Tough Times For Poor In The Dirty Thirties 

Columnist, Claude MacIntosh
Tough Times For Poor In The Dirty Thirties 

A sorrowful tale of hungry families and inhumane Victorian London style living conditions fell on deaf ears on Feb. 20, 1938 when a group representing desperate residents begged Cornwall Township council for more help to feed and cloth their families.

The delegation said welfare payments were so small that those forced onto the tightfisted system, because jobs were next to impossible to find, were subject to “slow starvation.”

The township’s welfare system was called “hopelessly inadequate.” The township, it was noted, had the lowest welfare assistance in the province. These were the day when municipalities funded social assistance through property taxes and those in need were at the bottom of the pecking order.

Councillors were told that many families could not send their children to school because they lacked proper clothing and footwear, especially in the winter.

One man told of trying to feed himself on 25 cents a week. “Some people,” he said, “spend more on feeding their cat.”

Another said he found a week’s worth of work but couldn’t afford proper winter clothing for the outdoor job of cutting wood.

The small quantity of wood supplied by the township for home heating was described as being of poor quality.

“It was,” said one member of the group, “the limit of human endurance.”

This was life for many during the Great Depression, often referred to as the Dirty Thirties, when the social safety net was thread bare and destitute families were on their own. There was a stark divide between the well-to-do and the impoverished.

The group asked for $2 a month more, a special allowance of one quart of milk for every three persons in a family and a $1 a month clothing allowance per family.

The township welfare officer, who conducted business from his east Cornwall home, was called “cruel and harsh” in dealing with destitute citizens who went to him with cap-in-hand, begging for assistance.

Councillors were unshaken and gave the requests the proverbial bum’s rush.

The residents were told that property taxes would have to be increased to improve social assistance (called relief in the day).

“It (extra assistance) will be coming out of your neighbour’s pocket,” he group was told. “That is not fair (to the neighbour).”

One of the problems with the system, administered by the township, was a rule that if the breadwinner found a month’s worth of work, he would not be eligible for welfare assistance for another month.

“You should save enough to get yourself through the next month (of no income),” said the reeve.

THIS MONTH IN 1938 – The abandoned city dump on St. Andrew’s Road (Pitt Street) was sold to Ed Robideaux for $100. He was the highest of eight bidders. … Meanwhile folks living within a whiff of the new municipal dump on the south side of the canal at the foot of Augustus Street (now Lamoureux Park) complained about the odour. An investigation found that the stench was worst when the dump caretaker was burning garbage. The solution: He was ordered to stop burning garbage. … Downtown churches complained that panhandlers were annoying Sunday churchgoers going to and coming from church services. They asked that a constable be assigned to the area during worship hours to arrest panhandlers “bothering” worshippers. … A. J. Garvick of Ottawa submitted the lowest bid – $224,000 – to build Cornwall armoury on Fourth Street East. … The annual United Counties Jail report showed that the facility – it had 22 cells – held a total of 347 prisoners during the year with 12 of them females. It noted that while a concrete floor was being placed in the jail, prisoners were fed meat and potatoes twice a day instead of once a day. Another line in the report said 51 of the prisoners could not read or write.

HOUSE KEEPING ITEMS   Belated birthday wishes for retired Cornwall Transit driver Les Foulds who turned 104 earlier this month and stills cares for himself. … Reader John McCosham thinks the old Bob Turner Memorial Centre concrete pad would make for a great outdoor artificial ice surface. … Pity backpedalling wasn’t an Olympic sport. Federal environment minister Steve Guilbeault would be a gold medal contender after quickly backtracking his call for a stop to federal funding of new roads in the country. Now says he was misunderstood. Of course. … According to the CRA, a $1 billion worth of income tax refund cheques have gone unclaimed.

LIFE AND TIMES To say Standard-Freeholder photographer Marcel Quenneville was a legend would not be a stretch. He was, in some ways, the face of the newspaper. He was known to everybody and anybody.

Except when it came to a young intern who showed up the day after Marcel retired with much fanfare.

Marcel was a pretty good golfer – a four handicapper – and played with the seniors (aka senators) group at Cornwall Golf and Country Club.

Dr. George McGowan called in the results of the group’s Monday play every Tuesday morning, 10 o’clock sharp. On this day the young intern, her first day on the job, was given the task of taking the names and scores and passing them along to the sports department, c’est moi.

When he gave Marcel’s name and score, the young intern asked him to repeat the name. She was from British Columbia and had never seen or heard the name. Then, stumped, asked him to spell Quenneville. Not once, but twice.

McGowan called me.

“Wow,” he laughed. “The guy works there for 45 years, isn’t gone one day and he’s already forgotten.”

TRIVIA In 1873 Thomas Murphy was the first to open this business in Cornwall: 1) Blacksmith, 2) Harness maker, 3) Taxi service, 4) Brewery, 5) Real estate office.

TRIVIA ANSWER Joyce Randolph who played Trixie Norton was the last surviving member of The Honeymooners cast. She died in January at age 99. Jackie Gleeson (Ralph Kramden) died in 1987 at 71, Audrey Meadows (Alice Kramden) died in 1993 at 73 and Art Carney (Ed Norton) died in 2003 at age 85.

QUOTED “One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce and canonized those who complain.” – Dr. Thomas Sowell

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