Labour and the Poorhouse

Peasant and Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes, 1885, Kunsthaus, Zürich by Vincent Van Gogh; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

This section will give you a glimpse at what it was like to be a labourer in the early 19th century and what lead to the labour movement in the late 19th century. It will also discuss child labour and gender specific labour. These last two themes will also be discussed in children and women sections in A People’s History: Poverty in Ontario. To skip ahead to any of specific topics in this section, you can use the table of contents below.

  1. Early Labour Force in Rural Ontario
  2. Mid- to late- 19th Century Working Class
  3. Women and Labour
  4. Child Labour
  5. Labour Movement

Early Labour Force in Rural Ontario:

In the early 1800s, people were coming to settle in Waterloo County from all over the World; Germany, England, Ireland and Pennsylvania being the largest groups of immigrants. Most of the work available to these people was in the form of manual labour: clearing land, making farms, growing crops, building houses and barns, tending to livestock, and forming communities. For those that had already established land, they would hire on “labourers” to help them with their more manually intensive work.


A labourer referred to anyone performing unskilled manual labour for money. A labourer does not have one single position but rather a variety of positions depending on what is needed at the time. They also do not just work in one discipline. A labourer could work on a farm for a few months, then in construction, then inside of a house. Many of the young male pioneers settling in Waterloo Township between 1820-1850 had no skill set to acquire higher paying jobs as they were “quite inexperienced in busy life” so they worked as labourers for established Mennonite farmers who would give them advice and teach them farming skills. [1]

In 1820, the cost of “clearing, fencing, sowing, harrowing and harvesting one acre” was about £5-5s  and a labourer during harvest time would earn about 5 shillings a day, making his yearly wage to be about £37-10s plus board. [2] The general idea was that labourers would be earning enough that they could save up to eventually have their own farm. This was the case for a lot of people in the early 1800s where men earned enough money to support themselves (usually leaving their family in their home country until they could afford to take care of them) and start purchasing animals and land. [3] “Day” or “casual” labourers would be used on a short term basis to do quicker jobs during harvest, such as clearing land by chopping and harvesting crops. [4] It would take a few years for a labourer to save up enough money, or negotiate a deal “on shares” with their employer, so that they could establish a farm of their own. [5]

Labourer’s families were able to survive by saving their money and growing their own crops on a small plot of land,

Seythe and Cradle

Scythe and Cradle

usually on the corner of larger farms. One of the hardest parts of being a labourer was how taxing it was on their bodies. They used tools such as the scythe and cradle which was used to cut and catch the grain during the harvest season.

Recessions began to threaten the labourers by the mid-1830s, the winter of 1836-7 was particularly difficult, which meant that more and more people were out of jobs and had nowhere to turn but to the streets where diseases brought over by immigrant ships were ever present. [6] Male labourers that couldn’t find out and had depleting resources turned to their local municipalities for answers. One of the first solutions was to build houses of industry across Upper Canada. [7] The House of Industry Act was passed in 1837 to provide anybody who was able-bodied with work as well as food and shelter. The main objective of this Act was “the total abolition of street begging, the putting down of wandering vagrants, and securing an asylum at the least possible expence for the industrious and distressed poor”. [8] The Act was not fully implemented due to the Rebellion of 1837 that occupied the political sphere. Being employed as a labourer meant that the availability of work was always uncertain.


Seasonal Poverty:

Joe Snyder's maple sugar bush and cabin, located in Bloomingdale, Ontario, in winter, circa 1965; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Joe Snyder’s maple sugar bush and cabin, located in Bloomingdale, Ontario, in winter, circa 1965; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Seasonal or winter poverty referred to how the winter months impacted employment, specifically in rural Ontario for our analysis. Winter for most settlers in Upper Canada was hard, but for the poor, winter “was synonymous with hardship: cold, hunger, and gloomy unemployment or underemployment until the welcome return of summer.” [9] Winter for most labourers and farmers meant months of uncertainty as the irregularity of work was a “constant difficulty”. [10] The fall and winter months is when poorhouses, jails and asylums saw the biggest increases of male workers. At the Waterloo County Poorhouse, 

There were a couple of labourers that would come in and out of the Poorhouse during the course of the year. Noah Shantz (inmate #1460) was one such person. He originally entered the Poorhouse in 1895 and was living there for 15 years before it was recorded that he left over the summer months to herd at a nearby farm. He would usually leave around May or June and return in the middle of fall in order live somewhere warm during the winter months.

Male labourers working in the summer months usually had to work between 10-15 hours a day for 5 1/2-6 days a week, making about $22.00/week, depending on the employer. [11]


Mid- to late- 19th Century Working Class: 

The economic crises that were disrupting labourers from working in the early 19th century continued into the mid- to late- 19th century. This will be discussed more in Labour Movements.

Labourers were constantly finding themselves unemployed and destitute due to the economic conditions although they made up a large portion of the workforce. In the 1861 Census of Canada for Waterloo County, “22 per cent of all the township’s households were headed by labourers” compared to 46% by farmers, 22% by craftsmen (blacksmith, carpenter, painter, etc), and 2.% by storekeepers. [12] Farmers, usually meaning the person that owns and operates the farm on an ongoing basis, compared to labourers, who were the hired help paid by the farmers to work on their large-scale farms, had a much more consistent income because when the farm prices began to increase, they could do most of the work themselves with the help of close family members instead of hiring a labourer to help out with the workload. This reality is similar to the workers entering the Poorhouse. Labourer was mentioned as an inmate’s occupation in the Registry logbook between 1869-1935 666 times whereas farmer was mentioned as the occupation 65 times, 10 times less than labourer which shows that farmers were more economically stable and did not need to be committed to poorhouses as often as labourers. The biggest cause of pauperism for labourers  was destitution which made up 49% of all of the labourers. The next few causes of pauperism for labourers were illness/sickness (24%), intemperance/vagrancy (13%), weak minded/mental (8%), old age (7%), and broken limbs or being labelled as “crippled” (4%). For farmers entering the Poorhouse, destitution was still their first cause of pauperism (35% of all farmers), but it was closely followed by illness/sickness (34%), weak minded/mental (20%), old age (11%), having no home (6%), and intemperance/vagrancy (5%). The average age of the committed labourers and farmers was very similar at 66.89 years old and 67.8 years old (respectively). This last piece of data indicates that men needed to work well into their 60s and 70s in order to provide for their families and also that there were no laws around retirement age or pension that assisted labourers and farmers when they became too sick to work.


I.E. Bowman Tannery in St. Jacobs, Ontario; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

I.E. Bowman Tannery in St. Jacobs, Ontario; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

The urban working force looked very different from rural labour. By the mid-19th century, Berlin started to become an integral factory city, later going on to play a significant role in the Canadian automotive industry, making tires at the rubber factories around the township. Berlin started in the 1850s with leather and wood-working factories, such as the I.E. Bowman Tannery founded in 1855 by Isaac Bowman, the cousin of Israel D. Bowman, which treated animals skins in order to produce leather.

“Berlin’s factories had developed from early leather and wood-working from the 1850s, felt and buttons from the 1870s, and shirts and collars in the 1880s, into a very diversified range of product lines by the First World War. Most local entrepreneurs began on a small scale and gradually expanded, usually encouraged by municipal bonuses such as tax exemptions or fixed assessments.” [13]


Women and Labour:

Women working on the farm had the added burden of farm work on top of their traditional domestic and maternal duties. They were not only working on the farm, they were raising their families and running their households:

Two Peasant Women Digging Potatoes, 1885 by Vincent Van Gogh; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

Two Peasant Women Digging Potatoes, 1885 by Vincent Van Gogh; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

“As well as the ‘sorrow… toil and labour’ of bearing and raising up to 15 or more children, they were responsible for all food preservation and preparation, and the making and care of clothing. Women and girls usually milked by hand and made butter and cheese in the farm dairy and took care of large gardens.” [14]

Peasant Women Peeling Potatoes, 1885 by Vincent Van Gogh; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

Peasant Women Peeling Potatoes, 1885 by Vincent Van Gogh; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

A man’s work is from sun to sun, a women’s work is never done

Depending on the farm and if the family had enough money to hire out for work, some of the women’s tasks included chopping trees, ploughing the land, threshing grain, butchering livestock and fowl, planting, hoeing and weeding field crops during harvest, hauling manure, washing and sheering sheep and driving farm machinery. [15] On larger farms and if the family did have enough money to hire other people to do the manual labour for them, the women would have to feed and cloth the men on an ongoing basis. [16] Subsequently, women had to look after the health of their family, including other dependent relatives, and any lodger or worker staying at the house during harvest. Daughters would often help their mothers with their workload, doing tasks such as spinning wool and waving cloth, milking the cows by hand, helping to cook meals for all the men, and doing the household tasks. [17] Girls would often be taken out of schooling before their brothers as they would be needed at an early age to help out around the farm. Most girls and women worked in dairying operations at the farm, which had the highest input of women in Ontario in the late 1800s. [18] Women were also primary contributors to the canning industry, especially after its expansion in the 1880s. However, the wages were still unequally distributed among gender: “Wages often varied in a ratio of 4/2/1 for men, women, and children”. [19]


Child Labour:

Coming soon!


Labour Movement:

The fight for labour rights began at different times and for different causes across Canada as a lot of different cultural tensions and economic impacts were happening to different demographics at different times. A lot of the initial working-class mobilization and protests came from political turmoil that affected workers, such as the rebellions of 1837-38, the Durham Meetings of 1841, and the Rebellion Losses Bill of 1849. (Palmer,1987,63) Workers and labourers were also protesting against the harsh, dangerous and unfair conditions that they faced in their daily work: “Fifteen-hour days, wretched working conditions, and condescending attitudes made farm labour abhorrent to many – the most lowly, demanding, and demeaning of all occupations after domestic service, and the least rewarding.” (craven, 68) On top of the low wages for very labour-intensive work, there was constant uncertainty of holding onto a job year-round. A lack of job security meant that if a labourer contested the hours of work he was given, he was easily fired and replaced by a new worker. (craven, 69)

Even though the classes would usually come together to protest the government, there were several instances when cultures and classes collided, for example to French and Irish raftsmen who were competing for the same jobs in Ottawa in the 1830s. There was also an element of seasonal poverty that was taken into consideration when planning for a protest. The majority of protests across Canada from 1820-1875 (37%) took place in the summer months (July, August, September) when workers could afford “to disrupt seasonally circumscribed job sites like the canals”. (Palmer, 1987, 64 and 66)

Into the 1860s, the push for an increase in wages was the dominant reason behind labour protests. (Palmer, 1987,67) But as more and more labourers were beginning to protest their poor conditions, the slack of labour was taken up by immigrants who would fill in for the work missed by the protesters. (Craven,70)

The Nine-Hour Movement towards getting shorter working days took off in January 1872 beginning in Hamilton, Ontario and eventually making its way out east to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The first act to be passed to support and defend workers right was the Trade Union Act in 1872 which legalized trade unions. One year later, the Canadian Labour Union was formed to defend worker rights. In 1883, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada was formed and they advocated for an eight-hour working day, six days a week as well as adequate training on the job.

Unfortunately, with the increase in protests by the labour movement in the second half of the 19th century, there were more charitable and philanthropic organizations that began to promote emigration to Canada, promising the availability of jobs. A lot of these organizations encouraged children to come to Canada, such as the best-known child-placement group, the Barnardo Homes from England. (craven, 70) This group promised to teach children farming skills, but their principal motive was to ” traffic in young bodies [for] a financial cut for each boy for whom employment was found… No care was taken in either the selection or the placement of the boys. Some were small and unaccustomed to farm work.” (craven, 70) For more on the Barnardo Homes, visit the Children page.

As new machinery and innovative technology entered the workforce in the Waterloo County in the late 1890s, more farm labourers who were paid “$125 to $150 [per] year now expected $225 to $240 and their board.” (Bloomfield, 186)  Improved farm machinery meant that labourers could be more productive than their predecessors in the mid-1800s. The fight for job security, better working conditions and a living wage continued through the 20th century with labourers and farmers now advocating with unions in order to work together to receive a better quality of life.



[1] Bloomfield, Elizabeth. Waterloo Township through Two Centuries, Waterloo, Ontario: Waterloo Historical Society, 1995, p.50.[2] Bloomfield, p.63-4.[3] Bloomfield, p.50-6.[4] Bloomfield, p.120.[5] Bloomfield, p.120.[6] Palmer, Bryan D., and Gaetan Heroux. “‘Cracking the Stone’: The Long History of Capitalist Crisis and Toronto’s Dispossessed, 1830–1930.” Labour/Le Travail 69 (Spring 2012), p. 19-20.[7] Palmer, 2012, p.21.[8] Palmer, 2012, p. 21-22.[9] Fingard, Judith. “The Winter’s Tale: The Seasonal Contours of Pre-industrial Poverty in British North America, 1815-1860.” Historical Papers/Communications Historiques 9, no. 1 (1974), p.65.[10] Craven, Paul, ed. Labouring Lives: Work and Workers in Nineteenth-century Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1995), p. 417.[11] Craven, p.417.[12] Bloomfield, p.216.[13] Bloomfield, p,255.[14] Bloomfield, p.226-7.[15] Craven, p,32.[16] Bloomfield, p.226-227.[17] Craven, p.34.[18] Craven, p.67.[19] Craven, p.67.

Palmer, Bryan D. “Labour Protest and Organization in Nineteenth-Century Canada, 1820-1890.” Labour / Le Travail 20 (Fall 1987): 61-83.

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