A Wholesome Horror: Poorhouses in Nova Scotia by Brenda Thompson

When I first saw the cover of this book, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: poor houses existed in Canada? While I grew up in a household that used the warning of “being put in the poor house” I didn’t know that it was a real house (by the time I was born, federal unemployment insurance measures were in place). The fact that poor houses (and poor farms) even existed is due to laws passed in the time of Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century. They were not formally abolished in Canada until 1958. However, Ms. Thompson warns:

“The attitudes and beliefs which were the result of the Elizabethan Poor Laws, however, would persist and have an impact on Nova Scotia’s citizens for centuries to come.”

Amazingly, this book is the first of its kind to comprehensively research the poor houses (sometimes called “almshouses”) and farms that existed in every county in Nova Scotia, some still standing today, albeit used either as apartments or as extended care facilities. There are many archival photos of the many poor houses across Nova Scotia and each one gets full coverage, from its beginning to when it either was torn down, burned down, or converted.

Author and her daughter in front of the Marshalltown Almshouse, Digby NS 1994.

As noted above, the laws that created the poor houses may have been repealed, but attitudes towards the poor and the treatment of the burial sites of those that died within their walls go neglected and remain unmarked. For example, in Halifax:

“The fact that the Old Burying Ground on the corner of Barrington and Spring Garden Road still receives federal funding to restore its headstones while the Poor House cemetery across the road on Spring Garden lies unmarked and unacknowledged by local and provincial governments tells that the wealthy, even when dead, still get the taxpayer’s dollars while the poor still do without.”

A remarkable book that will cause the reader to look within their own province (New Brunswick had them too) and within their own hearts to consider the conditions that lead to poverty and what can be done to help alleviate it, even if it cannot be fully eradicated. I’m adding A Wholesome Horror to the 2019 long list of “The Very Best!” books in the Non-Fiction category. Ms. Thompson’s website is here: https://poorhousesofnovascotia.com/

“After reading this book the reader will no doubt spend some time thinking about how the complex issue of poverty could have dealt with in a more humane way.”  – Dr. Allan E. Marble, Chair, Medical History Society of Nova Scotia

A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia by Brenda Thompson
SSP Publications

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4 thoughts on “A Wholesome Horror: Poorhouses in Nova Scotia by Brenda Thompson”

  1. This sounds so interesting. Her website has some fascinating stuff on it, too! And it ties in well with the story of Maud Lewis who is getting a lot of attention around here right now.

    • It was fascinating to read, and just as eye-opening as reading about the Residential Schools. How times have changed, but attitudes as harder to change. I certainly look forward to your next book, I know how much research you put into your writings. Thanks for dropping by!

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