‘Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse’


Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Holidays! Thank you to all who have been reading and supporting this website devoted to recording the history of the poor houses not only in Nova Scotia but also in other parts of the world. May your holidays be bright, cheerful and full of joy.

I am putting this post up today to remind us all that poverty doesn’t just happen on the holidays; poverty happens all year ’round. We tend to give more and pay more attention to the poor on the holidays but once these days pass, we return to blaming the poor for their own plight instead of examining a capitalist culture that chews up and spits out workers and puts them in poverty.

Today I want to share with you the poem “Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse” by journalist George Robert Sims.  It tells the story of an old trader John who is in the workhouse on Christmas day when the Guardians of the workhouse (the elite who donated money and food) come to watch the inmates enjoy their Christmas pudding. John becomes upset and refuses to eat his pudding, regaling the story of how his wife, Nance, died a year before on this date because the workhouse refused to help them.

The following is a recording of the poem done in 1912 by Robert Hilliard on a Victoria 78.  It is a dark poem and a stark reminder that poverty happens all year.


Anthropology Degree in Poor Houses!

I just came across this on my Facebook feed….it’s from Kings’ County Museum and it is volunteer genealogist Wayne Baltzer and a student, Adeena Fox, looking at poor house information. Wayne Baltzer helped me a great deal when I was writing my book A Wholesome Horror; Poor Houses in Nova Scotia. I am thrilled to see a student taking on the task of studying poor houses in detail. More attention is needed to how the dominant culture treated their poor. How our dominant culture treats the poor today will certainly be studied in another several decades or a century from now and, trust me, we are not going to look a whole lot better than we did in the times of Queen Elizabeth I.


Finding Your Canadian Story…the Poor

Good Sunday Morning Everyone! I’ve been busy selling books from my new business, Moose House Publications at local Christmas Farmers’ Markets. A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia is still selling very well. People see the photo of the old Marshalltown Alms House and stop in their tracks. Many have stories to tell me about the house, relatives that were in poor houses or relatives who worked for the poor house.

A friend of mine and follower of this blog, Wilfed Allan, (whom I lovingly call “Willard”) sent me a link to an interesting blog by Candice MacDonald that I want to share with you on here. It has some links to seeking information of your ancestors who may have lived for some time in a poor house in central and eastern Canada. I tried contacting her through her blog but no luck so I am sharing it here anyway.


The above image is the poor house from Berlin, Ontario. Candice MacDonald’s blog post is Finding Your Canadian Story

On the issue of “Unmarried Mothers”

Have you seen the news today on CBC? For those who have not, here it is….

Halifax Mom Shocked by form for “Unmarried Mother” to Confirm Baby’s Dad

Talk about taking us back to the caves…or, in this case, back to Poor Houses.

Myself and my second daughter. 

If a woman went into a poor house to have her child and was not married, her child would be raised in the poor house (she could leave if she had a family willing to take her back) until the child was old enough to be sent out to a farm or family to earn a living as an indentured servant. That age could be anywhere from the age of 5 to the age of 7 years old.

Back in “the day”, a woman’s marital status was extremely important when receiving ‘assistance’ from the municipality or the province if she had a baby. Until 1972 (that is my lifetime; I remember 1972) a ‘unmarried mother’ was not permitted to receive any form of financial assistance. Although some poor houses still existed, they were mostly for the very elderly and those with physical and mental barriers. An ‘unmarried mother’ would be pressured into giving up her child for adoption as there were no supports to help her with raising her child.

And let us never forget The Ideal Maternity Home in Chester, Nova Scotia, where unmarried mums went in secret to have their children born out of wedlock. These women were shamed and humiliated if their pregnancy was found out in their communities so they paid a great deal of money to go to this home, to be used as a servant, and to have their babies either sold to couples who had the money to purchase their babies or, if the baby was of an obvious mixed race or physical disability, to slowly die and be buried in wooden butter boxes.


In my own personal experience, when I applied for social assistance back in the early 1980s as an ‘unmarried mother’ with my first daughter,  I did not want her 25 year old father in our lives. I described his departure ~ “He split when the egg did.” I did not name him on her birth certificate. The man did not want anything to do with his child or myself and left when I told him I was pregnant. I was not about to force him to pay attention if he did not want to be with us. Neither myself nor my daughter needed that in our lives. We needed love and acceptance in our lives; not some loser who wanted to run from responsibility. (Over time, he left two other children and their mother on their own to live on social assistance even though he was married to their mother. He paid $1 a year in child support. Eventually he married again, had three more children and is a ‘respectable’ business man in Halifax now.)

The Minister of Social Services at the time, Edmund Morris, tried to use that information (or lack of) to publicly humiliate me when I criticized his outdated social assistance policies in an op-ed I wrote for a local newspaper. (Things such as forcing unwed mothers to be subjected to humiliating questions and comments from case workers; not letting single fathers access social assistance.) Morris refused to back down from trying to shame me as an “Unmarried Mother”. Morris even had the blessing of then Premier John Buchanan. (I shall always remember his response when asked by reporters if he was going to make Minister Morris resign over his divulging of confidential information on me. “No I’m not going to make him resign over THAT” he sneered. Nice to know what he thought about women!) 

With the help of several women who had gathered to raise money so that I could take Morris to court (the Justice Department Minister should have initiated that legal procedure but refused to do so as it was initiating a legal procedure against his peer; I had to do it privately as a citizen) I took Minister Edmund Morris to court and, shock of all shocks, Justice Peter Richardson very reluctantly found Mr. Morris GUILTY of releasing confidential information on  me from my social assistance file. Justice Richardson quoted my marital status, in his judgement, as something I should be ashamed of. I’m wasn’t then;. I’m still not.

Whoever thought up that form for ‘unmarried mothers’ needs to re-evaluate their ethics, morals and think about what decade they are presently in. I have always described myself as the last generation of women who was shamed for being a mom and not being married. And we do not need to return to that. It’s taking us back to poor houses and the treatment of people based on gender, race, marital status, abilities, religion. We need to move forward, not backwards.



Generations Lost in the Poor House

Hello and Happy Summer Everyone. I’ve been so busy trying to fit everything into two months of summer that I’ve let this blog slide a bit. When I was sent this story about a woman whose family was devastated by provincial poor laws and life in a poor house, I knew I had to pick this up again.

This story, which I have only lightly edited for clarity and removed identifying features, shows us how the crime of being poor could tear apart families. Although the poor houses were built with good intentions, the local poor laws had a terrible impact on her family. She writes about this in her own words:

When I worked at the a nursing from 1980-1990, I worked a lots of mid night shifts with my cousin Vera . She told me the story of my grandfather’s sister Sarah Louise, who went by the name Louise.

Louise married her cousin Holland  “Holly” and they had five children and lived in a small settlement where there was only 3 homes a mile back in the woods. All the families were poor as church mice, and had a hard time feeding their families.

The floor of the house had a dirt floor but was kept really clean. Tilly, her daughter, used to help her mother make bread standing on a chair to reach the table.

Vera said the woods used to be fields and you could see the neighbour’s clothes on the clothes line miles down the dirt road from her house on the hill.

The county (overseers of the poor) came one day and took Louise and her 5 children. Holly said “They ain’t getting me!” and he hid in the woods for a week before he finally came out and surrendered himself  to the Overseers of the Poor and went to the poor house to join his family. Vera said Holly was a little funny, not sure if she meant humorous or perhaps a little slow of mind.

Sarah worked in the kitchen and Holly worked in the barns. Vera remembered Holly lugging up huge bags of potatoes from the basement. And she saw her Aunt in the kitchen peeling vegetables.

All the children were farmed out and adopted by relatives or other people. While Louise was there at the County Home she had another baby, a son, a little while after the death of her husband in 1935. My grandfather, Gilbert  “Gillie”, said his name was Wilfred. I think we’ve found him through DNA.

The oldest daughter Mary, who was called “Tilly” at home, said she remembered being in a place with old people, but didn’t know it was the Poor House.

Grace another daughter, was raised by her mother’s brother, Clarence, went on to marry my husband’s Uncle, Jack . As she just had her DNA done, she’s very much interested in the family history.

Kay,the next daughter, married and had children, I’ve kept in contact with one of her daughters.

A son Vernon,  who was farmed out as an infant, ended up living in Truro. Our family found him about 12 years ago through genealogy research.  Vernon cried like a baby when he found out he had siblings. He got to meet some of his family and he looks a lot like my grandfather, Gillie. He said he never knew nothing about his family as he was taken away from his parents and siblings at such a young age. He thought he was all alone.

This is just a single example of how we ‘criminalized’ poverty in the past and still do in the present. Instead of helping the family to survive in their own home, ‘the County’ broke up their family. It has had an impact on the future generations of the family, both emotionally and mentally.  Nearly 100 years later, the family members are still trying to find and gather back their family members that were taken away.  And all because they had a dirt floor and were poor.

Today our “overseers of the poor” or “Department of Community Services” tries to keep the families together, however, they still regulate the poor and expect them/us to live up to a middle class standard without providing middle class supports such as access to further education. Rural poverty is rampant in many parts of Nova Scotia because these middle class resources are not available to them/us in our areas. We make our own, find our own, do the best we can and sometimes, we just give up in exhaustion and frustration. And then we are blamed for our situations.

Moving to an urban area is not the solution for many people. We may be living in an old family homestead that is mortgage free and we cannot afford to give that up. We may not want to abandon the century old family homestead so we make do with what we can and hang in. Urban areas are not always good for the mental health of people who have been born and reared in a rural setting. We might also be taking care of elderly family members and cannot move and leave them on their own. There is a myriad of reasons why people stay in rural Nova Scotia.

And we/they should not be punished for it. I hope this family continues to locate the offspring and family members of those they lost in the Poor House. Meander River, West Hants County

Screenshot (45)




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

Article-Annapolis County’s New Insane Asylum

“The interior contains ninety-one rooms, as follows – The basement or ground floor contains two general workrooms, one 36×14 ft., and one 24×14 feet; two furnace and fuel rooms, one 11×25 feet, and one 11×18 ft.,..two halls, 36×7 ft., and two halls 6x18ft…two bathrooms fitted up with a tub and three wash basins in each and from either of which may be obtained cold or hot water. There is also one room fitted up for a cell to confine refractory inmates, 11×8 ft. 

The first story or flat contains 8 wards 10×9 ft with 9 foot ceilings…two water closets

The second story contains eight wards, 10×9 ft and two water closets…

The attic or third flat contains 12 wards 12×14 ft, two water closets and…two rooms in towers 6×6 ft…”

This is just a very small part of the description written about “Annapolis County’s New Insane Institution” in an undated article in the Bridgetown Weedly Monitor. Denise Rice came across a photocopy of this article. What she did not realize was that the back page of the photocopy not only gave us the time of year (Easter) but also contained a letter to the editor. It is a long letter and include the following excerpts:

Plans and specifications were prepared and tender called for building same, the lowest ender being of the vicinity of $9,000…A resolution was passed to this effect: That the committee modify the plan and specification so as the building could be erected….not cost(ing) over six thousand dollars…a sum, Mr. Editor, that would be more than ample for that purpose when you consider at the present time we have about fifteen in that institution.

Reading over the rooms, the size of the rooms and the number, I did think “Wow! They are expecting a LOT of harmless insane people from the county to be housed here.” Of course, poor people would be housed here as well as we not only criminalized poverty but also questioned the mental health of those in poverty. As poverty puts a great stress on those in it, it creates poor mental health. This is a cycle that continues today.

The building ended up costing $10,000. The article applauds Annapolis County with this line “…the people of Annapolis county of this generation certainly rank high, for they have taken the load among the people of the province in establishing institutions for the poor and the insane which speak loudly of their generosity and christian philanthropy.”

To which I cannot help but ask the question, What was making the people of Annapolis County poor and ‘harmless insane’? Rather than only dealing with the outcome, find the source of the problem.

But that is a question and philosophy we are still grappling with today…in 2019.



The Women of 1949-Inmates of Bridgetown Poor Farm

Last weekend, author Denise Rice and I shared a table at the Round Hill Community Hall annual sale. She was selling her many books on genealogy and I was selling my book A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia.  Denise is often at sales for anything regarding genealogy and had picked up several boxes from a local person whose parent, a genealogist, had died recently. When going through the boxes, she came across some things that would be of interest to me.

Denise handed  me a rough photocopy of an undated article from the Weekly Monitor, a newspaper from Bridgetown Nova Scotia and a photocopy of a page of the Register of Inmates 1949. The list contained names of women who were in the Annapolis County Asylum and Poor Farm in 1949.

The names are               Community                         Age                 Religion        Civil State

Sabean, Martha               Port Lorne                         67                   Baptist            Single

Sabean, Catherine           Port Lorne                         82                   Baptist           Single

Minard, Bertha               New Grafton                      71                   Anglican        Single

Minard, Helen                New Grafton                      33                   Anglican        Single

Spurr, Maria                   Lequille                              81                   Anglican         Single

Mosher, Beatrice           Bridgetown                        40                   Baptist             Single

Sabeans, Florence         Bridgetown                        34                   Baptist             Single

Clayton, Phyllis              Parkers Cove                      30                  Baptist             Single

Orde, Maud                    Clementsport                     50                   Anglican          Married

Palfrey, Elsie                  Bridgetown                         39                  Baptist               Single

Baker, Etta                     Margaretsville                    76                  Baptist               Single

Sears, Addie                   Kempt                                  70                  Baptist               Married

Smith, Edith                   Inglisville                           76                   Baptist               Single

Cress, Charlotte            Bridgetown                        77                   Baptist                 Single

Banks, Annie                Port George                        43                    Baptist                Single

Caufield, Lavinia         Lunenburg                         67                   Baptist                 Widowed

Forrester, Margaret    Bear River                          34                   Baptist                  single

Jeremy, Rebecca           Annapolis Co.,                  91                    R.C.*                     single

Young, Bertha              Granville                             71                                                 single

Whynott, Ellen            Springfield                          72                                                  widowed

Orde, Caroline             Lake LaRose                        77                                                 widowed

McCormick, Ruth        Bear River                           54                                                 single


*R.C. = Roman Catholic

The religion of the last four women are not noted or else, through multiple photocopying, the Ditto sign has faded out.

The first two women, the Sabeans could possibly be sisters as there are 15 years between them and they are both listed as ‘single’.

The Minard women from New Grafton are possibly Mother and Daughter as there are 38 years between them but they are also both listed as single.

And then again, perhaps the elder women in these two groups of women were unmarried when they became mothers.

Rebecca Jeremy from Annapolis County could possibly be First Nations as Jeremy was often a First Nations surname.

The married women, Maude Orde  and Addie Sears might have been separated from their husbands who were in the male quarters of the poor farm.

So much information and so little information at the same time. I’m grateful but frustrated. I want to know more!

Next post will be about the ‘new’ asylum and it’s size and dimensions as well as a Letter to the Editor protesting the cost of this new place. Bridgetown.RegisterofInmates.1949