House goes up, whisky goes down

Booze 1829 — 1920

William Thomson was unlike the troop of well-to-do, leisure class Britons who toured Canada in the early nineteenth century to write books about what they saw. A textile worker from the Aberdeen area of Scotland, Thomson supported himself during a three-year tour of the United States and Canada by working at whatever jobs he could find. One job was working at a “raising” of a log house in Vaughan township, north of Toronto, “for a poor Irishman and his family.” As the house went up, whisky went down. Excerpt from A Tradesman’s Travels in the United States and Canada, in the Years 1840, 41 & 42, Edinburgh, 1842.

I was on the ground early and found the settler and his wife busy cooking at a large fire, surrounded by fallen trees and brushwood. The neighbours came by twos and threes, from different quarters, with axes over their shoulders; and as they came up each got a drink of whisky out of a tin can. The stuff smelled most horribly, yet none of them made a wry face of it…

At first they went to work moderately and with quietness, but after the whisky had been handed about several times, they got very uproarious—swearing, shouting, tumbling down, and sometimes like to fight. I then left off working, thinking I would be as safe out of the way a little; but this would not do, as they would have no idlers there. The handing round of the whisky was offered to me, but I declined the honour, being a teetotaler. So I had no choice but commence working again, as I wished to see the end of the matter. I was sick of it before this; for most of them were drunk and all of them excited. The manner in which they used their axes was a “caution.” Many accidents happen, and lives are frequently lost on these occasions, both from accidents and quarrels.

In all there were about twenty-four men, one half Irish; on the whole about the roughest specimens of humanity I have ever seen… The walls of a house, 15 by 26, and 12 feet high, were up before night, and some of the nearest neighbours were to return next day and cut out the doors and windows. When all was done they sat down, all about, eating bread and meat, and drinking whisky (I believe of the same quality as that known in Aberdeen by the name of “Kill the carter”).

Unfamiliar Canadian history stories 020


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