House of Refuge

Formerly located on the east side of John Street between Guise Street East and Brock Street

House of Refuge

Poverty was always a reality for families in the North End. Residents here turned first to family or neighbours, before having to rely on charity. A tall, modern apartment building stands here today, but for 100 years, this was the site of one of the city’s best-known and most-feared charitable institutions. What began as a large but unsuccessful hotel in the 1830s was put to a variety of uses before it became a poorhouse — the House of Refuge, in 1881.

Nathanial Hughson put up a large hotel here in the 1830s, in hopes that the coming railway would bring scores of guests. Unfortunately, though, the railway did not arrive until later, and no travelers stayed at the hotel. It was put to other uses instead. Troops were quartered here during the Rebellion of 1837. The building also served as Hamilton’s Custom House for a while. During the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, the city built sheds just across the street to house the immigrants pouring into the city.

In 1853, the city purchased the building and converted it into the main city hospital. In those days, hospitals tended to be grubby, unhygienic charitable institutions — a last resort for the poor and sick who had no family to care for them. In 1881, the hospital moved to Wellington Street and the old hotel became a poorhouse — the House of Refuge. The building was demolished in 1895 and a new, larger one was built in its place.

The House of Refuge was one of Hamilton’s first homes for the aged. Before the institution of government or company pensions, old age brought hardship for many workers. Saving for retirement was difficult when people only had poorly paid seasonal work at the best of times. Workers who survived the long hours and harsh working conditions of their youth and middle age were often pushed into poverty when they could no longer punch the clock.

When he laid the cornerstone of the new House of Refuge in 1894, the mayor of Hamilton proclaimed that “this would be a refuge for old men and women who had lived their lives and were now provided with a home in their old age.” The charitable commitment of the city’s fathers did not run very deep, however. Both the hospital and the House of Refuge were run on the principle that only the “deserving” poor should get any charity. People who moved into the building had to accept strict rules, which were intended to discourage the poor from applying.

City officials referred to the residents as “inmates.” If at all possible, these inmates were expected to pay for their accommodations. Those who couldn’t afford the full cost of incarceration had to earn their keep. They tended the large vegetable garden on the property, and performed much of the housework. They also picked up rubbish from city streets. Those who protested the harsh regimen were expelled. By 1900, life in the House of Refuge was reported to be so unpleasant that many old-timers chose to spend the winter in jail and the summer on the streets instead.

In the 1920s, city officials tried to revamp the image of the institution, renaming it the Home for the Aged and Infirm. The elderly still tried to avoid ending up there, however. As late as 1942, City Council found the home’s beds, chairs and sofas infested with bugs and its kitchen full of cockroaches. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was another attempt to modernize the institution. It was renamed Macassa Lodge. City Council finally decided that the old buildings on this site were not suitable for seniors, and so they were demolished in 1956. On April 23, 1954, the first sod was turned for a new Macassa Lodge on Upper Sherman Avenue North.