The ‘Whores of Yore” in the Poor House

What a beautiful Feburary morning it is here in rural Nova Scotia! My husband is downstairs working on my new studio space (and it is beautiful and sunny!) While doing some research, I came across this wonderful blog written by Dr. Lesley Hulonce called Sex in the Workhouse; Resistance, Submission or Coercion in her blog called The Whores of Yore. What a wonderful blog about women’s fight to control our own bodies and our own choices for our lives.

While it is clear that sexual relations did happen in the poorhouses, it was not always consensual. Some times women used sex as a bargaining tool for more food, a better blanket, or just plain survival in the institution. Everett Lewis, wife of famous Nova Scotia folk art painter Maud Lewis, was well known in the Town of Digby and surrounding communities as being “a rake”, which meant he would often force his sexual attentions (also known as Rape) on women. He was given the job as Night Watchman at the nearby Marshalltown Almshouse in the 1960s. One can only imagine the crimes against women he might have committed in that job!

Imagine yourself as a woman in a poorfarm or poorhouse, scared that you will be there for the rest of your life, stigmatized if you left, unable to get a job that pays you enough to live on (and we are STILL dealing with that issue, both men and women, in 2021 but women are still paid less than men) and a man in a position of power over you, your body, your food, your children, offers you a break if you will have sex with him. What would you do? You really do not know until you are in the situation. Postering and theorizing about what you would do is just that -posturing and theory. As men used sex as a tool of control, we used sex as a tool of resource to help ourselves and our children. We used the poorhouse to develop communities for help and support amongst other poor women

Women were not just victims of poverty and inequality. We fought back when and where we could. When I was a young unwed mother on social assistance in North Dartmouth back in the 1980s, I moved into a four unit apartment building where there were three other single moms on welfare. We helped each other out a great deal with childcare, money, transportation and, yes, beating up on ‘the system’ when required. We all became Community Activists who ganged up together to fight for our rights to humanity. We were not the first by any means as this story from the blog shows us…

In the City of London Poor Law Union, a relieving officer had to be rescued by the police from being beaten by ten young women who had applied to him for food and clothes, and took exception to be offered a bed for the night in the workhouse instead

Women in the poorhouse.

When reading that, one cannot help but cheer for the ten young women. They are our grandmothers! Women are still carrying on the fight of their grandmothers for equality in all things – even the damn poorhouse.

Meet John Kellum, Survivor

Author and Professor Judith Fingard writes of John Kellum and his family in her book The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Halifax, published by Pottersfield Press in 1991. I have at least two dog earred copies of this book in my personal collection as I read- re-read and use for research this wonderful book.

John Kellum, a ‘master’ whitewasher in Halifax was born approximately 1839. I am highlighting him for Black History Month not just because he was African Nova Scotian and was poor but also because John Kellum gave us a stark demonstration of how poor people lived and attempted to survive in Halifax during his life time.

Fingard writes: For the Kellums (Charles, John, Charles Jr., Henry, Mary and Martha) and their associates ‘crime’ was a rational strategy for survival in a society where blacks were not accorded equal opportunity. p. 78

John Kellum would have had seasonal work as a whitewasher as Nova Scotia’s harsh and wet winters was not a time for such work. Kellum did as much alternate work as he could find, even subjecting himself as a head to be used as a target for people to aim balls at him, three throws for five cents when a travelling circus was in the city. Kellum as injured and possibly had a fractured collar bone as a result. This work as degrading and dangerous. Finding work, however, for a Black man in Victorian Halifax was not easy.

The Kellum, like other families in poverty in Halifax, used the Halifax Poors Aslyum and the Rockhead jail as their own cobbled system of a social safety net. As Fingard writes:

They drew on the city’s welfare services for the sustenance, accomodation and clothing essential to their existence. In November of that same year (1889) Henry Kellum and (Andy) Fletcher sought admission to the poorhouse explicitly for the purpose of securing suits of clothing after which they scaled the fence and ran away, only to be picked up and sentenced to six months for vagrancy and theft. – P. 85 of The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Halifax

Henry and Andy would have been stealing the uniform an inmate gets when the person enters the poor house. Their old clothes would have been taken away and likely burned as they were so dirty and full of louse from living in rough poverty and worn for months, perhaps years, at a time. It should be noted that the uniform of the poor house would have been made as cheaply as possible with cheap textiles. For a poor house uniform to be an upgrade in clothing, their own clothing must have been in tatters and rags.

John Kellum, who is pictured in the sketch below, often used the jail and poor house to survive the harsh Nova Scotia winters. Sometimes he would voluntarily hand himself over to the Halifax Police and ask to be put in jail; other times he deliberately committed a petty crime to be taken to jail.

By the late 1870s, though only in his thirties, (John) Kellum’s ability to survive in the hostile envirnoment waned and he frequently sought out the prison as a refuge...Since escape from prison was relatively easy, the fact that John Kellum never fled is some indication of his preference for the prison over the hostile world outside. p. 79-80

There appears also a preference to Rockhead prison over the Halifax Poor House as with the prison, one could get out after their sentence was completed. According to Fingard, John Kellum used the poor house when he could not get himself into Rockhead.

Sketch of John Kellum of Halifax. Artst Unknown

John Kellum died in 1900 in the poor house, collapsing in the stone breaking yard when in his sixties.

Canadian Biography has also written a wonderful piece about John Kellum. You can access it HERE. Many thanks to Judith Fingard for documenting the life of John Kellum.

Poor Farm – A Novel About Autism in Nineteenth Century Nova Scotia

Hello Y’All! I have some exciting news. BUT….before I do that, I have had a complaint about the email system associated with Word Press. Apparently there is some ‘tacky’ ads that you must bet through before you can read the blog. My apologies for that! It is the email system that comes with Word Press even if you pay for your blog space. I cannot control it.

Now, on to the exciting news! Author Ronan O’Driscoll (with his utterly lovely Irish lilt) has a forthcoming novel about autism in the nineteenth century in Nova Scotia. His novel deals with a character in a poor farm in rural Nova Scotia who has undiagnosed autism (because we did not know what autism was in those days) and how this person is treated.

I will not get into his novel too much, however, suffice to say, you will want to read this novel. It is being published by a small rural publisher *ahem* called Moose House Publications.

Ronan’s blog talking about his upcoming books is here:

The book is expected to be out by this Spring. I shall be promoting on this blog when it does. 🙂

The Halifax County Poor Farm at Cole Harbour

Finding Esmorilda

Good January Morning to Everyone! It’s my eldest daughter’s birthday today. Happy Birthday Megan Juanita Thompson! I remember being a scared, barely 21 year old unwed (marital status was still important in 1984) mother in the old Grace Maternity Hospital in Halifax, giving birth to this human being. She was born with perfect nails and a whopping 9 lbs 6 oz. Giving birth to Megan while being an abandoned mom started me on my path to being a first voice in poverty and developing a fascination with the survival strategies of those who were in poverty.

283 pages and 46000 words so far. I’m not even close to being finished.

Which segues nicely into a message I received early in the morning. Ed Coleman wanted to share with me his father’s blog post about a woman in a poor house in Kings’ County here in the Annapolis Valley. The woman’s name was Esmorilda and she lived in one of the three poor houses that were in the county at the time. A family member is looking for her burial place and cannot find it. Esmorilda had a rough start in life and it did not get any easier for her. I am sharing her story and Ed Coleman’s blog link here:

I shall take a look in my records but records from poor houses, poor farms, almshouses, county homes were not well maintained nor kept. It is not unheard of to find poor house records tossed in the trash heap of old buildings in the province.

The above building was known by several names including The Horton Poor House and the Greenwich Poor House. It was located at what is now the intersection of what is now the No. 1 highway and the #358 highway.

Back to researching and writing!

Keep in touch!

Volume 2 – The Contract is Signed

Good Morning Everyone! Well, it’s finally done! The contract for writing Volume 2 of A Wholesome Horror has been signed. I have one year to come up with research and a written manuscript with more information about poor houses in Nova Scotia.

I have already done research into a few things I did not cover in the first book of poor houses and have an idea of topics I would like to add in this next book. I am thinking of adding a chapter about Children in the Poor House and Women in the Poor House. Children would have had different experiences in a poor house where, depending upon their age, would have been adopted out or indentured out to businesses.

Just the other day I had a message from a woman whose great grandmothers were ‘committed’ to a poor house asylum. I have had several of these messages and decided to devote a chapter to the specific experience of women in poor houses.

I’m also interested in writing about Immigrants in poor houses, however, that would limit me to the homes located in Halifax and other port towns.

I have found some stories about people in poor houses in the oddest locations. These stories are usually written about in passing and, like a nugget of gold, I dig deeper into documents and find more information about this ‘passing story’.

I am still looking for information about the poor homes in Cape Breton (Ingonish and North Sydney) but researching in a pandemic certainly has it’s limits! I can do research on line, interviews on the telephone or on Skype, but getting to the Archives and just digging is not possible any more. I miss you terribly Public Archives of Nova Scotia!!

My question is, What do you, gentle reader, think I should include in this second book? Do you have a suggestion? A Story? A Complaint? (please do not call me up and tell me how wonderful it was to work there! See my last post.) Do you want more images? More details? Message me or comment on here and I shall see what I can find in my research digging!

P*ssing People Off with History…

I looked at the telephone when it rang. It said “Private” caller. Hmm. I don’t owe any bills so I answered. The woman asked to speak to me. I informed her she had reached me. She said she was flipping through my book about Poor Houses. “Who is this?” I asked. “Oh I’m not going to tell you” she said “for confidentiality reasons. But I worked at a poor house and you have it all wrong.” “Okay, thanks for letting me know” I said and hanged up the phone as she was sputtering and going No! No! No! at the other end.

If you are not going to identify yourself, I am not talking with you.

This is not the first call I have received about my book. I have received a few phone calls from people who are irate that I have recorded history that they believe is ‘wrong’. And they base their beliefs on the fact that they worked in a home or a family member worked in a home.

I did a visit with an elderly gentleman a while back. He asked me to come to his house and he was almost spitting nails at my book. It turned out his family members had run a poor house in rural Nova Scotia and he did not like what I wrote. It reflected badly on his family members. He told me all about how wonderful it was in the poor house, how everyone was treated ‘like family’ and how he had a wonderful time growing up there. That is terrific for him. I’m glad you have good memories.

However, it is one thing to grow up on a poor farm as the cherished family child and it is another thing to be forced into a poor farm because of your economic situation.

It is one thing to CHOOSE to work for pay in a Poor House and another thing to be forced to live there because of your economic situation.

Both working there and being raised as a cherished child means you had a choice ffor your life. Being forced to live there means you had NO CHOICE.

Working there meant you could go home to your own autonomy in the evenings. Being raised as a cherished child of a poor house administrator means your status in your local school did  not make you the subject of mockery and jeers. It means you have someone to protect you.

It is as if you currently work for the Department of Community Services here in Nova Scotia, making $50,000 a year while regulating those in poverty and doling out $900 a month for a family to live on then telling the researcher/writer that “Really, the welfare isn’t that bad. After all I worked for them.” Spare me your bullshit.

Poor people in history and today are treated as they are at fault for their poverty and are shamed for their circumstances. Poor people are ‘sinners’ because of their poverty.

So don’t call me up and expect me to listen to you ‘explain’ to me how the poor house really wasn’t ‘that bad’. I’m not interested.


Built on History – Old Cemeteries

A memorial stone erected by the caring people of Yarmouth County to the inmates of the Arcadia Poor House who lie in unmarked graves.  The City of Halifax should take note and erect a similar memorial to those buried in the unmarked graves in the pottersfield of Grafton, Brunswick and Spring Garden Road, city of Halifax.

This morning I woke up to an email with a CBC link to a story about all the old cemeteries in Halifax that have been built over. Recently, the Halifax City Council voted to save the unmarked cemetery of the former Halifax Poor House on the corners of Grafton, Brunswick and Spring Garden Road.

This wonderful article is here – Thousands of people are buried under downtown Halifax. What are they owed?

But there are many more unmarked cemeteries in and around Halifax and not just of the settlers/colonials. When building for one of the early hospitals in the area that became known as the Cogswell exchange around the area of the Scotia Square building, it was recorded the settlers unearthed the grave of a Mi’kmaq man. He had been buried with some identifiers of his status.

Many communities have property development built over it, moved the cemetary,  lost records of those buried there, or even moved graves. Here in my area of Annapolis Royal,  Amberzine Lewis the granddaughter of Rose Fortune,  had her grave moved when a driveway for the old court house was put in place.  Amberzine, (and we believe her grandmother Rose Fortune) was buried in the Garrison Graveyard in Annapolis Royal in the ‘Black Section”.  When I was doing research on the grave of Rose Fortune, I was not only surprised to find that the Garrison Graveyard had a ‘Black Section”, I was also surprised to find that most current historic researchers in the area did not know this either. We had to refer back to old books and records to find that there was segregation of African Nova Scotians even in this graveyard.

You can read about the Garrison Graveyard on this fabulous webite Map Annapolis.

The Old Garrison Graveyard was segregated with a “Black Section”. This was news to many current historical researchers.  Photo courtesy of The Annapolis Royal Graveyard Tour

Most poor houses did not mark the graves of those inmates in their institutions when they died. They simply did not have the money to mark the graves and, instead, buried them in sections of old fields and by stone walls. The poor masters needed to spend the money on the living, not the dead, it was argued.  And some communities did not want the poor in their graveyards and cemetaries as they equated poverty with personal failures on the part of the poor.

This subject continues to fascinate many of us. The attitudes toward the poor, the treatment of the poor, our ancestors who were poor. And many of us want to honour those who had such a difficult time in life who went before us. How do we do this as development continues to move on those who went before us and now lie in known areas but unmarked graves? It continues to be a discussion between those who revere history and those who revere ‘progress’.

Trepassing the Arcadia Poor House Cemetery

The Arcadia Poor House cemetary, located at the end of the runway at the Yarmouth Airport. I climbed over three fences with these signs on them to get to the graveyard of the poor house inmates in 2017.

Looking for your School Teacher Ancestor?



Happy Heritage Day today Everyone. I’m celebrating by heading off with my History Nerd Friends Kent, Denise and Wilber (Willard!) today to the Admiral Digby Museum to hear a talk about Brinley Town, the original settlement of the Black Loyalists in what was then Annapolis County. It was located just outside of the town of Digby. The town lost nearly 75% of it’s inhabitants when the exodus to Sierra Leone happened in 1792. The remaining citizens expanded out into what became known as Jordanville and Acacia in what is now known as Digby County. When the province put the 101 highway through to Yarmouth in 1993, they cut right through this historic community. This is what is known as the geography of racism and environmental racism. You can still see the where the 101 Highway cut through the community today, nearly 30 years later. It is astounding that they would do that to a community.

Today I am putting up a post that is not so much about poor houses as poor school districts. And I hope I am not violating any copyrights today or annoying any other organizations. My apologies again. I am posting a link, however, to documents that are 100+ years old and are shared online so I believe I am safe. I like to share history….apparently too much. 🙂

I also like to tackle history that has not been recorded as evidenced by my book about Poor Houses in Nova Scotia. When seeking unrecorded history, I look for what I call ‘puzzle pieces” that I put together to show the whole picture of the unrecorded history. These puzzle pieces are little jewels that, brought together,  make a beautiful piece of jewellry.

Lately I have been working on a piece about Birch Town, Annapolis County. Yes, Annapolis County had a Birch Town that was not nearly as famous or as old or historically significant as the Birchtown of Shelburne County. It was, however, historically significant to those who ancestors lived there and to Annapolis County as there has been very little written about the predominantly African Nova Scotian settlement. It is a piece of history that has disappeared…until you put the puzzle pieces, the little jewels, together.

One of the jewels I discovered was the School Records for Nova Scotia. These records often have little astericks (*) beside the school districts to indicate a “poor district” where a school was located. Not surprisingly, the astericks often show up next to an area where a poor house was located and in communities of African Nova Scotians as our culture of colonization kept both First Nations and African Nova Scotians locked in a grid of racism and poverty.

For those of you seeking the jewels, the puzzle pieces, these online documents may be very helpful to you. Not only are towns, hamlets, settlements and school districts named but also they contain the names of school teachers in many of the areas and, occasionally, some of the names of students.

Journals of Nova Scotia Education 1880-1920




The Halifax Poor House Dead are safe…for now.

This morning a friend of mine tagged me on a Facebook post by Heritage Nova Scotia. It read:

HRM Council voted today to designate the Memorial Library, thus protecting it and the burial grounds on which it sits. Thanks are due to all those who worked to safeguard this historic site.

As many of you readers already know, the second Halifax Poor House, which was situated on the corner of Queen and Spring Garden Road, (across from the new Halifax Library) used the land on which the old Halifax Library sits (corner of Grafton and Spring Garden) as the ‘pottersfield’ in which to bury the bodies of ‘inmates’ of the poor house. Those who died in the poor house were buried in unmarked graves, layered in the ground. Because the town of Halifax was trying to save money, the bodies were not only layered, their graves were very shallow (we don’t want to pay the grave diggers too much!) and the spring frosts would often heave the bodies out of the ground. The stench was awful. People complained. More dirt was brought in to cover up the bodies. This pottersfield was used to bury the poor until the 1860s when the Halifax Poor House was moved to the corner of Inglis and Robie (the current site of the Issac Walton Children’s Hospital – the IWK) and the poor were then buried in unmarked graves at the Camp Hill Hospital Cemetary on Robie Street.

After the 1860s, the pottersfield was turned into “Grafton Park” and in the 1950s, the Halifax Library was established there. It is a lovely place to sit in the summer, enjoying the summer sun, reading a book, talking with friends. I have done it many, many times myself when I lived in the Halifax/Dartmouth area. I had no idea I was eating my Bud’s Spuds fries, working on my university papers,  and reading my books on a burial ground.

The work of many people to bring attention to this burial ground of the poor has brought about this progressive decision by the City of Halifax council to preserve the land and, perhaps, even acknowledge the dead who are buried there. Let us hope that we don’t have to fight this battle again in another 10, 20 or 50 years from now.

An excellent podcast was done by two students last November and is located HERE. I highly recommend listening to it to get a very good background and history of the second Halifax Poor House and the burial ground of those who suffered not only in life, but also in death.

Acadian Recorded, April 1853 One of the rare Notices of Death at the Halifax Poor Asylum. Dennis Morrisey is likely one of the thousands of unmarked graves of people who are buried at the old Halifax Library grounds.

24 Hours in the Past – The Workhouse

One of the great things about winter is that I am not running as much as I do in the summer. This means I have time to write….and get over the cold that Wilfred Allen gave me at the Winter Farmers’ Market last Saturday.  He did *warn* me not to hug him as he had a cold…..

So while I’m in bed with my dogs, snotting, nose blowing and whining about this cold, I started watching this series called 24 Hours in the Past. It is a small group of 21st Century people who spend 24 hours at a time in the Victorian Age. They do what 75% of the people of England did in that era – the dirty, stinking mucky industrial labour. If you watch it, you’ll understand why the average age at death was 46 years.

The fourth episode shows them landing at their lowest point after they’ve been fired for poor work performance and trying to organize labour against the industrial bosses…they end up at The Workhouse.

As most of you know, Nova Scotia’s poor farms were based on the English Work Houses that were developed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Edward Cornwallis brought the concept of these institutions with him when he arrived in Nova Scotia in 1749 from England. Punishment for Poverty was the key to workhouses and poor houses. We still carry on the idea that people are poor because of the choices they have made and, therefore, they must be punished. It is unbelievable that we are still following those beliefs 500 years later.

The episode is 59 minutes long. If you get the chance, watch it HERE.  What an eye opener!

Just one of the hundreds of Workhouses across Victorian England