Old St. Andrews

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The Charlotte County Poor House - A Lecture

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The St. Andrews Poor House
Read Before the Charlotte County Historical Society, 2008
By David Sullivan

 


After the war of 1812 worsening economic conditions and sudden opportunities for travel sent a flood of poor Irish out of their country. Between that time and the first potato famine of 1847 hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants landed on the shores of North America. An early wave hit St. Andrews sometime in 1817. In January of 1818 the Commissioners of the Poor for this town notified the House of Assembly that since the previous year “this parish has been encumbered with the maintenance of a number of aged, feeble, and diseased persons, and in some instances whole families, in a most wretched and distressed situation. Your petitioners from motives of duty and humanity have exerted themselves to the utmost to relieve or at all events to mitigate the sufferings of those unfortunate persons, by procuring them shelter in and about the town of St. Andrews, with food, raiment and medical attendance, notwithstanding which several of them died of fever contracted on the passage, and communicated the distemper to those with whom they were boarded, to such a degree, as rendered them equally the objects of public charity.”
            The Overseers humbly requested compensation for the 190 pounds that had had to be raised both publicly and privately to support these new poor, and also the “passing an act to prevent in future the indiscriminate admission of emigrants from the Mother Country to this province without some security given to indemnify the parish.” I don’t know to what extent these requests were granted, but several weeks later, on January 27, 1818, an Act was drawn up “To Convey Commons Land for the Erection of a Poor House.” “Whereas,” it reads, “from the late great influx of poor and disabled persons into the County of Charlotte it is found necessary to erect a Poor House and Work House in the town of St. Andrews, Be it therefore enacted . . . that the Justices of the Peace for the County of Charlotte . . . are hereby authorized and empowered to agree to the erecting and finishing of a proper building for a Poor House and Work House in the town or Parish of Saint Andrews, and to fix upon a certain sum of money towards defraying the expense thereof, which sum of money shall be raised by an assessment upon the inhabitants of the said County.”
            What happened in St. Andrews in 1818 was entirely typical of the time. In response to the Irish crisis, poor houses were springing up all over the Province. Between 1819 and 1824 bills were passed authorizing the creation of Poor Houses and Work Houses in Carleton County, York County, Northumberland County and Saint John County, and out of these Counties in the years following issued a steady steam of requests to the Assembly for compensation for extraordinary expenses incurred in the care of these paupers. The St. Andrews Poor House seems to date to 1823. That is the year in which there appeared a bill “to incorporate sundry persons by the name of Trustees of the Poor for the Parish of St. Andrews,” and also the year in which the actual Poor House Accounts begin.
            There were two Poor Houses. I don’t know the location of the first, but there is a notice in the St. Andrews Standard for 1847 that the building known as Old Poor House has been fitted up as an orphan asylum for children of emigrants. The Poor House accounts for the first decade are almost non-existent, but in 1838 they suddenly become quite detailed, and some of the first receipts are for an addition to the main building. The Poor House referred to here was probably the second one, the one located just behind the old golf club house at the corner of Reed Avenue and Mowatt Drive. Like most Poor Houses of the day, it was perhaps not very institutional looking—probably just a large two-storey frame house. This Poor House was also a working farm. The whole operation encompassed 42 acres--roughly the area between the old golf club house and Cedar Lane, and perhaps down somewhat farther towards the shore than the present golf links.
             It’s impossible to pronounce the word “Poor House” or “Work House” without conjuring up Dickensian images from the dark days of 19th-century London. Somehow, even to have had a Poor House at all seems slightly shameful. And certainly, if we take the Act to create our Poor House as a prophecy of future living conditions there, it prepares us for the worst. “Be it enacted,” commanded the Assembly, “that the said Commissioners to be appointed as aforesaid shall have power and authority . . . to compel such idle or poor people begging or seeking relief, as do not betake themselves to some lawful employment, or who do or shall hereafter seek and receive alms of any of the Parishes within the said County, or may stand in need of relief from any of the said Parishes, to work in the said Poor House and Work House, and to do all such work as they shall think them able and fit for, and shall have the same powers to bind out poor children apprentices as are by the laws of this province given to the Overseers of the Poor in the several Towns or Parishes; And be it further enacted that the said Commissioners . . . shall have power to make such rules, orders, and regulations for the good government and management of the said Poor House and Work House, as they shall find necessary, . . . and to inflict such correction and punishment by solitary confinement from time to time, as to them shall seem reasonable on any person or persons within the said Poor House or Work House who shall be so set to work and shall not conform to such rules, orders and regulations to be made or aforesaid, or shall misbehave in the same.”
            That was the theory, at least. I’m not saying that our own Poor House was a great place to live. Populated largely by the most destitute of society--the old, blind, widowed and sick--it must have been a dreary enough place to live and die. That said, I think that the Poor House and the care of the poor generally in the Parish of St. Andrews was perhaps a little more humane, or human, than we might assume from literary stereotypes.
            Before going any farther, I should say something about who the poor were and who paid for their support in nineteenth-century St. Andrews. The word “poor” is almost a misnomer, for the poor included not just the old and infirm of the poor house. It also included widows and widowers with their own homes and families; orphans and unwed mothers; an out-of-County railway worker injured on the job; an out-of-pocket German with the fever; a tramp just passing through; a corpse washed up on the shore. Care for these “poor” was provided both in the Poor House and also in private homes. The latter was called “Outdoor Relief” in those days. There was no clear distinction between the Poor House Poor and the Outdoor Poor. The sick German was cared for in a private home, but it could just as well have been in the Poor House. There were widows and widowers in both Poor House and on Outdoor Relief. About the only difference was where the care was supplied. As expenses, the Poor House and Outdoor Relief were roughly equal in cost.
            The poor were a Parish charge. Revenue came mainly from the rental of farmland on the Western Commons, that land on either side of Cedar Lane; and from local taxes. In the early years the proportion was about 50-50. Other sources of revenue included fines paid by deadbeat fathers, a tiny amount from the dog tax, and whatever the Poor House farm itself was able to raise by sale of crops, meat and milk. At its height--if height is the right word--the farm had a barn, half a dozen cows, a few pigs, and the aforesaid 42 acres of farmland. By 1880 farm produce had been beefed up to almost a fifth of the total poor expenses. Sales for 1879, for example, included 15 tons of hay, 5 tons of straw, 130 bushels of oats, 48 bushels of wheat, 300 bushels of potatoes, 400 bushels of turnips, 17 bushels of carrots, 6 bushels of beets and parsnips, 12 bushels of buckwheat, 460 pounds of butter, and 845 pounds of pork. Basically, whatever was left over after serving the needs of the Poor House inmates, went up for sale. In 1866 Henry O’Neill paid 110 dollars to the Farm for 1 calf, 1 hog, 1 bull, 1 heifer, and 170 bushels of turnips. Mr. O’Neill’s cheque reduced the burden on the taxpayer by the same amount. Finally, in emergencies, the Parish could petition the House of Assembly for compensation for extraordinary expenses that went over and beyond what could be raised locally.
            Were the poor well provided for in the Poor House and in the Parish of St. Andrews? This may seem like an evasive answer but it just depended. It depended on the condition of the poor, the state of the local economy, the generosity of the ratepayers, the Board of Health, the management of the Poor House operations. I think the general condition of the poor went up and down in response to these many variables. Certainly, in the early years their situation was often critical. The Irish immigrants were in terrible condition, and the taxpayers both locally and provincially were being pushed to the limit to keep up with the cost. The St. Andrews Standard for 1842 sums up the fiscal and political problems facing the Overseers of the Poor at that time:
We are informed that since the arrival of the late passenger vessels, our Poor House is nearly filled with poor emigrants, many of whom we are told, have had their passage paid by some charitable individual at home; and many of them on their landing here, had not as much money as would purchase a meal of victuals. What is to be done in such circumstances? We are told that the Parish is in debt to the full amount of the advances made for the support of the Emigrant last year. The Banks, we are told, will not make advances on the Government warrants. The Treasury Debentures will not be received in payment of duties. . . . How then are these poor people to be supported—they are chiefly women and children whose fathers and husbands have left them in search of employment, and this we fear, in the depressed state of things, is a vain pursuit. Who, we would ask will, in the present state of business, make advances for an indefinite period? It has been said that the Commissioners are obliged to support them, and the poor emigrant is told this on his arrival, and in many cases they demand it as a right; and in a majority of cases the husband leaves his family under this impression: then we would ask, what are the Commissioners to do? We know of no law to compel a public officer to advance money for public purposes. .  . .  We are told that under the late Board of Health law, they were empowered to draw, to the amount of two hundred pounds for each county in any one year, even in anticipation of their wants; but the Commissioners of the Poor House it appears, must first make the advances, render their account on oath—petition, and run the risk of having the amount refused, as was once partially the case, after laying out of it one year. Such a state of things appears to us inexplicable. Are the Commissioners or Overseers entrusted with the management of the Poor less to be trusted with the expenditure of public money, than the gentlemen composing the Board of Health?
            Almost four decades later, the condition of the poor was remarkably improved. In 1879 Editor Smith of the Standard visited the Poor House along with the Commissioners of the Poor and reported that: “The rooms were neat and clean, the house warm, and the aged men and women expressed themselves well satisfied with the attention paid them by the keeper and his wife and their rations. The house is regularly visited by the clergymen of all denominations and service is regularly held by the Rector. The stock is kept in good order, and produce of the farm carefully husbanded. The surplus produce is sold and account kept of the proceeds, which serve materially to reduce taxation for support of the poor. The number of inmates at present are six women and six men, all over 70 years of age, and a small boy. These are so infirm that they are unable to perform any kind of labor. Many of them have been residents of the house for several years. The ‘outdoor relief’ given by the Commissioners is large owing to the depressed time and lack of employment.”
            Its hard to know how much credit the Parish can take for this sea-change. The condition of the emigrants varied hugely from boat to boat. Of course by this time the immigration crisis had largely passed, and so the economy was not being strained quite so hard as it had been in the famine years. Also, the Poor House seems to have been under especially good management at this particular time. Quality of management went up and down. The keepers seem always to have been a husband and wife team. It may not have been a great job; they seem to have come and gone quite frequently. There are odd reports in the local newspaper of problems with Poor House management. At the time of the above article, Mr. Finley and his wife seemed to know what they were about. Also, the farm operations had been ramped up significantly since the early years, lessening the burden on the taxpayer. That said, all was not completely well with the Poor House.  Even under the Finleys, the Overseers report for this year notes that in spite of higher farm profits, there is still a shortfall from local assessments, and there is some thought that since the Tufts farm next door is up for sale, it might be purchased if the price is right.
            It would be interesting to know to what extent the poor were required to work on the Farm. Editor Smith’s remark indicates that it wasn’t compulsory but that the inmates did do some work. Unfortunately, there is no reference to this in the Poor House accounts. These are just a pile of receipts, but there are plenty of bills for hired help on the farm. The Poor House had no staff, per se, except the keeper and his wife. Everything was contracted out, and a regular expense involved labour on the farm--ploughing, carting, and unspecified jobs. No inmates are identified as such. Incidentally, the term “work house” is never used locally. It is always the Poor House or Alms House, usually the latter.
            No doubt anyone in the Poor House or on outdoor relief lived a meager enough life, but aside from the usual rations such as bread, meal, molasses, herring, crackers and the like, Poor House inmates as well as those on outdoor relief received a weekly allowance and money was also regularly disbursed for certain amenities such tobacco and alcohol. A steady amount—I won’t say a stream—of brandy, port wine and rum found its way to the Poor House. In one two-week period in October of 1857, seven gallons of rum were purchased from James Street by the Commissioners of the Poor. No doubt this was for medicinal purposes, but somehow it doesn’t sound quite like the kind of care the Assembly had in mind when it created the Poor House in the first place. I was also interested to see that when widow Burns decided to remove to Saint John, she had her expenses paid in full by the Commissioners of the Poor. As with paying passage for transient poor to the United States, however, there was a certain self-serving motive here. Passage out of the Parish was cheaper than support within it. The Standard might complain about Eastport shipping its paupers here, but no doubt we were equally glad to reverse the charges.
            There is a certain familiarity in the Poor House accounts which I guess is to be expected from a small operation in which people knew each other. “One coat for blind Pat,” for example, “I shirt for blind Bill.” “Cash paid Clara at sundry times.” Clara was Clarissay Richardson, an elderly black woman who along with her daughter Margaret and her daughter’s child were long-term inmates of the Poor House. Sometimes she is referred to as Clary, sometimes “black Clara.” It just depended on who was doing the accounts. Though there was a lot of anonymity in the Poor House, with short-term residents dying or passing through, there must also have been some friendships and familiarity among the keepers and their charges.
            No doubt the quality of care varied a great deal from one time to another. It seems clear, though, that the poor money was spread as widely as possible. The Poor House, for example, was used for many different, if related, purposes. It provided free room and board for transients. In 1904, for example, the St. Andrews Beacon reported that “A tramp by the name of Moran, who has started on a walking tour somewhat early in the season, struck St. Andrews on Monday, having ‘hit the sleepers’ all the way from Saint John. He put up at the Alms House for the night and being fortified with a hearty breakfast, headed for St. Stephen next morning at a pace that would have turned a Shore Line train sick with envy.”
            It did a fair bit of traffic in caring for children. As mentioned, the old Poor House was fitted up as an “orphan asylum” for the children of immigrants. There was a kind of school run in connection with the Poor House. Just why these children didn’t attend a regular school, I don’t know. Many foundlings were discovered on the Alms House door step, or made their way there from other doorsteps. In what was an all-too-common occurrence, the St. Andrews Bay Pilot for July 9, 1885 reported that “About 10 o’clock of the evening of Tuesday the 30th, a newly born female child, was left on the step outside the door of the house on Sophia street in this town occupied by Mr. Joseph Handy and Mr. Brad Boone. The infant whose parentage is unknown, was cared for during the night by Mrs. Boone, and rather than allow the little waif to be sent to the alms house, it was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dolby, whom it is to be hoped, will be amply repaid for this kind act.”
            This little individual got off lucky. Others were less fortunate. According to the Beacon for October 24, 1889: “The three able-bodied men who compose the Alms House Commission for the parish of St. Andrews are in a stew just now, and all in consequence of a little blue-eyed babe that some cold-hearted mother cast upon the tender mercies of a cruel world. The little tot was found on a door-step a few weeks ago. The Alms House Commissioners were requested to become guardians of the waif, but they made haste so slowly that the finder waxed impatient, and it was passed over to the childless pair, who expressed an anxiety to get it. The foster parents had their child christened in the Presbyterian church, and for a time were delighted with their charge. They soon tired of it however and then the child was cast upon the Commissioners. There being no nurse at the Alms House, the child was farmed out to a party in town, who were given $1.25 a week for its keeping. The Commissioners fear this modest sum is going to prove too serious a drain upon their resources, and now they advertise the child ‘for adoption.’ We hope some kind-hearted person will be found willing to become parent to this poor little foundling.”
            There was enough traffic in foundlings that what the Beacon described as a “baby farm” kept in connection with the Alms was in operation in the year 1894. It was run by a black lady, apparently out of her home. In that year a number of children wearing remarkably similar clothing were deposited upon the doorsteps of the local residents. It would seem, noted Editor Armstrong of the Beacon, “that someone has accepted the contract to keep up the infantile population of St. Andrews alms house.”
            The Alms House was sometimes a maternity ward for unwed mothers. In December of 1897 a young woman from Fredericton applied to the Alms House for admission. She had been living in Milltown with her sister, but got into trouble and concluded, the Beacon reported, “that St. Andrews would furnish a safe retreat ‘until the clouds rolled by.’ She travelled on the train as far as Watt Junction. At the Junction she told the agent that she had only 30 cents in change. He contributed sufficient to purchase a ticket to St. Andrews. On her arrival here she walked to the Alms House, and telling her story, asked to be taken in. The caretaker gave her shelter until he had consulted the Commissioners. They promptly informed the young woman that she would have to return from whence she came. She produced a roll of bills, intimating that she would pay her board if necessary. This the Commissioners would not consent to, and on Monday she returned up river.” After the child was born, she returned one night to deposit it on the doorstep, but unfortunately for her, its swaddling clothes somehow identified the mother, and she agreed to reclaim it.
            The Poor House was also used as a make-shift hospital.  There was the terrible case of George Stewart, a black farmer who lived just next door on Cedar Lane. An epileptic, he fell into his fireplace while repairing a harness and was nearly burned to death. When help arrived, reported the St. Croix Courier for May 1877, “they found Stewart lying on the fire, head close to the back of the chimney and clothes burning.  They speedily removed him and tore the burning shirt off him.  Young Dougherty went at once into town for medical aid.  Dr. Samuel T. Gove, and Dr. Harry Gove promptly repaired to the scene of the accident, and administered what remedies were necessary at the moment.  The house in which Stewart lived in was a mere hovel, presenting a scene of squalid misery, and was not a proper place in which to take care of the man.  The Doctor ordered his removal to the Poor House, on reaching which a thorough examination was made and all that could be done to alleviate the suffering of the patient was attended to.”
            Stewart died the next day.
            The Poor House was also a kind of final stopping place for those whose life, for less common reasons, had simply come to an end. There were a few cases which merited extended commentary in the Beacon. In October of 1889 Editor Armstrong wrote a lengthy article titled “A Wasted Life: England’s First Naval Engineer Dies of a Loathsome Disease in St. Andrews Poor House.”
In a pauper’s grave, in sunny Saint Andrews, the victim of one of the most loathsome diseases that flesh is heir go, rests all that is mortal of George Lane. Few of those who have waited upon this poor unfortunate in his declining years knew that his hand held the throttle of the first steam war vessel that Great Britain ever owned. . . . When Lane first came to St. Andrews, thirty-eight or forty years ago, he was one of the biggest dandies in the town. It was his boast that he had ‘twenty-two white waistcoats’ to select from. He usually appeared on the street with wide man-of-warsmen pants on, and was seldom seen without one of the white ‘waistcoats’ he was so proud of. In those days he was a railroad engineer. He had come out of Canada from England, and had driven a locomotive in Quebec before drifting down to St. Andrews.      The bane of his existence was grog. He had acquired a taste for it while in the navy, and when he got ashore his appetite for strong drink increased rather than diminished. By degrees he descended the social ladder. He drank himself out of the cab of his locomotive; he drank up his ‘superannuated allowance’; he drank his ‘twenty-two white waistcoats’ and his dandy apparel. Everything he owned went for rum. At last the day came when he had no place to lay his head. Turned out of his lodgings, he sought shelter in the cabin of an old stranded schooner that was lying at the upper part of the town. For many years he lived there an amphibious existence. Then disease fastened itself upon him, and the poor dissipated wretch had to abandon his cabin home at last and seek refuge in the Poor House. There he lived until a few days ago, when death came and ended his miseries. His exact age at the time of his death is not known, but he is believed to have been near ninety.”
            Then there was the case in 1903 of Neil Lochary. I quote:
Sick and half-famished with cold and hunger, Neil Lochary, the aged school master, dragged himself on board the CPR train at the Shore Line crossing, on Saturday. On arrival at St. Andrews he tried to walk up the street, but his strength failed him. A passing express team picked him up, and at the direction of the secretary of the Alms House board he was taken to the Alms House. A physician was sent for, but his ministrations could not recall the strength to the wasted frame. He lingered until early Monday morning when death put an end to his wanderings. The deceased was 81 years of age, and a native of Donegal, Ireland. Early in life he came to St. Andrews with his father. The latter carried on a large business here for a number of years. Neil was well educated and for years taught school. For the past twenty years he had led a wandering existence, tramping from place to place, teaching in some of the back districts for a time and then moving on to some other locality. Though the possessor of considerable property he paid little attention to his personal appearance or comfort. Last winter he was found near Piskahegan in a half-frozen state and brought to St. Andrews. A soon as he had partially recovered his strength he bade adieu to St. Andrews and resumed his trampish life. The end has now come. The deceased has a brother and sister in comfortable circumstances in St. Stephen. They would have cared for him but he would not permit them. His funeral took place on Tuesday afternoon.
            The Poor House accounts can make rather depressing reading, peppered as they are with receipts for funeral expenses—often for anonymous individuals--coffins and burial clothes, carting bodies to graves, digging graves, usually at the Roman Catholic cemetery, paying for Rectors, clerks, sextons and tolling bells. The Poor House had its own cemetery, probably nearby, though its location has been lost. I have records for eight persons buried in that ground between 1822 and 1858 and there may have been many more.
            Eventually it was time to lay the Poor House itself to rest. I don’t know exactly when this happened. I know that it was still operational in 1908, when an apparently senile inmate named Angelo set fire to a quilt with a pipe he had been smoking. I know that in 1912 the Town of St. Andrews purchased the property from the Municipality for $700 and that in 1921 it sold the entire 42 acres, minus buildings, to the St. Andrews Land Company for $15,000 as a part of a scheme to supply running water to the town. I believe that for some time at least part of the Farm land had been rented out to the Algonquin Hotel for golf links.
            By 1908 the Poor House had been renamed euphemistically the “Town Home,” suggesting that a certain stigma had become attached to it. Today, that we ever had a Poor House seems slightly shameful, and certainly, no one laments its passing. But crude instrument that it was, it had a hard row to hoe in some very troubled times, and contributed somewhat towards the more humane treatment of the poor and disadvantaged that we have today, such as special care homes, foster care, group homes, adoption programs, home support, social assistance and disability pensions. Without meaning to be ungrateful, perhaps we give the Poor House sufficient due if we recognize that it helped create conditions that led to its own demise. It’s been said that if we see farther than those who came before us, that’s because we stand on their shoulders. Perhaps we remember the Poor House best in this way.