Trouble at Lachine Mill

About this book

Meg and Jamie Bains spend twelve hours a day sewing shirts in a loud, dim room filled with row after row of poor women and children tending their sewing machines. They’re lucky to have the work.

In the 1870s Canada suffers from a terrible Depression, and the Bains have travelled the country looking for work since their father died, finally ending up in this dark mill in Montreal. Soon they discover they’ve only been hired to replace workers striking to raise their rock-bottom wages. This knowledge, along with the cold and hunger and seemingly endless workdays, starts to wear them down. As they come to know their co-workers, however, the find they’re not alone in their misery. Working together they find it’s possible to make change, even in the dark world of the oppressive mills.

Set against the grim background of Canada’s 19th century industrial cities, Trouble at Lachine Mill is the story of two young people’s perseverance in the face of incredible squalour and adversity. The book is illustrated with a section of photographs chronicling the industrial city of Montreal in the late-19th century.

This is the fourth book in the Bains series of historical novels, well-researched, action-filled narratives following the travels of one family across Canada—from Newfoundland to Alberta— in search of a better life during the hard times of the 1870s.

Trouble at Lachine Mill is an adventure story in the acclaimed Bains series for young readers 10 to 14, written by Bill Freeman. The book is illustrated with 19th century photos of Montreal and factory life. The Bains series has won the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for a body of work.

ISBN: paper 0-88862-672-X

cloth 0-88862-673-8

Find this book at Chapters Indigo

Quote from Canadian Childrens' Books - a critical guide to authors and illustrators, ISBN 0-19-541222-2.

"In Shantymen of Cache Lake he has created a minor Canadian classic, a well-written novel containing memorable characters, exciting action, and significant themes."

An excerpt from the opening chapter of Trouble at Lachine Mill:

“Murphy?” The bald saloonkeeper with the bushy sideburns examined the two young people sceptically. “That’s him leaning against the bar.”

Through the dim light Meg and Jamie could make out a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a dark suit of heavy woollen cloth, with a stiff, round bowler hat perched squarely on his head. Murphy’s ruddy face was partly covered by long mutton-chop whiskers and a drooping, rusty-brown moustache. In the corner of his mouth glowed the stub of a black cigar.

Meg approached cautiously, painfully aware that she and her brother looked out of place in the murky saloon. “Pardon me, sir. Are you the Mr. Murphy who advertised for mill hands at your Montreal factory?”

“Aye, that I am girl. And who be you?” The big man spoke with a thick Irish accent.

“I’m Meg Bains and this is my brother Jamie. We need work, sir.”

The man stood up to his full height and extracted the cigar from his mouth. “And what makes you think that two scrawny foundlings like yourself can work in a factory with a foreman such as John Murphy?”

“We can work hard, sir. You’ll see,” said Jamie.

“Hard! You don’t know what hard work is till you’ve been to Lachine Mill.”

Meg glanced nervously at her brother. He was only twelve years old, a slight, uncertain boy wearing rough working clothes, with shaggy brown hair sticking out from under his cloth cap. He seemed too young to be taking on the responsibility of a job.

“You there, girl,” the foreman was saying. “Ever worked in a clothing factory before?”

“No, sir.”

“Ever sewed a shirt?”


“Bejesus then, what earthly good are you to me?”

“I can learn. I’m a very fast learner and I work hard.”

The big man examined her critically. Meg was fourteen now, a strong, square-shouldered girl who had seen much of the world. She was dressed in a simple skirt and blouse made of the plainest cotton material. Over her shoulders was one of her mother’s woollen shawls. She was pretty, with dark eyes and light-blonde hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. Now she was watchful, trying to judge Murphy.

“Girls,” he was saying with a sharp edge to his voice. “In this year of 1874, with lines of people just waiting to get into the poorhouse, I can get girls by the dozens who will work hard. But it’s boys that I need. Strong, strapping lads who will work like horses. Can you work hard, lad?”

“Oh yes, sir. You’ll see, sir. I will work very hard, sir.”

“Don’t know. Looks to me like you’re a small mite of a boy who would have trouble hoisting a single bolt of cloth.” As he talked, Murphy felt Jamie’s arms and shoulders as if he was judging a piece of livestock.

“I can work hard, sir. I’m really strong.”

Murphy leaned back against the bar, puffed on his cigar and examined them critically. For just a moment Meg felt like fleeing, but she knew she couldn’t leave now. Too much depended on getting these jobs.

“Troublemakers. That’s what I’ve got in that mill of mine,” Murphy continued. “They give me trouble morning to night, but I’m going to break them. Break them under my hard, ruthless heel. They’re finished!

“Tell me now. Would you two cause me trouble? Would you plot against John Murphy?” He was almost shouting now. “Would you do that, lad?”

“Oh, no, sir. We wouldn’t do that. We’d work really hard sir. You’ll see.”

Now the foreman was looking off into the distance. His face was flushed and his eyes had a faraway look about them. “Bejesus I’m going to break every man dog of them. All my life I’ve worked in the mills and now that I’m at the top no one will take it away from me. I know every trick that a worker thought up and they can never best me.” Slowly a smile spread across his face. Then suddenly he asked, “Can you speak French?”

Mais oui,” replied Meg. “We’re from Le Breton Flats here in Ottawa. We were raised speaking both languages.”

“That’s an advantage.” He seemed to be reconsidering. “If I give you jobs you’ve got to promise to be obedient. Do you understand?” Now his finger was jabbing at Jamie’s chest. “Bejesus I’ll break every worker who opposes me and that’s a promise.”

“Yes, sir. We understand, sir,” replied the frightened boy.

Meg was uncertain. The big foreman towered over them intensely. But they needed to find work.

“All right, then.” Murphy lounged up against the bar. “All right. I’ll take the two of you. Boys is what I need in the mill but if that sister of yours wants to come then I’ll take her, too. It’s a dollar-fifty a week that each of you will get, and you’ll work hard or you won’t be there long enough to hear more than two blasts of the mill whistle. Tomorrow morning at six we leave on the riverboat for Montreal. Be on board bright and early.”

“Yes, sir. We will, sir. You can count on us.” Jamie was anxious to please.

“All right. Begone, now. I’ve got other things to do.” And he dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

As they headed towards the door Meg glanced back. The big man had pulled his cigar from his mouth and was shouting to the barman. “Service,” he demanded impatiently. “I want service around here!” But Meg and Jamie were at the door and escaped onto the street.