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

I was delighted when Brenda Thompson asked me to contribute a foreword to her second edition of A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia published by SSP Publications. I have known Brenda for a number of years now and her research and support were critical to Poor Farm. Check out the latest edition for a much expanded take on this neglected area of Nova Scotia history, and see below for my full foreword.

I first met Brenda Thomson at a talk she gave at the Halifax Central Library. She opened with “Hello Fellow History Nerds!”. Right away, I knew I was at the right talk. After the initial chuckles from her audience, Brenda pointed out that the old central library, across the Spring Garden road, was once the site of a poor house and contained many unmarked graves of paupers who had died there. She continued to speak about the horrific history of official mistreatment of the poor in Nova Scotia and the many ways it continued to the present day.

It was obvious she was passionate about the subject. She spoke about how society criminalizes poverty and how she knew of this personally. I was stunned to find out that Nova Scotia’s history was riddled with poor houses and farms, at least one in each county. The labour of the people incarcerated in these places was sold off to the lowest bidder, a sign of how little they were valued. Brenda’s talk encouraged me to get her book and find out more about the places I passed regularly without thinking twice about what part they played in the past. I was impressed with research that opened a world of detail on what I initially thought was obscure local history. The first edition of Brenda’s book showed me how wrong my initial feeling was. 

Now, in this second edition, Brenda brings us right up to today: pointing out recent incidents like the eviction of homeless on Spring Garden Road in 2021, right on that site of the unmarked graves of the second Halifax Poor House. Furthermore, in recent times, Canadian society is grappling with its history of the treatment of indigenous children at residential schools. The punitive mistreatment by church and state of young people separated from their families has roots in the histories of poor houses A Wholesome Horror outlines. For example, Brenda’s latest research describes the “Moral Treatment” that was meted upon the “harmless insane”: essentially torture in the form of whipping, immersion in ice water or starvation. 

Imagine an autistic child, or someone with Down’s syndrome, being cruelly punished in this way as a form of treatment. Throughout Brenda’s account, there is extensive research detailing this neglected history of official abuse. This historical research is extremely important but is only half of the story. A Wholesome Horror also has a number of sections told from the perspective of the victims of these institutions, bringing the horror of their treatment home in a much more immediate way. For example, the moving account of the last thoughts of Jane Haley, dying of starvation as she recalls cradling the stillborn baby she gave up to the Poors Asylum in Halifax. She hoped they would give it the decent burial she could not afford. We now know how likely it was that either Jane or her baby were buried unmarked in a cheap pine box.

Many sent to the poor houses were Indigenous or of African and Acadian descent. However, the official reason they were incarcerated was not because they were displaced minorities without the advantages of the rest of society, rather it was simply that they were poor. A Wholesome Horror has as its central theme that the ill treatment of people in these institutions came from the belief the poor are to blame for their plight—poverty itself is a punishment for not wanting to work. Never mind all the issues of disadvantages or mental health, the prevailing attitude (which dates back to Henry VIII) is one of putting the blame on the victims. This edition of A Wholesome Horror contains a wealth of new research and personal accounts from women, children and the “harmless insane” and the suffering they endured. Reading these accounts makes the history real and relevant. It is a challenge to face up to the past but is vitally important to understanding the world we live in. I found this when walking past unmarked graves of the Cole Harbour Poor Farm with my autistic son. What would life have been like for him, born in that time? The shock of finding out, thanks in part to Brenda’s work, compelled me to write my own novel. With A Wholesome Horror, Brenda Thomson bravely excavates the past and places it squarely in the present. The truth is, our current time is not so different from back then. We need to face the past in order to stop repeating its mistakes.

Ronan O’Driscoll, Foreword To A WholeSome Horror