History repeating

Residents of the Cole Harbour Poor Farm. Photo: Wilfred Bissett Album / Cole Harbour Rural Heritage Society Archives

Victorian Halifax had many institutions to help the poor, yet the wealth gap grew, and countless people tumbled through the cracks 

Mary O’Rouark, George W. Sutherland, Samuel Abnel. 

Today they are names on hundred-year-old paper, tucked carefully away in archival boxes. In life, they were also tucked away, but not with care. 

“There was a sense that for the poor, the responsibility for being in that state belonged to them,” says Steven Laffoley, author of the Halifax Poor House Fire

But then, as now, there are many reasons people land in poverty, and personal character usually isn’t the big determinant. 

In 1882, a fire destroyed the Halifax Poor House and killed 31 people. “It was probably the height of that 19th-century wealth gap,” says Laffoley, noting the gap is still very much with us. “That’s why I wrote the book; when you write one of these books you’re actually speaking about the present.” 

All history records of Mary O’Rouark is she was 20 years old when she died. Samuel Abnel was an inmate of the Halifax County Poor Farm in 1904 (he was listed as “insane” in his order for admission). George W. Sutherland was among those listed as “poor, insane paupers” in the care of the Hospital for the Insane in 1886. 

Dating back to its founding in 1749, Halifax attempted to fund and build institutions to help people like Rourke, Abnel, and Sutherland. They were of “good intent,” says Laffoley, but their approach was wrongheaded. 

“It didn’t lose sight of the piece that said (the poor) somehow deserved (it),” says Laffoley. “And if only they worked a little harder. Does it sound familiar? If only they had a little more education, they could lift themselves out. We were very reluctant to ask the big question: Is there something structurally wrong with our system?” 

Other institutions would also take poor Haligonians, like Mount Hope Asylum, workhouses, and the “Bridewell” on Spring Garden Road. (Bridewell is Victorian slang for a prison). Halifax’s Bridewell was built in 1818 and closed in the late 1850s. It was part workhouse, part prison, meant to punish rather than rehabilitate and elevate. According to The Prison System in Atlantic Canada Before 1880 by Rainer Baehre, prisoners were forced to sleep on straw, and they needed to pay for higher quality clothing, blankets, and food. 

“The poorest inmates were sustained on a diet of molasses and tea,” says Baehre. 

As for the buildings specifically designed for the poor, the first was a workhouse established in 1752 near the site of the current Central Library. However, following a bill in 1758 that required the city to better support its impoverished residents, a poor asylum was built. That facility was replaced in 1867 with a building on the corner of South and Robie streets, where the IWK now sits. 

It was also the building O’Rouark and 29 (or 30, reports vary) others would die in during the Halifax Poor House Fire of 1882. 

Workers put up a new poor house on the same spot in 1886. Known as the City Home, it closed about 20 years later. 

Across the harbour, the Halifax County Poor Farm was on Bisset Road in Cole Harbour. According to the Cole Harbour Parks and Trails Association, from the time it opened in 1887 until closed in 1929 following a fire, over 300 people died there. 

“These were the lost souls — those for whom no one came either because there was no family, or family didn’t know they were here, or they had abandoned them,” says a Parks and Trails website about the unclaimed dead. 

While institutions, resources and a general understanding of poverty have improved, thousands of Nova Scotians still subsist with scant means. 

“We now know that there are ways in which we can meet this challenge, which we didn’t know before, and that maybe from that can come some better solutions,” Laffoley says. “Which isn’t to say we don’t have all these challenges in front of us; I just think we’re better positioned. The real question becomes, OK, if we’re well armed, then what’s the game plan?” 

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