Old Age & the Poorhouse

Old Couple on Porch, circa 1889; Source: flickr.org

This section will discuss how older people were treated and cared for in Canada and specifically rural Ontario in the 19th century. If you would like to skip to any of the specific subjects at anytime, you can do so here:

  1. National and Provincial Context
  2. Life and Work for the Elderly Population
  3. Gender and Poverty
  4. Old Age in the Poorhouse
  5. Transition to the Old People’s Home


National and Provincial Context: 

Social policy for old age and retirement was created after other initiatives and legislation around poverty, children, mental health, and women’s rights were first adopted. [1] Primarily, poorhouses were created as a response to the growing population of “needy”, which encompassed those that were living in poverty, those with disabilities and/or mental health issues, immigrants, the elderly, and children. In the early to mid-1800s, most Canadians relied on their families and communities to take care of them when they became physically unable to work. [2] Consequently, in rural Ontario when a family could not support their elders, neighbours would rally behind them to provide food, clothes and care to those that were too feeble to provide for themselves. [3] Even though caring for the elderly within one’s own community was born out of tradition and respect for family elders, they nonetheless were increasingly considered a burden as families expanded, unsteady work became the norm, and economic instability hit farmers. [4] This population could no longer financially support their families as they once did, so they found themselves becoming segregated from the rest of society.

Title: Popular soup kitchen for the poor- line outside the building; Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / PA-168133

Title: Popular soup kitchen for the poor- line outside the building; Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / PA-168133

Poor relief provided by municipal councils was the only other type of support that the aging population received and unfortunately this too became too much work for the local governments as the number of vulnerable populations began to increase. [5] Poorhouses across Canada were one of the earliest and longest running social policy initiatives created to care for the aging population.


At the opening of the House of Industry in Waterloo County, William Jaffray described the House:


"A Day at the Waterloo Poor House", a Lecture Delivered by William Jaffray 1871; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives

“A Day at the Waterloo Poor House”, a Lecture Delivered by William Jaffray 1871; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives


The first piece of legislation regarding an old age pension was called the Old Age Security Act of 1927. This would provide any person over the age of 70, excluding immigrants and aboriginals, a maximum of $20/month or $240/year. [6] The pension was only available to seniors who had been living in Canada for at least 20 years and who made less than $365/year. The pension wasn’t received by the House of Refuge until 1929 when all of the inmates over the age of 70 (approximately 70 people in 1929) received about $2.74 (the budget allocated to the House for the inmates portion of Old Age Pensions was $192.00 total). In 1936, there was a debate going on in between members of the Standing Committee about whether or not to pay pensioners there allocated money. The managers, Edward and Marie Amos, did not want to pay the pensioners $3.00 whereas a few of the mayors and reeves of the neighbouring communities thought they should receive their money according to the Old Age Security Act. It was finally resolved by the end of 1936 to continue paying pensioners their money. Below is the resolution of the Standing Committee.


Kitchener Sept 11th 1936

House of Refuge

The Board of Management met this day at 2 P.M.


Present Chairman McKersie, Warden Wagner, Mayor Smith, Mayor Servis, Dr Lurner & Inspector S. Cassel

[…]Mayor Servis again brought up the question in regard to a portion of Old Age Pensions which the County of Waterloo is receiving from the Province of Ontario for the support of certain inmates as long as they remain at the Count House of Refuge.  After considerable discussions the following resolution was presentedMoved by Mayor Servis Sec by Mayor Smith that the resolution dealing with Old Age Pensions, where the portion of the pension paid to the pensioner was to be left to the discretion of the Manager of the House of Refuge that the said resolution be hereby rescinded, and that the former method of paying $3.00 per month to each Old Age Pensioner be continued, and that the Manager be hereby instructed to pay the Pensioners whatever part of the said $3.00 which has been accumulating to the credit of the pensioner since the date of the resolution which is hereby rescinded.  Yeas Mayors Service & Smith   Nays Warden Wagner, Chairman McKersie.  The motion was declared lost.Signed 

W. McKersie



Life and Work for the Elderly Population: 

To 19th century standards, old age referred primarily to anyone over the age of 60. [7] This is reflective of the House of Refuge of Berlin as the average age of those committed with “old age” listed as the cause of pauperism is between 61-64 years old. This can also compare to the life expectancy which for a child born in Canada in 1851 was 43 years old, however, if the child lived past the age of 15, they had a greater chance of living longer. From 1851-1891, the population of persons over the age of sixty increased from being 3% of the population to being 7.2% of the population. Compared with today’s population, people aged 65 and older make up about 16% of the population. [8] This shows that as the aging population increased, there was more need for institutions and resources exclusively for this demographic. However, with the lack of supports and resources available, the elderly would often end up in jails, especially in the winter, as there was no other shelter available to them. [9] The old and poor were often driven away from their communities as recessions and depressions spread across Canada and families already living in destitution feared that their elders would increase the poverty rates.

Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-2748 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-2748 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

As for the elderly that could still work, their skills and endurance began to decline over time due to the demands of the labour intensive work they were doing and scarcity of specialized medical assistance and care. [10] This is reflected on the House of Refuge Registry where men would come in with one job, usually a higher skilled and paid job, and then leave or return with a different job listed. One example of this was Noah Shantz who initially entered the Poorhouse on May 11, 1895 as a carpenter and remained there until his death on December 27, 1920. He would leave to herd in the summer months, beginning in early May, and return to the House before fall/winter. It is unclear where he stayed during this time and who he was working for. The demand for older men’s work decreased and they found themselves relying on family members or in a poorhouse to temporarily support them while they worked as labourers. For the most part, men were the most affected by factory work-related illness, [11] however that began to change when more women were allowed to work outside of the household. For anyone over the age of 60 that entered the Poorhouse and had labourer listed as their occupation, the majority of their cause of pauperism was destitution and sickness (including mental illness such as weak intellect). In the “old age” category, there were far fewer that entered the Poorhouse due to intemperance (about 4%), old age (about 3%) and injury (about 1.7%).


Gender and Poverty: 

Wood Gatherers in the Snow by Vincent Van Gogh 1884; Source: PD-1923 (apart of the public domain)

In the nineteenth century, women were more susceptible to poverty because they lived longer, they were more financially affected by divorce, they were more likely to be single and widowed with children and would rarely remarry, their work opportunities were limited, and their wages were significantly lower than men’s. Despite this, elderly women were less likely than elderly men to be committed to a poorhouse because they had stronger relational bonds with their children and women were able to contribute to the households by performing chores just as they would have done as wives and mothers. [12] Men were more accustomed to working outside of the house for longer hours. This was also clear with the elderly women and men who were discharged from the House of Refuge by relatives and taken to live with them. Based on the Waterloo County Poorhouse Registry from 1869-1935, more women over the age of 50 were taken by relatives than men in the same age bracket (23:14 respectively). Of the relatives that took in the elderly women, the majority were their daughters.


Within the Poorhouse, gender segregation meant it was harder for elderly couples to communicate and live as they once did. Although the segregation of genders did occur in the Berlin House of Refuge, women and men were split by opposite wings, there is some mention of older couples being allowed to stay in a shared room, such as the Bischop’s. There were very few couples that entered the Poorhouse together.


Old Age in the Poorhouse: 

In the House Registry from 1869-1935, old age was mentioned about 195 times as the reason for pauperism.In the year of its opening, 27 of the 29 inmates over the age of 60 were immigrants (also underlying how Canadian settlers and some of the first families that immigrated to the region had existing familial supports. Often “old age” was accompanied by other ailments such as sickness, destitution, and intemperance. For the people that were admitted to the House because of old age, about 25% of them had labourer listed as their occupation (exclusively men held this job title in the House), 3% farmers, and 4% were listed as a housewife.


Register of Paupers, Vagrants, and Idiots received at the House of Industry and Refuge; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives

Register of Paupers, Vagrants, and Idiots received at the House of Industry and Refuge; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives


Between December 1871 to November 1872, there were 20 people entering the House over the age of 60, out of a total of 81 people admitted. In the 1890 report, there were 29 new inmates arriving to the poorhouse, 14 of whom were over the age of 60. Lastly, in 1900, of the 33 inmates admitted to the House, 19 were over 60 years old. We can see a gradual increase from 25% of the population of inmates being 60 and over in 1872 to 57.6% of the inmates in 1900. This shows the significant importance that poorhouses had for the elderly, especially after new legislation was being passed to protect children and prevent them from entering similar institutions at the end of the 19th century. Consequently, poorhouses did turn into old age homes by mid-20th century which was seen mainly as an “unintended consequence of reformist zeal for saving children from the stigma and “contamination” of pauper institutions.” As there were no institutions created exclusively for the aging population, there were no measures put in place to take care of them properly and adequately. The elderly would be “crowded together” with the sick, the disabled, widows, children, and vagrants unless they were deemed mentally ill from being senile or having dementia, in which case they would likely be sent to a neighbouring insane asylum. As all of the demographics of people in the House were their own vulnerable populations, the aged were also subject to abuse. On one such occasion, an elderly single woman by the name of Margaret Heddle was abused by the Keeper and Matron at the time,George and Annie Eliza Martin, and she wrote a letter to the King in order to get her removed from the House and to receive refuge elsewhere. In another instance, staff and visitors of Jemima Frame  campaigned on her behalf after she was being mistreated and neglected by the managers Peter and Alvina Itter.

Head of an Old Peasant Woman with White Cap, 1884 by Vincent Van Gogh; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

Head of an Old Peasant Woman with White Cap, 1884 by Vincent Van Gogh; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

Here is a link to the Supervisors Home Report of 1950, before the House of Refuge transitioned into an Old People’s Home. For 1950, the supervisor recorded that there was a total of 164 residents in the House, 60 of whom were mentally incompetent and 15 were bed patients. There were 32 men and women who were working in the House either working on the farm or doing household chores. The report even outlines the types of recreational and occupational therapy that the residents are receiving. The males take part in cards and checkers inside and horseshoes outside while the females play cards, Chinese checkers and other games inside and nothing outside. He also noted that pensioners pay from $25.00-40.00 per month to stay at the House and receive $3.00 per month as pocket money, 38 of which are “considered unable to look after their pocket money properly and it is kept in trust for them” (xii).


Transition to the Old People’s Home:

By the 1920s, there were 76 Houses of Refuge in Ontario, at this point largely catering to the elderly poor population. These institutions established the Ontario Association of Managers of Homes for the Aged and Infirm in 1919 and the House of Refuge began sending the managers to their conference every year.


Dishes used at the Old People's Home; Source: Region of Waterloo Museum

Dishes used at the Old People’s Home; Source: Region of Waterloo Museum


The refurbishing and expanding of the Poorhouse of Waterloo County to become a Home for the elderly was first discussed in the Minutes of the Standing Committee in 1919. When the issue was brought to the County Council at the Court House in Kitchener in August 1919, the session was lost and the Board of Management for the House of Refuge was instructed to modify the plans and resubmit them to the committee. The motion was presented again in 1923, this time being passed to allow permanent improvements to be made to the House of Refuge building at an approximate cost of $100 000, to be paid over a 20 year period. Improvements on the House began the year after in 1924. By 1925, the original building was remodeled to accommodate 160 more inmates and prevent overcrowding; “A new semi-detached building was erected in front to serve as a manager’s residence. The sleeping quarters were fire-proofed and new hospitals were provided for both men and woman”. [13] As of June 1941, there were 160 homes for adults across Canada which included homes for “the care of the aged and indigent, refuges, asylums”, etc. By 1947, the Homes for the Aged Act decided to replace the term “inmate” which was generally used to describe the person in an institution, with “resident”. An amendment to this Act in 1949 which only allowed a person 60 years and older to be committed to an Old Age Home when it was “judged to be in his or her best interests.” Residents were no longer being required to work within the home, although they were often encouraged to do so, and the home itself was required to provide medical services including “nursing supervision for those requiring bed and medical care.” The House of Refuge began selling portions of its lots in the early 1950s. The name of the House was official changed to Home for the Aged in 1955 when it started appearing as such in the County Minutes records.


Journal of the Proceedings and By-Laws of the Municipal Council of the County of Waterloo 1955; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives

Journal of the Proceedings and By-Laws of the Municipal Council of the County of Waterloo 1955; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives


The Home for the Aged was later called Sunnyside Home. For more information on the transition from House of Refuge to Sunnyside Home Sunnyside Home Pamphlet.




[1] Stewart, Stormie. “The Elderly Poor in Rural Ontario: Inmates of the Wellington County House of Industry, 1877-1907”, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 3, no. 1 (1992), p. 222.[2] Montigny, Edgar-Andre. Foisted upon the Government?: State Responsibilities, Family Obligations, and the Care of the Dependent Aged in Late Nineteenth-Century Ontario. Montreal, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, p.6.[3] DesRoches, Cheryl. “Everyone in Their Place: The Formation of Institutional Care for the Elderly in Nineteenth-Century Ontario.Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 5, no. 1 (2004), p.55.[4] DesRoches, p.54.[5] DesRoches, p.56.[6] Young, Jay. “A Short Historical Primer on Canada’s Old Age Security Debate.” Active History. November 28, 2012. Accessed September 22, 2016. http://activehistory.ca/2012/11/a-short-historical-primer-on-canadas-old-age-security-debate/.[7] DesRoches, p.49.[8] Stats Canada. “Population by Sex and Age Group, by Province and Territory (Number, Both Sexes).” Government of Canada. 2015. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/demo31a-eng.htm.[9] Montigny, p.30.[10] Goose, Nigel. “Poverty, old age and gender in nineteenth-cntury England: The Case of Hertfordshire.” Continuity and Change 20, no.3 (2005), p. 364.[11] Stewart, p. 225.[12] Stewart, p.228.[13] Dunham, B. Mabel. “Waterloo County House of Industry and Refuge.” Waterloo Historical Society, no. 35 (1948), p.7.







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