The Last Halifax Poor House- Nothing to mark the deaths of 30 people by fire.

The City of Halifax had three poor houses; one in 1750 at the site of the current government house at the end of Spring Garden Road and Barrington (next to the Maritime Mall), then it was moved to the corner of Spring Garden and Queen, across from the current site of the new Halifax Library, then to the corner of South and Robie Streets, site of the current IWK Health Centre.

This third poor house was the last one for the City of Halifax. Built in 1869, it was originally planned to be built in the shape of a crucifix with a main building and two wings off the main building. Money and time, however, meant that this plan was thwarted and architects, Peters, Blaiklock and Peters, stuck with the more conventional style of building.

The Halifax Poor House on the corner of Robie and South Streets

In 1882 a fire destroyed the building, killing many of the poor people who were stuck on the top floor. The Inquest into the fire found that the design of the building, with the fire going up  the elevator shaft, lack of a fire escape, housing the bed ridden on the top floor, and officials sending the residents back inside the building even though it was burning,  contributed to the death of so many of the residents. The architects and officials tried very hard to blame the fire on the inmate who was stoking the boiler in the basement who was not only poor but African Nova Scotian. As  overt and systemic as racism and classism was in those times (and continues to be) the inquest found that he was not responsible. No one was held accountable for the deaths of 30 people

The building was rebuilt in 1886. The paupers were housed in the prison on Melville Island which was outside of Halifax. The criminalization of people in poverty even took place during a time of crisis.

The Halifax Poor House survived the Halifax Explosion of 1917 with mostly broken windows. Many of the survivors of the explosion were housed here during the winter while the city was put back together and houses were rebuilt.

You can read about the fire in Steven Lafolley’s book The Halifax Poor House Fire. It gives some first voice accounts of living in the Halifax Poor House at the time of the fire.

In the 1970s, the Halifax Poor House, by then known as The City Home, was torn down. The mentally ill were placed in a new facility known as Abby Lane and the poor were now (somewhat) eligible under the Canada Assistance Plan, also known as municipal assistance and provincial assistance. Those who were not eligible became homeless. Unwed mothers were not eligible for any kind of assistance until 1972. Prior to that, if an unwed mother did not have family or friends to help her, she would be forced to give up her child for adoption.

At the site of the old Halifax Poor House, the IWK Hospital was built. Today it is the site of a world class hospital specializing in the medical care of children.

The current site of the Halifax Poor House; a world class hospital for children.

To stand at the site, you would not know that such a tragedy as the Halifax Poor House Fire happened at this site. Yet again, there is no plaque, no monument, nothing to mark the passing of 30 people in such a horrendous accident at the site. Was it because they were poor and not considered worthy of note?





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