Social work researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University are bringing stories of a 19th-century “poorhouse” to a wider audience by creating a virtual museum in collaboration with Waterloo Region archivists.
The Waterloo County House of Industry and Refuge, built in 1869, provided basic needs and sometimes a train ticket, for impoverished people who had nowhere else to go. The stories of the poorhouse and its inmates, as they were called, captivated Sandy Hoy, associate director of the Social Innovation Research Group at Laurier, who came across them at the Region of Waterloo Archives in 2011 while she was in the midst of her PhD studies.
“The history of the poorhouse is the history of poverty,” Dr. Hoy says. “In the 19th century we see a time of unfettered capitalism, the crushing impact of inequality and the lack of humane social supports. … I have a lot of women’s names running through my head and a lot of people with disabilities who, when we followed up on their stories, they were sent to other institutions like Huronia or the insane asylum in Hamilton.”
As a social work researcher, Dr. Hoy’s approach differs from that of a historian. The aim of this particular research project has been to produce a “social history” which focuses on the experiences of marginalized people who did not have a chance to tell their own stories. Some of those stories, along with a registry of inmates from 1869 to 1916, are now available online for people to peruse, funded by the Waterloo Regional Heritage Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Although the House of Refuge no longer exists, and despite vast differences in how social welfare was handled then and now, Dr. Hoy says the study of the poorhouse contributes to an understanding of how social inequity is dealt with. “I would say institutionalization of people with disabilities, which were a significant part of the group of people in the poorhouse, is still alive and well. The remnants and the legacies of the poorhouse are very much alive today, and I think it’s a reminder of, how do we work toward a more inclusive and humane society?”