Let’s honour Halifax’s necropolis, not destroy it

Columnist John DeMont of the Chronicle Herald wrote an opinion piece about the pottersfield of the Halifax Poor House. The link is here but I will cut and paste the full text. Extremely interesting!

“Meeting to be held Thursday to discuss future of former library building

John DeMont is a columnist for The Chronicle Herald.

I like walking east along the elegantly named Spring Garden Road, past our world-beating library, beyond the stone grandeur of the courthouse on one side and the soaring Gothic spires of St. Mary’s Basilica on the other.

I think my pleasure is enhanced by knowing that there was a time, let’s say 150-200 years ago, when it would not have been so pleasant.

When, as Thomas Raddall wrote in Halifax Warden of the North, “the gentlefolk sniffing the flowers” as they made their way down Spring Garden “came upon the poor house dead buried hastily in shallow graves in the yard,” whose decomposing bodies gave off such a stench that “for many years there were complaints about the smell which hung over this part of Spring Garden Road.”

The stink is long gone.

But there are, in fact, still graves everywhere around there, an area that Saint Mary’s University archeologist Jonathan Fowler calls Halifax’s “necropolis,” a reference to those collections of burial sites that create “great gatherings of dead inhabitants” in the downtown core of cities.

In this regard, he means the Halifax worthies buried at Saint Paul’s Church Cemetery (The Old Burial Ground), a national historic site at the corner of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street.

He also means right across Spring Garden, in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Basilica, the latest in a succession of Catholic churches built at that site.

Fowler estimates that some several thousand people — all Catholic, including a few Mi’kmaq — are buried under the pavement.

Yet, there’s no real monument to the dead there.

Just as there is nothing to remind people that nearby, perhaps as early as the first decade after the founding of Halifax, stood a small Jewish cemetery.

Better known is that lots of Methodists have been buried next to the former Saint David’s Church, at a site that has recently been excavated as part of a new development on Brunswick Street.

But you have to be up on your history to know that from the second half of the 18th century to the early 1900s, the Halifax Poorhouse stood where The Doyle residential and retail development has risen.

And that some 4,000 of those who once lived there were buried in a pauper’s field about where Winston Churchill now strides across the lawn in front of the old Halifax Memorial Library.

They were the poor, the forgotten, and the unfortunate whose road somehow led them to that terrible place.

Chris Marriott, chairman of the Halifax Military History PreservationSociety, points out that the dead in the poorhouse cemetery were also prison inmates, men and women executed for some crime, and the victims of smallpox and the other maladies that swept through the city in its early days.

Their sins could have been minor, Halifax historian William Breckenridge says.

If you were a servant in Halifax in the late 1700s and early 1800s and spoke up to the master of the house he could throw you in the poorhouse, where the pox ran rampant, where you would have to share a bed with four other people, and end your days, as many of them did, making your own coffin.

“They were real people,” he says, “who just were too poor to have a headstone.”

You will hear all about them if you go to Halifax’s Royal Artillery Park this Thursday at 7 p.m., where a public discussion is being held about the fate of Halifax Memorial Library, which was built over the poorhouse cemetery as a monument to the Second World War, but hasn’t lent out a book since it closed in the summer of 2014.

What’s next is the question. So far all anyone knows is that the city has asked staff to look into the possibility of some kind of “hub for the built environment” with Dalhousie University.

But there hasn’t been nearly enough consultation according to Marriott. The Halifax Military History Preservation Society is sponsoring Thursday’s gathering.

Whatever is the end result, his society wants the building to stay in the public domain.

Brenda Thompson, an Annapolis Royal author and antipovery activist who has written a book about Nova Scotia’s poorhouses, thinks turning the old library into a resource centre for those who are struggling makes sense.

That kind of squares with an idea of Fowler’s. Like several people I talked to Tuesday, he thinks “we shouldn’t be sticking shovels into the ground” because there’s been too much damage to those old gravesites that have all been eradicated from our memory.

He suggests the building include some interpretation that will enable visitors to consider the lives of the people buried under the ground on which they stand.

He puts it this way: “Let’s honour this place. Let’s not destroy it any more than need be.”

True that.”

Finding Fortune – the Book Launch

Good Morning Everyone!

This is not poor house related but I wanted to announce it on here anyway. My next book, “Find Fortune, Documenting and Imagining the Life of Rose Fortune (1774-1864)” will be launched on Saturday, June 1st at 1 pm at the King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal, NS.

Rose Fortune was an amazing woman who lived in the Annapolis Royal, Brinley Town and Digby Neck area of Nova Scotia. A survivor of early provincial racism,  misogyny and poverty, Rose operated several of her own businesses and became known as the Police Officer of Annapolis Royal. Rose made her mark not only in Nova Scotia but also across Canada. Her descendents continue to make their mark all over the world.

I hope you can make it to the Launch which is being hosted by The Annapolis Royal Historical Association.  A short presentation will be given and light refreshments will be served.

Rose Flyer