Management of Wellington County Poor House had vocal critics

A controversial issue in Wellington County in the 1870s was the construction of the Wellington County Poor House, as it was initially known.

The rural municipalities believed that they would be footing the bill for indigent residents of the villages and towns. Some elected representatives from the urban municipalities were convinced that the existing system of having the council evaluate claims on a case-by-case basis, rather than by a centralized office, was the best. On the other side, the larger municipalities, especially Guelph, believed that they drew indigents from rural areas, and therefore paid more than their share of welfare costs. Overall, everyone wished to keep welfare costs to an absolute minimum.

Despite the opposition, county council eventually agreed to construct a central home. The first inmates, as they were then called, moved in during the latter months of 1877. In mid-January of 1878, the Guelph Mercury sent a reporter to take a tour of the facility and publish an account of his discoveries. Though the reporter was not identified, the account was probably penned by D.M. Dack, who was then the Mercury’s senior reporter.

The reporter’s initial impression of the building was a favourable one. Today the building is the Wellington County Museum. In 1878, the building looked much as it does today, except for a wing to the east and the absence of trees.

Inside he found everything neat and orderly under the management of Jane Parker, the matron. The rooms were orderly and clean, and the bedding was washed frequently, and in some cases daily, as some of the inmates were feeble, and in a few cases, incontinent.

The reporter thought that Mrs. Parker was overworked. She admitted that she was having difficulty retaining help, because she was only permitted to pay six dollars per month plus board. Mrs. Parker noted that there seemed to be a stigma in being associated with such an institution, both as a resident and as an employee.

Adam Parker, her husband, was at that point spending his time securing supplies for the home and setting up the farm portion of the operation, which employed those who were sufficiently able-bodied to help with barn and field chores.

A working farm operation had been one of the selling points in securing support for construction of the home. A few advocates, in fact, suggested that, with efficient management, the home could be operated at a profit to tax payers. The Mercury reporter was doubtful that many of the residents of the home, most of whom were old and feeble, would be able to handle much in the way of farm work. Those who could do physical work, he thought, would likely need much supervision.

At that point, in January 1878, there were 27 residents, far short of the capacity of the facility. Additionally, one person had left the home since it opened, and another had died. Leading the list of admittances was Fergus, with seven, and Guelph town and Eramosa with six each. Councils in several of the townships remained suspicious of the facility, and were extremely reticent to send anyone there. The Parkers had no training or experience in running such a facility. But that was not a criticism. There was none available in the 1870s. All managers of such facilities had to learn their jobs by trial and error.

One area of difficulty was feeding the residents. County council provided the Parkers with a very limited budget for acquiring food, and no training in setting up proper diets. The residents were required to rise at 6am, and to be ready for breakfast at 6:40. That meal consisted of oatmeal with milk, no sugar, and coffee or tea. There was no bread or toast, or anything else with that meal.

The noon dinner was the chief meal of the day. Here there was some day-to-day variety. One day the meal consisted of soup and boiled vegetables. Sometimes there was some beef in the soup, and occasionally a dumpling. The next day the meal was boiled beef, with boiled potatoes and vegetables. The third day was hash, made from the previous day’s leftovers. Evening supper consisted of bread and molasses, with tea or coffee.

The menu varied on Sunday, when the noon dinner consisted of cold meat and boiled rice, and the supper, or tea as it was called then, was a couple of slices of bread with butter. That was the only time during the week that butter appeared on the table. Fresh fruit and raw vegetables were entirely lacking.  The reporter was appalled at the menu, and particularly the lack of butter, which he believed was the equivalent of meat for old people. He noted the meals at the home compared unfavourably with those served in the London and Toronto mental hospitals, where patients could have bread and butter with all meals. And at the Kingston Penitentiary, the inmates received six ounces of meat and an ample portion of potatoes with breakfast. The poor and elderly, he stated, deserved better food than insane and criminal people.  The residents ate their meals from tin plates and tin cups. The reporter stated it would cost little to use crockery instead, and the change would make the meals much more pleasant.

Also deficient was the ventilation in the facility. He noticed the fetid air immediately on entering the building, and he shuddered to think what it would be like when the population of the building double to its capacity of 60 or 70. The heating, it appeared, seemed to be efficient, but the problem was that too many people were crowded into the dormitories. There were two rooms in use, each 37 by 17 feet, and each containing 15 beds. There were nine other bedrooms, each equipped with three beds, but not used to any extent. In his opinion, improvements would be necessary before the building filled up with residents.

A notable deficiency was the lack of any fire fighting equipment. Buildings used as group residences should have a force pump and hose available on each floor, he believed. Though the risk of fire was small, it still existed, and a fire there could be disastrous. The reporter said there were other minor problems, as might be expected in a new building, but he expected them to be rectified over time.

The reporter compiled a short list of immediate wants: a sign-in book for visitors, a set of accounting books for the manager, and the designation of a day or two each week for visitors. The floors were neither painted nor varnished. An elevator would be a convenience for both residents with mobility problems and for the staff. The most urgent requirement, in the reporter’s opinion, was the need for bathroom facilities in the main building. For some reason those facilities had been either overlooked or found impractical during construction. Everyone, staff and residents alike, had to use privies in the barnyard, which were set up back-to-back, one side for women and the other for men. Access was difficult and uncomfortable for the infirm during the winter.

The reporter stressed that many of the problems and deficiencies he noted were a result of the newness of the facility and the lack of experience in managing a home for the elderly and the infirm.

Wellington County, it should be remembered, was one of the first jurisdictions to establish such a home. He fully expected that the problems would be solved during 1878, and that the facility would become a model worthy of imitation by other jurisdictions. In the event, it took much longer than that.


Stephen Thorning