Before 1876: Jails, Work-houses, Asylums

Where did those with disabilities live out their lives before the founding of the first institution in Orillia, Ontario, in 1876?  This important question helps to show us why and how institutionalization came into being.

At Home
Most were kept with their families at home or in the community. When their parents reached old age or died, they were looked after by extended family or friends or left to fend for themselves. However, Dr John Langmuir, Inspector of Asylums in the 1870s, noted that many of the poorer classes “utterly neglected” their children.

Local Jails
Many of the poor and destitute who were unable to care for their children, or were too old or infirm, were supported by the charity of their church parishes.  Other mental defectives often ended up in local and provincial jails, which, according to Dr Henry Landor, were jammed with large numbers of mentally retarded adults. They were treated cruelly, shackled in basement cells, mixed in with murderers and thieves.

The Poor House and the Work House   

ph 10814: Wellington County House of Industry and Refuge, view from south side of the Grand River, ca. 1907-1914. Photographer unknown.

Many feeble-minded people ended up in the Poor House, in the eighteenth century, which later became the Work House or Houses of Refuge and Houses of Industry in the nineteenth  and early twentieth century.   The Poor House, where the destitute and feeble-minded, including unmarried girls with illegitimate babies ended up, was what we today would understand as being a form of Canada’s social assistance to the poor and disabled, which lasted for over sixty years.

Conditions were prison-like, with cold cells and little food. The local reeve and township council deemed who were the “deserving” poor, - as opposed to being  “paupers” or “undeserving poor” –  to be allowed into the Poor House. The feeble-minded were deemed “deserving”. 

The Work House was similar to the Poor House. In exchange for their labour, inmates were given a bed, basic food and clothes. They slept in crowded segregated dormitories, even if they were married. Many feeble-minded were sexually abused and exploited in such places.


House of Refuge Acts 1890

  • In Ontario, the House of Refuge Act was passed in 1890.
  • County governments were given grants of up to $4000 to construct a building on at least 45 acres of land in which to house the destitute.
  • In 1903, new legislation enforced that every county had to provide a House of Refuge for the destitute, feeble-minded, paupers, aged and infirm. By 1914 there were 71 houses of refuge with a total of 7,986 inmates. Conditions were worse than those in the Orillia institution.

House of Refuge Act 1919

Physicians could diagnose and recommend the transfer of anyone “feeble-minded” from the House of Refuge to the institution in Orillia. Examining physicians could transfer ”fallen” women from houses of refuge such as the Haven in Toronto, run by the Salvation Army, and place them in an institution such as Orillia and Cobourg.


Cobourg Asylum

Cobourg Asylum, early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Archives of Ontario.

According to the 1919 House of Refuge Act recommended by the Hodgins Report, feeble-minded women and their illegitimate babies and children could be placed in Cobourg asylum, which often served as an overflow when Orillia or houses of refuge were full.

“This is not sufficient justification for locking up a girl and keeping her for an indefinite period in a mental hospital.” - Royal Commission 1938

The Royal Commission of 1938 was shocked to find women put away in Cobourg simply for being pregnant: Cobourg was ostensibly a training school for domestic servants placed on probation.  62% of women locked up were mentally retarded. The suggestion of the commissioners, to get their release, was to have the women sterilized in order to return them to the community.



There were four lunatic asylums in Ontario, one large Penitentiary, two Reformatory Prisons and fifty-two Common Gaols in Ontario and Quebec by the 1870s. Mentally retarded people, committed to local jails for vagrancy, were often then labelled “dangerous lunatics” in order to gain admission to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, Toronto.

Orillia Branch Asylum: A branch lunatic asylum was subsequently founded in Orillia in 1861, and mentally defective people were diverted there.

Asylum for Adult Idiots was also built in the grounds of the London Lunatic Asylum in 1872. It was not intended for the training or education of imbecilic children, warned Dr Langmuir. Priority was given to those who had been committed to goals in the province as “persons dangerous to be at large.”

Given the situation, parents had little choice but keep their children at home. Those who were unemployed or destitute due to infirmity or illness, tried to get them into an asylum where at least they would have food and shelter and refuge. It was often a case of survival.