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Cornwall's House of Refuge

What is a House of Refuge?

Houses of Refuge were created to ensure that anyone who needed a roof over their head, could have one. This was the governments way of dealing with the destitute. 

Another word for a House of Refuge facility is a "Poor House".

House of Refuge.. Inmates?

When people hear "House of Refuge inmate", they usually assume these people were in trouble with the law. This is not the case. In the early 1900's the term "inmate" was used to describe people in several situations:


Inmate, noun
1. a person who is confined in an institution such as a prison, hospital, etc.
2. Archaic. a person who dwells with others in the same house.

When and why were House of Refuge facilities established?

Canada’s House of Refuge Act was established in 1890. The act stated that each county, or union of counties, was to provide a house and an associated “industrial farm”. “In Ontario, the province passed the Houses of Refuge Act in 1890, which provided county governments with grants of up to $4,000 to purchase at least 45 acres of land and construct a suitable building.”[1] With the creation of this Act, Ontario finally arrived at what a “respectable” society had been seeking for decades. This Act assisted in removing severe cases of destitution from the town or township streets, and organized it with administration. Despite some resistance after 1890, House of Refuge institutions began to spread. “Although some local resistance to setting up a house of refuge continued to stunt the system, there was a relatively rapid spread of provincial institutions in rural settings after 1890, along the lines of the “out of sight, out of mind” principle inherent in the asylum approach.”[2]


After the first law was decided, rules became stricter and counties who once refused to build a House of Refuge, now had to. “To make a house of refuge mandatory for all counties, the Ontario government passed the Municipal House of Refuge Act in 1903.”[3] For the first time since the aborted Act of 1866, each county or union of counties, had to construct a House of Refuge facility. The deadline was January 1st 1906.[4] Once the building was constructed, the county council was to “appoint two persons who shall, together with the warden, form a board of management, regulation and control”.[5] The deadline for the construction was moved twice. It was first moved to 1908, and then moved again to 1911. All counties or county unions had to establish a House of Refuge by 1911.[6] In 1912, the Houses of Refuge Act was extended again, but “only to populous parts of northern Ontario. Northern districts, like their southern forerunners, were not quick to respond. Algoma established a facility in 1914 in Sault Sainte Marie, followed by Parry Sound (1919) at Powassan, and Nipissing in 1924.”[7]

[1] Tyler, Tracey. "The County Poorhouse." York University. The Toronto Star, 3 Jan. 2009. Web. 29 Jan. 2014. <http://socialwork.blog.yorku.ca/2009/01/03/untitled/>.

[2] Carter Park, Deborah, and J. David Wood. "Poor Relief and the County House of Refuge System in Ontario, 1880 - 1911." Science Direct. Journal of Historical Geography, 1992. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.

[3] Tyler, Tracey. "The County Poorhouse." York University. The Toronto Star, 3 Jan. 2009. Web. 29 Jan. 2014. <http://socialwork.blog.yorku.ca/2009/01/03/untitled/>.

[4] Carter Park, Deborah, and J. David Wood. "Poor Relief and the County House of Refuge System in Ontario, 1880 - 1911." Science Direct. Journal of Historical Geography, 1992. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid.


© Sara Lauzon.

A short history of Cornwall's House of Refuge

Despite the lack of primary sources, newspapers and written Cornwall histories provide enough information to piece together some of the facilities history.


After the House of Refuge Act received its final extension, the small town of Cornwall, Ontario started preparing to build their own House of Refuge facility. To follow the regulations of the 1890 Act, Cornwall needed 45 acres of land. The united counties of SD&G purchased a farm from William A. Craig, and proceeded to build their County House of Industry and Refuge on this property. The building was designed in 1911 by an architect named Arthur Le B. Weeks, and was completed in 1913.


From 1913 to the 1930’s, inmates with no family alive to claim the remains, to pay for funeral expenses or a burial, we’re buried in unmarked graves around the House of Refuge property. To this day the exact locations of these burials are unknown. In the 1980’s Cornwall decided to expand its streets adding Gretchen Court, a small crescent to be filled by rows of town houses. When the construction workers were laying foundations down, they dug up House of Refuge bodies. This would not be the last time.


When I was nine years old (approximately 1999), Versa Care decided to add an addition onto the old House of Refuge building to accommodate more residents in their nursing home. This resulted in as many as fifteen bodies being unburied. The bodies were re-located to Seaway Valley Union Cemetery, just outside of Cornwall, Ontario.


Living conditions were basic, and, as Cornwall’s House of Refuge moved through both World Wars and the Great Depression, conditions steadily deteriorated. By the 1940’s, Cornwall’s House of Refuge found it very hard to keep up with the demand of people applying to be admitted into the facility. In 1949, one hundred residents were living in a building designed for approximately thirty people. Throughout the facility’s years of operation, nine hundred and six inmates passed through the doors, calling Cornwall’s House of Refuge “home”. The Standard Freeholder in May 1949 reported on these population problems:

“For some time it has been known to the public, and especially to the more recent boards of management, that the Present Home for the Aged has become increasingly inadequate to meet the similarly increasing demands on behalf, not only of the aged persons at the present, but also of the increasing number of applicants for admission.”[1]


On top of population issues, the facility had a dilapidated heating system, and faced condemnation from the Ontario Fire Marshall. In 1952, the facility was closed down and the Glen Stor Dun Lodge nursing home was constructed. House of Refuge residents were moved to this new site.


In 1954, the facility became an all catholic girls school called St. Michael's Academy, and would close down in the early 1970's. In 1972, the Kaneb family purchased the property and turned the facility into a nursing home which it remains today.


[1] The Standard Freeholder [Cornwall] May 1949: n. pag. Microform. Standard Freeholder 1939-1949 (n.d.): n. pag.


© Sara Lauzon.

My Research



I found the old register containing records of the 906 people who resided at the House of Refuge. From this registry, I created a database. I noticed some people were not documented within the register. Some pages were missing from the registry as well. I researched each name from the database. Their place of burial was traced after an investigation of the person was performed. A file was created for each individual researched from the House of Refuge. This lengthy process ensured that no person would be overlooked. 

Research Updates

As of December 2nd 2014 I have discovered 836 people. Of the 836, 229 have been thoroughly investigated.
I can state with 100% certainty that 45 of them are buried on the House of Refuge property.


Past Progress:

As of November 27th 2014 - 836 people have been discovered in total. 217 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 45 people.


As of September 15th 2014 - 836 people have been discovered in total. 211 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 45 people.


As of September 9th 2014 - 836 people have been discovered in total. 196 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 45 people.


As of September 4th 2014 - 836 people have been discovered in total. 182 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 45 people.


As of October 31 2013 - 833 people have been discovered in total. 163 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 44 people.


As of June 25 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 163 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 44 people.


As of May 29 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 161 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 44 people.


As of May 17 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 158 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 43 people.


As of May 11 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 157 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 43 people.


As of May 6 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 155 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 42 people.

As of April 20 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 151 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 42 people.

As of April 3 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 150 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 41 people.


As of April 2 2013 - 830 people have been discovered in total. 131 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 36 people.

As of March 19 2013 - 830 people have been discovered. 85 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 21 people.


As of March 12 2013 - 830 people have been discovered. 48 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 10 people.


As of November 7th 2012 - 830 people have been discovered. 23 of them have been researched. Total buried on site: 6 people.