The History of Long and Brier Islands

Alms House\Poor House

by | Jul 6, 2021 | Central Grove, Freeport, Long Island, Tiverton, Westport | 0 comments

Alms House\Poor House

One of Islanders greatest fears or thoughts is this building “Alms House or Poor House most commonly called”. If you were to have the occasion to see this building you would know that you had not made in the struggle for life. Once there you knew you were there for the rest of your days.

But first we will look back in time at what the Islanders had to do to survive. The winter months were the hardest times and if you didn’t prepare for the winter you may not survive. Islanders had to learn right from the beginning to get along with one-another and to help one-another when times weren’t so good. In these early days you could only help someone with what you had and sometimes you only had enough to bring your own through these harsh winters.

The big storms, disease, crop failures and your general health were big factors in whether you would survive or not.

There was no old age pensions, no Canada pensions or Canada disability pensions, workers compensation pensions or health insurance  in these early years. Not much to help you when things go bad.

The province seen the desperation that was going on and so the Nova Scotia government incorporated an Act in 1879: That each county was now responsible for building their own “Poor House”. The Alms House was built in 1891. There was one prior to this but nothing is known about it.

            You may go to your local poor house with your note of poverty but if the poor house is full, you must wait. You may either sleep in the barn, on the street, or in the fields until the poor house has the room for you. Depending upon the personality of the Poor Master, the financial wealth or poverty of the poor house, and your own conditions, the poor house may feed you while you sleep in the fields, streets or barn. If you were lucky.

The Alms House became the ‘dumping grounds’ for single mothers, children, the mentally ill. or anyone else who could not survive independently in the community. As always horror stories of abuse and neglect were familiar. The residents were often at the mercy of the keeper. One keeper , Guy Thomas, was said to have fed half of Digby from the Poor House.

The Poor House was supposed to be a self-sufficient place where the inmates had to work in the gardens and fields and raising their own live stock to feed themselves. This did not work and money had to be issued from the municipality each year.

Below is a list of Inmates, Births and Deaths at Alms House for the Year of 1894:            Source Digby Courier Jan.25, 1895

The Depression of the 1930s caused an increase in poverty due to unemployment. It has been estimated that in the winter of 1933, at the depths of the Depression, over 32% of all wage-paid workers were unemployed. In these circumstances, government began, although very slowly and at first without success, to develop policies that would help to alleviate the problem of poverty. The first universal social welfare program in Canada was the Family Allowance program, introduced by the federal government in 1944. The small unemployment insurance program, introduced during World War II, was expanded after the war. These were the foundations of Canada’s social security system or welfare state. The problem of poverty was not solved, however, and relative poverty (meaning wide gaps between low-income earners and others) persisted. Nevertheless, the social security system succeeded in reducing the impact of poverty for many families.

Canada’s first public pension plan had been introduced in 1927 with the passing of the Old Age Pensions Act. That legislation established a means-tested pension for men and women 70 years of age and over who had little or no income.

Unemployment Insurance (UI) established in Canada 1940 by federal government of Mackenzie King with unanimous provincial approval. Workers must have contributed to program 180 days over previous two years, benefits last 6-52 weeks, but only around 40 per cent of the workforce is covered.

The Canada Pension Plan came into effect on January 1, 1966 and applied to all provinces and territories except Quebec, where the separate but similar Quebec Pension Plan was established in the same year.

The National Medical Care Insurance Act was passed in the House of Commons on December 8, 1966, by an overwhelming vote of 177 to 2. The starting date was July 1, 1968, and the Act provided that the federal government would pay about half of Medicare costs in any province with insurance plans that met the criteria of being universal, publicly administered, portable and comprehensive. By 1971 all provinces had established plans which met the criteria.

The Nova Scotia Medical Services Insurance (MSI) Plan is the provincial plan for all Nova Scotia residents. The profession-sponsored Maritime Medical Care Inc. plan transferred its staff to the government to enable medicare to come into effect on April 1, 1969.

In 1963 the Alms House was closed.

It burned down in 1995 by an arsonist.

When I was a young boy (1950’s) my family owned a sheep farm in the middle of the Island that went from shore to shore. Besides raising sheep and goats we had our own garden. We cut our own wood for our heat and cooking and sold some. We hauled it out with our horse. We were quite self-sufficient.

A few on the other hand weren’t so lucky, some had fallen between the cracks. Islanders are a very proud group of people not willing to ask for help. Sometimes our ministers or municipal counsellors would hear of someone needing help. They would give social assistance to a family or individual to tie them over for a while or until different arrangements could be made. Today the help that is available is help from the food bank. Without this help from the food banks a few people would find it difficult trying to find enough to eat at times.

As I mentioned at the begining of this subject that the Alms house became a “dumping grounds” for single mothers, children, the mentally ill, or anyone else who could not survive independently in the community. This was a place where unwed mothers were forced to go to have their babies.

I had my DNA done in 2017 and really didn’t really expect to find anything different. In 2018 I found I had a half-sister that was 10 years older than I. She had never known who her mother or father was, all she knew she was adopted. She had tried on several occasions hiring people to find her records but always came up empty. She could only remember a few names and that was all. We knew she was born in 1937 and we knew about Alms House and the unwed mothers, so we started our search. With the help of the Genealogy Dept. of the Digby Museum we found her mothers name and where she is buried.

I think my half-sister is not the only adopted child of that place, there is probable a lot of others without their family records.

Digby Courier: June 1, 1900

This memorial has been placed at one of the known grave sites of the former Alms House property in Marshalltown, Digby County. The Municipality of Digby had it installed and more is coming for the site. Installed Fall of 2020.


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