Poor House Burying Ground & Grafton Park

Have you noticed the talk recently about the burying grounds that were on the old Memorial Library site, and under the paved parking lot beside St Mary’s Basilica? A strong voice in this conversation is St Mary’s University archaeology professor Dr Jonathan Fowler, who also produces compelling graphics. On the contemporary aerial photograph, below, he outlines in red, four 18th century cemeteries. The yellow line is the original town palisade and associated forts.

Fowler estimates that there could be 20,000 burials in what he describes as our necropolis, a city of the dead, once just beyond the pale (palisade).

From Poor House Burying Ground to Grafton Park

Growing up in Halifax, I understood that the Memorial Library was built on the site of the burying ground for the poor house, the institution that housed the aged and helpless poor. In my mind the 1949 library building was sited at an angle to avoid graves. Now I realize there were undoubtedly graves all over the district, and as civic historian Lou Collins noted in 1975, “over the years, the skulls and bones of some earlier citizens have, on occasion, been disinterred.” Gosh, the green lawn in front of the old library looks so boringly innocent. Also just plain boring.

This nasty burying ground was in use until the 1860s, and got described as “a standing nuisance in consequence of the want of drainage and the careless manner in which bodies of paupers were interred.” In 1835 a “substantial wall” was built to conceal and contain this annoyance, and apparently did a good job. (Wall is on the left in this 1840 drawing, looking down Spring Garden Road, with an early iteration of St Mary’s Basilica in the centre.)

Alexander Cavalié Mercer, 1840. Collection of the Library and Archives of Canada.

By 1872 there were plans to put a handsome railing around the site and turn it into a park, but some folks balked at walking on graves. Time cures, and by the 1880s the now crumbling stone wall was replaced with a neat post and chain fence and “in summer hundreds of citizens came daily to Grafton Park to escape the heat by sitting on the benches among the shady trees.” I didn’t know this plot of urban greenery had a name. Did you?

This is the same view as above c1925, with a brass band marching past tree-rich Grafton Park. The little decorated building is a fire station in the Brunswick Street corner of the park. Constructing institutional buildings in public parks has a long, and enduring, heritage in Halifax.

Public Archives of NS, Tom Connors Collection, 1987-218 no 640.1

And here is that same view today.

Google street view

Another surprise for me, was to learn from this early 20th century photo that the diagonal path we all take, in front of the old library, is actually an artifact of Grafton Park. Perhaps the siting of the library was really people saying, “build in the park if you must, but don’t mess with our shortcut to the downtown.”

Halifax Municipal Archives

In the classic period of Bud the Spud’s chip truck, there was always a long line of customers at lunch time. The low stone wall provided seating on three sides of the park, with the option of sun or leafy shade. An urban planner’s dream of place making.

c 1989, Halifax Municipal Archives, CR40-23-6

So what do I think. 

  • The community should start planning a respectful way to commemorate those who are and were, buried under Grafton Park. My first thought is not a monument, but maybe some form of urban ritual, like an annual evening when we gather to sing lullabies, to provide comfort to the spirits of the necropolis. You get the idea.
  • Please, governments, when you know the future, plan for it. How many years did it take to plan and build the new library. A whole bunch of years. Why was there not a plan for the old building, ready to be executed a month after the move. Five years later and still nothing happening. What a failure.
  • Jonathan Fowler is lobbying to have an archaeology management plan for the city, to take some of the uncertainty out of new development projects. It would also seem that archaeology could be happening around the old library building any time. Let’s start the work now. We know it is not going to stay there empty forever. Don’t we?
  • What a joy to discover this bit of land had a post burying ground name. Lets start calling it Grafton Park and give it an identity.


  • In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, there is a very respectful, and moving, commemoration of a community and their burying ground that had been forgotten and then discovered. I wrote about it in a post several years ago.

  • St David’s on Grafton Street hired archaeologists to excavate remnants of the Methodist Cemetery that occupied their site. Remains from over 200 individuals have now been re-interred in the church crypt. Also the new apartment building on their site is called the Grafton Park. How did they know that name, and I didn’t?
  • In the 1970s I noticed this 18th-century gravestone fragment set in the asphalt of the parking lot beside St Mary’s Basilica. This masterpiece shows Adam and Eve, already in diapers, accepting the apple from the serpent. The Catholic cemetery stopped being used in 1843 and this was the last visible stone. I bet $24.50 that there are more stones under the paving.



My museum colleague Deborah Trask arranged to have this very heavy block of stone excavated out of the asphalt by archaeology students from St Mary’s University. It is now in the Nova Scotia Museum collection.

  • As old cities developed, pauper’s burying grounds (potter’s fields) were sometimes the only land that could be used for downtown parks. Washington Square and Bryant Park in New York are both examples.
  • And talking about the future, I’ll have a hard time saying nice things about plans to move the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, until we know what will happen to their present building.
  • A few years ago I noticed the knobs at the front of St David’s are good friends to the phallic notice board (colonne Morris) in Grafton Park.

About the author

Stephen Archibald

It’s Stephen Archibald doing the noticing. I’m a huge fan of Nova Scotia’s material culture and cultural landscapes. Twitter (@Cove17 ) made me realize I could share what attracted my attention (perfect for my very short attention) and I’m gratified when folks enjoy my content. Pleased to meet you on the internet.