Oxford County Archives: Beyond the Vault

Archives Blog

Female Prisoners and the Mercer Reformatory

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

Opened in 1872, The Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women was the first women’s only prison in Canada. Located on King Street West in Toronto, the objective of the Reformatory was to create a home-like atmosphere for its female inmates, where they would be instilled with Victorian feminine virtues of modesty, domesticity, servility and obedience. Inmates performed the usual household tasks such as cooking baking, sewing and knitting in hopes that such learned skills would help them gain lawful employment once their sentences came to an end.

Inmates sentenced to the Reformatory were over sixteen years of age and their sentences varied from thirty days to two years, depending on the nature of the “crime” committed. Often such crimes constituted undesirable social behaviours such as vagrancy, drunkenness, and foul language, as well as offences such as larceny, prostitution, and having a child out of wedlock (promiscuity).

Between 1869 and 1925, approximately 12 women from the County Gaol were sent to the Reformatory. The Archives has no history of what became of these women, though a few were repeat offenders that spent time at the County Gaol. In September 1880, Melvina Crawford was charged with keeping a disorderly house (ie. brothel) in Woodstock, along with her husband George. Before information could be laid against her, she quickly left town, only to be found a few weeks later in Beachville running the same business. She was found guilty and sentenced to six months at the Reformatory. Elizabeth Doosling, an inmate of the house, was also found guilty of her crimes and would receive the same sentence.

In 1887, sisters Bertha and Carrie Crendall, of Ingersoll, were deemed to be “hard characters” and were sentenced to the Reformatory on the offence of vagrancy. Bertha was sentenced to one year at the Reformatory, while Carrie received the sentence of two years less one day.

In August 1893, Mary Fell, of Woodstock was also convicted of the charge of vagrancy and received a 23-month sentence at the Reformatory. At the time of her sentence, the Woodstock Sentinel-Review classified her as a “demi-monde”, essentially being of a class of women considered to be of doubtful morality and social standing.

Despite its promising beginnings, the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women would become wrought with controversy with allegations of unhospitable living conditions, beatings and even experimental drug use and medical procedures. In early 1969 the institution was closed and replaced by the Vanier Centre for Women, in Brampton. It would be demolished later that year and is now the site of Lamport Stadium.

For those interested in learning more about the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, I highly suggest checking the online resources of the Toronto Public Library and the Archives of Ontario. For those interested in learning more about the Oxford County Gaol and its inmates, I invite you to explore our new online exhibit on the Gaol that includes a searchable index of inmates, by name as well as offence.

Image available from Library and Archives Canada: Reproduction Reference #e003894555 and MIKAN ID #3592998.

Online Exhibit: Oxford County Gaol

The Oxford County Archives has launched a new online exhibit which covers the history of the County Gaol. 

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

Over the summer, Archives staff worked hard to pull together a new online exhibit on the Oxford County Gaol, which is now available on our website.

Built in 1854, the Oxford County Gaol was the fifth jail built in the Province of Ontario, behind Picton, Belleville, Goderich and London. Operational for 122 years, it was closed by the Province in 1977, when it was felt that a more modern central location would be preferable for the sake of prisoners in the region. With the closure, concerns were raised over the future of the building, which led the County to preserve and renovate the jail in the early 1980s into office space for the Oxford County Board of Health. It now houses the Woodstock location of Southwestern Public Health.

The new online exhibit highlights not only the history and architectural of the building, but it also provides a fascinating insight into the day to day administration of the jail and what it was like for prisoners housed there within its walls. In addition, the exhibit provides information on the inmates themselves (which include men, women and children) by highlighting some of the more interesting prisoners and the crimes they committed. It also delves into the five hangings that occurred between 1862 and 1954, which included one woman, Lizzie Tilford in 1935, as well as the case of Timothy Topping, who was scheduled to hang at the Gaol but never made it to the gallows.

The exhibit also includes a searchable index of prisoners from 1869-1925, based on the Return of Prisoners Lists (Quarterly Reports submitted by the County Sheriff to the Province). This list can be searched by name or crime and shows how long a prisoner was house at the jail and when. It’s interesting to see what crimes were committed, as they varied from the most severe such as murder, rape, and assault to the quirky, such as a thirty day sentence, in 1876, for illegally practicing as a psychic, and a three day sentence in 1921 for cruelty to chickens.

We hope you enjoy exploring the various sections of the exhibit! For further information on the gaol and to access the original records associated with it, please contact Archives Staff.

Retro Style Thanksgiving Dinner Recipes

Spice up your Thanksgiving dinner this year with a groovy recipe from the 1960s!

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought I would share a few more recipes from our cookbook collection and maybe spark some memories of past family dinners.

The evolution of kitchen culture is a fascinating, if not always tasty, culinary adventure. Back in the “retro” days of the 1950s and 1960s, cookbooks focused on meals that could be molded, loafed, rolled, whipped, and/or frosted. These meals were then usually garnished with beds of lettuce and parsley, and adorned by relishes, fruit shaped flowers and ingredients skewered on frilly picks.

The 1968 Better Homes and Garden Salad Book is no such exception to the trends of the time, as it includes multi-tiered gelatin concoctions and platters including an abundance of ingredients that were either fresh or canned. This was the age where people were experimenting with colour and bringing some fun into their meals and the following recipes definitely highlight those innovating ingredient combinations:

Party Ham Ring

1 envelope (1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin)

¼ cup cold water

¾ cup boiling water

1 cup dairy sour cream

½ cup mayonnaise or salad dressing

3 tablespoons vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

Dash pepper


½ cups diced cooked or canned ham

1 cup celery slices

¼ cup chopped green pepper

3 tablespoons chopped green onions

Soften gelatin in cold water; dissolve in boiling water. Blend in sour cream, mayonnaise, vinegar, salt and pepper. Chill till partially set; whip until fluffy. Fold in remaining ingredients. Pour into 5 ½ cup ring mold. Chill till firm. Makes 5 to 6 servings

Hearty Turkey-Apple Toss

2 tablespoons lemon juice, fresh, frozen or canned

2 cups diced cooked or canned turkey (could also use chicken)

½ cup diced apple

1 cup diced celery

2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped

¼ cup chopped blanched almonds, toasted


1/3 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing

½ teaspoon salt

Dash pepper

½ teaspoon sweet basil

Sprinkle lemon juice over turkey and apple; toss lightly. Add celery, egg, and almonds. Blend mayonnaise and seasonings; fold into turkey mixture. Serve in lettuce cups and trim with additional apple slices OR spoon into ring of Cheesed Tomato Aspic (for those that aren’t familiar with a tomato aspic; if you think of it as a congealed Bloody Mary cocktail drink, then you kind of know what it tastes like!). Makes about 4 cups of salad.

So why the continued fascination with meals that wiggle, meat and fruit loaves, and things in a can? Whether we hate it or love it, for many of us it is a comfort food and a significant flavor memory. Canned salmon loaf was a regular at my house growing up, and I honesty can’t recall a family get together that didn’t include a wreath of green Jell-O with carrots and strawberries! I hope during this holiday, you are able to reflect on your past family functions, with those you love, and recall some of your favourite meals.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Recipes and photos credit: Better Home and Gardens Salad Book. Meredith Press; New York, 1968.

Tragedy at Standard White Lime

Archivist Liz Dommasch uncovers the story of a tragic event involving an employee of the Standard White Lime Company of Beachville in 1914.

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

Often times when we are doing research on one topic at the archives we come across people, businesses and/or events that pique our interest and lead us to research something else. This was the case, this past week, while I was doing research on a particular inmate for our upcoming online exhibit on the history of the Gaol. The Archives maintains a large collection of records related to the County’s Administration and Justice and those records not only include information related to criminal trials, but records concerning autopsies as well. One autopsy caught my eye and I thought I’d share the story with you. It is a bit gruesome. However, it provides a bit of insight into business practices at the time and, as you shall see, ties into some other records the Archives holds.

In March 1914, employees of the Standard White Lime Company of Beachville were using dynamite to break the ice in the Thames River adjacent to the lime works. Sadly, William Farrell was killed instantly when the dynamite he was holding exploded before he could reach the shore. Manager W.W. Wallace was also slightly injured, but was well enough to be able to accompany the remains of the deceased back home to North Hastings County.

The report provided by Coroner J.B. Coleridge stated that all the men were used to handling dynamite and that every precaution was taken to prevent an explosion, including disconnecting the wires between each discharge. All were at a loss to explain in what manner the circuit was made that caused the untimely explosion. Ultimately, Coroner Coleridge would deem an inquest unnecessary and the death accidental.

What’s interesting is that this one piece of paper signed by Coroner Coleridge led me to our Woodstock Sentinel-Review microfilm collection to find the newspaper article on the accident. It next led me to our collection of records related to the Village of Beachville, where I discovered that the Standard White Lime Company began operations at the west end of the Village around 1900. Around the same time, the Beachville White Lime Company started quarry operations farther west. Later these operations became the holdings of the Gypsum Lime and Alabastine Company (later Domtar Ltd.) and is presently known as Cyanamid of Canada.

Operations of the quarries in the early 1900s would have required horses, water wheels and coal to help extract the lime from the pits and to operate their kilns, and therefore it makes sense that the men would need access to running water around the lime works. In addition, dynamite was a fast and effective way to blow things up and had been popular in the various mining industries since its inception in the 1860s. I imagine such accidents were a common place occurrence, as safety procedures were not as strictly regulated and enforced as they are today.

Beachville quarry workers, early 1900s - 1037ph

Furthermore, what’s fascinating is the Archives holds records related to J.B. Coleridge consisting of correspondence and receipts, created and received by him, in the years leading up to his death in July 1914. Although, there are no records related to this particular accident in his fonds, it does help provide an interesting insight into the Coroner himself. Not only was Coleridge a physician and medical examiner, he also served as Ingersoll Mayor from 1912-1913.

More often than not, information on a particular person or event isn’t always kept together. Instead, it takes a bit of sleuthing on our part to pull records from a variety of sources to form a complete story. Often times its stories we weren’t intending to tell but discover while in the midst of working on something else. Other times, we’ve been able to find missing information for questions asked previously. It’s because of moments like these that I love working in an archives – the chance to discover something new and fascinating and being able to share it with others!

Although the Archives is still currently closed due to the COVID pandemic, staff are more than happy to assist with all your research questions. Who knows, maybe we’ll discover something new and intriguing while doing so! Archives staff may be reached at archives@oxfordcounty.ca

Leonard Karn and Castle Cameron

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

While working on my list of inmates at the County Gaol, I had been going through the early Woodstock Sentinel-Reviews in hopes to find more detailed information on the individuals listed and the crimes that they committed (sadly, this task is on hold until I’m back at the Archives and have access to our microfilm collection). The newspapers would often publish weekly reports of the happenings at Police Court that would deal with such crimes as vagrancy, drunkenness, profanity, and small scale larceny. Twice a year it would report on the Spring and Fall Assizes where the large criminal cases were heard such as murder, assault, and embezzlement. The newspaper stories were often quite detailed, including victim’s names (even when underage) and would often lean towards the side of sensational. The following is an example of one such article:

Over the years, Leonard Karn makes a number of appearances in the Return of Prisoners Lists for the crime of larceny. In 1877 he was charged with stealing four bags of peas and one bag of oats from Timothy Featherstone in West Zorra Township, though he would ultimately be found not guilty. Ten years later he is once again charged with larceny, this time for stealing buggy wheels. Unfortunately for him, this time he would be sentenced to hard labour at the Kingston Penitentiary (I imagine his actions at Police Court that day didn’t help his case!). However, serving time at the Kingston Pen doesn’t seemed to have changed his ways, as in 1891, he was once again charged with larceny and this time sentenced to Central Prison in Toronto.

You’ll note that the article makes mention of “Castle Cameron” which was a name given, at the time, to the County Gaol in honour of its Gaoler John Cameron. The famous murderer Reginald Birchall, who spent time in the jail before he was hung in November 1890, wrote about John Cameron in his autobiography, referring to him as being “…eminently fitted for the post which he occupies…” and “[h]is keen penetration and powers of discipline, allied as they are with a kind heart and a considerate nature, at once stamp his as the right man in the right place”.

The Oxford County Archives is actually located in the former Gaol Governor residence where John Cameron would have lived with his family while in charge of the Gaol.

Image to the right: Gaol Governor John Cameron

About this Blog

Welcome! Our blog provides a perspective on the Oxford County Archives beyond the vault and delves into the fascinating stories found within our collection. Get to know our staff, discover what we do at the archives and learn more about Oxford County's cultural heritage. Updates on our services, programs and events will also be shared right here on this blog! 

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