Workhouse to Welfare

A look back at Kingston’s first social reform institute

Credit: 
Photo via the collection of Jennifer McKendry

If you walk past 305 Earl Street today, you would see an old, grey brick house with the occasional piece of litter on the lawn. While it’s no different from any other home you’d walk past in the University District, it’s a far cry from what it was 160 years ago.  

In May of 1850, the Kingston House of Industry was written into law and the house on Earl served as a refuge for many of the poor men, women and children in Kingston.

The House of Industry — known also as a ‘workhouse’ — was an attempt to improve the situation of the poor by making people do work like breaking rocks and sewing, for room and board.

While the House of Industry was built to address the issue of poverty in Kingston, the roots of the problem can be traced across the Atlantic Ocean. 

The 1847 Great Famine in Ireland created a significant rise in immigrants to North America, who sought refuge from the famine and destitution in their homeland. Unfortunately, the trip to their new home wasn’t easy. 

On the journey, an outbreak of typhus — or what they then called ‘plague of ship-fever’ — caused many to die before they reached the shore. According to a 1949 Kingston Whig-Standard article, the United States, aware of the typhus outbreak, closed their borders to Irish immigrants and consequently almost 100,000 arrived on Canadian shores. It’s estimated 20,000 of these people died from typhus. 

Quarantines were established on Gosse Isle on the St. Lawrence to hold those infected with typhus. But those who were healthy — or at least appeared to be so — were allowed to continue on to Kingston and Toronto.  

In Kingston, the bodies of those apparently healthy people who died after passing through the quarantine point were unloaded onto the wharves for removal and burial. Those who had died were taken to a field south of the Kingston General Hospital, placed in trenches and sprinkled with quicklime. Until 1894, the mass grave remained unmarked. 

In addition to those who died from contracting the disease on the ship, typhus spread to residents of Kingston, making the outbreak even harder to control. 

The epidemic finally ceased in 1848, but the aftermath was severe. Those who had died had left families behind, women no longer had sources of revenue, children were left without parents and many were left unable to work. 

An essay from the Queen’s University Archives details makeshift shelters lining King Street along the water. According to a report referenced in the essay, “the air was charged with a heavy, mephitic vapor and insufferable odor proceeding from the three sheds.” The need for public assistance was evident and overwhelming.

There was a belief among residents that a House of Industry would allow people the chance to help themselves and would eliminate the problem of “vicious families of beggars [who] resort for the purposes of living upon the public.” 

A group of women called the Female Benevolent Society undertook the task of helping the “indigent and friendless.” 

This was first exemplified through the establishment of the House of Industry, which the secretary of the society, Mrs. Cartwright, described in an 1949 Kingston Whig-Standard article as the best “means of affording relief to the many destitute beings left among us by the recent calamitous season of sickness and destitution arising from the awful visitation of famine in Ireland.”

The premise of the Kingston House of Industry was to provide the poor and indigent with a safe place to stay. The justification was that the products of labour would pay for the food and lodging expense, thus being a minimal cost to the public.  

According to the Queen’s University Archives essay, the majority of those who frequented the House were seeking refuge as new arrivals to Canada. Often people would stay while waiting to meet relatives they had journeyed to join. The elderly and infirm were another group who heavily depended on their services.  

The workhouse was a refuge for new Canadian immigrants who lacked the means to support themselves during this tumultuous period in their lives. While the House of Industry provided a vital service to the community, there were many rules and conventions that our modern sensibilities would find objectionable. 

To differentiate groups, non-wealthy people were classified as either part of the ‘deserving poor’ or ‘undeserving poor.’ The deserving poor included widows, the elderly and injured or disabled people. The undeserving poor were drunks, unchaste women and criminals. 

These divisions were written into the rules of the institutions with people “who are depraved in their morals and whose general character is bad” deemed ineligible for admission to the Kingston House of Industry. 

In an interview with The Journal, Queen’s history professor Steven Maynard said this rule was particularly hard on women, who often composed the majority of those who frequented the House of Industry. 

“Who’s going to be poor, disadvantaged, out on the street? Well, unmarried women who find themselves with a child whose father’s taken off, they’ve maybe been kicked out of their family because it’s a disgrace — well, isn’t this the place you should be able to go? But the rules said no,” he said.  

Maynard pointed out the inherent contradictions in the House of Industry, as the efforts to help were often clouded by the 19th-century middle-class biases and preconceptions of the women of the Female Benevolent Society. 

In addition to their heavy concentration on arbitrary morality, Maynard said the Kingston House of Industry was perhaps poorly named. There was almost no ‘industry’ involved and its operating budget was almost entirely dependent on government grants. 

According to records from the Queen’s Archives, there were also many functional problems within the building. Doctors almost never visited the site, the building was over capacity and infested with vermin and the basement — which often served as a dormitory or workshop — had no ventilation. All of this amounted to a very unsafe working and living environment for the residents and workers. 

Eventually, Kingston residents became fed up with the House of Industry’s looming presence in their community leading to its relocation to Montreal Street. The House of Industry remained at this location until it was closed, serving the needs of the deserving poor of Kingston. 

While the Kingston House of Industry was flawed and mismanaged, it offered a glimpse at the social institutions that would soon develop in Canada and eventually across the developed world. The institutions established by the women of the Female Benevolent Society in the 19th century were all a part of a social reform mission that attempted to address the problems of different groups of Kingston society. 

The efforts of the women of the Female Benevolent Society are easy to critique from a 21st-century perspective, but as Maynard says, “they saw a need, they responded to it, and it was important.”  

 

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