Norfolk County Poor House & Burying Ground

Poorhouses, also known as Industrial Farms, Houses of Refuge, and Infirmaries, were the Canadian Governments response to poverty in the late Eighteen hundreds. Houses of Refuge were considered a last resort for the elderly, mentally disabled, and destitute. Public opinion of the time held that these individuals got what they deserved, and that their moral failings could be eradicated through hard work and order. Residents, or inmates -as they were referred to- would work in exchange for minimal accommodation, clothes, and food. Inmates also experienced restricted freedoms and punitive rules, but not everyone was accepted into these work houses; Township council would decide who was and who wasn't the deserving poor.

Ontario passed the Houses of Refuge Act in 1890, which provided municipalities with grants to purchase land and construct a sufficient dwelling. The Children's Protection Act of 1893, was amended to keep children out of Poorhouses, as they were not to serve as orphanages nor as shelter for children of dependent families. By 1903, every County was required to establish a House of Refuge due in part to the increase of elderly in need of assistance. The progression of social policy over time evolved Poorhouses into what we now recognize as nursing homes.


Prior to a Poor House being established in Norfolk County, paupers would often seek asylum in the county gaol. Although the gaol committee had no authority to opens it's doors to the destitute, in extreme cases it was compelled to do so less it allow paupers to die in the streets. Gaols where no place for the vulnerable in need of relief, which becomes apparent when faced with accounts such as this one from the Brant Herald on January 11, 1854:

"MURDER - INTEMPERANCE - A horrible murder was committed in the Gaol at Simcoe on Monday night of last week, which had its origin in rum. The following particulars of this melancholy affair, we copy from the Brant Herald. It appears that a dissipated vagabond named William Boycan, better known as 'Yankee Bill', had been causing disturbance through the evening in the streets, and in a grocery in the town, and was in consequence committed to the Gaol for the night. At his own request Boycan was put in a cell with a decrepit old pauper, named James Goodhue, who was kept in the Goal in mere charity. When the gaoler left the cell Boycan appeared composed and on excellent terms with his fellow prisoner. Some time in the night, however, the prisoners in the adjoining cells were awakened by cries of 'Mercy', 'Murder', and noises as of persons struggling in the cell occupied by Boycan and Goodhue - Thinking that Boycan was offering violence to the old man, they made every effort to compel him to desist by calling to him and to awake the gaoler, whose apartments are in another part of the building, but without avail. The old man Goodhue was murdered. An inquest was held on Tuesday, before N. Lamson, Esq., Coroner. The gaoler Mr. Walker, in his evidence, stated that on entering the cell in the morning he found Goodhue lying dead and Boycan apparently insane. He had heard nothing in the night. The body of the deceased presented a most revolting spectacle. His head has been dashed against the floor and wall and was beaten almost to a pulp. The scalp had been torn from the skull and a large piece was bitten out of one of his arms. One of his fingers was bitten nearly off. The jury, after deliberation, rendered a verdict of wilful murder against William Boycan. Boycan appears to be quite insane, no doubt from his habitual intemperance."


William Mercer Wilson, along with others of similar sentiment, influenced Norfolk County Council to authorize the first House of Refuge in Upper Canada -Ontario. In 1868, their facility was established on a hundred acres of land with existing buildings previously purchased from United Empire Loyalist Zebulan Landon. Located west of the town of Simcoe on part of Lot 16 and 17 in Woodhouse Township. Mr. and Mrs. Wallis were hired as the first officer and matron. On October 12, 1868, the first inmate, a 41 year old man from Townsend was admitted. By 1871, the number of residents had risen to thirty-two and would continue to rise.


On Saturday August 4, 1877, at eleven o'clock at night, a fire broke out at Norfolk's Poor House. An elderly blind inmate helped to evacuate several residents, while onlookers helplessly watched in horror as seventeen inmates burned to death -seven men, eight women, and two boys. Four other men were badly burned, two of which did not survive. The Norfolk Reformer reported "As many of them were old and feeble and incapacitated by disease, the task of rescuing them from the fire was one of great difficulty... Some burned in their beds, not having sufficient strength to move themselves from their couches. The cries for help of the poor creatures who were literally roasting alive were heart-rendering. Those who were present will never forget the anguish and suffering witnessed at the burning of the Norfolk Poor House. Poor old women and men who had sought an asylum to spend their days were ushered into eternity with scarcely a moments warning." In the presence of the deceased an inquest was held, although several theories were offered authorities never identified what caused the fire.

That Sunday morning two boxes were constructed to house the charred remains of the victims which were then interred in the burying ground at 5 pm that evening in two graves. "The ceremony was not very imposing as the bodies were placed in the grave without either song or prayer," reported the Reformer. "The old verse 'Rattle his bones over the stones/He is a pauper whom nobody owns' was most appropriately illustrated. Men who had fought for their country in 1812 here came to their death in the Poor House conflagration, and their bones were dumped in a hole without the tear of a relative or regret of a friend. Poor old women who had raised large families and watched them with a mother's care were literally roasted, being so emaciated by disease that they were unable to remove themselves from the scorching flames. How wise a provision it is that we are not permitted to know what is in store for us."

Other detailed accounts of this tragedy including the names of it's victims can be found in these New York Times articles: Appalling Disaster In CanadaSeventeen Paupers Burned


In the wake of the most horrendous fire Norfolk has witnessed, the county began to rebuild being awarded two thousand dollars insurance. The cost of a new brick building however, amounted to $45,000.00, and was contracted out to A.J. Dalby, of Jarvis. By June 1878, the new facility was complete, and served as the County Home until 1961. Norview, a long term care home, was then erected to the north of it.


Many died while taking up residence in Poorhouses. Often their remains were buried in unmarked graves on the property. Norfolk's Poor House Burying Ground had marked graves, unmarked graves, and two mass burials. It's unknown how many are interred on the property, or exactly where the burial ground is for that matter. During the time of the Second World War, the grounds fell into neglect, eventually being reclaimed by the forest, as many of the markers slowly sunk into the earth. In the early 1970's, under the supervision of Mr. Robert Landon, and Mr. Cecil Pettinger, twenty-eight headstones were removed from the woods and encased in cement at their present location northeast of the Court House, behind Cedarwood Village. It's likely there are more headstones beneath the overgrowth of the original grounds whose location overtime has become uncertain.

In 2004, there was concern for the preservation of the burial site as developers had purchased the Norview property nearby. At the time, the burial ground was not recognized as a cemetery nor heritage site, and therefore had no protection. The Norfolk Chapter of the Ontario Genealogical Society advocated for a monument, and preservation of the property. The plot became recognized as a cemetery, and designated as a Norfolk County Heritage site in 2007.

Through the outstanding efforts of Bill Terry, and members of the Norfolk Chapter of the Ontario Genealogical Society, 218 persons who died and were buried at the Poor House from 1868, to the mid 1930's, have been identified. This was no small feet considering no cemetery plans have been located, and the burial records that do exist show they were done rather carelessly. A list of known interments can be viewed at Find A Grave.


In an attempt to locate the burying ground, the local genealogical society had two dowsers survey the land near the encased headstones in 2007. Ross Cole, a dowser from Kitchener, was thought to have located fifty unmarked graves, and Mae Leonard, of Otterville, detected what she believed to be hundreds of burials. She provided such details as race, and age of those interred. When asked how she knows, her response was "They tell me". A research team from McMaster was later brought in by the County to perform ground radar and magnetometer surveys. The results were inconclusive, as the ground was heavily disturbed in the past, and contained building debris. In 2012, local resident Judy Chambers, who grew up near the Poor House, recollects the location of the burying ground. As a child her cousins and her would pass through the cemetery on their way to the pond east of the original Norview Lodge. This places the burial ground in the forest, behind where the headstones now rest, and not in the clearing where dowsers, and the research team from McMasters, surveyed. The location of the burial ground may never be confirmed, but the search continues.

In December of 2015, interpretive signage created by Robert Judd Design Company of Waterford, was installed near the Poor House headstones. On June 5th of 2016, a dedication ceremony was held in remembrance of those who resided at Norfolk's Poor House. 

“We will never know the name of every individual who was interred in the Poorhouse Burial Ground but in placing this record we recognize them for the contribution they made, their humanity and for the lives they lived.”

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