Once Upon A City: Poor house helped Toronto’s destitute

Posted on August 27, 2017 in Social Security History

TheStar.com – Your Toronto/Once Upon a City – Fearing government would set up Dickensian work houses, a group of reformers created Toronto House of Industry created in 1830s.
Aug. 27, 2017.   By

“Please, Sir, I want some more.”

When Charles Dickens’ slowly starving Oliver Twist requested more thin gruel in 1830s London, the 9-year-old orphan caused an uproar in the strict workhouse. Here a workhouse orphan, wrote Dickens, was to be “despised by all, and pitied by none.”

Toronto had its own, more compassionate, home for the most vulnerable citizens who had nowhere else to go — the destitute, the sick and the orphaned.

Toronto’s House of Industry, colloquially called the poor house, was founded by a group of reformers in 1837, to serve the poor and penniless, many of whom settled in what was then Toronto’s St. John’s Ward District.


The Ward was the area bounded by College St. to the north, Queen St. to the south, University Ave. to the west and Yonge St. to the east. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the Ward was the first stop for waves of immigrants, mostly eastern Europeans, Italians, Irish and Chinese.

Over time, the densely populated enclave gained a reputation as a notorious slum. Buildings were often subdivided by landlords to make the most money from tenants. It wasn’t unusual to see six or more people sharing a filthy room. Overcrowded rooming houses lacked the most basic sanitary amenities — many without plumbing and indoor drains. There were overflowing outdoor privies and filthy, stuffy apartments. New immigrants arrived daily and the Ward’s population exploded to more than 11,000 in 1911. By 1918 that number reached 17,000.

In 1834 the United Kingdom passed a new Poor Law, which created a system of workhouses (Houses of Industry) the likes of which Dickens described in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist. These were deliberately harsh places, made so to keep people out, since the new Poor Law required that the destitute could only receive welfare assistance while inside a workhouse.

In the 1880s destitute breadwinners were asked to saw wood and break stone as a condition for getting aid. It was a tough and hated job. Some enfeebled men couldn't do it.
In the 1880s destitute breadwinners were asked to saw wood and break stone as a condition for getting aid. It was a tough and hated job. Some enfeebled men couldn’t do it.  (EI SCAN)  

These workhouses were a last resort for society’s most vulnerable — the poor, the sick or orphans — those who could not support themselves. Heads were shaved to stave off lice, uniforms distributed to avoid infestation, families separated and children as young as two were sometimes viciously beaten if they cried. Children provided cheap child labour in factories and as chimney sweeps. They were given scraps to eat and many died of malnutrition. Pain was sometimes used as an inducement to make children work harder. Filing teeth and putting ears in vices were two “incentives” applied in the Nottinghamshire cotton mill, about 200 kilometres north of London.

In Toronto, fearful that Sir Francis Bond Head, the new lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada in 1836, would establish these strict workhouses in Canada, a small group of reformers and dissenting ministers, led by James Lesslie and Dr. William W. Baldwin, founded the Toronto House of Industry, a charitable institution.

Its mandate was humanitarian, based on the principles that people in these circumstances did not choose their lot in life.

Toronto House of Industry, for the “deserving poor,” was set up in January 1837 in an unused courthouse on Richmond St. until a permanent home, designed by architect William Thomas, was built in 1848 at Elizabeth and Elm Sts.

At this time, St. John’s Ward was primarily occupied by Anglo and Irish working-class immigrants.

Thomas, known for the St. Michael’s Cathedral of Bond St., the St. Lawrence Hall on King St. E. and the monument to Sir Isaac Brock in Queenston, chose the Tudor-Gothic style for the yellow-brick structure. He refused payment for designing the House of Industry and donated the architectural blueprints for free in his support of the needy.

The original outlay had two floors and a basement, with all of the available space used for its occupants. Most rooms were bedrooms and dormitories, with a sitting room and lavatories on each floor. Men and women had separate sleeping quarters, dining halls and sick rooms with the male areas in the west wing and the female areas in the east wing. There were sprawling gardens outside the building.

A growing population of poverty-stricken immigrants led to additional dormitories and — and on doctors’ recommendations — changes to the ventilation and drainage systems to address residents needs.

In the 1890s, architect Edward James Lennox designed two new wings and in 1906, a third floor was added to increase space. The House of Industry wasn’t just a building it was a charity with trustees and superintendents, including longtime superintendents Arthur and Frances Laughlen.

It didn’t just look after those who lived in the poor house. “Charitable visitors” went into shanties, sheds, cellars and tumbledown homes in The Ward to see what poor people needed. Donations of coal, firewood and bread were distributed to help the needy through Toronto’s harsh winters, according to a Dec. 14, 2002 Toronto Star article.

The stories were often heartbreaking, illustrating the wretched circumstances in which some inhabitants of The Ward found themselves buried under.

“Mary McKenzie, 36 Eleanor St. Found this woman in bed very sick,” says one of the House of Industry Records from the Toronto archives. “Has 4 children left out of 16 — the rest are dead! Two died last summer . . . typhoid fever. She goes out to wash and iron . . . Her husband is in the penitentiary, a great drunkard. She wants coal and bread.”

And another: “Mary Thompson, 211 Sawley St. Mr. J.A. Jones, a carpenter . . . tells me he found this woman with her 3 small children in a house from which the door and window had been removed by the landlord (and) in a state of utter destitution and starvation. He took them into his own home. He finds her steady and honest. Her husband left her 2 years ago and (she) does not know where he is. Asks for bread, groceries and fuel.”

In 1880, there were of 86,415 people living in Toronto and the House of Industry provided aid to about 6,000, including 3,974 children.

The House of Industry provided both temporary and permanent accommodations. Residents were often required to do chores in return for help — similar to the old Dickensian workhouses of England.

Unemployed men were given food and shelter for the night and expected to move on, writes Gaétan Héroux in The Stone Yard — an excerpt from the book The Ward (Coach House Books, 2015). To deter “casuals” from taking advantage of the system, trustees introduced a new law: breaking “two yards” of stone in order to qualify for relief, Héroux writes.

Haulers brought stone from farms and the lake to the yard, where casuals had to break it up. It was then hauled away to construction sites around the city.

Men seeking aid were required to break “two yards” of stone in order to qualify for relief.
Men seeking aid were required to break “two yards” of stone in order to qualify for relief.  (EI SCAN)  

Abandoned children and orphans were often placed as indentured servants in homes and farms around Toronto, where they were given room and board (and perhaps wages) in return for their work. A farm’s survival relied heavily on the work of children back then.

After the First World War, the poor house focused on helping the families of returning soldiers.

By 1947, the House of Industry’s clients were primarily the elderly poor and the House of Industry was converted into a home for the aged to reflect the changing times. It was renamed Laughlen Lodge after Arthur and Frances Laughlen, superintendents who had worked for the institution for many years.

Since then, the role of the poor house has changed with the times.

With the help of the Rotary Club of Toronto, new senior citizens’ housing called the Rotary-Laughlen Centre was constructed on the property in 1975, with an addition added in 1983. The north section of the original House of Industry was preserved as part of the Centre, which closed down in 2004.

The facade of the House of Industry is today incorporated into the YWCA Toronto Elm Housing complex, which opened in 2013 and offers affordable market housing to single women and women-led families. It is part of the Julia M. Ruby Leadership Centre; the Centre includes YWCA Toronto’s administrative headquarters.


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