Cultural Heritage of the Yorklands Site

What is cultural heritage? 

“Cultural heritage” consists not only of land and buildings but also of the memories of shared values and traditions of a place.  It implies a shared connection to part of the community.  It represents our history and our identity: our tie to the past, the present, and our future.

Cultural heritage includes: traditional activities, oral history, photography, the arts, social activities, craftsmanship, knowledge and skills transmitted from generation to generation in a place.  It includes the natural environment and habitual activities there like fishing, dog walking, hiking, birdwatching and biological studies in water and on land.  These activities connect us to our public spaces and enrich our community.

For nearly 100 hundred years the Ontario Reformatory, Guelph, and later the Guelph Corrections Centre, operated at what is now called the Yorklands. Beginning in the early 1900’s the property was purchased by the province from settler farmers 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 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.  When the province chose to streamline the correctional system, the Guelph facility was among fourteen sites 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 of Infrastructure Ontario.  In 2021, the City of Guelph hired a consultant to complete a heritage district boundary study to establish the boundaries of a potential Heritage Conservation District. The Phase 2 detailed study is still pending. 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 that by reading about the rich, diverse and innovative history of the former institute and the goals of the Yorklands Green Hub you will be inspired to spend some time at the site itself.

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 Yorklands, and which eventually would become the largest correctional institution in Ontario.

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 on buildings to serve 200 inmates began immediately,based on designs by John Lyle, a famous and respected architect, who had built many beautiful provincial heritage buildings prior to taking on the building of the Ontario Reformatory.  By 1915, there were 21 buildings, includisng the woolen mill, kitchens, a machine shop, woodworking shop and a cannery. 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 and local trees 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

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 neuropsychiatric 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 and dry cleaning 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 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).
  • a bakery and onsite 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.

The Speedwell Hospital

Planning for an Industrial Farm to house prisoners sentenced to serve less than two years less a day, as a replacement for the Central Prison in Toronto, began in 1906. The facility was envisioned as the flagship for a new system of reform and rehabilitation that would benefit both the inmates and the community. Several farms were acquired for the site of the Ontario Reformatory, east of Guelph near the Ontario Agricultural College. On April 11, 1910, two guards, a cook, a farmer and 14 prisoners moved into farmhouses on the property and prepared the site by clearing the land, building roads and laying a small gage railway to transport materials from a quarry and lime plant. They also erected a temporary dormitory to house up to 200 inmates. By 1915 they had erected 21 buildings, including a woolen mill, kitchens, machine shop, woodworking shop and cannery, with stone that was quarried on site and lumber from local trees.
In 1917 correction services were suspended and the property was transferred to the Military Hospital Commission for use as a vocational training centre for returning soldiers. Thomas B. Kidner, the vocational secretary of the Military Hospitals Commission in Canada was in charge of preparations for returning disabled veterans. He viewed the industrial programs and field activities at the Ontario Reformatory as ideal for these veterans while recovering from their injuries or tuberculosis. The facility was officially known as the Guelph Military Convalescent Hospital, but was named Speedwell by its residents – mostly soldiers from southwestern Ontario.

At Speedwell disabled soldiers received therapy while others received training in agriculture, woodworking and motor mechanics. Soldiers were required to wear their uniforms and the military command structure remained in place. Hospital staff had either served overseas or with the military stationed in Guelph. Some temporary structures were built during this time to accommodate staff families, teamster dormitories and a large greenhouse.
With a population just under 8 million, Canada had almost 620,000 personnel serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during WW1. Nearly 60,000 died, mostly from artillery and mortar shells and 172,000 were wounded. . By 1917 approximately 500 disabled solders returned monthly to Canada from WW1 needing care. At its height, there were 900 veterans in residence at Speedwell, of whom half were bedridden and half were disabled.
The military hospital functioned at the Guelph Reformatory until 1921, at which time it reverted back to correctional use.

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 calisthenics, 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
    • The lower assembly hall is 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:
    • bricklaying and masonry
    • carpentry
    • motor mechanics
    • painting and decorating
    • plumbing
    • sheet metal work
    • upholstery
    • 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.

The Arts

Offering an arts program was a way to uplift and tap into the creative spirit of the inmates. The book, “Prison Arts”, was published in 1975 as Canada’s contribution for the first international collection from 13 countries for the United Nations 5th International Congress on Crime and Correction.

Artwork created by the Native Sons Club were impressive and popular among the inmates.  Several indigenous murals were painted on the walls of the Native Arts room.

Tourism to Guelph included invitations to visit the lovely grounds of the Ontario Reformatory.  Postcards were a popular representation of the changes to the Reformatory site over the years. Learn more here.

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.


“The House on the Hill”, Karl Grottenthaler.  Privately published.

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