Women & the Poorhouse

Women Working in the Fields; Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1979-14-74 Source: Miss S. Hensley, London, Ontario.

This article discusses how women lived and were treated in 19th century Upper Canada, which includes how they were treated socially and politically, what they did for work and to support themselves and their families, and the struggles they dealt with to make their lives better. If you would like to skip to any of the different subjects on this page, you can do so here:

  1. Working Women
  2. Women’s Rights
  3. Women’s Role at the Poorhouse
  4. Motherhood
  5. Spinsters
  6. Women’s Fight for Equality


Berlin Daily News November 29, 1879; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Berlin Daily News November 29, 1879; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Women living in the nineteenth century were often depicted as less intelligent, weaker, helpless, and overall inferior to men. But after looking into the lives of some of the women that lived and worked in the Poorhouse, they are much more than this overarching depiction. In this section, we will discuss some of the social policy surrounding women in the 19th century and how that affected their entry, their roles, and their treatment within the Poorhouse.


Working Women:

Berlin Daily News November 29, 1879; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Berlin Daily News November 29, 1879; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives


Women played an integral role in the inner workings of the Poorhouse by doing the household chores6-10-1868-dumfries-reformer-galt-reformer-working-women, taking care of other inmates, taking on roles such as physician’s assistant, sewing and making clothes and shoes, cooking, and speaking out against injustice within the House.

A lot of the roles women had at the House echoed the tasks they were given at home and as a job working as a domestic because that was the climate at the time. In the Ontario 1891 Census, of the women listed as workers, most of the jobs they had followed these patterns: servants (38%), seamstresses and dressmakers (19%), school teachers (8%), housekeepers (2%), and nurses (1%). [1] These statistics reflect those of the women who entered the House of Industry and Refuge.

Of the women who have occupations listed for them upon entering the House between 1869-1936, the vast majority worked as a domestic (90 women) or a housewife/housekeeper (110 women). Of the domestics, over half of the women were over the age of 30. Similar jobs listed for women included being a maid (3 women) and being a servant (9 women).




Women’s Rights:

Berlin Daily News November 29, 1879; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Berlin Daily News November 29, 1879; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Women weren’t given the right to any of their wages they earned until 1872 when the Women’s Property Act allowed married women the right to her own earnings free from her husband’s or father’s control. [2] It wasn’t for another twelve years that married women could own their own property and handle it without having to consult her husband or male relative.


As new laws were passed giving women more authority over their own lives, there was backlash from the rest of society trying to keep them in the home. To the right is an article that ran in the Berlin Daily News in 1879 outlining what it means to be a “good wife”.


Unfortunately, if women were to remain in their homes as housewives, they were more vulnerable to economic turmoil if they became widowed, if their husband deserted/abandoned the family, if the parents separated or divorced, or if a family member became sick. As well, the societal perspective of single mothers meant she was more likely not to receive outside help due to her situation (for more on single mothers in the Poorhouse, visit Susan Parker, Lydia Stockley, and Bertha Wagner‘s pages).



Even with these new property rights, women were still seen as being the property of their father’s or spouse’s and their occupations often reflected this. Women entering the Poorhouse often had their occupations filled with “daughter of [father’s name]” (occurred 50 times in the logbook), “wife of [husband’s name]” (occurred 27 times in the logbook), widow (38 times beside a woman’s name in the logbook) or simply “married” (8 times beside a woman’s name). What is also common is to see a woman be listed as “Mrs. xx” and her husband’s last name. This makes it much harder to identify the person by name and takes away their individual identity. This was the case for Mrs. Baker who entered the Poorhouse on August 22, 1882. She is listed as being a pregnant married woman and her husband paid $20.00 for the House to take her in. Unfortunately, with a common last name like Baker, it is hard to track this woman in the Canada Census logs.


If women were unemployed and widowed, divorced or deserted, or simply single mothers, there was no compensation from the government to support the woman and her family. It wasn’t until 1970 when the Deserted Wives’ and Children’s Maintenance Act was established, giving mother’s an allowance to support their children. There were several measures in the early 20th century that were created to assist women in these cases, such as the Ontario Mother’s Allowance Act in 1920 which gave allowances to widows who “demonstrated their moral and financial need based on frequent supervision.” [3] Unfortunately, women living in poverty with children in the 19th century were not compensated when there was no male figure to support her and a lot of the time she would have to give up her children to an orphanage or she would have to enter a Poorhouse with them.


Women’s Role at the Poorhouse:

Most of the tasks for women at the House were cleaning and working as a servant. The first inmat07-28-1879-berlin-daily-news-women-in-the-factory-or-kitchen-2e to be paid for her work in the Poorhouse, as reflected in the Cashbook Records, was Lydia Stockley (1861-1933) who received an “allowance as Hospital Waiter” for $2.00 on September 3, 1888. There were a few ex-inmates that came back to the Poorhouse for work, being paid between $0.68- $2.00/ week between 1870-1885, such as Henrietta Strasburger. Below is an example of how much the staff was being paid in 1933. In the red box, women were being paid between $1.00-3.00 for housecleaning, working as a nurse or working in the kitchen. Below the red box, the men were receiving either $3.45 or $4.00 for their work outside on the farm.

Keeper's Cash Book December 20, 1933; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives

Keeper’s Cash Book December 20, 1933; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives


Even the Matrons of the House were paid much less than their husbands, the Keepers. The first Matron of the House, Diana McMahon (1836-1899), married to Richard McMahon, was paid $100 annually to Richard’s $300. The second Keeper, Peter Itter, had two wives while he was managing the House between 1880-1893. His first wife, Susannah Clemens (1838-1886) was paid $140/ year at the beginning of their employment, whereas Peter was being paid $460/year, over three times as much. After the death of Susannah in 1886, Peter’s second wife, Alvina Klem (1868-1949), was making the same amount that Susannah made ($140/year) while Peter’s salary increased to $560, making four times as much as his wife. The following Matron, Agnes Laird, made less than half of her husband, Joseph Laird’s, salary at $200. The fifth Matron, Annie Eliza Martin (1861-1935), married to George Martin (1841-1930), was paid an annual salary of $200, whereas George was receiving $400. The sixth and last Matron of the House, Marie Edna Schmidt (1893-1970) received $500/year, half of what her husband, Edward Alexander Amos (1889-1962), was making as the Keeper. The wage disparity for two people running the House of Refuge who by and large did equal work (although it can be argued that the matron was doing more work than the keeper as she was to care for all the women and children, attend to patients, do the house cleaning and laundry, and work in the kitchen while the keeper watch over the men, did some farm work, and did the paperwork) is very clear and didn’t change much over the course of the 80 years the institution was open.



Motherhood and marriage meant an inherent dependency on the father of the child for financial support, and any single mothers who existed outside of this framework were “largely left to their own devices”. [4]

Within the Poorhouse, the terminology used to describe an expecting woman altered between “pregnant” and “enciente” as the woman’s mother-1cause of pauperism. The more often used “enciente” means pregnant in French, originally from the Roman incincta, which means unbound: “on the occurrence of pregnancy the tight girdle or ‘cinture’ was discontinued, hence the pregnant woman was said to be incincta, or unbound”. [5] The tight girdle or corset was a staple fashion item for middle and upper class in the late 19th century. Although not as common amongst the lower class, the discontinuation of the girdle implied pregnancy and the terminology was used throughout the classes.

Of the pregnant women in the House, 29 of the 81 listed as pregnant or enceinte as their occupation were 20 years old or under. Concurrently, 67% of the pregnant women came to the Poorhouse before 1900. A lot of young women who became pregnant were kicked out of their houses and forced onto the streets and into houses of refuge. Most of these women had to give up their babies by having them 10-14-1879-bdn-the-good-wife2“bound out” or “sent out on trial” which meant they were sent to orphanages, they were adopted, or they were sent to work as an apprentice on a farm or in a house. The St. Agatha Orphanage, established in 1858, and the Berlin Mennonite Orphanage, established in 1896, were the two most common places children would be sent from the Poorhouse.

There were 81 women that came to the House pregnant, of which 52 gave birth to their child at the House. Of these births, 7 infants died at birth which is 13.5% of the births at the House. After the opening of the Berlin-Waterloo Hospital in 1895, women no longer gave birth to their babies within House.



The term spinster refers to any woman who is single (the male equivalent is bachelor). The social stigma surrounding spinsterhood is in large part an underlying reason for their lower economic status. Single women and mother8-30-1898bdn-weak-womens are seen as suspicious and irresponsible and society resents them for their behaviour. [6] Concurrent with the unequal access to the workforold-maidce at the time, men were identified by their occupation and women were identified by their marital status or family name, which is reflected in the logbook for the Poorhouse. Being a spinster at an older age meant you were a burden on society, not helping to expand the population or take care of the men. Most single women remained in their parents’ household, helping them maintain their farms and doing housework. As single women grew older, they would sometimes be forced to enter institutions, such as the House of Refuge, as they had no other means to support themselves.

Spinster is listed 40 times as the occupation for women and only once for men. The women listed as spinsters in the Poorhouse were brought to the House due to destitution (39%), being pregnant (27%), sickness (12%), and having weak intellect (12%).


Women’s Fight for Equality:

Women’s rights movements began in the early 1850s when women believed that alcohol abuse was the cause of unemployment, disease, sex work, poverty, violence against women and children, and immorality. [7] Most of the women behind this campaign were from the middle and upper. Early on, the women apart of this movement were also advocating for women’s suffrage as “a way to effect legislative change towards prohibition”. [8] The Temperance movement eventually branched off into several other movements, one being the suffrage movement as mentioned previously, as well as family law reform, education rights, public health and employment reform. The Suffrage movement became popular among the middle class by the end of the 19th century. More and more organizations formed around Ontario in support of women’s right to vote. Below are excerpts from an article taken from the Galt Reformer on December 1, 1893, stressing the importance of women’s right to vote.


Galt Reformer December 1, 1893; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Galt Reformer December 1, 1893; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives


The Ontario Temperance Act was passed in 1916 which prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol. A year later, Ontario was the fifth province grant women the right to vote. [9] Having won two profound victories that took half a century to achieve, women’s groups institutionalized in hopes of bringing about change for equality in education and employment.



[1] McInnis, R. Marvin. “Women, Work and Childbearing: Ontario in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century.Social History 24, no. 48 (November 1991), p.253.[2] “Canadian History of Women’s Rights.” The Nellie McClung Foundation. 2016. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://www.ournellie.com/womens-suffrage/canadian-history-of-womens-rights/.[3] Little, Margaret. “The Blurring of Boundaries: Private and Public Welfare for Single Mothers in Ontario.” Studies in Political Economy, vol.47 (summer 1995), p.94.[4] Murray, Karen Bridget. “Governing ‘Unwed Mothers’ in Toronto at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” The Canadian Historical Review 85, n⁰.2 (June 2004), p.2.[5] Godrey, Robert T. “Public Health Magazine: Original Communications, House and Sewer Ventilation”, 1, n⁰.8 (February 1876), p.242.[6] Murray, p.255.[7] Sheehan, Nancy M. “Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Canada”, Historica Canada, February 7, 2006, accessed November 1, 2016. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/womans-christian-temperance-union/.[8] Sheehan.[9] Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Early Women’s Movements in Canada: 1867–1960.” Historica Canada. August 15, 2016. Accessed November 5, 2016. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/early-womens-movements-in-canada/.




Any statistics from the “logbook” or “cash books” came from the Region of Waterloo Archives.



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