52 Ancestors: Week 46 – Poorhouses


Week 46 of 52 Ancestors is \”poor\”. One can\’t think of the poor in history without the dreaded \”poorhouse\” or \”workhouse\” coming to mind. Most people associate these with Britain, but Canada had them too. These institutions had the official names of \”Houses of Industry\”. They also went by names such as \”Poor Asylum\”. Their goal was to have inmates work to support their admittance into them. These institutions first started to appear in Canada in the late 1700\’s to early 1800\’s in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. In Western Canada, the notion did not appear to take hold, though British Columbia had a similar system. If you would like a good read on the history of social welfare in Canada, you can preview Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History By Alvin Finkel on Google Books. The free preview lets you look at several sections, and it\’s a very good read. I took some looking around at the provincial archives, and found some various records by province for Eastern and Central Canada. This is by no means a complete list. These will help you get started though.

Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949. From what I have read, there were porr houses in the province much earlier than the rest of Canada, and they adopted the Poor Law of Elizabeth I. The Rooms has in their holdings a few things relating to poorhouses and asylums:

Prince Edward Island
PARO has some records in their collection, including Fonds RG34 – Independent Boards and Commissions fonds. This collection deals with the government side of the Poor Asylums and Insane Asylums.
New Brunswick

PANB has a few record sets in their holdings:

Nova Scotia
The NSA has in their holdings the Halifax (N.S.). Poor Asylum. This rather notorious institution originally burnt to the ground in 1882. it was rebuilt in 1886.
BAnQ has the St. Bridget\’s Asylum Fund.- 1856-1865 in their holdings. One thing that should be noted about the province is that poor relief was mainly taken on by the church, as opposed to the government. Keep this in mind when looking for records
In 1890, Ontario passed the House of Refuge Act. This gave grants to each County to set aside 45 acres for Houses of Industry. In 1903 it became mandatory for each County to have at least one House of Refuge. Because of this, there were much more of these than in any other province. The Archives of Ontario has some fonds of some of them:
UPDATE Dec 15 2019: I didn\’t realize when I wrote the blog post that the AO\’s links are time sensitive. However, if you go to the Archives of Ontario\’s website you can still find them. Go into Access Our Collections, then Archives Descriptive Database. Use for your search term \”House of Industry\” (use the quotation marks), then into Groups of Archival Records.
More Places to Search

Don\’t forget to look at these other sources for Poorhouse records:

  • City/County Archives. In fact, your much more likely to find specific records here than in the Provincial Archives. For instance, The City of Toronto Archives hold the books of the Toronto House of Refuge. The Toronto Branch of Ontario Ancestors has a project going on right now to get these indexed.
  • Internet Archive – remember to use a variety of search terms such as \”poor house\”, \”almshouse\”, \”house of industry\”. And remember to include your location as well in the search. They have uploads from all over the world.
  • University and College Libraries
  • Google. If you know the name of the institution, try using Google. Some of these buildings have been turned into museums, especially in Ontario. Others, like the Waterloo County House of Industry and Refuge, are virtual museums giving an amazing amount of information on not only the residents, but the staff as well.
  • As always,Canadiana is a go-to source. \”House Of Industry\” resulted in 1756 hits. \”Poor Asylum\” gave 792 hits, and \”poor house\” gave 3408 hits.

2 thoughts on “52 Ancestors: Week 46 – Poorhouses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: