Nova Scotia Archives

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

William D. (Bill) Naftel is a long-time resident of Halifax and the author of two recent books focussing on the city: Halifax At War: Searchlights, Squadrons and Submarines 1939-1945 (Halifax, 2008) and Prince Edward's Legacy: The Duke of Kent in Halifax: Romance and Beautiful Buildings (Halifax, 2005). After attending the University of King's College and Dalhousie University, Bill began employment in 1963 at the (then) Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa, transferring subsequently to Parks Canada. The remainder of his working career, first in Ottawa and eventually in Halifax, was spent supporting the Parks programme, with research on a variety of topics from 19th century ranching in the Canadian west to canal transportation, and ending up as Chief of History for the Atlantic Region.

H.B. Jefferson: Newspaperman and Wartime Press Censor

War is a great crucible of pressures and opportunities. It is a universal truth, across societies, institutions, technologies and individuals, that whatever goes in at the beginning of a war comes out at the other end refined and changed in the process, for better or for worse. This component of 'East Coast Port' looks at the effects of war on a single person, a man who wore no uniform and lived permanently in a Halifax hotel; and explores how his curiosity about the wartime world around him caused him to create some unique records that benefit posterity now, in strange and unforeseen ways.

Henry Bruce Jefferson was born in 1893 and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick, the son of a railwayman. His own interest in railways and rolling stock was lifelong, but journalism grabbed his interest early and sports reporting was his entrée. About 1918 he began working for the Moncton Times and Moncton Transcript as both a reporter and local correspondent for the Halifax Herald and Mail; in the 1920s he moved to Sydney, Cape Breton, working up to news editor and editor of the Sydney Record; on the side he provided area news for Canadian Press, the Halifax Chronicle and the Halifax Herald.1

In 1933, Jefferson moved to Yarmouth as editor and publisher (on a lease arrangement) for the local weeklies, The Yarmouth Herald and The Yarmouth Telegram. Small weekly newspapers were risky propositions in the bottom of the Great Depression, and so by 1936 Jefferson was in Halifax instead, working as an editorial and feature-writer for the Daily Star. Halifax would be home for the next thirty years.

Newspapers back then were openly political and as his career evolved, Jefferson — or 'H.B.' as he was known — seems to have developed strong Liberal sympathies. He worked as a party press agent in two Nova Scotia elections (1937) and one in New Brunswick (1939), developing a network of political connections which would stand him in good stead.

When war broke out in September 1939, one of the first casualties was unfettered freedom of information, with the press (newspapers, magazines and radio) being the most prominent example. The Government of Canada immediately put regulations in place to ensure that all war-related information reaching the public was carefully controlled.

Most obviously, news of naval and military movements was almost totally blocked. It was equally important, however, to keep the public informed with lots of interesting war news, but without providing the kind of hard information that could be useful to the enemy. This became the fine art of officially-appointed censors. The technique most often used was simply to leave the main story intact, but with no significant details; or else, while not actually 'killing' an interesting story, releasing it long enough after the event that any useful information was out-of-date.

Initially, press censorship fell under the Secretary of State, while the wire services, cable (telegraph) and telephone were managed by the Department of National Defence, via the Post Office. These would later be combined under a single Director of Censorship. On the recommendation of Col. J. L. Ralston, Minister of Finance — "who had apparently known him for a number of years and who commended his intelligence and judgement"2 — Jefferson was appointed Regional Censor of Publications for Atlantic Canada in the autumn of 1939; he continued in this role throughout the war until the position was terminated on 15 September 1945.

Sixteen daily newspapers, 68 weeklies and a number of other similar publications, as well as ten radio stations, were under Jefferson's jurisdiction, stretching across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Censorship remained voluntary throughout the war, and according to Jefferson, "Voluntary censorship isn't worth a hoot [in theory]," but — and this was a big but — "in actual practice it has worked out very well."3 The biggest issue in the Maritimes was keeping details regarding shipping movements quiet, at least until after the fact. "Loose lips sink ships" may have been a tongue-twister, but the reality was grim.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, according to Jefferson, a story scheduled for publication was read to him over the telephone and he made any necessary changes to the proposed text as the reading proceeded. Despite the potential for leakage, failures to carry out agreed-upon changes were unknown: "It is so advantageous to everyone that every effort is made to keep it effective."4 Jefferson further maintained that he never once censored editorial opinion, no matter how critical it was of the war effort, and never suppressed other regional news unless it threatened national security.

Jefferson's wide experience stood him in good stead. During his previous career he had been a roving correspondent or press agent "over practically every square mile of the Maritime provinces"5 and had covered every beat — in his own words, "shipping, aviation, railroading, military, coal, iron and steel, labor activities (including serious strike coverage), all sorts of local newspaper 'campaigning', political news activities (both as reporter and party press agent), as well as extensive wire news and press association work.... ."6 There wasn't much he didn't know about or understand the implications of, regarding what might happen if information leaked.

In the early years, until press officers were appointed for the armed forces, Jefferson also acted as a sort of unofficial military press agent for breaking news concerning what quickly became known as 'an East Coast Canadian port'. This was an obfuscating and generic wartime term which could apply to any Atlantic Canadian port, and which served accordingly to obscure the exact location of where a reported event had actually taken place. Most Haligonians assumed quite rightly, however, that it referred only to their city.

With his years of experience, Jefferson knew everyone and wanted to know about everything within his area of responsibility — a restless curiosity that clearly aggravated some. He never felt that his was an office job, and early in his career, his Ottawa supervisors were forced to come to his defence on one occasion when he was refused the official military pass required to visit a ship: "As you know, we have had to contend in the past with some criticism of some of Mr. Jefferson's activities...and though we thought this had been completely straightened out, we are led to feel that his position and record are still challenged by certain officials." Jefferson was, they continued, vital to their organization:

"The Halifax post is probably the most onerous and difficult in our organization. Only a Press Censor who is constantly on the job, who has some talent for diplomacy and who exercises sound judgement, could continue in office for as long as Mr. Jefferson has without involving the head office here [i.e. in Ottawa] in endless criticism and controversy. Mr. Jefferson has done his job well and if we had to replace him, it is extremely doubtful whether we could lay our hands on a man who by and large could fill the assignment as well."7

This seems to have settled the matter; there is no evidence of any further attempt to keep Jefferson office-bound or shore-bound, and he never was. In a sense, though, the colonel who refused to advance Jefferson the official pass had good reason to be suspicious of his man. The press censor's railway-oriented childhood translated readily to a fascination with the world of shipping — and Halifax harbour from 1939 to 1945 provided front-row seating in a perfect theatre for witnessing the comings and goings of naval and merchant vessels from virtually every Allied country participating in the war.

Jefferson missed nothing and his curiosity was unbounded. He prowled the sheds and piers, pass in hand, and had a ringside seat from his censor's office, high in the art-deco 'skyscraper' — then the tallest building in Halifax — known variously as the Dominion Public Building, the Federal Tower, or to most simply as the Main Post Office. Nor was that all. In an arrangement not all that uncommon at the time, he and his wife, Lennie Ayer of Moncton, lived for years on the fourth floor of the Nova Scotian Hotel in a room overlooking Piers 20, 21, and 22 — the Seawall, where most of the big liners, converted to busy troop ships during the war, were tied up.

Jefferson not only watched the passing parade in the mid-years of the war, he also recorded it — in almost obsessive detail — in a voluminous typewritten journal, in a myriad of notebooks, and on 120-size black-and-white film with his (surely contraband) camera. Whatever was he thinking? What was his reason for all this? Did anyone else know what he was doing? Few hints remain in his personal papers, other than the usual occupational hazards of being a newspaper reporter — curiosity, a fascination with cameras and an obsessive attention to detail.

No enemy spy could have been more assiduous. From a perspective looking mostly straight ahead and east to the Dartmouth shore from his press censor's office, with a few glances north and south and the occasional snapshot from the Nova Scotian Hotel, Jefferson created an unsurpassed photographic record of Canada's 'East Coast Port' in wartime. He also kept careful written notations, right down to the f-stop setting, for each of the hundreds of negatives that he seems to have developed himself — probably for very good reason — until 1944, when it became clear to everyone but the Germans that the war was winding down. Few if any of the negatives were ever printed, and this website reproduces the collection as positive prints for the first time.

Because of his newspaperman's facility with a typewriter, Jefferson's typed daily journal, digitized and presented here in its entirety, is readily accessible to the modern reader. 'H.B.' was an acute and witty observer of the passing parade, reveling in the often chaotic scenes around him. Not a thing missed his attention regarding life in wartime Halifax. Everything was grist for his reporter's curiosity and keen eye, from the meals served at local hotels and restaurants, down to listings of the orderly, minute-by-minute progression of vessels exiting the harbour in convoy formation.

The official press censor for Atlantic Canada also enjoyed, as much as the next resident of Canada's 'East Coast Port,' the good wartime gossip that was the despair of officialdom. No harm can come of double-checking some of his stories, and a few examples will suffice here to introduce the reader to his breezy style:

25 August 1941 - Eddie told me earlier in the day that the alarm at the Forts was caused by them sighting a log which they took to be a submarine. What I am afraid of is that they will sight a submarine which they will take for a log.

1 January 1942 - HMT Moreton Bay, Br. liner arrived this morning with about 700 German prisoners, closely followed by HMT Bergensfjord with several hundred air force men for No. 31, Moncton, some soldiers, RN officers and men, merchant sailors, returning American technicians, Newfoundlanders from the Forestry Corps, British scientists and a Russian Trade Mission going to join Amtorg at New York. There were a few air force men, soldiers and other passengers on the Moreton Bay. Two trains carried the prisoners, the last leaving here at 2:45 p.m. Two companies of the Veteran Guard of Canada under Major MacPherson provided the escort. Princess Louise Fusiliers furnished the Pier guard and extraordinary precautions were taken to prevent escapes such as happened January 22nd, 1941. Admission to the debarkation area was by special red pass issued by Major Gwynne. The first 44 men off the ship were German air force officers. Their uniforms looked strangely familiar and I learned they had been issued RAF uniforms on which they sewed their shoulder and other badges. The rest of the crowd was made up of airmen, some soldiers and some navy sailors, some of whom were said to be survivors of the Bismark. They were very quiet and showed little interest in their surroundings. Among those who returned on the Bergensfjord was Dr. Best, now in naval service, who was Dr. Banting's assistant in the discovery of insulin. The debarkation proceeded without a hitch in contrast with the performance here in January, 1941.

1 March [1942] - 5:30 - "Diloma", Br. tanker comes in. Glancing out the window I noticed that the "Diloma", inward bound and then about off George's [Island], appeared to have suffered a torpedo hit just forward of the bridge. As she came nearer I could see that this was a long hole, the forward part round, the after part square with a long flap of loose plate bent back aft. It was a combination of the types of damage suffered by the "Egda" and the "Corilla". The deck was bulged up where the explosion had heaved it for a distance of about 40 feet but the ship was still on an even keel.

[1 March 1942] - 5:40 - The "Diloma" anchored near the "Egda". By looking out the window you could see the 4 torpedoed tankers at one time, in order from north to south, "Diloma", "Egda", "Corilla", and "Kars".
21 April [1942] - The Great Banana Mystery Remains Unsolved. The harbor has been full of floating stems since about April 18. Harbor and banana people disclaim all knowledge, but it is believed they were dumped to keep the market price up. I ate one but afterwards wished I had not when I commenced to reflect that the harbor is probably full of typhoid germs from the thousands of ships that have been anchored here in the last two years and dumped their junk overboard.

15 January 1943 - It is many months since we have seen as many drunks as we encountered between the post office and the N[ova] S[cotian] H[otel] on our way home tonight. There were singing drunks, crying drunks, fighting drunks, arguing drunks, and drunks talking to themselves as they ambled along. ... It must have been the warm weather and pay night combined. I do not see so many C[anadian] W[omen's] A[rmy] C[orps]s around the NSH late at night. Two or three weeks ago they were there in droves. The usual combination appeared to be an army officer and a CWAC corporal.

Clearly Jefferson enjoyed the war years, and like many who were fortunate enough to survive unscathed, he may well have regretted the calm of peacetime. Following the closure of censorship operations in September 1945, he was employed as provincial editor of the Halifax Chronicle and associate editor of the editorial pages in the Halifax Chronicle and Star until the unexpected merger in January 1949 of the Chronicle and Herald newspaper operations — surprising to many, including their staffs, because of years of fierce rivalry.

This was not initially a good outcome for Jefferson at this time in his life, for he was one of some 150 employees rendered surplus. On the verge of leaving Halifax, with great reluctance, for a job at the Toronto Telegram, it would appear that he was rescued by his old political contacts when the Liberal administration of Angus L. Macdonald offered him a position with the Nova Scotia Information Service.8 The following year he became editor of Hansard, the published record of debates in the Legislature — cancelled as an economy measure back in 1916, and now newly revived.

This civil service position placed some restrictions on his ability to write for publication — but not many. Among the extensive personal papers deposited at Nova Scotia Archives by his estate in 1970, are voluminous files detailing his interest in the railway history of the Maritimes. A reflection of his upbringing no doubt, and a parallel to his wartime interest in shipping, this research was published in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald under the pseudonym 'J. B. King' between 1957 and 1961.

'J.B.' retired from Hansard in 1966, but neither age nor retirement slowed him down. Active to the very end, he died on 20 May 1970, some two years after his wife Lennie, and was buried in Moncton, his childhood home — where he had recently moved to work as interim editor for a new weekly, the Free Press.9


1 Nova Scotia Archives, H.B. Jefferson fonds, MG 1, vol. 489, file LXXII, item 3403.

2 MG 1, vol. 490, file LXXIX; Charpentier and Eggleston (Press Censors for Canada), Ottawa, 23 Aug 1941.

3 MG 1, vol. 489, file #3275. Dal Warrington, 'Mr. Eastern Canadian Port," in Halifax Daily Star, 20 Feb 1943, p. 9.

4 Ibid.

5 The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax), 21 May 1970, p. 24, obituary: "H. B. Jefferson, widely-known newspaperman, dies age 77."

6 MG 1, vol. 489, file LXXII, item 3407; Memorandum, n.d.

7 MG 1, vol. 490, file LXXIX; Charpentier and Eggleston, 23 Aug 1941.

8 MG 1, vol. 489, file LXXII, item 3362.1; HBJ to Mr. E. R. McCall [Toronto Telegram], 10 Mar 1949.

9 The Chronicle-Herald, 21 May 1970.

Click here for the Archival Description for H.B. Jefferson


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