Points of Interest > The Industrial House of Refuge

In the late 1850s, seeking larger facilities to house the increasing numbers of widows and destitute women in their care, the women directors of the Toronto Magdalen Asylum approached City Council seeking their cooperation in establishing a shelter for what were considered the “deserving poor”—women and children, the elderly, and those who were physically or mentally disabled. In 1857, the Sisters succeeded in negotiating a charitable lease of five acres north of the Don jail for the location of a House of Refuge. 

House of Refuge, c.1860. Toronto Public Library, TRL, Historical Picture Collection, B 4-66b.

The charity opened in 1860 on the east side of the Don north of Gerrard with a mandate to shelter the “the poor and indigent” and “idiots” and to reform “the idle, the lewd, the dissolute and the vagrant members of the community.” Part of the building was used an isolation hospital during the smallpox epidemics of the 1870s. As George Rust-D’Eye recalls, the isolation hospital was known to local children as the “pest house:” “visitors to a loved one could come only so close to the grounds, from which point they would have to throw their gifts to those on the inside.”

By 1884, part of the building was set aside for the permanent care of aged and destitute women, and the charity was renamed the Toronto Industrial Refuge and Aged Woman’s Home. Eight years later, a fortunate legacy made possible construction of a second building, freeing up room in the original building for elderly men. By 1890, however, both houses were terribly overcrowded, and the care of the healthy aged moved elsewhere.

The original building was demolished in 1894; in 1904, a new structure operating under the name of the Riverdale Isolation Hospital became Toronto’s treatment and teaching centre for infectious diseases. As infectious diseases declined in the twentieth century, the building was renamed the Riverdale Hospital in 1957. The site is currently slated for redevelopment under the new name of Bridgepoint Health, “an integrated health care campus with state-of-the art facilities and services for patients needing rehabilitation, complex care and long-term care.” The City's Heritage Preservation Services Department is currently completing an archaeological investigation of the site of the House of the Refuge at the south end of Riverdale Park, in preparation for the relocation of St. Matthews Lawn Bowling Club House to that location.

Text: Jennifer Bonnell and Lost Rivers


City of Toronto Council Minutes, 1857-1860, City of Toronto Archives.

Rust-D'Eye, George H. Cabbagetown Remembered. Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1984.


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