HAMILTON, WILLIAM, iron founder, machinist, and inventor; b. in 1810 in Lasswade, Midlothian County, Scotland; d. 28 Nov. 1880 in Toronto, Ont.
After a seven-year apprenticeship with an iron founder in Scotland, William Hamilton moved to England in 1834 and worked in the shops of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in Manchester, the Bridgewater Foundry at Patricroft, and the Great Western Railway at Swindon. He was a pattern maker for James Nasmyth and after 1840 for Daniel Gooch, learning from them the techniques of steam-driven machine-making tools.
With 23 years experience in “mechanical engineering,” Hamilton arrived in Toronto in October 1850 with his wife and their two sons and two daughters. He worked for James Good and then for James Rogers Armstrong before establishing in 1851 or 1852, in partnership with his son William, the St Lawrence Foundry, Engine Works, and Machine Shop. The shop offered castings and steam engines. The latter were then in great demand in the province: 340 were imported from 1853 to 1857, half of them railway locomotive engines. The foundries of Toronto had, however, to be content with producing castings primarily. The Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron Union Railroad (later the Northern Railway) gave the contract for the first locomotive to be built in Toronto to James Good in 1852, and William Hamilton secured only the contract for iron chairs and other accessories. Yet, despite considerable competition, Hamilton’s assets doubled from 1856 to 1857, in 1858–59, and again in 1860–61. In 1861 he employed 40 men and produced $37,000 worth of castings, nuts, and bolts for the railways.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States in 1861, American shops turned to war production and Canadians had to make more of their own machinery. Hamilton acquired a larger power plant, and his became one of the first Canadian shops to produce whole systems of steam-driven tools. In the Civil War years he manufactured the power plant and hammer-rollers for the Steel, Iron, and Railway Works Company in Toronto, and the power plant and machinery for the Toronto Knitting and Yarn Factory. In the mid-1860s he invented and began manufacturing his “fish-plate bolt” which reduced railway accidents caused by rails shaking loose from their ties.
Hamilton’s production techniques differed markedly from those then most current in Toronto. Good, for example, had been producing what were virtually handmade machines since the 1830s. Hamilton used a larger number of machine tools while retaining numerous well-trained artisans; his techniques attracted machinists, inventors, and moulders of high calibre, including James Martin Sr. He produced such diverse items as the fence for Osgoode Hall in Toronto, railway cars and wheels, steam engines with boilers for factories and boats, and steam dredges for clearing harbours.
Hamilton, however, rarely owned the land on which his machines were housed in wooden buildings, and he was hard hit by business slumps. A fire on his major site in 1876 almost ruined him. He lost control of the St Lawrence Foundry in 1879 but continued to work the Don Foundry in Toronto.
Hamilton married twice, his second marriage being to a young widow, Anne Kilgallen Erlan, on 21 October 1865; he adopted her two sons. A daughter married the distiller Henry Gooderham.
City of Toronto Archives, Toronto assessment rolls, 1849–80. Little Trinity Church (Toronto), records of baptisms, marriages, and burials. PAC, RG 31, A1, 1861, Toronto, St Lawrence’s ward; 1871, Toronto, St Lawrence’s ward. St James’ Cemetery (Toronto), records of burials, 1880. Daily Colonist (Toronto), 3 Feb. 1852. Globe (Toronto), 1 Dec. 1880. Mail (Toronto), 30 Nov. 1880. City of Toronto directory, for 1867–8 . . . , comp. James Sutherland (Toronto, 1867), 328, 384. Hist. of Toronto and county of York, I, 386.