How to Get Into a Poor House

Picture yourself as a poor person 125 years ago in Nova Scotia. Perhaps you lived in Halifax; perhaps you lived in rural Nova Scotia. You are destitute. You have lost your job and the Employment Insurance Program is still many decades away. You cannot find another job, perhaps because there is no longer a need in the market place for your skills; or perhaps you have a bad reputation as a worker and no one will hire you or perhaps there are simply no jobs available.

Perhaps you are a woman and women are generally only hired if they are not married. If you are married, perhaps your husband has left you and the children or perhaps he is an alcoholic who drinks every penny he can get his hands on to dull the pain of his life. If you are a single woman, perhaps you do not have any references from your last employer and Nova Scotia is a small province; words, particularly bad words about a person, get around rapidly even if they are not true. Perhaps you are a newcomer to this province; you don’t know anyone and no one knows you.

Image result for poor family in Nova Scotia black and white historicIf you decide to ask for help from the one place, a poor house, that is available to help poor people, you will have to have someone give you a reference to get into the poor house. Yes, you can walk up to the door, knock on it and seek refuge. Tramps and transients to the area did this quite often. Poor Houses were often places of overnight accommodation for people on the move, particularly if the weather was bad. However, to become a long term inmate, you had to have a man of ‘status’ (because women did not have status of importance such as a clergy, lawyer, judge) in the community certify your poverty. The banner of this blog is the certification of poverty of two individuals in the Digby County area for admission into the local poor house either in Marshalltown or Meteghan. We might assume it would be the Marshalltown Almshouse as the note was written in English.

“Sworn to before me by Edward Hardwick on this 12th day of January 1853: Edward Hardwick (&) William Seymour As Poor.” I cannot make out the signature of the person to whom the issue of poverty is being sworn to. Any suggestions?

You may go to your local poor house with your note of poverty but if the poor house is full, you must wait. You may either sleep in the barn, on the street, or in the fields until the poor house has the room for you. Depending upon the personality of the Poor Master, the financial wealth or poverty of the poor house, and your own conditions, the poor house may feed you while you sleep in the fields, streets or barn. If you were lucky.

Once you were admitted into the local poor house, your life would change….usually forever.

Queens County-14 miles from Everywhere

Liverpool, Queens County, seems like it would have been the natural place to  locate a poor house on the outskirts of the town. Most of the poor houses were located outside the towns in each of the counties. However, in Queens County, not only was there a lot of discussion about establishing a poor house, the discussion went on for many years.  Some of the administrators wanted the poor to continue to be auctioned off to the lowest bidder while other policy makers believed the poor house system was more humane.

By 1892, however, the discussion came to an agreement and an old farm house was purchased in Middlefield to house the poor of Queens County. If you know your Nova Scotia geography at all, this location was located near the middle of the province, far from the town of Liverpool. The poor farm was located on the corner of the #8 Highway and Middlefield Road as shown by the pin point on this map.


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Middlefield is located in what is still considered rural Nova Scotia, on the #8 Highway in South West Nova Scotia. Forestry and Farming were big industries here at one time.

Even the Inspector of Public Charities, Dr. Sinclair, wondered why the location of the Queens County poor house was so far away from Liverpool and Annapolis Royal, describing it as “…fourteen miles from everywhere”.

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The old Queens County Poor Farm as it looked in 2015. Courtesy of Google Earth. 

Today, the site of the old Queens County Poor Farm is now home to Hillsview Acres, Home for Special Care. Many of the poor farms and houses transitioned into care homes for the mentally and physically challenged and for elderly people who were no longer able to care for themselves.

The Queens County Poor Farm is another image that I cannot find. Do you have a photo of it as it looked years ago? Do you know someone who had a photo of the Queens County Poor Farm from years ago?

Kings County- FOUR Poor Houses in One County

Kings’ County, Nova Scotia, had the distinction of having the most poor houses in the province. This county had a poor house in Billtown (also known as the Cornwallis Poor House), Horton (also known as the Greenwich Poor House), Aylesford (also know as the Auburn Poor House) and eventually Waterville.

The Billtown Poor House was located in the hamlet of Billtown, Kings’ County in an old farm house. Some of my family rented this farm house in the early 1970s after it was no longer a poor farm.

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The Greenwood/Auburn/Aylesford Poor House was in back of what is now the Greenwood Military Base. It was located on the aptly named Poor Farm Road.

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The Horton/Greenwich Poor House location is now in the middle of an intersection just behind the Irving Gas Station on the #358 highway.

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These three poor houses closed in the 1920s when the Waterville Poor House and Asylum opened and took residents from all three of these homes.  It was located on what is still called the County Home Road. I had a family ancestor in this home who died there in the early 1980s. She was not poor but was accused of being mentally ill.  She is buried at the grave site that still exists beside the Waterville Rehabilitation Centre.

Waterville Poor Farm, established in the early 1920s. Kings County

Does anyone have a photo of the Aylesford Poor Farm? Wayne E. Baltzer and Randy Rockwell have allowed me to use photos of the Billtown Poor House, the Horton Poor House and the Waterville Poor House. However, no one seems to have a photo of the Aylesford Township Poor House. Please let me know if you have such a photo or know of someone who has such a photo.

Cheers~ Brenda T.

Book Review- A Wholesome Horror

For those who haven’t had a chance to get a copy of the book, A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia, Robert Devet of The Nova Scotia Advocate has done reviewed the book. Thank you again,Robert, for all you do for people in poverty. —————————-


KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – One of my favourite spots around Halifax is a small, somewhat hidden cemetery at the beautiful Cole Harbour Heritage Park. 40 people are buried there in unmarked graves, all residents of the Cole Harbour Poor Farm, a place where poor people and people living with mental disabilities would be forcibly warehoused under the most terrible conditions. People put some white crosses there to mark its history, and the place feels special and steeped in significance.

At one time, not that long ago, there used to be poor houses and poor farms all over Nova Scotia. It’s only in the fifties and sixties that municipal and provincial governments closed them down.

Now, thanks to Brenda Thompson, there is an excellent book that describes the phenomenon in all its gruesome detail. There’s a lot of people’s history in A wholesome horror: poor houses in Nova Scotia.

Poor houses is where you ended up if you couldn’t take care of yourself anymore because of poverty and/or mental illness. Once there, you weren’t allowed to leave. If married you’d be separated from your spouse and children. If you were suffering from mental health issues you could be locked up, confined in a dark room, handed food through a small window, in some cases, as Thompson details, for as long as forty terrible years.

If you were able to work you might well be auctioned off by a municipality, to work for the successful bidder who might farm you out for profit in his turn. Sexual abuse of female workers was common in these situations.

As you’d expect in such a book, there is a chapter with details on each poor house in the province, all 30 or so. That’s good stuff, but chapters on the cruel fate of Black and Mi’kmaw poor house inmates, and Thompson’s efforts throughout to dig out authentic first voice accounts of life in the poor house are what make the book so fascinating.

The title of the book, a wholesome horror, comes from a quote by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who argued that poor houses be made into “an object of wholesome horror,” because if we’re too nice to poor people everybody would want to be poor, nobody would be interested in a honest day’s work, and society would come crashing down.

I know Thompson not just as a Nova Scotia Advocate contributor, but as a tireless poverty activist and advocate. Thompson in her neck of the woods quietly goes to bat for the many victims of Community Services heartless regime, today’s version of the poor house superintendents of old.

That compassion and anger is evident throughout the book, which includes a short chapter on the currents state of social assistance. That old notion that you must be punished for being on welfare through great suffering and loss of dignity is still very much alive, Thompson believes.

“Provincial legislation turns our social assistance system into its own wholesome horror by making life on social assistance as miserable as possible. Social assistance recipients are required to disclose extremely personal details about their lives and are expected to live on monies that are not nearly enough to meet their basic needs. They are often made to jump through many hoops – including “training”, “workshops”, and “education”, while not recognizing or adequately funding childcare, transportation or eledercare, amongst other needs, and are cut off from benefits without warning or explanation,” writes Thompson.

There’s one historic wrong that could easily be righted when it comes to poor houses, Thompson suggests, and that is how we honour its residents who suffered so much. In Cole Harbour some kind people placed crosses to mark the spot of their burials, but this is not always the case.

The old public library on Spring Garden Road sits atop the remains of an estimated 4,500 paupers. We may not know it, but Haligonians at the time certainly did. The graves were shallow (to save money), and the smell at that part of Spring Garden was often unbearable, Thompson tells us.

“Even in our present time, this fine cemetery (The Old Burying Ground, across the street), receives federal taxpayers’ moneys to restore and maintain the burial place of the comfortably rich, while the poor across the street remain unmarked, unacknowledged and forgotten, simply because they didn’t have any money,” writes Thompson.

A plaque is the least we can do.

A Wholesome Horror. Poor Houses in Nova Scotia. By Brenda Thompson. SSP publications. ISBN 978-0-9868733-5-5. Available at a few selected bookstores, public libraries, and through the publisher. (Also online, through Amazon and Chapters, but hopefully you will find a better way)  

See also: How dare you! Brenda Thompson on welfare activism in the eighties

The Book Launch was Spectacular!

The book launch for A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia was held last Sunday, May 20 and it was wonderful. It was pouring down raining but that did not stop people from coming out to the launch. The Sissiboo Cafe in Annapolis Royal was packed with wall to wall people with others out the door, in the rain, waiting to get in. It was beyond my wildest expectations for the launch.

My mum, Juanita Thompson, helping out with book sales. My mother in law, June Folks, is over by the window. 


I sold over 100 copies on Sunday with more going out the door! I was especially thrilled to see people at the launch that I had not seen in years. Kathy Eichhorn came all the way from Yarmouth as did my second cousin Sally Caldwell. Kathy and I went to Dartmouth Vocational School together in the late 1980s.  I met Paul McCormick, who has been my FB friend for years, for the first time in person.  My most supportive media friend, Robert Devet, was there for the Nova Scotia Advocate. And my Grade 5 teacher, Mr. Randy Hudston, drove all the way from Nine Mile River to be here. It has been more than 30 years! (As a back story, I was in Mr. Hudston’s first class out of teaching college. He might have been 23 years old at the time.  I organized a general strike for the girls in his classroom that year. I’m sure I was an absolute delight of a student! 🙂 ) Garth Lescaudron did the catering which received raves. My friends, my cafe customers, my family members, and people I have never met before were all very supportive and wanted copies of the book.

The book will continue to be available through me or through the publisher, Scott Smith Publications and, as of May 31,  local independent book store Baintons Book Store or through Amazon or Chapters.

The First Poor House in Nova Scotia

The first poor house in Nova Scotia was a combination of a poor house, hospital (only for soldiers) and jail. At first tents were used but by 1750, a building for the poor, the criminal and the sick was completed.  It was located at the site of the present Governor Lieutenant building on Barrington Street at the end of Spring Garden Road.



Halifax was established by Cornwallis in the cove where the Halifax/Dartmouth ferry is now located. The site of the poor house/hospital/jail was at the farthest corner of the new settlement, hence, one of the reasons for the establishment of the Old Burying Ground at the corner of Spring Garden and Barrington.

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The need for poor house/jail/hospital quickly outgrew the building. The hospital became a separate building that was located close to the present Cogswell overpass by Scotia Square. The jail and the poor house were kept together (equating poor people as criminals) and was moved to the corner across from the new Halifax Library on Spring Garden and Queen.

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Want to know more about the history of poor houses in Nova Scotia? I’ll be launching my new book A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia on May 20 at Sissiboo Cafe, 2 pm  in Annapolis Royal. Published by SSP Publications of Halifax, this book takes a look at the history of poor houses in Nova Scotia and how we treated the poor up until present day.