Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

House of Refuge

A 1836 watercolor painting by David Johnson Kennedy showing the original House of Refuge in Philadelphia at Fairmount and Ridge Avenues.

This 1836 watercolor painting by David Johnson Kennedy shows the original House of Refuge in Philadelphia at Fairmount and Ridge Avenues before it relocated in 1850. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Established on February 7, 1826, the Philadelphia House of Refuge provided an alternative to prisons for incarcerating juvenile delinquents and child vagrants. Although the House of Refuge purported to aid poor and delinquent children, in practice it became a paternalist organization that strove to implement social control over the city’s lower classes.

A project of wealthy white merchants, philanthropists, and politicians, the House of Refuge began with a Board of Managers that included John Sergeant (1779-1852) and Alexander Henry (1763-1847), two of the city’s wealthiest men. With powerful connections across the city and state, the Board of Managers attained twenty thousand dollars  in government grants and more than eight thousand dollars in private donations. This endowment of public and private funds allowed the board to purchase a five-acre plot at Fairmount and Ridge Avenues in April 1827. By December 1, 1828, construction was complete and the House of Refuge was ready for its first class of eighty boys and girls.

Earlier practices of incarcerating children in prisons perturbed reformers, who argued that delinquents deserved a place of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Advocates for the House of Refuge suggested that delinquents needed “an asylum for poverty and helplessness and ignorance, not a prison for malefactors.” White youth under the age of twenty-one could be referred to the institution through a number of means, such as through an order of a judge or the mayor. As a result, youth who had been abandoned, convicted of a crime, or homeless, became eligible to stay at the House of Refuge for at least one year.

A Drwaing of the Department for White Children of the House of Refuge in 1858.

The House of Refuge moved in 1850 to a larger location bounded by Twenty-Second, Twenty-Fourth, Parrish, and Poplar Streets to expand its services to both white and African American children. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

In structuring the institution, the board followed the examples of the New York House of Refuge and Boston House of Refuge, where children’s days were highly regimented and aimed towards moral, intellectual, and physical improvement. Days at the Philadelphia House of Refuge began at 5 a.m. with children laboring for six to eight hours and learning for three to four hours. Other than a brief period of play after dinner, the days were devoid of any idleness or frivolity. The managers declared restraint to be “necessary no less for the good of the subject, than for the security of society.” The board also claimed to train children to become self-reliant. Children received lessons in reading, writing, geography, and mathematics and they attended lectures on Protestantism. The children also received vocational training. Boys were assigned to apprentice as farmers, printers, tanners, carpenters, blacksmiths, and shoemakers while girls were trained in housewifery, sewing, washing, and cooking.

During the late 1840s, the board began discussing the possibility of opening a division of the House of Refuge for African American children. After raising nearly fourteen thousand dollars from private donors to cover construction costs, the House of Refuge for Colored Children opened its doors in December 1849 with a speech by Judge William D. Kelley (1814-90). While black and white boys and girls shared curriculum and trained in similar crafts, the House of Refuge was strictly segregated with black and white children occupying separate buildings.

Drawing of the Department for Colored Children of the House of Refuge, 1858

During the late 1840s, the board began discussing the possibility of opening a division of the House of Refuge for African American children. After raising nearly fourteen thousand dollars from private donors to cover construction costs, the House of Refuge for Colored Children opened its doors in December 1849. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Despite reformers’ intentions, the House of Refuge rarely lived up to its mission of rehabilitating delinquent children. In 1876, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives initiated a nine-day investigation into abuse and 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.

By the late 1880s, the House of Refuge had grown too large for its quarters in Philadelphia and moved in 1892 to a more spacious location in Thornbury Township, Delaware County. In 1911, the board changed the institution’s name to the Glen Mills Schools and remained in operation as an educational institution for troubled youth.

James Kopaczewski is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Temple University.


Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Clement, Priscilla Ferguson. Welfare and the Poor in the Nineteenth-Century City: Philadelphia, 1800-1854. Teaneck, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985.

Frey, Cecile P. “The House of Refuge for Colored Children.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 66, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 10-25.

Glazer, Mary Hendricks. “The Origins of Juvenile Justice Policy in Pennsylvania (Delinquency, Refuges).” Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1985.

Maguire, Brendan. “The House of Refuge Movement: Humanitarian Gesture or Simple Exploitation?” Sociological Spectrum, vol. 2, no. 3-4 (January 1982): 249-271.

Teeters, Negley K. “The Early Days of The Philadelphia House of Refuge.” Pennsylvania History, vol. 27, no. 2 (April 1960): 165-187.

Additional Sources

Barclay, James J. An address delivered at the laying of the corner stone of the House of Refuge for colored juvenile delinquents: on Saturday, July 1, 1848. Philadelphia: T.K and P.G. Collins, printer, 1848. 

Bigler, William. Address delivered at the new White Department of the House of Refuge: on June 1st 1854 in celebration of the opening of that department of the institution for the reception of inmates. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1854. 

Boardman, Henry A. The scripture doctrine of rewards: a sermon preached at the House of Refuge, Philadelphia, on Sunday, October 27, 1867, on the occasion of the death of William Shippen, M.D. Philadelphia: Henry B. Ashmead, Book and Job Printer, 1867. 

Budd, Thomas A. An Address Delivered at the Opening of the New Building of the White Female Department of the House of Refuge, January 20, 1872. Philadelphia: Published by order of the Board of Managers, 1872. 

House of Refuge. An address from the managers of the House of Refuge to their fellow citizens. Philadelphia: S.W. Conrad, 1826. 

House of Refuge. By-laws, rules and regulations of the Board of Managers of the House of Refuge: adopted, January, 1876: with an appendix containing the Articles of association, Act of incorporation, and acts of assembly relating to the House of Refuge. Philadelphia: Edmund Deacon’s Franklin Printing House, 1876. .

House of Refuge. The Design and Advantages of the House of Refuge. Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking, and Guilbert, printers, 1840.

House of Refuge. The First Annual Report of the House of Refuge of Philadelphia with an appendix. New York: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 1829.

House of Refuge. The Seventh Annual Report of the House of Refuge of Philadelphia with an Appendix. Philadelphia: Published by the Order of the Contributor, 1885. 

Kelley, William D. Address delivered at the Colored Department of the House of Refuge. Philadelphia: T.K. and P.G. Collins, printers, 1850. .

Our City Charities.; The New-York House of Refuge for Juvenile Delinquents.” The New York Times, January 23, 1860. 

Packard, Frederick A. Report on the practicability and necessity of a house of refuge for coloured juvenile delinquents in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking, and Guilbert, printers, 1841.

“The Philadelphia House of Refuge.” The New York Times, January 24, 1875.

White, William. Sermon on early piety, delivered in the Philadelphia House of Refuge: June 4, 1829. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1830. .

Williams, George. Appeal to the public on behalf of a House of Refuge for colored juvenile delinquents. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1846. 

Collections

Negley K. Teeters Personal Papers, Temple University Special Collections Research Center, 1210 Polett Walk, Philadelphia.

Magdalen Society of Philadelphia Records and Pennsylvania Prison Society Records, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Overseers of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives, 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia. 

Glen Mills Schools (visitation limited to authorized parents, grandparents, and guardians), 185 Glen Mills Road, Glen Mills, Pa.

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