An Introduction

Upper Canada in the mid-19th century was industrializing, immigrants were settling, the economy was volatile, and the notion of a social safety net was decades away.

The poorhouse was one of the earliest forms of social welfare available to people without other options for food, shelter, or the care needed for their survival.

The poorhouse became the place to send  people who were very poor, desperate, distressed, disabled, pregnant without support, old, or ill so that they were outside the view of other citizens. Poorhouses were used to reduce the amount of people from begging on the streets, wandering the countryside, or languishing in jails.

In the recently established County of Waterloo (1853), community leaders were busy establishing laws, policies, public institutions and charities.

At the time, the county consisted of five townships: Woolwich, Wellesley, Wilmot, Waterloo, and North Dumfries. The County of Waterloo was dissolved in 1973 and became the present day Regional Municipality of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The House of Industry and Refuge was one of the first institutions built, financed and governed by Waterloo County and was one of the first municipally funded poorhouses in Ontario to admit an inmate. The House was located in the village of Berlin, Ontario Canada; renamed Kitchener in 1916.

Originally situated on 141 acres of farmland, the House  provided temporary and permanent lodging, food, health care for the ill, and care for the aged and dying. Depending on their abilities, “inmates” were expected to work on the farm and perform domestic tasks and care for the sick and disabled.

The House bound out children who could not be cared for by their parents (due to poverty, illness, death or abandonment) as indentured servants in homes and farms in and around Waterloo County. The House also gave people in need clothing, food, and money for train tickets to get to friends or family outside the County.

In 1869, 55 year old James White, a labourer who was described as “sick” was the first admitted to the House. He would die 31 days later of “dropsy” (likely edema due to heart failure) and was the first to be buried in an unmarked grave in the poorhouse cemetery. That year, 89 other people would be admitted to the poorhouse and over 3000 people lived there over the time the House was open at the Frederick Street sit in Berlin, Ontario, Canada (in 1916 became Kitchener, Ontario).

By 1951, the social welfare system in Ontario had changed drastically. Residents were predominantly the elderly poor as well as people with mental and physical disabilities. The building was destroyed and Waterloo County re-opened a nursing home in another location and sold the land to the Salvation Army to open a private nursing home.

This virtual museum project attempts to uncover the stories of the House, and the people who lived, worked and died there.