When people think of a “House of Industry or Refuge” they might picture a poorhouse, a workhouse, a prison or a scene from a Charles Dickens novel. But in the 1800s, if you fell into any of the following categories – destitute, jobless, homeless, blind, aged, widowed, pregnant, alcohol ‘intemperate’ or abandoned by a husband or father – you could have been admitted to the House of Refuge.

In 1890 the House of Refuge Act was passed, allowing counties to receive $4000 to purchase up to 45 acres of land on which to build an institution. Middlesex was well ahead of that date. Support for a local House of Refuge began here in the 1840s, although it was almost 40 years before one was opened. Construction started in 1880 on a three-storey building located on present-day Napperton Drive, just west of Strathroy. The House officially opened on January 12, 1881 with four ‘inmates’. James Keys was the first name found in the book titled “Register of Paupers, Vagrants, and Idiots received at the House of Industry and Refuge County of Middlesex”.

Today we associate ‘inmates’ with prison, but in the 1800s this described anyone living in a public institution, including a jail, hospital or asylum. House of Refuge inmates/residents were granted admission by the acting reeve or a local council member; they were classified as ‘deserving poor’. There was a supervisor (or ‘keeper’), a matron and a doctor on-site at all times. A component of each of the Houses was a working farm where, if capable, inmates were required to work to offset the cost of running the facility. Over the years the House of Refuge model slowly evolved as other institutions were opened for orphans, the homeless and people with mental health concerns.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s many residents died of common ailments recorded as la grippe (influenza), general disability, apoplexy (stroke) and paralysis, so Houses of Refuge often had a cemetery on site. The Burial Register for the “House of Industry and Refuge, County of Middlesex” indicates there were two cemetery plots, where approximately 180 people were interred. The location of the first plot is unknown, but about 90 former residents of the House were buried there. The first burial took place in February 1881, after a woman identified as ‘Widow Cinnamon’ died at the age of 77. She was admitted to the House of Refuge from Ekfrid Township only two weeks prior to her death. The last person to be buried in the first plot was James Smith from West Williams Township, who died on August 13, 1889, the same day he was brought to the House. The second cemetery plot was opened on October 10, 1889 with the death of Mary Bratt. It was laid out in the northwest corner of the farm, now marked with a cedar hedge and rows of trees. Although the cemetery closed in 1900, one more burial took place two years later. George Edwin Bratt, born to Lizzie Bratt, was just eight days old when he died.

In the years after the cemetery was closed the bodies of 93 people were sent to the London Medical School for research purposes. The Anatomy Act allowed medical schools to legally procure unclaimed bodies from government institutions to further the advancement of medical studies. This continued until 1931, when Middlesex County purchased plots within Strathroy Cemetery to bury those who either did not have a family, or whose family could not afford a burial. There is a gravestone in the Cemetery with the inscription “Middlesex County Home” to mark where some of these residents are interred.

All of this may sound like a grim and dismal way to live in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, when a person did not have any family or could not afford help, there was no other option. Gradual improvements in senior care and social services grew out of these institutions, and by the 1940s all Houses of Refuge were renamed Homes for the Aged. Eventually the Middlesex County House of Refuge became Strathmere Lodge.

This article could not have been written without the initial research provided by Lindsey Bannister. Further research is being conducted on the House of Refuge cemeteries by Museum Strathroy-Caradoc.  The listing of names can be found in the banner link above titled House of Refuge Cemetery Listing.