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Saint John, New Brunswick
Harbour, City of Saint John, New Brunswick

Last resort for the poor: The Saint John Almshouse, 1843-1900
In the 19th century, the poorest of N.B.'s poor were put to work,
housed in the meanest of institutions – the Almshouse


Saint John Almshouse 1843-1900

Photo courtesy of Harold E. Wright, Heritage Resources
This photograph of the Municipal Home was taken late in its history, in 1937.
Today, the site of the original poorhouse is marked by a plaque, below.

By James M Whalen

    "I think it is my duty toward -God and man to make known to you the rascality and bad conduct that is carried on in the said Almshouse. Ever since the rascal got charge of it as Keeper - it is not the first, second or third occasion of the same kind that he has done before this."

   In 1846, Thomas Payton, husband of Ann Payton - an almshouse inmate - alleged that William Craig, the Keeper of the Saint John County Almshouse, raped her and that she bore his child. Although Craig was found not guilty, the unscrupulous behavior of managers as well as inmates was problematic in poorhouses and one of the reasons why society scorned them.
   The large four-storey brick structure where the above offences were alleged to have occurred was the Saint John City and County Almshouse and Workhouse. Built in 1843 on the east side of Courtenay Bay, the institution was constructed at an initial cost of 3,330 pounds Sterling. Due to the inferior quality of the workmanship, an additional 1,170 pounds had to be spent on it over the next two years.
   While all types of poor people were given shelter in almshouses, the purpose of the workhouse was very particular. As Bill Wister, in Poor Law Legislation in New Brunswick, put it:
   "The Work Houses were seen as a method of controlling the outdoor relief [welfare] and providing a deterrent to those wanting relief from the parish. Also the Work House was seen as a response to the idle and drunk."
   The concept of a workhouse was new to Saint John, but not an almshouse. Actually, New Brunswick's first poorhouse - not alms or work house- was established in 1801 in a renovated gristmill located on the site where the Admiral Beatty Hotel stands today. Oddly enough, some of the funds used to support the city's poor then came from a dog tax. In 1819, fire destroyed the poorhouse and, afterwards, a new one was built at the corner of Carmarthen and King Street east.
   It was an anomaly that these institutions were provided for by Saint John's Royal Charter; most of New Brunswick's almshouses came about by provincial statute.
   The story of an almshouse and workhouse to serve both the urban and rural areas of Saint John County began in the 1830s. Since the City of Saint John was New Brunswick's major port and industrial centre, it had a disproportionate number of paupers, and civic officials were concerned about the high poor rates.
   After investigation, Saint John modelled its Almshouse Act of 1838 on a York County statute passed 16 years earlier. The new legislation praised the York system that "has been found by experience to be less expensive than the general system pursued throughout the Province and to be productive of industrious, sober and moral habits among that class of people."
   Before the Almshouse and Workhouse opened in the Parish of Simonds, poor relief in Saint John County was completely decentralized. Overseers of the poor were responsible for resident paupers and under the Poor Law of 1786 they could order "any idle or disorderly person or persons who have no means of support and who are likely to become chargeable to the Town or Parish where they reside, to labour for any substantial person who may be willing to employ him or them."
   For indigents unable to exist on welfare payments - then called "outdoor relief' - overseers made annual contracts with persons in the community and gave them an allowance to take paupers into their home at the least expense to the parish, although they were not adequately protected against abuse. With the new Almshouse and. Workhouse, the "farming out" of the keep of paupers ended in Saint John County, but this questionable practice continued in some parts of New Brunswick well into the twentieth century.
   The employment of the able-bodied poor was a primary concern of the Board of Almshouse Commissioners. They delegated most of their responsibilities to the Keeper and Matron - most often husband and wife. Inmate labour was intended to pay for the institution's upkeep and foster good work habits, but sometimes the farm was mismanaged, and not much work was done. The only inmates excused from work were those whom the physician judged incapable, although some could only do light work.
   Usually, the Matron supervised the cleaning of rooms, the laundry, the making and mending of clothes, preparing meals and cleaning up afterwards. The Keeper oversaw the planting and harvesting of vegetables and field crops and care of the livestock. Moreover, the inmates made minor repairs to buildings and handled the fuel supply. They also performed the grim tasks at the Dead House - making coffins, shrouds and interring unclaimed bodies of almshouse inmates and others. For example, in 1871, they attended to five corpses: three from the wreck of the Sarah Sloan, one sent from the hospital and one from the coroner.
   There were always a number of children in the Saint John almshouse, including some illegitimates and "mentally defectives." The more alert and healthy children were often apprenticed - females to the age of eighteen and males to age twenty-one. An entry in the Almshouse Register for 1843, for example, shows that Terrance McIntyre, aged 10, "was bound to Elisha Fowler of Norton, Kings County. When of age to get two common suits, one holiday suit and a yoke of two-year old steers."
   Most school-aged children were taught in the almshouse but, at times, the educational standards were not very high. The year 1852, however, was most unusual because no instruction was available at all. The Quarter Sessions - the forerunner of County Council - condemned this deficiency: "the neglect of this matter must tend to throw the unfortunate recipients of charity when they arrive at maturity upon the world to form a new generation of vagrants."
   Visiting physicians to the almshouse observed that the diet was often inadequate. For example, in 1871, Dr. William Bayard said, "the food of the pauper is too often reduced to the lowest standard capable of sustaining life. "
   Four years earlier, Dr. John Baxter remarked that the diet "is too vegetable and cannot support life much less restore debilitated nature." Good food was available, such as cereals, potatoes and other vegetables - especially in season - soups and stews, salt pork and beef, dried cod fish, baked beans, bread, biscuits, tea, coffee and milk. Nonetheless, inmates were sometimes malnourished, especially when managers skimped on food or served spoiled foodstuffs to save money.
   Regular meals were denied for theft and disorderly conduct and occasionally, the prison-like punishment was solitary confinement for up to a week on bread and water.
   From 1870 to 1879, for example, there was a daily average of about 200 in the almshouse. In part, the movement of paupers in and out of the institution may be explained as follows: by law, vagrants were sent there for up to three months only; it was a temporary refuge for some homeless and unemployed; some children housed there were apprenticed, and some inmates died. In fact, the death rate was about forty annually mainly due to the number of elderly. By contrast, well over a dozen infants faced life each year with the stigma of being born in an almshouse.
   The almshouses of New Brunswick in the nineteenth century were a "dumping ground" for men, women and children of all ages and conditions. Although the indiscriminate mixing of paupers periodically came under attack, the general mixed almshouse existed well into the twentieth century.
   In 1929, a New Brunswick Welfare Survey observed, "In many cases aged men and women; the feebleminded; the senile; crippled and incurable; unmarried mothers; dependent females; children and infants were all found in the same home, The food of the pauper is too often reduced to the lowest standard capable of sustaining life. DR. WILLIAM BAYARD, 1871 separated only by one broad classification of sex."
   The housing of parish paupers and diseased emigrants at the Saint John almshouse had dreadful consequences, especially during epidemics. At the time of the potato famine, there was an outbreak of contagious diseases, particularly typhus, and a mass exodus took place from Ireland. Monica Robertson states in Johnson's work on the "The St. John County Alms and Work House Records" the huge numbers the city faced:
   "During the years 1845 to 1847, a total of over 30,000 Irish emigrants ... disembarked at the Port of Saint John. It was an overwhelming number when compared to the total population of the City of Saint John, which in 1841 was less than 20,000."
   Although the majority of able-bodied poor went to the United States, it seems the most destitute and debilitated of the newcomers, including some with typhus fever, remained in or near the city.
   At first, they were cared for in the former city poorhouse, then an infirmary, and in sheds in the city's south end. Due to the large number with fever; an emigrant hospital was erected near the Almshouse. Emigrants were housed there, also in another nearby building and in some partially finished sheds; all soon filled to overflowing.
   Ms. Robertson goes on to say that "Five to six hundred emigrants were patients in this hospital on a daily basis in September of 1847, and at peak periods during that year the number rose to almost 700."
   Although the circumstances were extraordinary, the mortality rate was evidence of the folly of housing fever patients in close proximity to healthy parish paupers. From March 1847 to March 1848, the minutes of the Quarter Sessions record a total of 686 deaths at the almshouse compound, consisting of 560 emigrants and 126 paupers. Much to the dismay of local officials, those who survived the ordeal often became a permanent charge on the county poor rates.
   1854 was another horrific year because Saint John faced its most serious outbreak of cholera ever. Historian Geoffrey Bilson concluded that during the epidemic: "at least 1,000 people died and contemporaries estimated that 1,500 of the city's 30,000 residents were killed."
   The scourge was so dangerous, businesses practically closed down and a number of terrified residents fled to the countryside. The disease affected all citizens, but it was the poor who suffered the most. Similar to 1847, a contagious disease once again broke out in the almshouse and put the health of the county's paupers at risk. Although the number of deaths is unknown, George E. Fenety, a nineteenth century journalist, wrote: "in twelve days there were forty-eight cases of cholera in this institution and twenty- six deaths."
   Due to the large number of children at the almshouse and in various parts of the city who had lost one or both of their parents, two orphan asylums - one Protestant and the other Roman Catholic - were founded. In addition, the city's water supply was improved.
   Moreover, the Saint John Board of Health pressured for better sanitation and for the establishment of a public hospital - although one was not built until 1865:
   "It must be confessed that our almshouse, the conjoined and condensed charity for the sick and wounded, and for the pauperized of both sexes and all ages, is an incompatible combination of Hospital and Poor House, and does not comport with the progress of philanthropy or the improvement of the age."
   The income for the Saint John almshouse came from assessments for poor relief, support payments, the labour of inmates and the sale of produce. The main expenditures were for provisions and supplies, salaries, the institution's upkeep, new buildings, outdoor relief, farm operations and court costs.
   Periodically, the almshouse management was criticized for personal misconduct and for the high costs of running the institution, As previously mentioned, the first Keeper, William Craig, was found not guilty of rape but, in 1848, the Quarter Sessions censored him for assisting inmates with childbirth although he was unqualified as a mid-wife. The next year, Craig was dismissed and shortly thereafter he deserted his wife and family and went to Australia.
   About 10 years. later, the Quarter Sessions were confronted with accusations against the Keeper, William Cunningham, for buying supplies at inflated prices and apprenticing children without proper indenture. These charges were dropped, however, and Cunningham went on to serve as Keeper for more than 30 years. But, complaints of this sort drew unwanted attention to a place that already had an unsavoury reputation.
   In 1883, the Board of Almshouse Commissioners faced more turmoil when an auditor found a deficit of more than $7,000 in the institution's accounts. Although the entire Board was suspected of irregularities, David Tapley, chairman and a member for more than 15 years, was blamed because he alone handled the almshouse accounts.
   According to County Council, Tapely naively said, "I cannot account for it in any way ... for the last 10 years I have felt something was wrong but I could not tell."
   Nonetheless, the Council refused to authorize further assessments for poor relief until the Board resigned. In 1885, James Manchester was appointed chair of a new board. Meanwhile, Tapley agreed to pay $2,000 "out of his own pocket" to the County Treasurer and all charges against him were withdrawn.
   Henceforth, the accounting practices were overhauled so that the County Treasurer, who collected monies for the poor, deposited it to the credit of the entire Board and any withdrawals had to be approved by at least three members.
   While the Saint John almshouse provided food, shelter and protection to dependent persons, little thought was given to their rehabilitation. It is doubtful that the moral character of inmates improved during their institutionalization and with indigents there of all ages and conditions, it was especially unsuitable for children.
   However, it was beneficial to some inmates because they were supervised, disciplined and, to a degree, employed in the workhouse.
   Besides the almshouse and workhouse, Saint John built more social welfare institutions in the nineteenth century than anywhere else in the province. These included orphanages, reformatories, old age homes and a mental asylum - the first in British North America. Some of these institutions accepted indigents from all over the province, but the people of Saint John benefited the most.
   Nonetheless, the burden of supporting the poor of Saint John City and County was borne most heavily locally. The provincial government took virtually no responsibility for the poor although it gave general relief in times of fires and other disasters and gave grants to some welfare institutions. This assistance, supplemented by private welfare schemes, helped relieve the almshouse of a number of paupers, but it was not enough to prevent it from being a sanctuary for all types of poor well into the twentieth century.

Writer James M. Whalen lives in Fredericton.

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