You’re in the Poor House Now!

useful links:  Information on the former House of Industry and Refuge  List of National Historic Site Information on the National Historic sites of Ontario

Its proper name was the House of Industry and Refuge, but everyone knew it as “The Poorhouse.”  And, the stories went, once you “checked in”  you never returned. Mrs Wesley Knowles was one.

Deserted by her husband, with two children and another on the way, she was homeless and penniless. When Mrs. Knowles’ time came, she lay down in the street and delivered her infant. A crowd of gawkers looked on.

The Wellington County Reeve drove the family to this Poorhouse. You couldn’t just check yourself in, but needed to be verified as one of the” deserving poor.” And no hotel was this roof-over-the-head. All, including children, expectant women and the elderly were expected to do field and house work for their daily bread. Mrs. Knowles’ 3 young ones passed their childhoood here,  being apprenticed out as field hands by the time they reached 9 or 10.

Built in 1876, Canada’s oldest example of our nation’s response to poverty, mental illness, old age, or inopportune pregnancy still stands. You’ve driven by it numerous times on your way to the charming town of Elora, northwest of Guelph. You’ve always wondered what it is.

The House of Industry and Refuge functioned as a Poor House until 1947 when it became a “Home for the Aged.” Only in 1971 was it closed.

Designated a National Historic Site in 1995, and then opened as a Museum, the “Poorhouse” reminds complacent Canadians of darker times in our nation’s history.  And it chills us to the bone.

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photo courtesy of the Wellington County Museum and Archeives

One thought on “You’re in the Poor House Now!

  1. Susan Dunlop April 10, 2013 / 6:29 am

    From the Curator of the Wellington County Museum and Archives: Actually many people were discharged from the ‘poorhouse’, including Mrs. Wesley Knowles and her three young children, who, weeks after admittance, were taken in by a family member near Toronto.

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