Very Interesting…and Very Sad!

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.

The blog stats for my most recent blog posts. The post highlighted in red is about current poverty. As you can see, very few people looked at it the day it was posted or the few days afterwards as opposed to the blogs about historic poverty. 

Present Day Poverty: Books & Articles

220px-Hand_to_Mouth_-_Living_in_Bootstrap_America_(book_cover)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…

Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi.

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.”

We can do better.

Where was your family member in 1880?

A partial list of names of those who spent time in the Halifax Poor House in the Year 1880


Happy New Year! Happy 2020!

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.

The Report of the Commissioners of Public Charities for the Year 1880 contains a great deal of names of the ‘inmates’ who spent time at the Halifax Poor House in 1880. Many of the names are from all over Nova Scotia, Canada, the United States and other parts of the world.

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.




“Halifax’s Dirty Little Secret’

Hey Developers! If you want to build over graves, here is a nice bit of downtown real estate for you!


The front page of the Chronicle Herald newspaper (the ‘provincial’ newspaper of Nova Scotia) had this as their front page headline today:

Mass graves complicate former library’s future

You can read the article HERE

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.

Meal time at a Poor House

‘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

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