Historical Overview of the Yorklands Site

For nearly 100 hundred years the Ontario Reformatory, Guelph, and later the Guelph Corrections Centre, operated at what is now called the York Lands. Beginning in the early 1900’s the property was purchased by the province to implement far-reaching changes in the treatment of young offenders and those with light sentences. The new venture had the goal of the complete rehabilitation of those incarcerated in a facility that would be fully self-contained.

Throughout the years of operation the property was home to farming and industrial operations, where thousands of inmates received training and/or worked on a 100-acre farm and in the trades. From a cannery to a fish farm, from upholstery to milling shops, from planing mills to quarries, from farm and green house work to landscaping, the institute was mandated to operate with the intent to improve with the times.  The Centre was expensive to maintain and when the province chose to streamline the correctional system, the Guelph facility was among fourteen  facilities closed in 2001.  It has remained vacant since that time, except for occasional use by the film industry and security training groups.

In 2006 the property was recognized as a provincially significant heritage property and is under the management and guidance of the Ontario Realty Corporation’s (ORC) Heritage Management Process, the intent of which is to protect its value for future generations.  Comprehensive heritage conservation planning is part of the stewardship process to ensure that the heritage features of the property are protected and sensitively integrated into any future uses.

The Yorklands Green Hub group envisions that portions of the property once again be used to implement  a new venture with likewise far-reaching goals – the rehabilitation of our ecological, social and economic processes to those that are resilient and sustainable for our overall individual and community well-being.

We hope you will spend some time at the site, reading about the rich, diverse and innovative history of the former institute and the goals of the Yorklands Green Hub group. Please see the following links for historical information on:

Philosophy and Mission

The Buildings

The Programs

The Farm

The People

Ontario Reformatory, Guelph 1909 – 1972

Guelph Corrections Centre 1972 – 2002

Historical Overview:

Philosophy & Mission

In 1905 William John Hanna, Provincial Secretary for the Province of Ontario, set out to make far reaching changes in the Social Services of the province, coinciding with a similar move at the national level towards prison reform.  The shift was to rehabilitate, rather than punish, and to make facilities self-sufficient, using inmate labor for the operation of the facility where appropriate, including building the correctional facility itself. Adult offenders with sentences from two months to two years, the majority of whom were aged 16-20 would be incarcerated in the institution to be built on the land that is now known as The York Lands, and which eventually would become the largest correctional institution in Ontario.

From the beginning the goal of the institution was a holistic approach to prison reform: “The whole of a man’s stay in the Reformatory, from the day that he first enters, is orientated towards the time when he will be standing on his own two feet, shouldering the responsibilities and sharing the privileges of a free man in a free society.”(First Public Exhibition at Ontario Reformatory, Guelph).

Over the years as few as 300 or as many as 1000 inmates were housed in these facilities which covered 1000 acres.

The Buildings

In April 11, 1910, 14 prisoners accompanied by two guards, a cook and a farmer moved into a farmhouse situated on what was to be the Ontario Reformatory, Guelph. Construction began immediately based on designs by John Lyle a famous and respected architect, who built many beautiful provincial heritage buildings prior to taking on the building of the Ontario Reformatory. The property would eventually become a small city, completely self-sufficient with its own wells, services, power generation along with railroad access to the CPR mainline and its own station on the line.  A stone quarry on the property provided the materials for most of the buildings.

The old stone quarry at the Guelph Correctional Centre

The old stone quarry at the Guelph Correctional Centre

In 1917 correctional services were suspended for four years and the property was transferred to the Military Hospital Commission for use as a vocational training center for returned soldiers. It was known as the Guelph Military Convalescent Hospital, or Speedwell.  It functioned in this manner until 1921 when it reverted to a correctional institution.

Throughout the nearly 100 years of operation, the site would include the following buildings and services:

  • an administration building
  • three cell blocks and two dormitory blocks
  • a guard/gate house
  • a supervisor’s house
  • a bathhouse
  • two quarries
  • a two-story hospital with two physicians and a staff of nurses, including a separate neuro -psychiatric unit and an isolation unit for contagious diseases
  • a steam plant, providing all the energy needs of the facility. Upgrades and replacements in heating, electrical and mechanical services in the early 1980’s effected a 50% reduction in energy consumption, winning the Silver Medal for energy savings in 1983, and allowing the savings to fund future projects at the facility.
  • a chapel run by chaplains from different faiths, with denominational volunteers from Catholic, Anglican, Mennonite, United, and the Salvation Army, which was involved from the very beginning of the reformatory program, and other religious organizations
  • laundry services
  • a large 1,000 square foot greenhouse
  • a hydrated-lime plant
  • a stone crusher
  • a textile shop
  • a planing mill
  • a jobbing shop to do one-of-a-kind job orders, initially the Marker Plant which made license plates
  • a woolen mill
  • a cannery, which closed after one year of operations (even the low labor cost couldn’t make it competitive with private suppliers)
  • a trout processing and a bulk packaging plant
  • an abattoir (eventually this was taken over by Cargill. (Privatization of the public operations began in the late 1970’s with the pilot project being the abattoir).
  • on site food services, eventually contracted out to private caterers
  • a staff training school to prepare staff to deal with the myriad challenges of working with inmates. The school trained all levels of Department of Corrections staff with an emphasis on the development of a positive attitude towards wards and inmates in the correctional institutes.

Pic scan 011

The Programs

Inmates could avail themselves of a variety of programs and services during their term at the Guelph Reformatory:

  • Health services:
    • Proper diet, hygiene, exercise programs
    • AA  and drug abuse programs
    • AIDS awareness
    • Dental services
    • Psychological services including the establishment of the Guelph Assessment and Treatment Unit.
  • Education:
    • Day and evening classes up to grade 10, taught by fully qualified instructors
    • Grade 11 and over, along with vocational subjects such as bookkeeping, accounting and trades not taught within the institution were provided by correspondence courses
    • Physical training and education were also provided by callisthenics, athletics and sports instructors.
  • “Native Sons”:
    • The number of young native people incarcerated was disproportionate to the total population due to the prevailing conditions in Native communities which have been damaged by such factors as residential schools, colonialism and racism among others.
    • “Native Sons” group strongly supported native inmates regardless of tribe
    • assembly room where Native Sons met still contains art murals from this period.
  • Recreational services for development of the individual helped inmates to experience creativity, a sense of service and emotional release. This included:
    • dog obedience classes with the local kennel club
    • effective speaking
    • building scenery and sets for the Guelph Little Theatre
    • inmate talent shows
    • art and hobby craft instruction
    • sporting events
    • outdoor education in ecology, hiking, survival, general camp craft, music, and others.
  • Trades training that included:Camp Hendrie, 95 miles from the Guelph Correctional Centre, operated in cooperation with the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, where selected inmates were employed and learned the use of bush tools, safe forestry methods, bush clearing and upkeep, planting, tree care and firefighting.
    • bricklaying and masonry
    • carpentry
    • motor mechanics
    • painting and decorating
    • plumbing
    • sheet metal work
    • upholstery

The Farm

  • The farm operated on 100 acres. As early as 1914 the Provincial Secretary’s Department report confirmed that “the Reformatory in Guelph including the industrial and farm operations were fully operational and fulfilling all expectations.”
  • The farm included a dairy, a piggery, a horse barn, a large vegetable garden and a 1000 square foot greenhouse where all stock for the vegetable and ornamental gardens were grown.
Outbuildings from the GCC farm

Outbuildings from the GCC farm

  • The farm provided general farming experience for all aspects of crop production including use and care of farming equipment.
  • When the farm was at its operational peak annual output included 25 tons of onions, 17 tons of cabbage, 10,000 bags of potatoes, 200,000 pounds of apples, 50 tons of rhubarb, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, corn and beetroot.
  • Farm operations were discontinued in the mid 1970’s.
  • A landscaping team, which at one time was called the Reformatory Bull Gang, was integral to the farm operation. This team dug the two large lakes along York Road, beautified Clythe Creek, and installed tile drainage systems in what is now Royal City Jaycees Bicentennial Park and in the field opposite Willowbank Hall. The team was responsible for upkeep of all the grounds, flower beds, floral displays inside and outside, tree pruning, and all aspects of vegetable gardening.  The extensive and beautiful stone walls, steps and bridge features on the property were built by the landscaping team.
A stone walkway

A stone walkway

The People

  • Twenty Superintendents managed the facility over the nearly 100 years of operation, each leaving their own mark during the duration of their assignment.
  • A multitude of civil servants, returning soldiers and professionals of many different backgrounds worked at the facility in a variety of supervisory roles.
  • Thousands of youths and first-offenders who came to the facility from a variety of criminal backgrounds.

Note: By its nature, a correctional institution will have aspects of abusive and violent behavior, as well as the normal personnel conflicts of any organization.  The information presented here is not to downplay these aspects of the institution, but to show the long history of this beautiful property that now awaits a new purpose and use.

Disclaimer: This historical perspective is a brief overview of the history of the former correctional institute and some inconsistencies may exist. Attempts will be made to address these should they be brought to our attention.



“First Public Exhibition, Ontario Reformatory, Guelph” three pages that quite possibly are excerpts from a program.

“The House on the Hill”, Karl Grottenthaler

http://www.infrastructureontario.ca/Templates/News.aspx?id=2147488051&langtype=1033   )




Society Behind Bars: A Sociological Scrutiny of Guelph Reformatory, W. E. Mann, 1967 Toronto