New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

St. John’s Poorhouse and Workhouse

leave a comment »


This is a revised edition of a post issued on February 27, 2013, and is now dated September 9, 2015

Life in the Poorhouse and Workhouse at Saint John

According to the Poor Law of 1786, any idle or disorderly person could be ordered to work for whoever would hire him. There was also a system in Saint John by which citizens were paid if they agreed to take in a pauper. In retrospect, the Poor Law solution gave undue judicial powers to the overseers of the poor who were not highly qualified people. The temporary foster-family idea, on the other hand, was ad hoc and would not have been an effective solution as the city grew. Both solutions were open to abuse and looked too much like indentured labour.

Saint John was a brand new city and it is not surprising to me that ad hoc and inadequate solutions were fashioned as problems of all sorts arose. There were no poorhouses in Saint John until 1801, for example. This first poorhouse was in a renovated gristmill where the Admiral Beatty Hotel later stood and the operation was financed in part by a five shilling tax on dogs, which David Jack called “the famous Saint John dog tax”. This installation did not last for long and, in 1819, it was destroyed in a fire and was replaced by a new facility at the corner of King Street East and Carmarthen. Finally, the Saint John Almshouse and Workhouse was built in 1843 on the east side of Courtenay Bay, and the old poorhouse at King and Carmarthen was turned into an Orphan Asylum.

Almshouse St John

The Saint John Poorhouse at King and Carmarthen Streets, ca 1860

Courtesy Heritage Resources, Saint John, N.B.

So, these paragraphs arise from curiosity as to what those days were like for the inmates up to about the mid-1800s.

Saint John was an industrial city and a port. Most immigrants passed through the city and the population was greater than other centers. There were therefore many residents who were poor and unable to support themselves. There were diverse individual circumstances, and yet the legislation seemed very much concerned with how to deal with people who were lazy or drunken. The Poor Law of 1786 assumed this by assuming that jobs would always be available and that the poor should be required to take them. Lieutenant Governor Sir Archibald Campbell also reflected on this when he wrote in 1831 that New Brunswick could accept British immigrants “provided they are of the right class; persons of sober and industrious habits, accustomed to outdoor labour, or mechanics, and not as heretofore has too frequently been the case, the outcasts of the workhouse”.

The Saint John Almshouse Act was passed in 1838, only five years prior to the opening of the Almshouse and Workhouse and was based on the system in York County which had “been found … to be less expensive … and to be productive of industrious, sober and moral habits among that class of people”.

The concept of a workhouse was new to New Brunswick. The almshouse or poorhouse had been an institution for people of insufficient means. The workhouse, on the other hand, was to correct laziness and drunkenness by requiring supervised work. The work was usually in the maintenance of the institution itself, and it was expected that the rigors of the place would reduce requests for relief from the Parish, known as “outdoor relief”. The almshouse and workhouse was the only institution available, and people of all circumstances were sent there. Drunks and laggards, paupers, widows, orphans, the challenged and the mentally ill were all housed together. In the early days, it was a poorhouse, a workhouse, an orphanage, a hospital, a place of forced restraint, and a home for unwed mothers, all rolled into one.

The timing of the construction of the Almshouse and Workhouse in 1843 was extraordinary. In 1844, 2,000 refugees from the Irish potato famine arrived at Saint John; followed by 6,000 in 1845; 9,000 in 1946; and 15,000 during the summer of 1847. Saint John was a city of only about 20,000 people to start with, and public institutions and charities of all sorts were entirely overwhelmed. All of this occurred while the economy was in recession and there was no possibility that so many refugees could be absorbed into the workforce. Sick, penniless paupers dressed in rags were neither drunkards nor laggards, but the stress of the situation caused many people to group the Irish of those years with “that class of people”.

The almshouse and workhouse had a bad reputation. The habits of that class of people and rumours of bad behaviour, including an accusation against the Keeper of rape, were enough to make most Saint John residents avoid the neighbourhood. This was the atmosphere in which children grew up. If they were lucky, or if they were unlucky depending upon the circumstances, they might be apprenticed. It was just as likely that they would become a new generation of dependents having little or no education and an apprenticeship experience that was unhelpful.

Orphanages were built during the 19th century but conditions before that were bad. There were over 150 children in the almshouse and workhouse shortly after it opened. Cleaning, painting and the replacement of some windows allowed about half of them to be moved to the abandoned poorhouse on King and Carmarthen which had been called “a factory of disease”. This renovation could not have been very thorough, since it was projected to take only ten days. About ten years later, another Keeper was accused of placing children in apprenticeship without papers of indenture. How else can this be described, but that children were being given away to reduce expenses?


This blog post is only a peek behind the screen of what it must have been like in the Saint John poorhouse and in the almshouse and workhouse. The description is laced with a good deal of ‘attitude’ but I think that the facts are accurate enough.

More information can be found in an article by James M. Whalen in an insert to the September 14, 2002 edition of The Telegraph Journal which is reproduced at There is also an article written by Anthony Thomson in1996 entitled Gaols of New Brunswick. It can be found at Poor Ignorant Children: A Great Resource is an MA thesis written by Peter Douglas Murphy at St. Mary’s University in 1997. Social Welfare in New Brunswick, 1784-1900 is a paper written by James M. Whalen, and can be found at the N.B. Archives in Fredericton at


Written by johnwood1946

February 27, 2013 at 9:45 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: