featured Poverty Racism

Brenda Thompson: Punishing the poor in Nova Scotia, then and now

These stories are true. The first two stories are based on research I did while writing my book about the history of poor houses and poor farms in Nova Scotia. The last three are from my own circle of friends.

Mary Ann Clements

Mary Ann Clements felt the baby kick for the first time and cried. She knew she would soon show. She was not the first woman to have a baby and not be married, but she was the first in her family. They would not tolerate her unwed pregnancy by a married man in her community. When Mary Ann’s family found out, they banished her from the home. No one would help her, as Mary Ann’s father was considered a community leader and no one wanted to cross him.

Mary Ann moved to a small Black community of Perotte, several miles away in the woods. There she gave birth to her son, William Henry, and stayed until food became scarce.

Mary Ann felt she had no choice but to go to the local poor farm. Black people were put into a building that was in bad shape, dark with little heat, and were made to do more menial tasks. William Henry was to be apprenticed out as soon as he was five years old, but he caught dysentery and died at age two. Mary Ann stayed at the poor farm for the rest of her life, dying there at the age of 90 in 1900.


Unpublished burial records of the Bridgetown County Poor House

The Bridgetown County Poor House, Annapolis County. White paupers lived in the front building; Black paupers lived in the older, brick building in the back. Photo courtesy of Annapolis Heritage Society.

Sarah (Lamont) Huntley

Sarah’s husband Daniel lay on his bed, drinking rum all through the day to ease his extreme pain. At one time, as a ship’s carpenter he had a good job, supported his family, and they prospered. Then he fell and broke his back while working on a ship. He was carried to his home in Scots Bay and left for his family to care for him. Despite frugality and community support, their savings dwindled to nothing, and the rum gave him the reputation of a drunkard.

Inevitably the last of their reserves ran out. The house was gone, the money was gone, and the community support was gone.

Sarah, Daniel and their family moved into the local county home in Billstown. The older children were quickly apprenticed out; the younger ones, except for Percy, were adopted out. Daniel died writhing in pain within the year. Percy grew up in the poor house, moving in and out as he got a job and then lost it, trying to get himself and his mother out of the county home. He died in the poor house in his 40s.

Sarah lived the rest of her life in the poor house, dying there alone at the age of 90, buried in an unmarked grave.

The ship company prospered.

Billtown Poor Farm, Kings County. Sarah (Lamont) Huntley lived here most of her life. Photo courtesy of Wayne A. Baltzer



Unpublished census and burial records of the Billtown Poor House

Gloria W.

Her husband had thrown her out. He had a girlfriend and didn’t want Gloria around anymore. Gloria found a job in the laundry department of the hotel where she made less than her male co-workers and not enough to support herself.

One night after work, while waiting for the bus, a sailor told her that he would pay her $20 for a ‘quickie’ in the back alley. Gloria hesitated; that was a lot of money. She relented and the deed was done. Gloria felt dirty afterwards.

A week later another sailor showed up at the bus stop offering $10. Gloria took it. This became a regular thing for Gloria, until one night she was beaten badly by one of the sailors. When the hospital found out why she was beaten, she was sent home to her family who quickly threw her out in shame. Next her employer fired her.

Alone, on the streets, Gloria returned to sex work as the only way to make any money and support herself. Within two years Gloria’s body was found down by the harbour. She had been stabbed to death. The police filed the case away as Just Another Whore.


Private family story told to the author.

Steve S.

Steve loved his one year old son, Ethan. He and his wife, Patty, lived in a small farming community. Patty found him with another man and Steve confessed that he was gay. Patty packed up and left, leaving Ethan with him. Before she left, Patty told anyone who would listen that Steve was gay and that was why she was leaving him. People in the community started to avoid Steve, and occasionally he was beaten up by some of the men.

Steve struggled to support himself and Ethan. His employer laid him off ‘for the season’ and never hired him back again. Steve’s parents distanced themselves in shame of his sexuality. Steve applied for social assistance but found it that it was for widowed or divorced single mothers only. “Men should get a job,” he was told.

Desperate for food, Steve shoplifted at the town grocery store and was caught. He was charged and convicted, spending six months in jail. While he was in jail, Ethan was put in a foster home and fast tracked for adoption. When Steve got out of jail, traumatized and alone, he committed suicide.


As told to the author by a family friend. This happened in the Wolfville/Halifax area.


Kevin was fired from yet another job. He did not know why. Kevin couldn’t get along with people for any length of time because his impulsive tics and restlessness alienated them. He found it exhausting to interact with people; the fluorescent lights in workplaces gave him a headache. Time and again he was called lazy, and told to learn to control himself.

As a result, Kevin was constantly moving from job to job. Employment Insurance refused him benefits because he was fired so often.

Finally, a doctor confirmed that Kevin had autism and ADHD. Relieved but traumatized by the lifetime of ridicule and self-doubt, he applied for disability social assistance only to find that now he was expected to live on a budget that would barely pay for an apartment, let alone food and heat. Kevin ended up in a boarding house, secretly hiding his food in his room lest it be stolen, and listening to the nightly howls of other men with untreated mental health issues. The thought of suicide was tempting.


Kevin is an alias for an adult family member of the author


Their hardships were not their fault, yet they were punished for being different or for merely being poor.

Our province likes to believe we have evolved with open minds. However, when it comes to people in poverty, our minds remain shut. Our attitudes and policies are still stuck in the 1860s: poor people brought their poverty on themselves and it has nothing to do with discrimination, exclusion or poor policy planning.

The only change between what has happened to a person in poverty 150 years ago and what happens to them today is the amount of bureaucracy we subject the person to, and the hoops we demand they jump through.

If this does not change, someone will be writing an article much like this one a hundred years from now.

Brenda Thompson is an activist and author who lives in the Annapolis Valley. Her most recent book is A Wholesome Horror – Poor Houses in Nova Scotia.

This story was produced in partnership with the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, for co-publication in Connections, published three times a year by the College. We really appreciate this wonderful opportunity to promote longer pieces by Nova Scotia authors on topics so dear to our heart.

An old newspaper caricature titled Death in the Poor House

On 23 January 1769, James Eaves, his wife and two of their children were found starved to death, their naked bodies lying on straw, in a poor house in Datchworth, Hertfordshire


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