Recent discussion within the Dresden Virtual History Group is centering around "poorhouses" as they existed in the l9th century. I grew up hearing the expression "poor house" more often than I care to recount. You know..."We're all going to end up in the poor house" or "It won't be long before I'm in the poor house."
That was my mother talking when my dad did not bring home enough money from his business at the end of the week or when she was hard-pressed to meet living expenses. "You're driving me to the insane asylum" was another expression often directed at the three men in her life -- my dad, my grandfather and me; but that's another story. We're talking here about poor houses, although there might well be some correlation.
Though more commonly associated with Victorian England and novels by Charles Dickens, such as Oliver Twist, the poor house was part of Canada's social fabric for more than 60 years and one of its earliest legislated responses to poverty. Poor houses have been forgotten but they are part of our local history. These "houses of industry and refuge," as they came to be known, were shelters of last resort for the destitute, homeless, "feeble-minded" and elderly. In exchange for their labour, they were provided with spartan accommodation, clothes and simple food, much of it grown themselves. At Christmas, there might be small gifts, perhaps a handkerchief, a pipe or an orange.
The poor house closest to my home in Dresden was located in Chatham and according to a virtual history group member there was another located in Strathroy (her great grandmother died there). To the best of my knowledge both houses were demolished years ago. One of the oldest surviving examples of a poor house in Canada is in Wellington County (see photo). The Fergus, ON. building, a national historic site, opened in 1877 at a time when "pauperism" was considered a moral failing that could be erased through order and hard work. I have visited the Fergus facility and it is truly one of the province's best kept secrets.
It was also something Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe had very much wanted to avoid when he arrived in Upper Canada in 1791. In his native England, more than 100,000 people were swallowed up in work houses, funded by a "poor tax" on landowners and criticized for being costly and creating cycles of dependency.
"When he came over to take up his position here, he was absolutely convinced he wasn't going to allow anything like that to develop," David Wood, a professor emeritus of geography and urban studies at York University's Atkinson College, has commented. Yet poverty was inescapable. Crops failed. People starved. On farms and in cities, as the province slowly started to become industrialized, many couldn't work because they were sick or injured or old.
The only option for indigent people in the province's earliest days was to seek shelter for a night or two at the local jail, said Wood in a newspaper interview a few years ago. He has written on the legislative history of Ontario's poorhouse system and admissions in Wellington County. One newspaper account from the early 1870s tells of one elderly man who was living in a hollowed-out log on a farmer's field in a township outside Fergus, partly paralyzed and in danger of freezing to death. The council was debating what to do and the story was being repeated hundreds of times across the country.
Across Canada, elected officials were struggling with similar problems. Handouts of food or clothing known as "outdoor relief" became common and, in New Brunswick, one solution was to auction off care of the poor to the lowest bidder at "pauper auctions" that were compared to slavery in the American south. In Ontario, the province passed the Houses of Refuge Act in 1890, which provided county governments with grants of up to $4,000 to purchase at least 45 acres of land and construct a suitable building. By 1903, new legislation required every county in Ontario to have a house of refuge.
Much like today, misfortune seemed to hit society's most vulnerable people the hardest – the unskilled, the elderly, the disabled and children. While Canadian society has evolved and a sophisticated social safety net has developed to ease the burdens of those who've fallen on hard times, attitudes toward poverty remain much the same today.
Just another not-so-happy peek at yesteryear. A time that we should not so readily forget as we enjoy the comfort and security of our lives today.