Deserted by her husband, she begged for shelter then lay down on the street. Surrounded by a crowd of boys, it was where she gave birth to her third child.
Three days later, Mrs. Wellesley Knowles, clutching her newborn baby, climbed 24 steps to the front door of an imposing limestone building. Etched above the entrance were the words "County Poor House."
Knowles' two older children, about two and five, had already been taken to the house by horse-drawn wagon. Each time, members of the family were accompanied by the township reeve.
"You couldn't just come and knock on the door of the poorhouse. You had to be accepted as the `deserving poor.' It was the reeve and township council that decided who the deserving poor were," said Susan Dunlop.
|Wellington County Poorhouse -- near Fergus Ontario|
Dunlop is curator of the Wellington County Museum and Archives, which is housed in the 19th century building in the rolling countryside between Elora and Fergus, where Mrs. Knowles, who'd arrived in Canada just six months earlier, was taken on Sept. 23, 1884.
These "houses of industry and refuge," as they came to be known, were shelters of last resort for the destitute, homeless, "feeble-minded" and elderly. In exchange for their labour, they were provided with spartan accommodation, clothes and simple food
The poor house was not a homeless shelter in the modern sense. People didn’t bed down for one night; they weren’t kicked out in the morning. They moved in for good. Once you entered, you were highly unlikely to leave except by the back door, in a coffin. Your destination? The pauper’s graveyard, at the edge of the property.
It seems to me that we haven't improved much in terms of our treatment of the poor, for they still in exchange for their labour, if they are fortunate receive spartan accommodation, clothes and simple food and of course a paupers burial. Some don't even get that much.