featured Poverty

Lost in the poor house: “He thought he was all alone”

I was sent this story about a woman whose family was devastated by provincial poor laws and life in a poor house sometime before World War II.

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 nursing from 1980-1990, I worked a lot of midnight 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 three 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 clothesline 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.

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

See also: Book review: A wholesome horror. Poor houses in Nova Scotia.

Brenda Thompson is an activist and author who lives in the Annapolis Valley. She wrote A Wholesome Horror – Poor Houses in Nova Scotia., and Finding Fortune: Documenting and Imagining the life of Rose Fortune (1774-1864). Her blog on poor houses in Nova Scotia, where this story was first published, can be found here.

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