Nova Scotia Archives

'An East Coast Port': Halifax in Wartime, 1939-1945

Jay White earned a doctorate in Canadian History from McMaster University in 1994. He is currently (2009) on staff with the Department of Continuing Studies at Royal Military College, Kingston, ON. The following article has been guest-authored for 'East Coast Port' and is based on James F.E. White, 'The Ajax Affair: Citizens and Sailors in Wartime Halifax, 1939-1945' (M.A. thesis, Dalhousie University, 1984); 120 pp. For those interested in exploring the subject further, Dr. White's thesis is available onsite in the Nova Scotia Archives Library, D810 C36 C212 W585.

Wherever possible in the text below, discussion of specific individuals, buildings and locations, activities and events has been linked directly to corresponding photographs or digitized print material featured elsewhere on this Website.

Untimely Demise: The Curious Case of The Ajax Club

Of the half-million Canadians who passed through Halifax during the Second World War, no one was more colourful — or more controversial — than Janet Evelyn McEuen.

Founder of two charitable organizations devoted to providing entertainment for British sailors, McEuen worked tirelessly for her boys. But in early 1942, she became the central figure in a bitter dispute that divided the community, embroiled the federal government and the Royal Canadian Navy, and made headlines across the country.

A flamboyant and strong-willed Scotswoman, "Dolly" McEuen arrived in Halifax from Montreal with her naval officer husband in the fall of 1939. From a suite of rooms in the elegant Lord Nelson Hotel, Dolly directed a one-woman war effort. Like a well-oiled battle tank, however, she was unable to achieve her goals without inflicting some damage along the way.

It was obvious at the outset that McEuen was not accustomed to taking orders from anyone. She worked for a short while at the North End Services Canteen, but making sandwiches just wasn't her style. Dolly assembled a team of local women around her and set out to provide a new brand of entertainment for the serviceman in wartime Halifax.

After registering with the federal government in the spring of 1940 as the "Interallied Hospitality and Food Fund," an official war charity, she experimented with organizing picnics and excursions to the countryside. Encouraged by British naval authorities, she decided to establish a base of operations somewhere in the city.

This was no simple task. Due to war conditions, Halifax was suffering from an acute shortage of both housing and office space. The situation was so bad that the Royal Navy moored ships in the harbour to accommodate crews on layovers. Huge Royal Navy warships and Armed Merchant Cruisers (passenger liners converted for escorting convoys) spilled hundreds of off-duty sailors onto Halifax streets in 1940 and 1941, and that is where they stayed, because neighborhood "pubs," a familiar sight in England, had no counterpart in Nova Scotia. The taverns of 19th century Halifax had been swept away years before on a tide of civic reform and temperance.

None of this deterred McEuen. She saw the demand for a recreational facility with a club-like atmosphere that ordinary seamen could call their own. She decided that such an establishment required a bar where a glass of "beer in decent surroundings" could be enjoyed by Jack Tar and his mates.

Two extraordinary developments made her dream a reality: first, she managed to secure a lease on a venerable 25-room mansion close to the waterfront. The Odell house had been occupied up until the late 1930s, but now sat empty.

Second, she sold the idea of a private club for sailors to provincial liquor control authorities. This was a major coup, because the government was under intense pressure from temperance organizations to cancel licences, not grant them. From the office of Premier A. S. MacMillan on down, there were many ardent teetotalers in Halifax.

When MacMillan heard about the Ajax Club in the fall of 1940, he urged his friend Angus L. Macdonald, the federal minister for naval services, to discourage the British High Commissioner to Canada, Sir Gerald Campbell, from presiding at the Ajax Club's opening ceremonies. Sir Gerald brushed aside the suggestion, but the Liquor Commission requested that McEuen keep quiet about the beer licence. After all, there was a church — Fort Massey United — located right across the street from the club.

Mindful of this sentiment, Dolly McEuen reassured provincial officials and secured the blessing of the church. Royal Navy authorities also knew what was at stake: a naval memorandum issued just before the club opened warned personnel to be on their best behavior because the new facility would be closely watched.

Widespread acceptance of alcoholic beverages today makes such concerns seem trivial, but at the time, it was a hotly debated issue. Only a decade had passed since the repeal of prohibition in Nova Scotia, and temperance forces saw an opportunity when the war started to revive the argument that liquor consumption undermined the efficiency of the fighting man.

That was how national prohibition had originally been implemented during the First World War — as an emergency measure in aid of the war effort. But prohibition did not work in peacetime; and by the late 1920s, nearly all the provinces had passed legislation to regulate the "liquor traffic."

The regulations in Nova Scotia were stringent and, by today's standards, bizarre. For example, purchases from the government store had to be transported directly home. Once there, the buyer could not legally offer a drink to anyone else, not even a spouse.

Only members of private clubs were allowed to consume alcohol outside of their own homes. An elegant south end private home was turned into a social club for naval officers, but there was no equivalent facility outside of barracks for ordinary seamen. The rank and file on British and Canadian warships had easier access to rum on board ship — thanks to their daily "tot" — than on dry land. Because non-commissioned service personnel were not eligible to join civilian clubs, sailors often resorted to drinking in public. When the liquor stores were closed they bought "hooch" from one of many bootleg dives or "blind pigs."

As McEuen and her allies saw it, the crux of the problem was not really the availability of booze, or lack thereof, but the absence of adequate recreational facilities for thousands of off-duty servicemen. Several national organizations, including the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Knights of Columbus, operated hostels and canteens for the troops, just as they had done during the First World War. But the overcrowded facilities tended to be impersonal places for the man in uniform. Despite the hospitable atmosphere, servicemen never forgot that they were merely transients whose presence in the city was temporary.

Mrs. McEuen adopted a different philosophy; she reasoned that men on active service deserved the same privileges that were enjoyed by civilians. Indeed, she felt that they were entitled to special treatment, in view of the hazards they faced and the ultimate sacrifice they sometimes made. This compelling message garnered McEuen considerable material and moral support in Halifax and across the country. Both corporations and individuals responded to the appeals of the Interallied Hospitality and Food Fund.

After months of extensive renovations, the stately Odell mansion on Tobin Street opened in late 1940 as the "Ajax Club" — named for the eponymous British cruiser that had helped track down the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in late 1939. Everything was donated, from the linoleum on the floor to the library's 2,000 books. The club boasted two games rooms, two dining rooms, smoking lounges and of course, a handsome, brass-railed bar.

The club's first unofficial function was a reception for survivors of the ill-fated HMS Jervis Bay, which met a disastrous end while escorting a convoy in November 1940. Just 65 sailors out of a crew of nearly 300 were plucked from the icy North Atlantic and brought back to Halifax. A striking photograph shows Mrs. McEuen and others raising a toast to the Swedish captain who rescued them.

Such heart-rending tales of ships and shipmates lost became common currency at the Ajax Club, but there was a lighter side as well. In the summer of 1941, for example, hundreds of club patrons were entertained with outdoor cookouts in the spacious garden behind the mansion. These gatherings attracted prostitutes who plied their trade along the street at the rear of the property. Some were brazen enough to hop over the low wall and join the throng of potential clients.

Determined to defend the club's honour, Dolly dashed off an emergency plea to a national supplier of fencing. A few weeks later, a cordon sanitaire of barbed wire could be seen strung along the garden wall!

Dolly McEuen obviously ran a tight ship. Royal Navy work parties from ships in port assisted in repairs and maintenance. The club's station wagon — a gift from Oland's brewery —ferried sailors into the countryside on weekend excursions. The station wagon also returned empties to the bottle exchange — the proceeds paying day-to-day operating expenses.

Consumption of "spirits" (i.e. hard liquor) on the premises was strictly forbidden and the Navy's Shore Patrol was usually present to enforce the house rules. But sailors could belly up to the brass-railed bar for draught or bottled beer at 10 cents a glass, and a home-style meal cost just 25 cents. For RN seamen paid at the daily rate of about $1, these prices were a godsend.

There were more than 60 volunteers in the Ajax organization — only the two cooks received salaries — and most were civilian women living in Halifax. For more than a year, the Ajax Club welcomed naval ratings and petty officers of all Allied navies, and monthly attendance was estimated to be 10,000 to 15,000. Obviously it was very popular with the sailors. For years after the war, Mrs. McEuen continued to receive cards and letters from all over the world — the product of friendships forged at the dub. Suddenly, in early 1942, the whole magnificent enterprise fell apart. At issue was the Ajax Club's bar. The liquor control commission declined to renew the club's beer licence — ostensibly because Fort Massey Church across the street objected to the close proximity of a "beer parlour."

Ajax supporters responded that church members should not have attempted to impose their moral standards on a wartime transient population. They insisted that the club actually encouraged moderation by rationing beer — patrons were limited to five bottles per night — and kept sailors off the streets and away from unscrupulous bootleggers.

The church maintained that it was not so much what went on at the club, but rather the uncomfortably close location. Some church members alleged that they had been accosted by inebriated Ajax Club patrons. One Halifax newspaper hinted darkly that McEuen was the victim of a personal vendetta, although no clear evidence of this ever surfaced. This much, at least, is known: archival documents in Nova Scotia Archives show that the decision to protest the renewal of the Ajax Club's beer license was made by Fort Massey's Kirk Session at a meeting on January 2, 1942.

One church elder, Arthur S. Barnstead, was deputy provincial secretary; another was a director of the Bank of Nova Scotia, and a third, Dr. A. E. Kerr, was a prominent Halifax cleric and staunch temperance advocate. Kerr later became president of Dalhousie University. Although their opposition was never made public, the Fort Massey elders wielded considerable power and influence within the community. The club's fate was sealed.

Dolly McEuen remained undaunted. In a dramatic gesture that shocked her detractors and delighted her friends, Dolly climbed onto the Ajax Club bar to announce that she would "take up the cudgels" on the sailors' behalf.

Before long, all of Canada had heard about the "battle of the Ajax Club." Newspapers across the country reported the story; so did Time and Maclean's magazines. J.V. McAree devoted a column to it in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and Hugh MacLennan, commenting from Montreal, called it a "tempest in a beer mug." A pro-Ajax petition was circulated on the trains running between Nova Scotia and Quebec, gathering more than 30,000 signatures. So many anonymous and inflammatory letters were written to Halifax newspapers that one — the Chronicle — declined to print them.

To some, Dolly McEuen was guilty of corrupting innocent youth and interfering in church affairs. From Ottawa, Angus L. Macdonald chided: "You are endeavoring to force your views down the throats of many people in Halifax."

Outside of Halifax, the Club's closure was portrayed as a violation of the rights of servicemen and a victory for narrow-minded parochialism. The Montreal Gazette commented that the "war has made Halifax a major Canadian centre… [and] Halifax should, therefore, heed the views of other Canadians, few of whom share the Haligonian attitude toward liquor refreshment."

As a result of the negative publicity, Halifax acquired a national reputation for being indifferent to the needs of servicemen. This was unfair, because hundreds of Haligonians volunteered selflessly in numerous organizations very similar to the Ajax Club. Many sympathized with McEuen's aims and methods. Dissension over the club ran so deep that some of Fort Massey's own congregation left the church in protest over the action of their elders. It seems that several church members volunteered at the Ajax Club.

The debate dragged on for weeks but the outcome was never in doubt. McEuen offered to purchase the Odell mansion outright for $16,000 and donate it to the federal government for use as a club for the Royal Canadian Navy, but the offer was turned down. On May 1, 1942 the Royal Norwegian Government purchased the Ajax property from Mrs. McEuen. For the balance of the war it served as a hostel for Norwegian sailors.

McEuen went on to establish Ajax Hospitality Headquarters, a registered war charity that enjoyed even greater success than her beloved Club — but she was told to restrict her activities to the Royal Navy. Ajax Hospitality created a network of private homes outside Halifax that provided rest and recuperation for British seamen, particularly "DEMS" (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) personnel. There was enough money in the charity's coffers at the end of the war to create a scholarship fund for veterans at McGill University.

By 1942, the federal government had delegated the responsibility for providing recreation outside barracks for Canadian naval personnel to the Navy League. It was decided that this national organization would fill the gap left by the suspended operations of the Ajax Club. The Navy League also ran the Allied Merchant Seamen's Club on Hollis Street, a much-needed social club and hostel also opened in 1942.

The official solution to the temperance debate was diplomatic, if somewhat impractical: two canteens — one "wet" (serving beer), and one "dry" (i.e. serving non-alcoholic beverages) — were built a stone's throw apart on the old Wanderers Amateur Athletic Club grounds. The location was ideally distant from any churches or residences, but a considerable hike from the waterfront and the naval barracks. It did not go unnoticed, when the dual facilities were inaugurated in August 1942, that the dry canteen had the appearance of "an exclusive men's club," whereas the wet canteen looked like … well, a wet canteen.

The battle of the Ajax Club was one of those unfortunate episodes where the bystanders — in this case Allied servicemen — suffered more than the combatants. Sailors were understandably outraged that their Ajax Club could be scuttled so easily.

Resentment smoldered until May 1945, when jubilation in Halifax over the end of the war in Europe escalated into an orgy of drunkenness, looting and vandalism. Ironically, while businesses downtown were being ransacked by a besotted mob, the wet canteen on the Wanderers Grounds served beer to hundreds of RCN sailors without incident!

If anything, the debacle on V-E Day — a blot on service-civilian relations that Halifax would rather forget — signified the triumph of intemperance and intransigence. Had more tolerant heads prevailed in 1942, and the Ajax Club been allowed to continue serving the sailors who appreciated it so much, the celebration of peace in Halifax in May 1945 might actually have been peaceful.


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