The Town of Ajax: A History
On September 10, 1939, Canada declared war on Germany. On that day, the present site of the Town of Ajax was peaceful rolling farmland nestled on the edge of Lake Ontario in Pickering Township.It had been to this area, 150 years prior, that the first white settlers had arrived to start their new life in a new land. All this was to change very quickly.
In 1941, this farmland became the site of Defence Industries Limited (D.I.L.), Pickering Works. Thus began a vast shell filling plant which before 1945 had: filled 40 million shells; employed over 9,000 people at peak production; boasted of its own water and sewage treatment plants; a school population of over 600; 30 miles of railroad and 30 miles of roads. The entire D.I.L. plant site included some 2,985 acres. People came from all over Canada to work at D.I.L.
This enormous burgeoning war plant community needed a name. The name was supplied by the first significant British naval victory of World War II. From December 13 to December 19, 1939, a flotilla of British warships – HMS Ajax, HMS Exeter and HMS Achilles – commanded by Commodore Henry H. Harwood – engaged and routed the powerful German pocket battleship Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate, near the Uraguayan port of Montevideo in South America. The name Ajax and the names of her sister ships became worldwide symbols of courage and determination. Ajax was chosen, therefore, as the name of this war-born community.
“DIL: The Beginning of a town called Ajax: Forty Million Shells Later…”
(Written by, Joshua May for Ajax: 50th Anniversary Edition)
Much of Ajax’s History has its roots in munitions plant…
Ajax may have never come to be had it not been for the Second World War.
In the bitter cold temperatures of February 1941, army surveryors first visitted the vast open fields of Pickering in the hopes of constructing Canada’s largest ammunition shell-filling plant. The result, a site some 2, 985 acres that employed more than 9, 000 people and produced more than 40 million shells. It was the birth of Defence Industries Limited (DIL).
The tightly-secured, highly secretive DIL plant first commenced operations in 1941, employing both men and women for its potentially dangerous endevours. Commissioning many of its male labourers from the General Motors plant in Oshawa and females that spanned the nation from as far as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to Peace River, Alberta, largely due in part to job competition with smaller munitions plants across the country, employees worked six-day weeks of 48 hours at a rate of 80 cents per hour for male and 50 cents for a female. These rates were significantly higher than the standard Canadian wages of the time.
“We were paid quite handsomely for our work,” said Louise Johnson, a line worker for nearly three years. “The company offered wonderful working conditions for its employees and the satisfaction of knowing you were working to help the war-effort was very gratifying”.
Enclosed by an eight-foot tall, barbed wire fence that surrounded its perimeter, the DIL plant was a business-oriented atmosphere that featured many employees who took great pride in their wartime efforts. Arthur Silk, a former line employee and auto-mechanic at DIL poured his heart and soul into his work, ensuring every shell he filled was of the highest standard.
“If I had been overseas, I’d want worrying about faulty gun shells to be the least of my concerns”, said Mr. Silk. “It was very important to us that we always put the highest quality of my work into the shells we made. It could have meant a matter of life and death for the soldier using them”.
Having been in operation for more than four years before its inevitable closure in 1945, the DIL plant’s impact on Ajax can still be felt by the residents of Ajax to this very day. Without DIL, many institutions such as the Ajax Hospital, fire department and even the town itself, may have never existed, said Ms. Johnson.
“The town of Ajax owes a lot to DIL”
“Munitions plant fired life-altering experience…”
(Written by, Joshua May for Ajax: 50th Anniversary Edition)
DIL changed perceptions of women, shaped lives…
Louise Johnson credits Defence Industries Limited (DIL) with changing her life.
A war-time munitions plant that employed more than 9, 000 people at the height of production, Ms. Johnson moved from her home province of Saskatchewan in 1941 to be a part of the budding industrial company and the job opportunities that women were presented.
“Women were looked at a lot differently back in those days, However, with all the men off to war, the munitions plants and other establishments needed people to keep their businesses running. DIL offered great wages and an opportunity for women to work outside their homes. I am very grateful for the time I spent at the plant” said Ms. Johnson.
Leaving her family and friends long behind for the promising prospects of a life of her own, Ms. Johnson hopped aboard a steaming locomotive towards a budding new career, and, what turned out to be, her livelihood.
“After the war had ended, I had the choice of moving back home. However, my husband had already found himself another job here and we had made so many friends already, it just didn’t seem to make sense to leave. Ajax had become our new home”.
From the fun-filled activities of public dances and bowling events to the eight-foot tall barbed wire gates surrounding the pant’s exterior, DIL was both a haven of community joy and security for its residents.
Most of all however, DIL was an institution that helped change the perceptions of women in society and forever shaped the lives of the individuals that worked there.
“DIL influenced my entire life. I owe so much to that plant. If I had the choice now, I’d never do it any differently” said Ms. Johnson.
* For a more detailed description of the history of Ajax and Defence Industries, check out “A Town Called Ajax”, written by the Ajax Historical Board.