LAYERS [Lairs] IN TIME: Going to the Poor House – Wellington County Museum

“You’re driving me to the poor house”! How many times have we, as parents, said this to our kids when yet another demand is made? Now you really can!

In this case, you will be driving them to the Wellington County Museum in Fergus! Now a designated National Historic Site, the building became the Museum and Archives in 1974 and was presented the 2013 Business Beautification Award by the Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce for its work on the House of Industry and Refuge cemetery and 1877 Barn.

THE POOR HOUSE

Officially built as the Wellington County House of Refuge and Industry in 1877, it was a place of refuge for the poor, homeless, and destitute people in Wellington County and operated as a Poor House and Industrial Farm until 1947. Then it became a County Home for the Aged, not dissimilar to the building where my husband’s grandmother lived her last days, in Athens located in eastern Ontario. In 1974 it was transformed into the Wellington County Museum and Archives. A new Archives wing opened in 2010.

This was also the forerunner of our present government funded social assistance program. It’s an important part of our history we seem to have forgotten. Sadly poverty has dogged us through history as have illness, lack of skills, aging, and inevitable events like crop failure and refugees from war. Local 19th century stories describe people sleeping in hollowed out logs and jail cells. “Outdoor relief” handing out food and clothing was the common way to deal with such a pervasive problem with no social safety net. In New Brunswick, auctioning off the care of the poor was even held, likening it to slavery!

This museum is the oldest remaining House of Industry and Refuge in Canada. We have all read about “poor houses” in Dickens novels. The poor house system was in fact, something Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe had wanted to avoid when he arrived in Upper Canada in 1791.

The United Kingdom passed a new Poor Law in 1835, creating the system of Victorian workhouses (or “Houses of Industry”). Afraid that Sir Francis Bond Head the newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada in 1836, a Poor Law administrator prior to his new post, would introduce these workhouses in Ontario, a small group of reformers and dissenting ministers tried alternate, humane principles, in a constant struggle with the ruling elite “Family Compact”.

Ontario’s Houses of Refuge Act in 1890, gave County governments with grants of up to $4,000 to purchase at least 45 acres of land and construct a suitable building. By 1903, every county in Ontario was to have a house of refuge by law.

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 the absolute basics, most of the food being grown by themselves. Poor houses gave permanent and temporary lodging as well as food and fuel to the needy in the community, who often were required to do chores in return for help. It also “assisted” abandoned or orphaned children, often placing them as indentured servants in homes and farms. Worse still, “inmates” had to be accepted as the ‘deserving poor’ and it was the Reeve and Township Council who decided that. Once entering the gates, you almost never left. And usually you entered only if someone else died, freeing up a spot.

With foresight in 1876, Wellington County officials bought 50 acres of land between Fergus and Elora for a poor house. It was meant to operate as a self-sufficient industrial farm, where the residents tended livestock, looked after 30 acres of crops, an orchard, a garden and a strawberry patch. Called “inmates”, a term used at the time to describe anyone living in an institution, residents, families and spouses were separated in dormitories and even when eating. There was room for 60, but the number housed could reach as high as 100.

Now forgotten, but very much part of our local history, this building goes back to a time when “pauperism” was considered a moral failing that could only be erased through order and hard work. By 1947, the clients were Ontario’s aged.

TODAY’S MUSEUM

The major exhibition on the museum’s ground floor chronicles attitudes, realities and personal stories of those who were part of its history. Over 1500 destitute women, men and children are part of the past of Wellington County, and indeed Canada as a whole. Its’ onsite cemetery only currently documents 271 actually known.

Are there ghosts you may ask? At Halloween, the museum also offers a series of spirit walks.

The barn built in 1877, operating until 1941, was renovated in 2011. The Houses of Industry and Refuge were built to run as self-sufficient farms. These farms offset the costs of providing food and shelter for the inmates, and paid staff wages and site maintenance. 

Other exhibits feature “big stories” related to Wellington County.

So please drive yourself and your family there, to the “poor house” and see for yourselves some of the not so brilliant examples of so called “looking after” the marginalized from a by-gone age.

Written By: Diana Janosik-Wronski | Photography: Cory Bruyea

Author: LivingSpaces

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