Hot! Poorhouse wasn’t for everyone, just the ‘respectable poor’

TheRecord.com – news/local
6 Jul 2013.   Ryan Bowman, Waterloo Region Record

Known for decades as the House of Industry and Refuge, Wellington County’s poorhouse was opened by county officials in 1877 to help the “respectable poor” — people who were old, widowed, abandoned or physically or mentally challenged.

COURTESY OF WELLINGTON COUNTY MUSEUM & ARCHIVESThree “inmates” of the Wellington County House of Industry and Refuge. More than 1,500 men, women and children found shelter there between 1877 and 1947. The building became the Waterloo County Museum & Archives.The earliest form of government-funded social assistance, the shelter was one of nine such institutions built across southern Ontario in the last half of the 19th century. To the west in Waterloo County, there was a similar “poorhouse” along Frederick Street outside Berlin, later renamed Kitchener.

The Wellington County poorhouse served as a last resort for those truly in need — as determined by the reeves of the surrounding townships. The able-bodied and the “chronically lazy” need not apply.

“You couldn’t just show up at the door,” says Janice Hindley, director of the Wellington County Museum and Archives.

“If they thought you were a vagrant, a beggar or not deserving of charity, you didn’t get in.”

In return for spartan accommodations and simple meals, the “inmates” agreed to work on the sprawling 50-acre property. Men would tend to crops and livestock while women would cook, clean and tend to the children. They couldn’t leave the property without approval .

The three-storey building was home to about 1,500 people over the course of its 70-year history. It had separate dormitories and dining areas for men and women

Over time, three jail cells were added to the back of the building and used to confine dangerous and unstable inmates. In 1892, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Abraham Groves, who insisted the healthy and the sick be kept apart to reduce the spread of disease, a hospital wing was constructed to house the ill and infirm.

While the poorhouse offered superior comfort to being homeless, conditions left a lot to be desired. Old photos show few smiling faces.

Inmates’ schedules were dictated by the ringing of bells and it was not uncommon for people to flee. In the winter of 1878 an inmate named Mary Wilkins made a daring escape, but didn’t live to tell about it. When spring arrived, her frozen corpse was found in a nearby field.

In the 1920s, as the stigma associated with poverty began to grow, the sign “County Poor House” was removed from above the front door and the building was renamed A Home For The Aged.

By the middle of the 20th century, the home’s purpose had shifted to caring for the elderly and was renamed the Wellington County Home for the Aged. It remained open until 1972, when the residents were moved to a new residence in Elora. Three years later, the poorhouse became the Wellington County Museum and Archives.

On July 1, it celebrated its 15th anniversary as a national historic site.

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