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Nostalgia Tripping: the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women

Posted by Agatha Barc / September 25, 2010

Andrew Mercer ReformatoryI often pass by Lamport Stadium on my way to Roncesvalles Village on the King streetcar, and since I despise sports of any kind, I rarely give much thought to the facility. But, as I rode by one day, I wondered about what must have stood on the site before the construction of the complex. Doing a little subsequent research, I was quite surprised to discover that the previous occupant of the land on KIng just east of Dufferin, was actually of significance to the city's history, and women's history in particular.

It was the first prison in Canada built exclusively for female offenders, according to Heritage Toronto. Constructed in 1872 (although some sources specify the date as 1880), the interior was supposed to remind the inmates of home, but judging from the institutional variation of the Gothic Revival style of the exterior, it must have given them quite the opposite impression.

Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, Toronto, prisoners, nineteenth centuryIn addition to confining women, the regime at the Reformatory also served to acquaint the women with the virtues of the Victorian feminine ideal, the proverbial "angel in the house," which included domesticity, servility, and perhaps above all, obedience. They performed the usual tasks associated with household drudgery, such as cooking, baking, sewing, and knitting. All these tasks were performed under the close supervision of the female staff, keeping in tune with the matriarchal set up of the Reformatory. The founders of the institution hoped that forced labour would allow the prisoners to learn skills that would help them to gain employment when their sentences came to an end.

Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, Toronto, nineteenth century, superintendent's residence, Fraser AvenueThe late nineteenth-century city operated in a different legal framework than our own - thus the Mercer criminals also included prostitutes, brothel keepers, unwed mothers, and women suffering from venereal diseases. Further, over half of the prisoners were classified as domestics upon admittance, so the majority of the women were decidedly working-class. According to the Archives of Ontario, the inmates were over sixteen years of age and their sentences varied from thirty days to two years.

In November 1964, as reported by the Toronto Star, grand jury charges against the institution were brought to the attention of the Reform Institutions Minister, Allan Grossman. The jury, headed by the foreman, Richard H. Lyall, alleged that the conditions at the Mercer were substandard. In their report, they claimed that the matron, Jean Burrows, was incompetent, unfit for her post and that medical care was inadequate. Windowless basement cubicles measuring four by seven feet, and resembling a dungeon, were used for solitary confinement. In addition, they also condemned the poor training of the inmates and their teachers, who were inadequate, as well as widespread sexual relations among the prisoners.

Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, Toronto, aerial view, east, 1920Although Grossman denounced the report, the antiquated Reformatory closed down in March of 1969, amid much controversy. The inmates were transferred to the Vanier Centre on April 3, 1969, and the old complex was condemned and subsequently torn down in the early 1970s. There was no public support to preserve the building, as the Star noted at the time of the wrecking. The Lamport Stadium was constructed on its site in 1974. The only institutional relic that remains is the former superintendent's residence on Fraser Avenue.

Images from the Wikimedia Commons, City of Toronto Archives, and the Archives of Ontario.

Discussion

45 Comments

Andrew / September 25, 2010 at 10:58 am
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Agatha I just want to let you know how much I enjoy your articles, they keep me coming back to this site.

Thanks
AV / September 25, 2010 at 11:17 am
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The parcel of land Lamport sits on is East of Dufferin, not West as suggested by the author.
Derek replying to a comment from AV / September 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm
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Yes, indeed. This has been corrected.
Jake / September 25, 2010 at 05:06 pm
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Since i despise sports..

..what ab idiotic thing to write, sorry,
Emma / September 25, 2010 at 06:00 pm
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I find it ironic that I play on women-only soccer teams at Lamport ha!
Agatha replying to a comment from Andrew / September 25, 2010 at 09:59 pm
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Thanks, Andrew. I do very much enjoy writing them.
saltspring / September 25, 2010 at 10:41 pm
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This is a terrific article with awesome photos. I'd have never imagined a Neo-Gothic building sitting in Lamport Stadium.

Have to agree with Jake, though...why on earth would you state that you despise sports? The only people I've ever heard say such things are either so horridly out of shape and ashamed thereof, or they are so terribly insecure that anything smacking of competition and love for excellence in personal performance it makes you wonder how they've managed to stay alive.
Agatha replying to a comment from saltspring / September 25, 2010 at 11:50 pm
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Thanks for the comments on the article. I'm neither out of shape nor terribly insecure, in fact, I'm quite the opposite. And I was exaggerating when I wrote that I hate sports.
Jane / September 26, 2010 at 03:49 pm
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Interesting to see this. Does anyone know what's going to become of Central Prison Chapel just to the southeast (past the Metro)? Perhaps people don't know that there was a ballpark behind Mercer. It was called Diamond Park, and Toronto won the Eastern League pennant in 1907 there under future Hall-of-Famer Joe Kelley. I've never seen a photo of the front exterior of the park, although you can see shots from the inside on a postcard of Jack Thoney (see vintagebaseball.com). You can see the grandstand in photos from the British Forgings Fonds. Ed Barrow (of Yankees fame) managed the team in 1906. When the wooden ballpark at Hanlan's Point burned in early August of 1909, Diamond Park was hastily rebuilt so the team could finish the season. The ballpark was gone by the end of WWI and I believe the Magic Baking Powder factory stands on the site.
Renée / September 29, 2010 at 10:32 pm
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Agatha
What a lovely article. I am very interested in how women have been represented through photographs taken in asylums, hospitals or prisons (or any institution) during that time. I would like to know where you found the photographs you used for this article. I noticed that one image says city of Toronto archives.
Wow you really pressed some people's buttons with your dislike for sports comment. HOW DARE YOU mislead people! lol



Agatha replying to a comment from Renée / October 7, 2010 at 10:24 am
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Sorry for the late reply, Renée, and thank you for the comment. Finding pictures of women patients or inmates can be challenging. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has extensive archives and you could also try the Archives of Ontario.
mike in parkdale / April 25, 2011 at 09:43 pm
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This is a decent little writeup.

There was a massive renovation done at Lamport over the past few years. By adding the winter 'bubble' they've turned it into a year round sports facility. The bubble is anchored to deep cement slats, which meant excavating about 15 feet deep under the old playing surface. I have a feeling some very dark secrets were buried at that site.
KY / August 22, 2011 at 02:59 pm
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"household drudgery"? come on, there is nothing for women to be ashamed of for being a housewife....all those things you listed were VERY VERY important back in the day and to make comments like this is a put-down to all housewifes past, present and future....including your own ancestors!
LINDA LAVELLE-LOZON / September 14, 2011 at 04:24 am
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Iwas a young inmate at Mercer @ Ingleside in Peel both places made us shve our legs @ under our arms with a razor that all of the other inmates shared .No wonder there are a lot of people out there with hepatitus c.If Icould get a lawyer to find people who did time in the 50s @ 60s maybe we could sue.
Lorraine O'Donnell Williams / September 14, 2011 at 03:39 pm
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Am writing a book about Andrew Mercer Reformatory in the 1950's . would like to contact any former inmates or staff of that institution.thanks Lorraine
Robert Walker replying to a comment from Andrew / December 12, 2011 at 08:29 pm
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My mother spent much time in there and I was adpoted out due to this....i would like to know more a bout this place and if anyone is still alive that remembers Muriel Walker...Thanks
Velma Demerson / December 26, 2011 at 05:25 am
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Women 15 to 35 were incarcerated in the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females under Ontario's Female Refuges Act. This Act did not fall under the Criminal Code of Canada and women confined in the Reformatory between 1919 and i959 are entitled to compensation. A former Mercer inmate successfully negotiated a settlement with the Ontario Government in 2004. Her lawyer was David Midanik.
Albert Waller / December 27, 2011 at 01:32 am
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I am a great great grandson of Andrew Mercer who's estate was confiscated and used by
the Ontario gov. to build Mercer. some of the. money remaining from the estate was rightfully
distribued to Mercer hiers including my grandfather in the 1920's.
to now have Allan Lamport's name on this parcel of land rubs me the wrong way.
velma demerson / December 28, 2011 at 09:22 pm
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Albert Waller is to be commended for taking a stand in memory of his grandfather. Unfortunately the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females was torn down in 1969 and replaced by the Allen Lamport Stadium. One might ask, "How much of our Canadian history has been retained?"
"How can our children go forward if they don't know their history?"
Robert Walker replying to a comment from LINDA LAVELLE-LOZON / January 29, 2012 at 04:06 pm
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My mom Muriel Walker spent alot of time in Mercer....maybe we can help each other as Im looking to sue for my mothers death.
Robert Walker replying to a comment from Lorraine O'Donnell Williams / January 29, 2012 at 04:07 pm
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Contact me....my mom spent many years in there.
Robert Walker replying to a comment from velma demerson / January 29, 2012 at 04:09 pm
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Velma....please contact me asap if you could.....thanks. I need some important info on Mercer.
Linda Lozon / March 20, 2012 at 11:24 am
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re Mercer i can't seem to find any one to help sue them we all were given a razor the same one for everyone to use ,if anyone remembers this I NEED A LOT OF INFO .ROBERT WHAT YEARS APPROX WAS YOUR MOM IN THERE I THINK I CAUGHT HEPATITUS C FROM THEM MAKING US SHARE ONE RAZOR THIS WAS ALSO GOING ON IN INGLESIDE.THE TWO WOMAN GUARDS OR MATRONS AS WE WERE TOLD TO CALL THEM WAS MRS IRONSIDE,@ MISS HOPPER WHO I BELIEVE WAS A BULLY,I WAS THERE IN THE 70S
Linda Lozon / March 20, 2012 at 11:25 am
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I WOULD LIKE TO PUT AN END TO THIS CRAP @ GET ANSWERS FOR EVERYONE
Linda Lozon replying to a comment from Linda Lozon / March 21, 2012 at 10:20 pm
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I FOUND AN OLD GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT STATING THAT I WAS IN ONE OF THE TWO PLACES IN AUGUST 13, 1963,@ IN OCTOBER 10, 1963 FOR BREACH OF PROBATION,@ ALSO AGAIN IN AUGUST 12 1965 THEN I WAS GIVEN A PARDON IN 1979
Linda Lavelle - Lozon replying to a comment from Robert Walker / March 26, 2012 at 02:48 am
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Robert have you found anyone that can help i have had no luck.
Robert / March 26, 2012 at 02:12 pm
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Just what are to trying to do Linda....maybe we can help each other...
LINDA LAVELLE-LOZON / April 3, 2012 at 02:53 am
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I'm trying to sue for possibly contacting hepatitus c in mercer or ingleside which is now Vanier,from them passing out one razor for quite a few girls @ women to use but still havent heard from anyone else i was wondering if that lawyer someone mentioned could help.
Robert Walker / May 7, 2012 at 01:21 pm
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my mother was there in 1950-51 and 1956-58
\lorraine replying to a comment from Robert Walker / November 10, 2012 at 03:16 pm
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I was at mercer running a rehabilitation clinic for women in 1956. What name was you mother under in that year, Robert? Maybe she was one of the women I helped as she was getting to go out to face theh "square" world again. Lorraine
Robert Walker / November 10, 2012 at 04:05 pm
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Please contact me at cashwalker@hotmail.com
My mothers name was Muriel Walker.
Robert Walker replying to a comment from Lorraine O'Donnell Williams / November 10, 2012 at 05:06 pm
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Im glad you are writing a book on Mercer...I hope it reflects what a corrupt prison it was.
Robert Walker / November 10, 2012 at 06:21 pm
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I'm looking for a producer for my mothers movie script on Mercer.
Robert Walker / November 14, 2012 at 03:53 am
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In all of the internet...there is only one picture of Mercer. Is there not any others ?
Alexandra Tesluk replying to a comment from Robert Walker / November 18, 2012 at 10:24 pm
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Try the Archives of Ontario. They have a ton of info. You need to write to them for files etc. You could probably get your mother's ward files too. Ontario Archives is with the provincial government. Good luck!!
Robert Walker / November 18, 2012 at 11:44 pm
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Thanks Alexandra ...They said I will need a court order to view my mothers files as she was only 16 when she was in there.
Robert Walker / November 18, 2012 at 11:59 pm
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My mother was a very talented ballerina and had just been introduced to Celia Franca by Janet Volkoff when she was jailed simply for being a pregnant unwed mother. She was celebrating by doing ballet on the street when a police officer arrested her. Her career was ruined over a stupid charge called "INCORRIGIBLE'
Robert Walker / November 20, 2012 at 03:14 pm
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I need to know as much about Mercer as possible and if anyone knew my mother...Muriel Walker or Muriel Brooker.
LLBolt / January 14, 2013 at 04:24 am
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Perhaps some info here Robert, http://velmademerson.wordpress.com/compensation/

LL Bolt / January 14, 2013 at 04:26 am
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Or here, http://velmademerson.wordpress.com/the-mercer/
Robert Walker / September 11, 2013 at 05:10 pm
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We went to court in March and the judge ruled in my favour to have all my mothers records turned over to me from Mercer. Thanks to my lawyer Chantel Lawton and all the time she dedicated to my case. Also thanks to my other lawyer Shawn McNamara as well for his beautiful presentation in court.
Michael / September 14, 2013 at 01:20 pm
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This photo was posted on a Facebook page called "Vintage Toronto" I think it was a last remaining piece of part of the back building of the prison.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=542409172495738&;set=a.451408078262515.100055.256041347799190&;type=1&theater

There is no date on the photo, but the stadium is clearly in the background and the tree in the photo is still standing, and not much bigger - so the photo is not that old.
Robert Walker / November 20, 2013 at 06:16 pm
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View my mothers tragic story on video at the Mercer Reformatory at this link...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eIEv6vvjYA&;feature=player_detailpage
Robert Walker / January 13, 2014 at 09:59 am
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Sorry that previous youtube was deleted, Please view this one. Thanks

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&;v=Ppp-YV2X6oU
Tim / February 8, 2014 at 01:32 pm
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What I remember most of Mercer Reformatory is walking by the place, I was only about 8-9 years old. And this little Parkdale kid here would hear the weirdest sounds coming from that place which was enough to make me walk across King St. to the north side where the City Works garage was and carry on home...

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