Race & the Poorhouse

Black Canadians; Source: Library and Archives Canada, number 1938-220-1.

This section will discuss the role race and ethnicity played in Waterloo County in the 19th century and how it relates to the Poorhouse. There will be links at the bottom of the article, as well as throughout the article, for a more in-depth look into the history of race in Waterloo Region. If you would like to skip to any of the specific subjects, you can do so here:

  1. National Context
  2. Local History
  3. Queen’s Bush Settlement
  4. Labour
  5. Black People in the Poorhouse
  6. Ethnicity

National Context: 

As with any group of people, there is no one single story to represent the whole group. The experience of Black people in 19th century Canada includes enslaved Black people, as well as enslaved people in American who were promised land and freedom from Canada if they were willing to fight for the English during the American Revolution.

Routes of the Underground Railroad, 1830-1865; Source: Public Domain, PD-1923

Enslavement of Black Africans was first recorded in Canada around 1628 when France allowed New France (made up of the area surrounding Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Louisiana) to have enslaved persons for economic purposes. [1] The Transatlantic Slave Trade continued into the 1700s after the British conquered New France in 1760 and stated that Black people would remain enslaved when American Loyalists fled to Canada after the American Revolutionary War in 1775-1783. Enslavement took a different form compared to what was happening in the United States, as there were no plantations in Canada to the same scale as there were in America. Most colonists that were enslaving Black persons exploited them to work in roles such as domestic servants and labourers to work on farms and to help build and establish settlements.

More and more Black people fled through the Underground Railroad to Canada, which was established during the War of 1812. [2] This is also around the same time that the first Black settlements started appearing around Upper Canada (specifically Ontario), one of the first being Oro Township Settlement. Just a year later, Queen’s Bush Settlement was established in 1820. The enslavement of Black people was abolished by the British Parliament in 1833, which meant the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in all of the British colonies.


Local History: 

At the beginning of the 19th century, large groups of Black people fled to the Maritimes in search of land to build a home while smaller groups ended up in Ontario. [3] Large settlements began emerging around Upper Canada, such as the settlements in Oro Township, Lucan, Dresden, Chatham, and Wellesley. Although some settlements were temporary locations before moving to major cities like Toronto, there were a few settlements that established communities there, such as Queen’s Bush and Elgin Settlement.


Dumfries Reformer August 18, 1893; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Dumfries Reformer August 18, 1893; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Up until the 1830s, Black refugees coming from America were marginally welcomed by the settler European white population in Upper Canada by assisting each other in clearing and cultivating the land. In 1833, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was officially abolished throughout British colonies, which included Canada. Thus, Canada saw an influx of Black refugees coming to settle in the country. Even though the majority of Canadians opposed the Slave Trade at the time, they were not “in favour of a massive immigration of Blacks” as they took away labour intensive jobs from men who could not find other work; this led to further discrimination and racism towards Black communities. [4] Around the 1830s, there were several settlements that sprung up around Ontario which allowed Black people to settle in their own communities and build lives together, “recreat[ing] their social and religious institutions in a new environment” while also protecting them from “fugitive slave hunters”. [5]

Moving into the 1830s and 1840s, there was an increase of available employment and cheap housing that everyone could take advantage of. [6] However, the racist sentiments towards Black people who were now coming to live and work in Canada was exceedingly obvious and normalized throughout society. African Canadians also received “stiffer sentences when convicted of crimes”, and the Ontario province furthered the bigotry by racially segregating schools after 1850. [7] The daily rhetoric used to maliciously characterize and define Black people mimicked the ongoing enslavement of Black people in America, followed by the Jim Crow laws that began in 1877 until the mid 1960s.

The image above is a racist illustration issued in the Dumfries Reformer in 1893. Similar images were published throughout the local newspapers well into the 20th century.

Below is another example of prejudice terms used to dehumanize Black people from the rest of society.



Dumfries Reformer June 10, 1868; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives

Dumfries Reformer June 10, 1868; Source: Kitchener Public Library Archives


The Great Famine of Ireland – which began in 1845 and lasted until 1852 – consequently drove hundreds of thousands of Irish people out of their country and into North America. Kitchener-Waterloo saw an influx of Irish immigrants coming in destitution and needing homes and jobs. Black and Irish immigrants shared a similar economic position and “suffered from the consequent social discrimination, but [Black refugees] were always relegated to an inferior status within the prevailing society”. [8] They were constantly reminded of their history of enslavement. This led to the new Irish settlers taking the jobs of Black settlers, leaving them to receive even less money for the work they do in order to maintain employment.


Queen’s Bush Settlement:


The image is a picture of the Hisson family at their home in Glen Allen, part of the Queen's Bush Settlement, in 1920. This image was taken from the Wellington County Museum and Archives.

The Hisson family at their home in Glen Allen, part of the Queen’s Bush Settlement, in 1920. The Hisson’s were related to the Lawson family. Source: Wellington County Museum and Archives


One of the closest Black settlements to the Waterloo County Poorhouse – and one of the largest in Upper Canada – was Queen’s Bush Settlement. This settlement extended from Waterloo to Lake Huron, although most of the people inhabited the land around Wellesley, Glen Allen, and Peel Township. As this land had never been cleared or surveyed before the 1850s, Black communities immigrating here were among the first people to clear pathways, roads, and large plots of land to build houses. They began building schools and churches, and as Mennonites began immigrating to the area a little while after, they would teach at the schools and preach at the churches that the Black communities built. Due to the racism that surrounded Black people, they tended to work mostly as labourers and farmers to help cultivate the white settlers’ lands, earning much less than their white counterparts. At the height of Queen’s Bush in 1840, there were between 1500-2000 Black inhabitants.

The local government began surveying the land around the Waterloo region at the end of the 1840s in hopes that they could begin applying land taxes to the “squatters” that had populated the area over the years. This initiative, along with the racist sentiments, forced Black communities out of the Queen’s Bush Settlement. By 1853, there were only about 47 Black people still living in Wellesley.

Present-day Glen Allan is where a large population of Black refugees settled and remained, far into the early 1900s. There is a small cemetery, referred to as the Peel Township Black Cemetery, where hundreds of settlers were buried in unmarked graves. [9]

A few of the residents at the Poorhouse had lived in Queen’s Bush during and after its conclusion, such as William Henry Pope. For more information on the history of the Queen’s Bush Settlement and biographies and stories on many of its inhabitants, read Linda Brown-Kubisch’s book titled “The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839-1865” or visit this website.



Excluding a few exceptions, work was one of the only forms of interaction between Black and white people in the 19th century, as most everything else was segregated (such as churches, grocery stores, and schools). As stated above, most of the Black communities in Ontario continued to work as labourers, working in road construction, building infrastructure, cultivating and tending crops and farmland, and clearing land to allow for more settlers to make their way North. Their jobs were incredibly labour intensive and unfortunately the only jobs that they were given, for the most part, until Irish refugees came into Waterloo County and were willing to work for even cheaper than Black labourers. White settlers were more inclined to hire a white Irishman who they felt less threatened by, thus further impoverishing Black families around Waterloo County.

Levi Carroll sitting outside of his house which was the first school in Waterloo County; Source: Waterloo Region Generations

Levi Carroll sitting outside of his house which was the first school in Waterloo County; Source: Waterloo Region Generations

Levi Carroll, a prominent and celebrated man in 19th century Berlin, exemplifies the ever changing circumstances of economic necessity. He is well documented as having changed jobs several times over the years. For all of the people that were recorded as being Black at the Poorhouse (about 15 people over the course of the 80 years the House was opened), only one person had an actual job listed under “occupation” in the House of Industry and Refuge “Register of Paupers, Vagrants, & Idiots”. That persont was Albert Hunt (you can find his story here), who worked as a brewer in Galt, Ontario. All the other Black people had either their religious affiliation or “coloured” written in as their occupations.


Black People in the Poorhouse: 

As stated above, there were only 15 people recorded as being “coloured” in the Poorhouse archives. There was no column in the logbook registry to distinguish race, therefore the person recording the new inmates information would often write “col’d”, “cold.”, “coloured”, “United States” (often assuming that if they are Black, they were a refugee from America), or “negro” beside their names or in the remarks section. Here are a few examples of the registry:


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


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


This is the only time in the logbook where race is indicated. This could be due to the fact that the vast majority of inmates were white and therefore no distinction was made. Other than the mention in the logbook, there are no other determinants in any other record about race.

Mr. Jaffray wrote a lecture to record a day he spent at the Poorhouse in 1871. He writes about two Black men he almost came in contact with but nonetheless heard stories about. He refers to one of the men, Albert Hunt, who was admitted into the House on November 26, 1870,  as “darkey” and an “old colored man” a few times throughout the paragraph Jaffray wrote on him. As he was viewed as a useful man, Jaffray seems to use more sympathetic terms to describe him and his life before the Poorhouse. As for the second man that is mentioned in this article, William Robinson – who is also referred to as “darkey” – is brutally described as a “good for nothing- a perfect Black drone in the hive” and a “coon”.

For other stories on Black people that stayed in the Poorhouse, visit Levi Carroll and Eveline and William Aylstock’s page as well as John and Mary Walden’s page.



Compared to race, ethnicity was well recorded. There is a specific column in the logbook reserved for recording nativity, which gives us a clearer look into where the residents were coming from. The annual report of the Poorhouse that was sent to the County Council recorded where all new inmates were from between 1870-1894 (excluding 1871, 1874, and 1880). Based on these reports, the largest ethnic group during this time period was born in Germany, about 34.6%, the second largest being born in Canada, 30.3%. The next three groups were born in England (11%), Ireland (9.5%), and Scotland (6.3%). These numbers correspond with the demography of Waterloo County in the late 19th century. Below is an example of how the nativity of the House was recorded for the County Minutes in 1877.


1877 Journal of Proceedings and By-Laws of the Municipal Council of the County of Waterloo; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives

1877 Journal of Proceedings and By-Laws of the Municipal Council of the County of Waterloo; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives



[1] “Black History Canada Timeline.” Historica Canada. 2015. Accessed August 18, 2016. http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/timeline.php?id=1700.[2] Historica Canada.[3] Historica Canada.[4]  Brown-Kubisch, Linda. The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1835-1865. Toronto, Ontario: Dundurn (2004), p.9.[5] Craven, Paul, ed. Labouring Lives: Work and Workers in Nineteenth-century Ontario. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press (1995), p.40-41.[6] Brown-Kubisch, p.6.[7] Craven, p.41.[8] Brown-Kubisch, p. 10-11.[9] Brown-Kubisch, ix.





Other Links:

Rickert-Hall, Joanna. ” Levi Carroll: The Tenant had Tenants in the 1820 Log Schoolhouse”, 1820 Log Schoolhouse: Local History of Waterloo Region, February 26, 2013. Accessed August 18, 2016. http://logschoolhouse.blogspot.ca/2013/02/levi-carroll-tenant-had-tenants-in-1820.html.

Walker, James W. St. G. “Discrimination in Canada: The Black Experience”, The Canadian Historical Association, Historical Booklet n⁰.41, Ottawa (1985).

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