Children’s shelter opened 109 years ago in Guelph

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Christmas 1911 saw a ragtag group of neglected and abandoned children celebrate the first Christmas at the new children’s shelter on Clarke Street in Guelph.

The new structure, looking like an oversized residence, had opened only weeks before, on Nov. 11, when 11 children moved into the facility.

Mrs. Mary Allan, assisted by a housekeeper, a part-time caretaker and later a cook, held the responsibility of operating the facility and caring for the stream of children passing through the building.

Constructed at a cost of $11,000, the building epitomized the ideal of care for neglected children when it was built. There were 21 rooms in the structure, with an original capacity for 25 residents. Subsequent modifications raised the capacity to an eventual total of 40, and at times 60 children would crowd into the facility.

The opening of the children’s shelter culminated a series of events that began almost 20 years earlier. In the last weeks of 1893, a group of civic minded, and generally well-heeled Guelph residents formed the Guelph Humane Society.

With Nathan Higinbotham, the militia colonel, wholesale druggist and former politico, in the presidency, the group sought to care for neglected children and animals. Children would dominate the work of the society in its early decades.

Though the situation in Guelph motivated the organizers, events elsewhere in the province also inspired the formation of the Guelph Humane Society. Still, it was one of the first groups of its kind in Ontario. The first, the Toronto Humane Society, had formed only six years earlier. By 1912, sixty societies were operating in the province.

The provincial government had first dealt with children’s issues in the 1870s, but it was a series of measures, passed in the early 1890s in part as a response to the crusading reformer J.J. Kelso, that brought child welfare into the spotlight.

Kelso was a reporter for the Toronto Globe, and in his daily sojourns around the city he frequently observed street urchins and child neglect. He began writing about what he saw in the late 1880s, and pushed elected provincial and municipal officials to pass reform measures. Most important, he helped to organize the Toronto Humane Society.

A tireless activist, Kelso established contacts everywhere. He knew some of the organizers of the Guelph Humane Society, and urged them to form the group. Kelso’s strong views derived not only from his strong personal opinions, but also from his Presbyterian religious background. He was molded by the social gospel movement, which called for religious people to help the downtrodden and to meet them on their own ground to deal with their everyday problems.

Shortly before the formation of the Guelph Humane Society, the Mowat government appointed Kelso the Superintendent of Neglected and Dependent Children. Created under the child welfare act of 1893, this official, through area inspectors and humane society officials, had the power to remove children from bad domestic situations. Guelph was one of 40 such societies across Ontario that Kelso helped organize.

The Guelph society got off to a slow start. The first Guelph inspector, Thomas Elliot, placed the first local children in foster care during 1895. Immediately it was evident that they needed a shelter of some kind for short-term stays, before children could be placed in foster care.

Often, in cases of domestic violence, family breakup, and severe alcoholism in the home, Elliot and his successors had to intervene quickly. By 1897 the Guelph Humane Society operated a shelter with three bedrooms, under the care of a hired matron.

The scope of the society expanded in 1898, when the Wellington County House of Industry advised that it would no longer accept residents under 16. When it opened some 20 years earlier, the home had accommodated a full range of poor, elderly, infirm and indigent residents who had no means of looking after themselves. The elderly formed an increasing portion of the residents there, and the mixing of young people with them created many problems.

This situation had occurred elsewhere, and a provincial bill of 1895, the Child Protection Act, outlawed the mixing of children with adults. The county looked to the Guelph Humane Society as the only organization capable of assuming the duties for the whole county.

Contrary to popular belief, both then and now, neglected children were to be found not only in the larger centres. Adding the county doubled the caseload of the society, and reports show that some of the worst cases of abuse and neglect occurred in rural areas.

Name changes reflected the new responsibilities: first to the Guelph Humane and Children’s Aid Society in 1904, then to the Humane and Children’s Aid Society of Guelph and Wellington County in 1906. Animal welfare continued as a sideline until 1927, when the humane society became a separate organization.

The operation of the children’s shelter, small as it was, produced problems for the volunteers of the Guelph Humane Society. Critics complained of neglect and abuse in the temporary shelter.

Foster placements frequently turned out poorly, with children returning to the shelter or running away. The limited funds available to the society – largely from memberships and donations – meant that there was little pay for the staff operating the shelter.

The situation improved when the society rented a house at 1 Waterloo Street for a shelter, and hired Mary Allan to run it. The caseload, though, continued to increase, both for Mrs. Allan and for the society’s inspector, which after 1900 was a full-time position.

J.J. Kelso adhered to the theory that it was best to remove children from the temptations and dangers of the city. He sent many from Toronto to be placed in foster care on farms around Wellington County. Eventually, about one-third of the children under local responsibility had come from Toronto.

In the spring of 1911, the Humane and Children’s Aid Society directors decided to construct a new and properly equipped facility. Constructed over the summer and fall of that year, in the pseudo-Tudor style that was popular in those years, the structure looked like a large three-storey house. It duplicated as much as possible the home ambience that Kelso considered vital to the health of children.

Child welfare advocates considered the Guelph shelter to be a state-of-the-art facility when it was built, with bedrooms assigned to no more than two children, and plenty of play space.

Lt. Gov. J.M. Gibson came from Toronto for the official opening on Dec. 14. A proud J.J. Kelso was there too, along with a half dozen of his inspectors from across the province. All delivered flattering comments to the several hundred people assembled for the occasion.

Unlike most buildings constructed for public purposes, the shelter had the potential for more capacity than was needed at the time.

It opened with 11 children, and in the first years only rarely approached the original design capacity of 25. In this period the society typically took on 20 to 30 new cases annually, of which half came from the city, and supervised 75 to 80 children in foster home placements around the county.

The society, for both financial and health reasons, preferred foster placements. They cost less than a quarter of a residency in the shelter, and they provided, in theory at least, a superior environment.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, the shelter often exceeded its designed capacity. It did have sufficient facilities to handle an overflow, which could happen when several large families arrived in a brief period. On occasion there were close to 60 children at the shelter.

In the late 1930s, the society began to favour temporary foster placements and permanent adoption whenever possible. The population at the shelter fell slowly. It continued to provide safety to children on a temporary emergency basis, and to those awaiting placement in foster homes. Despite fewer residents, the cost of running the facility did not decline a great deal.

During the Second World War, the shelter opened a day care centre to help mothers who had taken jobs in the city’s factories. This sideline helped to offset costs, but still left much of the building idle.

In the fall of 1944, the society’s directors decided to close the facility. It was then costing some $6,000 per year to run, and the average number of residents had fallen below 10. They believed that this number could be handled easily through temporary foster care.

Despite the low demand for shelter space, the society had between 250 and 300 children under its jurisdiction in the mid 1940s.

The Children’s Aid Society vacated the building in March 1945, moving to a house at 106 Essex Street that was adequate for its case load. The Salvation Army purchased the old facility, and refitted it for the accommodation of the elderly. It reopened with a new name: Eventide Home.

After serving children for 34 years, the building housed the elderly for another 25. The Salvation Army demolished the structure in 1970 on the completion of more modern accommodation.

During its lifetime, the Guelph children’s shelter filled the key role in looking after Wellington County’s children in difficulty. Its life ended when childcare workers concluded that an institutional environment was inferior to that of a carefully selected foster home, and far more expensive to provide.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 4, 2002.

Thorning Revisited