Brenda Thompson is the Author of A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia and award winning Single Mothers' Survival Guide. Playwright of such plays as No Brag, Just Facts performed at the Atlantic Fringe Festival and the Fundy Fringe Festival.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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 a quick blog post today. On December 30 last month, I wrote a blog post which I entitled Halifax’s Dirty Little Secret about the poor house inmates buried on a site of land in Halifax that Big Business developers want to build on. It had a hundreds of views and shares both on the day I wrote it and for several days later.
On January 10 of this year, I wrote another post entitled Where was your family member in 1880? This post gave direction to finding a family member in the poor house records in Halifax. Again, lots of views and shares although not as many as the prior post.
I decided to do an experiment of sorts; instead of writing about the poor of 100+ years ago, I decided to write a post about the poor of today; of January 2020. The views and shares were way down…down below 30 views and no shares. How interesting.
What does that say about people who are interested in poverty? Are we only interested in the barbarism of poverty 100 or more years ago? Is this because we do not have deal with them? They are not on our doorsteps any longer? And why are we not interested in the current barbarism of poverty? Is it because we DO have to deal with them? Because they are on our doorsteps? Are we blaming them for their poverty?
Why would a post about current poverty not even touch the views and shares of those in historic poverty. As a sociologist, I find this very interesting. As an anti poverty activist, I find this very sad.
Last week documentary film maker and my friend Tim Wilson sent me a message and a link to the book Hand to Mouth: Living Bootstrap in America by Linda Tirado. I would love to read the book but I do not have the money to purchase it yet. I like to buy from the author’s website to give the author as much of the cost of the book as possible.
Linda Tirado had originally written an online response to a question in a forum, “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” I remember reading it in 2014/15. Her answer was extremely insightful and hit the nail on the head so accurately it brought tears to my eyes. Her answer was posted by the Guardian Newspaper, amongst others and was entitled Poor People Don’t Plan Long Term; We’ll Just Get Our Hearts Broken
Now she has released her book “Hand to Mouth; Living in Bootstrap America” and I look forward to reading it. While scrolling Facebook this morning, I saw that one of my friends had posted an excerpt from her book. The piece is Why Poor People Stay Poor. Again, it is so true that it makes me tear up. I had been there; my parents had been there; my friends had been there and some of them are still there.
My parents managed our poverty by denying themselves every luxury, working at grinding jobs that ruined their long term health and taking advantage of any extra money that came along – usually in the form of overtime work. They helped me to purchase my home several years ago which eventually led to me being able to manage my own poverty. Neither of us is rich or even middle class; but we’ve learned to live in poverty. There are levels to poverty, believe it or not, and now we live in one of the upper levels of poverty. We both have a small cushion of cash just in case our car breaks down, we need emergency medicine, and such.
We look at the history of poor houses and we think about how terrible it was and how we treated poor people ‘back then’. I have even seen responses to my history of poor houses in Nova Scotia with the quotes such as “Thank heavens it is much better now.” I was so outraged at those comments that I wrote a chapter about it in my book “A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia”. It is NOT so much better now and we STILL treat poor people abysmally simply because they are poor. Tirado wrote in this article
“Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. “
As Tirado wrote “It actually costs money to save money”
“It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. Full stop. If I’m saving my spare five bucks a week, in the best-case scenario I will have saved $260 a year. For those of you that think in quarters: $65 per quarter in savings. If you deny yourself even small luxuries, that’s the fortune you’ll amass. Of course you will never manage to actually save it; you’ll get sick at least one day and miss work and dip into it for rent. Gas will spike and you’ll need it to get to work. You’ll get a tear in your work pants that you can’t patch. Something, I guarantee you, will happen in three months.”
Then my husband pointed out this article this morning…
Yes, both my examples are American and we are Canadian. But it still happens here. Our smaller population, spread out over much bigger physical area means we don’t see it as often, do not hear about it as often. If it is happening in the United States, it can and does happen here. We are not that far away from them physically or culturally.
Modern day poor houses are in the form of sub standard housing, no housing, or living in your tent in the woods…as often happens here in rural Nova Scotia. A inconvenience to someone with money can be life changing to someone without money.
Often, when doing presentations about poor houses in Nova Scotia, I end my presentation with the sentence “If we don’t change the way we treat poor people today, someone, someday, maybe 50, 100 or 200 years from now will be writing a book about how badly we treated poor people in our time when we had the means and opportunities to do better. They will be talking about how ‘barbaric’ we were. And they’ll be right.”
I was doing more research on poor houses in Nova Scotia the other day, digging deeper, finding names, finding stories when it occurred to me (wake up Brenda!!) that I should be sharing some of this research on here.
The first document I want to share comes from deep within the Nova Scotia Legislature website and is from 1880. There are a number of these reports in this website and when I was researching for the book A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia, I came across these reports which were invaluable. You can find any number of these reports on THIS site.
Are you searching for your family history and have hit a wall? Your ancestor might have spent some time in this poor house. By 1880, this would have been the third and last poor house in Halifax. This poor house was newer and was located on the corners of Robie and South Streets where the IWK Children’s Hospital is currently located.
There are hundreds if not thousands of names in here and this is just one year. Start exploring and see if you can find who you are looking for. They may have stayed just one night at the Poor House or they may have stayed for the rest of their lives. However long the ‘inmate’ stayed, just take a moment to appreciate what they would have been through, how they would have been treated, what brought them here. The ‘inmate’ was more than just a name. Think of that as you peruse through the report.
You can imagine how swiftly I picked up a copy of the newspaper to read the article. How very informative and disappointing a piece it was all at the same time. It was all about business developers wanting to purchase the land from the city of Halifax to erect office towers, condos or the some other profit making scheme on the property.
The problem is, that piece of property, although it is not formerly acknowledged or marked is well known to be the burying ground of the inmates from the second Halifax Poor House and the Bridewell prison that stood on the grounds where the new multi million dollar library stands now.
I read the long-ish piece, (3/4 of a page altogether) with aggravation…..Why wasn’t the reporter telling the public why there was a mass grave under the old library on Spring Garden Road?? Why wasn’t the reporter writing about how this mass grave came to be there? The article went on and on and about how various council members discussed dealing with the ‘complications’* of the mass graves without explaining where the mass graves came from.
Finally, on the 22nd paragraph well into page two (when most readers would have lost interest by now unless they are specifically interested in the subject such as you and I are) it was finally written:
“As soon as we figure out what to do with it, we need to research the area and recognize that a poorhouse burial ground is located there.”
Yes. Yes you do. And acknowledge those who are buried there as well.
But very little was said about the why the poor house burial ground was located there, it’s lack of maintenance, why the poor house inmates and criminals were dumped together in that grave (because we criminalize poverty in case you didn’t already know this), how they were buried (it wasn’t just a lack of a head stone – many were buried stacked like cord wood especially during an epidemic that hit the most vulnerable – such as the poor- first) or how they lived in the poor house that made them vulnerable to an early death.
Finally, someone was quoted as calling the unmarked, unrecognized graveyard as “Halifax’s dirty little secret”.
But it is not so little. It’s only dirty because the provincial and municipal governments allowed it to be with the way they and their supporters treated people who did not have little pieces of paper or coin we call money. It’s dirty because people were treated as less than human because they were women without male support, because they were not white skinned, because they were children without parents, because they were sick without an income, because they were injured on the job and subsequently booted out their employers’ doors.
It’s dirty because it is still happening.
Poverty doesn’t look like the same as it did at the time of the poor houses. Now we have grossly inadequate social assistance and an Employment Insurance program that is largely inaccessible to many workers. Now, instead of suffering, going cold and hungry in a large institutional building, people today go cold and hungry alone or with their children in individual apartments or run down houses so we don’t have to see them stuffed into a building overrun with misery and disease. So much better! (In case you’ve missed, I’m being totally sarcastic with that last sentence.)
Personally, I feel this piece of land must be left as a monument to the poor and sick who were buried there simply because they were poor and sick. The old court house should never have been built there in the first place when the city was given the property in 1883 to keep as a park ‘in perpetuity’ but make it into a museum of social history. Keep the land as a graveyard; recognize it; acknowledge it and use it as an educational tool for all people. “Look students!! This was the way we treated people just because they were poor! We can do better than that! Let’s start doing better than that before history in one hundred years judges us as heartless and barbaric as we are judging those from one hundred and fifty years ago.”
Oh, and if the developers still insist on building over the graves of people in a bid to erect another ceaseless profit mongering status piece that will be considered ‘retro’ in twenty years, there is a lovely treed cemetery just across the street. It’s called The Old Burying Ground. Why isn’t anyone seeking to put a hunk of capitalist concrete on that property?
If it’s okay to consider building on the graves of the poor, then it must okay to consider building over the graves of the rich. Because we are a developed province where everyone is treated equal. Right?
* the word ‘complicates’ implies that it is the bodies of the poor in the mass grave that is the problem. The problem has been and continues to be the manner in which our culture treats poor people by putting them in such a place.