Hamilton’s 19th Century Cork-Town – Making a living (Part 2)

Corktown, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec
Corktown, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec

The majority of the Irish community lived outside Cork-town. Nevertheless, Cork-town became associated with the Irish.

One reason may have been that a critical mass of Irish families that did decide to establish roots in Hamilton chose Cork-town over areas of the town.

In the 19th century, it was quite common for significant portions of the population to move from town to town looking for work. Some reviews of census data suggest that over 1/3 of the population kept no permanent address.

Even for Irish families who decided to make Hamilton home, it was common for the adult males to be away for most of the year, working on construction projects in other parts of the province.

Earning a living

Making a living was a challenge at the best of times. Wages for laborers were low, and people were always looking for a way of making extra money.

In the pre-famine days, the land in the Cork-town area was still open and families have gardens and small farm animals. In addition to providing food for the table, some families open small grocery stores in the front rooms of their homes. There was also the odd, unofficial, saloon in the front parlor.

The Irish Market

In the early days, there was the Irish market, where extra food could be sold. The original town market was located between Hunter and Augusta, where Haymarket Street is now located.

Before to the mid-1840s, the market was the center of Cork-town life. However, once Hamilton became a city, the authorities decided to relocate the market to behind the City Hall (essentially where the market is located today.

Despite the loss of customers, the old market continued as a place to sell firewood taken from the sides of the mountain.

The Big Estates

In the early days of Hamilton’s economic development, business owners usually lived where they worked. However, as a few became very successful, and could afford to build a home separate from work. Starting in the late 1840s and early 1850s, large estates were built just under the mountain. These included: Willows (1840s) for Judge O’Reilly; Arkeldun (1846) for R. Juson; Rock Castle (1850) for Alexander Carpenter; and Undermount (1855) for John Young.

These large masons required large staffs and many young Irish daughters would earn extra income for the family by working as maids and cooks.

Put all together, the Cork-town Irish could support themselves and create informal relationships that built a community.

Next Week: Coming of the Railroads and the decline of Cork-town.

Published by Chris Erskine

Inspired by architecture and landscapes, my art explores our relationship to place, memory and identity. As a mid career artist, my art practice includes: painting, murals, short films, and sound art.

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