The concept of the Victorian workhouse – the Poors’ Asylum or Poor House, as it was called in Halifax – has passed entirely from our collective memory and is now conjured up chiefly by Charles Dickens’ vivid recreations of life behind the workhouse walls. In Halifax, 31 people died on the night of 6 November 1882, when the Poor House burnt to a shell; more lives were lost in that blaze than in any other fire in the city’s history. The fire, which started accidentally in the kitchen area of the building, was discovered about 11:30 p.m. It spread quickly through the ceiling to the walls and the elevator, and then from the elevator shaft to the rest of the massive fortress-like structure. Unfortunately the watchman, fireman and nurses were of little assistance, since they were all inmates who were paid a couple of dollars a month to perform their duties; but because they had been incarcerated mainly for drunkenness, they were scarcely reliable – least of all that evening. Many of the 343 inmates were hysterical when the city firemen arrived. When the main door was felled with a fireman’s ax, pandemonium erupted. A crowd of inmates streamed outdoors – mothers nursing infants, some fifty to sixty children, elderly women and feeble old men – some partially clothed, others wrapped in blankets and still others naked. Police, firemen, clergy, reporters and spectators rushed into the building to assist or to carry the blind, lame and crippled to safety. Suddenly the building erupted into a raging inferno, with forty or fifty patients still trapped in the infirmary on the fifth floor. The Citizen and Evening Chronicle for 7 November described the gruesome scene: “Far above the roar of flames and crack of bursting slates were heard the cries of the wretched patients in the hospital, who were roasting to death. Most of them...were helpless, [and] could not leave their beds....”
Date: January 1884
Reference: Nova Scotia Archives Photo Drawer - Places - Halifax - Buildings - Poor House / neg. no.: N-0877
Nova Scotia Archives — https://archives.novascotia.ca/halifax/archives/
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