Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Seeking Refuge

At left is a photo of the Wellington County museum and archives, located between Fergus and Elora. I thank Michael G. whose Elora photo gallery I came upon in my search for a bright day photo of this most interesting of buildings. At right is an archival photo post-card of a long-gone building in Belleville, from a Mika publication. This august structure was demolished in 1976 to make way for a high-rise apartment building. The building at the left is exceptional in that it is one of a very few remaining of its type - these structures were Houses of Refuge, sometimes called Houses of Industry and Refuge.

The Houses of Industry and Refuge (a chillier sounding name could not be conjured this side of Charles Dickens) were called into being in the nineteenth century and early c20 by Ontario counties, to care for their homeless and destitute. The study of these buildings, the Victorian social policy/'Christian charity' which spawned them, and the attitudes, prejudices and myths surrounding poverty and the poor is worthy of some study.

Thanks to the fine folk in the reference department at BPL I reviewed a clipping file on the Hastings County House of Refuge. In the file was a tiny red book, the "Rules and Regulations to Govern the House of Refuge and Industrial Farm of the County of Hastings 1907".

Among the rules for the inmates was the strict segregation of the sexes, the forced removal by Children's Aid of children reaching the age of two, and the powers of the superintendent "to search for and bring back any inmate...who has absconded". Oh yes, 'refuge' might be a bit of a misnomer - once you were "compelled to become inmates of the institution*" you were committed (literally) and you did not leave, except to your daily work.

A footnote on the Wellington County Museum and Archives: A dear friend Doug was once preparator and conservator; my childhood friend Allannah taught children's art classes there. My visits there took place during my 'wow this is an amazing place, it is so old and has such stories to tell' phase of architectural appreciation. Now I am looking at it again with the eyes of an architectural historian (amateur, but dedicated) and as a student of social history. And I am even more convinced that these buildings have stories to tell.

* Daily Intelligencer, December 7, 1907


  1. We've driven by the WC museum many times on our way from a friend's house in Fergus to the family in Waterloo. It's a beautiful building and now sounding worth a stop sometime if we go that way again. Wouldn't you have hated the life sentence of commitment to a house of refuge?!?!? Poor people, whose only crime was to be poor.

  2. My Great Grandmother was one of the "inmates" of this place and her children adopted out.

  3. Such difficult lives, hard stories. As the comment above reads "their only crime was to be poor."