially, CGE along with numerous other industries in Canada, encountered a peculiar setback after Great Britain declared war, wherein they faced an absence of new orders as previous orders were being cancelled to make room for munitions, but munitions orders had yet to be placed. Faced with potential lay-offs, CGE instead decided to reduce the wages and salaries of all employees by 20 percent, enabling the company to stave off closure until munitions orders were received in the following months. Consequently, as activity once again begun to flourish at the plant, bonuses were granted to all employees to make up the full twenty per cent that had been deducted. The directors of CGE quickly adapted to the changing times in order to thrive and survive, and they had to do so more than once. At the beginning of 1918, the need for munitions slowed, especially as sizeable stockpiles begun to develop. Politicians and military leaders sensed that the war would soon come to an end, and the factory was then forced to redirect its production towards civilian manufacturing once again. It was then that CGE went back to pre-war production, as well as incorporating new orders for cargo ships to make engines, boilers, and other marine products. The war in Europe had created immense devastation, but from that devastation arose the requirement for reconstruction. Sizeable contracts would be required to deliver many kinds of civilian products to be sold in Europe, and CGE was ready to fulfil them.

A CGE produced commemorative Ordnance QF 18 pounder artillery shell on display at the Peterborough Museum and Archives. Archive Reference: 968.16.1. Used with permission from the Peterborough Museum and Archives.

Regardless of the number of munitions orders available to them, for the duration of the First World War, the factory struggled to maintain an adequately sized workforce to keep up with production requirements. In December 1916, a fire ravaged the Quaker Oats factory in Peterborough, and the resulting reconstruction efforts monopolized a large portion of the remaining skilled worker base in the city. This, in combination with the increased labour requirements at the factory to maintain munitions production, led to the relatively new practise of hiring women in the factories. An additional solution was implemented that saw wages increased above the minimums required as a condition of receiving wartime production contracts. Furthermore, due to multiple disputes and the intervention of the Department of Labour in 1917, a 50-hour work week was awarded to 1700 workers at CGE and several other industries. As a result, the labour shortage led to locally higher wages in Peterborough, which ultimately led to a stable transition through the post-war recession period. The pay deduction was not the only sacrifice made by the workers in the CGE plant, as approximately half of all workers employed at the plant left their jobs to sign up for the Canadian military service. Of the 1800-2200 workers who worked at the factory, 1076 CGE employees departed to fight in the First World War, 63 of whom were killed or missing and fated never to return. In all, the CGE plant supplied 45 officers, 99 N.C.O.s, and 932 Privates to the Canadian expeditionary forces. In addition to this, CGE operated a detachment of 25 electrical and mechanical engineers. This detachment served the government while remaining on the CGE payroll throughout their service, and except for food and clothing, were funded entirely by CGE. The contribution by CGE was not limited to manpower, rather the company also donated $150,000 to the Red Cross Society, Patriotic Fund, the British Sailors, the Relief Fund, and more. [Text Box: Figure 3: Diagram of war munitions produced by CGE during the First World War as found in the Canadian General Electric Co. 1918 Annual Report of the Board of Directors. Archive Reference 1989-022. Used with permission from Peterborough Museum and Archives.] Once orders started to come in to the factory as the war took hold, it did not take long for production to ramp up sharply. Many different types of munitions were created at the CGE plant in Peterborough, and a diagram of the various shells can be found in figure 3. These shells were vital to the war effort, and were shipped all over the world. During the period of 1915 – 1918, CGE manufactured and shipped munitions amounting in a value of $15,287,284.42. Most of which were sent to the front lines in Europe through the Imperial Munitions Board, and later in the war through the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. A relatively small portion totalling $130,318 worth of ammunition was sent to the British Admiralty for use in naval vessels. In total, CGE forged 9,376,369 shells of various sizes and types, machined and assembled 1,455,010 shells of various sizes and types, and manufactured upwards of 2 million brass cartridge cases. Further production included 4.5 million brass primers, and 2.2 million component parts such as plugs, discs, etc.

Diagram of war munitions produced by CGE during the First World War as found in the Canadian General Electric Co. 1918 Annual Report of the Board of Directors. Archive Reference 1989-022.  Used with permission from Peterborough Museum and Archives.

Ultimately, the Canadian General Electric plant was an immense contributor to the First World War. Wartime production, aid, reconstruction, and local economic prosperity have marked CGE as significant Peterborough institution.

Research by Alex Murphy and Brooklyn Furrow

“Annual Report of the Board of Directors for the Year Ended December 31st, 1914”. Canadian General Electric Co. Limited. Peterborough Museum and Archives Ref: 1989-022

“Annual Report of the Board of Directors for the Year Ended December 31st, 1918”. Canadian General Electric Co. Limited. Peterborough Museum and Archives Ref: 1989-022

Dyer, Bruce and Jones, Elwood. “Peterborough: The Electric City”. Windsor Publications, Inc. History Book Division, Canada, 1987.

Jones, Edward H. “Life with CGE”, Heritage Gazette of the Trent Valley Vol 22., No. 3: November 2017. Pg. 28-30.
“See Peterborough First 1825-1914”. Issued by the City Board of Trade. Peterborough Museum and Archives Ref: 1974-012

“Sixth Census of Canada, 1921 Volume -1 Population”. Department of Trade and Commerce, Ottawa, December 21, 1923. Accessed via Trent Valley Archives.

“Standards of the Highest: From Edison to GE Canada, Peterborough 1891-1991”, Centennial Committee, GE Canada, Peterborough, ON: 1991. Peterborough Museum and Archives Ref: APB 4.