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Initially, in my research for Counterfeit Faith, I began my studies looking at the history of orphanages intending for my story to be set there. However, during my research, I stumbled upon the concept of a House of Refuge. Having worked a summer during college at a camp for at-risk youth, my heart was immediately drawn to this setting and the stories of the children who were deemed juvenile delinquents. I had to know more, and you can read the results of that study in the story. However, like any historical novel, I couldn’t include everything I learned. So this is blog post is an attempt to give a brief overview of Houses of Refuge.

“To accomplish the work of reformation, it is essential that depraved children should be removed from the contaminating contact with wicked associates, both adult and juvenile, and transplanted to a purer and more health-inspiring moral atmosphere. Many of them have been roughly treated by the world, and should be looked upon ‘with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger.’ The light which guided them was not that of virtue, but the lurid glare springing from the polluted and deathly quagmires or society. If any man proud of his integrity and high social position should be tempted to look sternly on erring youth, he should reflect on what he might have been, if penury and ignorance had been the only endowments of his childhood.”


Thomas Budd upon the opening of the new White Female Department Building, January 20th, 1872

Why They Were Created

Prior to the early 1800s, convicted youths were confined to jails and penitentiaries with hardened criminals, regardless of the crimes or noncriminal behavior that placed them there. A child who had been picked up off the street for vagrancy may have been in the same cell as a man who had brutally murdered someone. Not only were they housed with adults, but the institutions were also overcrowded, many of them decrepit. It was a terrible situation that came under the notice of a social welfare movement.

Thomas Eddy and John Griscom organized the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, establishing the first House of Refuge in 1825. It was located in Manhattan, New York, and remained open until 1935. Many other institutions throughout the country followed suit, creating their our state or privately ran Houses of Refuge. These institutes were designed to house poor, destitute, and vagrant youth who were deemed by authorities to be on the path toward delinquency. In other words, Houses of Refuge were the predecessors to today’s juvenile justice system.

How Did a House of Refuge Work?

There were some varying differences from institution to institution, but in general, youths under the age of 21 who had been abandoned, convicted of a crime, or homeless could be referred to the institution through a judge or mayor for at least one year. Many of those children actually spent an indefinite amount of time in these institutions before being placed into indenture agreements, where the inmates would work and train under the supervision of their employer until they reached the age of 21. If a child could not be indentured in cases of mental physical infirmity or otherwise, they could be returned to friends (as they believed the parents were generally a bad influence on the children), sent to the almshouse (poorhouse), or otherwise “placed out.” Girls were trained in housewifery, sewing, washing, and cooking. Anything that went along with managing a house or serving in a house that could afford paid help. Boys were apprenticed sed to apprentice as farmers, printers, tanners, carpenters, blacksmiths, and shoemakers.


Indentured Locations May 1834


However, before children could reach this position of indentured service, they had to earn the right of relative freedom granted through such an agreement. When children were brought into the institutions, they were divided up by sex and then advanced through the following classes. (*This was the class system of the Philadelphia House of Refuge, but each institution had its own variant.)


About Division of Inmates

“The children shall be divided into eleven classes, class No. 10 being the lowest–advancing to No. 1–and the eleventh being the Class of Honor. When admitted, they shall be placed in Class No. 10, and be promoted (when deserving) monthly, until they have gone through the first ten classes, when they shall be placed in the Class of Honor. After they have been two months in that class, they shall be placed in charge of the Indenturing Committee: Provided, that nothing in this rule shall prevent the Board of Managers from discharging a child when it is obviously to the advantage of the child that he or she should not be longer retained.” – By-laws, Rules, & Regulations of the Board of Managers of the House of Refuge: Adopted 1876 (Philadelphia, PA)


An Inmate’s Day

The children’s days were highly regimented with a focus on moral, intellectual, and physical improvement. Days began at 5 am and went until an 8 pm bedtime. The children would labor for six to seven hours, have schooling for three hours, have 30 minutes for each meal, 30 minutes of devotional time, and three hours of recreational time–all of which was strictly supervised. The concept was that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. The children’s labor supported the operating expenses for the reformatory. You can see the items produced in 1834 by the Philadelphia House of Refuge below, as well as a sample schedule.



What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The goal of a House of Refuge was to reform, educate, and provide a Christian moral foundation for inmates so that they could become productive and desired members of society. Unfortunately, like many institutions, Houses of Refuges had the best intentions but suffered from the same issues that plagued the adult facilities. Houses of Refuge quickly outgrew their capacity and became overcrowded, suffered from deteriorating conditions, and staff abuse. In 1876, the Philadelphia House of Refuge underwent a nine-day investigation into abuse. Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives “found that the board punished children by banning play, sending them to bed without supper, placing them in solitary confinement, and even imposing lashings. The board forced children to labor in institutional workshops six days a week without pay and, to make matters worse, thousands of dollars in profits from the goods produced went directly to the board. Despite the prevalence of punishments, the House committee deemed that the board’s actions were not abusive.” (The Encylopedia of Greater Philadelphia, “House of Refuge” by James Kopaczewski.)

By WWII, most, if not all, Houses of Refuge had either closed or restructured and changed their names or taken on the new concept of juvenile jails. You can still find private and state-ran boarding school situations for at-risk youth all over the country. While they hold many similarities to the Houses of Refuge of old, it is my hope they do not suffer from the same issues that plagued their predecessor.

So what are your thoughts on Houses of Refuge, reader? What questions do you have?

RESOURCES: (A Small sampling)

Budd, T. A. (n.d.). An address delivered at the opening of the new building of the White Female Department of the House of Refuge, January 20th, 1872. HathiTrust. (Address given on January 20th, 1872.)

Henry, A., & Barclay, J. J. (1835, May 1). Annual report of the House of Refuge of Philadelphia. 7th. HathiTrust.

Juvenile Justice History. Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. (n.d.).

Kopaczewski, J. (2022, March 28). House of Refuge. Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

New York State Archives. (1989). The Greatest Reform School in the world: A guide to the records of the New York House of Refuge. The Greatest Reform School in the World.

Philadelphia : Edmund Deacon’s Frankling Printing House. (1876, January 1). By-laws, rules and regulations of the Board of Managers of the House of Refuge : Adopted, January, 1876. Internet Archive.

Pickett, R. S. (1969). House of Refuge: Origins of Juvenile Reform in New York State, 1815-1857. Syracuse University Press.

Teerters, N. K. (n.d.). The Early Days of the Philadelphia House of Refuge.

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