Nova Scotia Archives

Halifax and Its People / 1749-1999


When asked to write the introduction to Halifax and Its People / 1749-1999, I accepted the honour with the greatest of pleasure. On my mother's side, my family can trace its Halifax ancestry to the arrival of Richard John Uniacke in 1774. It proved a most inauspicious beginning, for he first saw Halifax as a prisoner in chains charged with treason. But like so many in our city's 250-year history, he overcame the vicissitudes of life and made Halifax his home.

Halifax itself has undergone many changes of fortune, but hopes ran high on that 21th day of June in 1749, when Colonel Edward Cornwallis and his staff aboard the sloop Sphinx first viewed Chebookt, the name the Mi'kmaq had given to the magnificent long harbour that lay before them. Within that harbour would shortly arise a new town, which the settlers named after Lord Halifax. As President of the Board of Trade and Plantations, he had persuaded the British government of the strategic need to establish a fortified town in Nova Scotia to offset the great French fortress at Louisbourg.

Nearly all the 2500 or so colonists who came with Cornwallis were English, many from London — but among those Londoners there were also Swiss, Irish, Jews and Germans. As an enticement the British government had promised all those who would settle in the new town, free land and rations for a year. Such a promise drew disbanded soldiers and sailors and others who proved lawless, lazy and worthless as settlers — but they would be gone within a year. The call for colonists, however, had also brought to Halifax tradesmen, merchants and gentlemen anxious to improve their circumstances. Among them were Laurence Collins, Lewis Piers, William Best, John Creighton and Alexander Ked[d]y, men whose descendants can be found in contemporary Halifax and Nova Scotia.

New Englanders in increasing numbers soon arrived as well, attracted by commercial opportunities and the fishery. Then, in 1751 came the first shiploads of 'Foreign Protestants', from various German principalities, from Switzerland and from Montbéliard (a region in the southeast of modern-day France). Most of these settlers would go on to Lunenburg, but those who remained in Halifax made their homes principally in the town's North End, where today the Little Dutch (Deutsch) Church on Brunswick Street, a National Historic Site, commemorates their contribution as "good and industrious people". Early in Halifax's history, the Scots also established themselves in the community, principally in mercantile and commercial concerns. In 1761, they formed a Scottish Guild of Merchants, out of which in 1767 came the North British Society, the oldest of Halifax's charitable organizations. From its very beginnings, then, Halifax was home to a surprising variety of peoples.

Halifax was founded as a deliberative act of British imperial policy, in the ongoing struggle with France for North American empire, not ended until the fall of Quebec in 1759. Although the French sought the destruction of Halifax, it was the fierce opposition by the Mi'kmaq to the English settlement of their lands that curtailed further settlement in Nova Scotia until a series of peace treaties in 1760. In the meantime, war expenditures resulted in considerable growth within the new town. Following Louisbourg's fall in 1758, and a mere decade after Halifax's founding, Richard Short completed a series of engravings depicting the infant community. The two scenes shown on pages 4 and 5 leave us with the distinct impression of an already well-established town, its citizenry going about their daily concerns.

War came again to Halifax with the onset of the American Revolution. Following the declaration of peace and Britain's recognition of American independence, thousands of Loyalist refugees arrived in 1783 and 1784, doubling the province's population and swelling that of Halifax to around 5,000. More significantly for the capital of the colony, the Loyalists — or 'new comers'— by reason of their political influence and often superior attainments, were able to gain an ascendancy within government, which created much resentment among the old inhabitants. Intermarriage and time, however, would see the Loyalists assimilated completely into Halifax society.

Peace was short-lived, for in 1793 the long war with Revolutionary France began, leading into the War of 1812-1814 with the United States. Such were the spoils of privateering and the profits from supplying the army and navy during these years, that it was said that the streets of Halifax were paved in gold. In a delightful watercolour done when the prosperity of war still shone brightly in the community, Joseph Partridge portrays ladies and gentlemen walking in the Grand Parade (page 9), first laid out in 1749, but by 1817 well leveled, walled up and fenced in to present an attractive urban setting. English gentility pervades the whole scene.

From the time of Halifax's first settlement, merchants and other early residents owned slaves. Probably 3,000 Blacks freed by the British came to Nova Scotia as Loyalists, and as many as 400 of them were drawn to Halifax by its labour-market opportunities. Of these, however, few remained after the great exodus to Sierra Leone in 1792. During the War of 1812, British military and naval forces occupied the area around Chesapeake Bay. Hundreds of slaves sought refuge and freedom with the British, and between 1813 and 1816, some 2,000 of these were brought north to Nova Scotia, suffering great distress. Most settled at Preston, Hammond's Plains, Refugee Hill and in Halifax itself. Many Blacks within the bounds of the Halifax Regional Municipality today can trace their ancestry to these Chesapeake refugees from slavery.

Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 ushered in a century of peace. It also saw the beginnings of a mass emigration from the British Isles to North America. Although eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island were heavily settled by Scots, few came to Halifax. It was instead the Irish, many via Newfoundland, who proved to be the largest immigrant group in the growing community. We tend to associate Irish emigration with the Great Famine of 1846-49, but most of the 4,000-5,000 Irish who settled in Halifax after 1815 came in the 1830s. They were predominantly country folk and Roman Catholic. Their integration into a largely Protestant urban population of 20,000 did not come without fierce religious contention, but through these struggles Halifax became a more tolerant society.

By the middle of the 19th century, immigration ceased and nearly all Haligonians were now to be native-born. With Halifax's incorporation as a city in 1841 and Dartmouth's in 1873, came much-needed civic improvements to streets, water supply, street railways, harbour ferries — and later, electrification. Other than the establishment of a Board of Commissioners for improving the Halifax water supply, private enterprise remained responsible for establishing and expanding street railways, gas and electrical lighting and telephones. William O'Brien, for example, founded the first street railway in 1866, with five horse cars. In 1896, the Halifax Electric Tramway Company began a service that gave citizens the means to reach most parts of the city. Many Haligonians can still recall with nostalgia the faithful old trams that ran until 1949, when 'modern' electric trolley cars replaced them. Although a very small boy at the time, I can remember the thrill of being taken by my grandmother on the tram, all the way out to Simpson's Department Store, with its enthralling toy department, at the end of the North West Arm line.

Victorian society is often portrayed as dour, stern, God-fearing and opposed to any activity that could be classed as frivolous — but Halifax Victorians had great fun. They loved dressing up for fancy-dress balls and skating carnivals. Amateur theatricals thrived. During the last half of the 19th century, Haligonians so embraced sports that it was claimed that the city had more admirers of amateur sporting activities than any other city in the Maritimes, if not Canada. There were aquatic carnivals in the harbour, curling on the Dartmouth Lakes, yacht racing in the harbour and North West Arm, tennis at the South End Tennis Club, snowshoeing, rifle shooting at the Bedford Range, horse racing on the Commons, sleigh drives to rendezvouses outside the city, and for children and adults alike, tobogganing and coasting on the many hills.

Halifax would have the first covered skating rink in Canada, after one was constructed inside the Horticultural Gardens (later the Halifax Public Gardens) in 1867, to meet the rising interest in indoor skating. In 1908, a citizens group founded the Waegwoltic Club on the North West Arm. In those days you could still swim in the Arm. My family were early members of this most family-oriented of recreational clubs. When my mother was a very little girl left at the 'Waeg' one day in the charge of my great-grandmother, Dora, my mother decided to row across the North West Arm, all by herself and without informing anyone. Just as she reached the half-way point, she was glimpsed by my grandmother, with suitable consternation — only to be told calmly by Dora that she need not worry about Eileen, as she, Dora, was in charge and keeping a watchful eye on her progress.

For those wishing to participate in team sports, Halifax boasted hockey, rowing, football, cricket and baseball teams, sponsored by clubs such as the Wanderers' Amateur Athletic Association. By the 1890s, businesses and various British regiments also took to sponsoring teams. For those who wished to camp outdoors, hunt and fish, they did not have to go farther than the numerous still-forested areas within Halifax County.

If church-going and participation in church-sponsored activities can be considered as a guide, then at no time in Halifax's history has religion been more present in people's lives than in the years leading up to the First World War. Never would the clergy have as high a standing in society as during this period. Although there was always the Poors' Asylum or Poor House, maintained by the City for the utterly destitute, upon the churches fell most of society's responsibility for neglected, homeless or orphaned children, 'fallen' women and girls, and juvenile offenders. Government provided some financial support, but such institutions as the Protestant Orphans' Home, St. Patrick's Home, St. Joseph's Orphanage, the Home for Colored Children and the Salvation Army Maternity Hospital & Home provided the necessary accommodation, plus some schooling. By the second decade of the 20th century, government increasingly had to accept that the churches could no longer be expected, nor did they have the resources to continue providing such social services. Nearly all the church-sponsored institutions had accordingly disappeared by the end of the 1960s, with the important exception of the Grace Maternity Hospital.

In the middle of the 19th century, through private initiative and provincial financial assistance, two special institutions were established in Halifax for children — schools for the deaf and for the blind; in both cases they were the first such institutions in the Maritimes. William Gray, a deaf mute from Scotland, began working with two pupils in 1855; through the efforts of the Rev. James Cochran and Andrew Mackinlay, provincial and public support allowed for securing a wooden building to house the school. Under the principalship of Charles Frederick Fraser, blind himself since the age of seven, the Halifax School for the Blind became a leading institution in its field; in 1915 King George V bestowed a knighthood on Fraser for his ground-breaking work. The photographs on pages 143 and 146 are especially moving, as we look back at 'special education' in the late Victorian era — young children learning sign language and blind children working at various forms of manual training.

Although the Halifax Medical Society, organized in 1844, pressed the city and provincial governments to establish a public hospital, its efforts proved unsuccessful. Then, in 1859, funds were found to construct a hospital as a charity institution to provide care primarily for the infirm and diseased poor. It, however, did not fulfill the need for a general public hospital with proper medical care available to all Nova Scotians. When a former alderman, William Murdoch, left a sizable bequest for a hospital (he did the same for the School for the Blind), the city decided to proceed with the construction of a facility that could accommodate sixty patients. The City and Provincial Hospital opened in May 1867 and made possible the establishment of the Halifax Medical College. A photograph taken ca. 1890 on page 142 shows students in the Anatomy Laboratory. On Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, the hospital became the Victoria General. In 1910, when the photograph on page 151 was taken, the facility admitted over 1,500 patients.

In its first half century, Halifax knew little but war; after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and Napoleon's final defeat, Halifax would know only a century of peace. The British Empire spanned the world and Britannia ruled the waves. Haligonians felt themselves to be very much a part of this Empire and imperial sentiment could be seen displayed at every public event. Haligonians turned royal visits into gala occasions with torchlight processions, sporting events, mock battles and cavalcades through city streets. But the celebrations surrounding Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in June 1897 surpassed all such previous holiday events, lasting a full week. On the city's Natal Day, 21 June, as part of these celebrations, the unveiling of the 'Jubilee' or 'Nymph' Fountain took place in the Public Gardens. In the photograph that graces the cover of Halifax and Its People / 1749-1999, we see a charming variety of faces of all ages, a classic photograph of its time.

There were few public events in which the army and navy were not present. A substantial garrison and regular Royal Navy visits provided a steady income to Halifax merchants — and a good many husbands for the city's young women. The massive fortress which took three decades to construct astride Citadel Hill exemplified the strategic importance of Halifax to the Empire. Rudyard Kipling expressed that symbolism and sentiment, when in his "Song of the Cities – Halifax", he penned these timeless words:

Into the mist my guardian prows put forth,
Behind the mist my virgin ramparts lie,
The Warden of the Honour of the North,
Sleepless and veiled am I!

As part of the new Dominion of Canada, Halifax's militia contributed the 63rd Battalion for ending the North West Rebellion of 1885. As the ocean gateway to the Dominion, Halifax sent off troops for the Boer War and then welcomed them on their return. But with the sounding of the Guns of August 1914, Halifax was to know war beyond anyone's imagination. The city's enlistment rate became one of the highest in the nation. Patriotic fever soared as regiment after regiment left for France, to the cheers and tears of hundreds. By 1917, German submarines were taking their toll of merchant shipping on Halifax's very doorstep. No vessel could sail except in convoy and the large, protected expanse of Bedford Basin became a gathering place for ships waiting to be escorted across the Atlantic.

On 6 December 1917, the shorelines of Halifax and Dartmouth were literally blown up by the Halifax Harbour Explosion, which occurred when a French munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, moving through the harbour Narrows to join a convoy, collided with the Belgian Relief vessel Imo — with a devastating loss of life and the total obliteration of Halifax's North End. How ordinary people, given the horrific conditions they now faced, rallied instinctively to provide what assistance they could — often with nothing more than their bare hands — remains the most remarkable and enduring story of the Explosion. Although no previous disaster could conceivably prepare people for such a catastrophe, much had been learned from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Halifax officials, some of whom had been involved with the identification and burial of Titanic victims recovered from the ocean and brought to Halifax, now put in place a similar system of numbering the bodies and using temporary morgues to accommodate the hundreds of dead from the Explosion.

Halifax again answered the call to arms in 1939. Six years of war placed unforeseen demands on the city's utilities, an undermanned police force, and the few amenities available for the thousands of troops and naval personnel who came and went. As the war drew to a close in May 1945, there were over 24,000 military personnel in the city. What became known as the V-E Day Riots, involving sailors, soldiers and civilians, began on 7 May, the day Germany formally surrendered. Rioting and looting continued into the next day. By the time order was restored, downtown Halifax was a shambles. If that was not enough, on 18 July an ammunition barge blew up in Bedford Basin, shattering windows in the surrounding communities and sending forth a mushroom cloud. The explosion set fire to nearby exposed ammunition dumps at the Bedford Magazine and only valiant efforts succeeded in containing the fires — though for a time many feared a second Halifax Explosion.

Unlike the end of the First World War, which was followed by depression and then the Second World War, Halifax in 1945 entered an era of peace and prosperity. For generations, Haligonians had prophesied great benefits from having a bridge across the harbour. With the opening in 1955 of the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge, began a process of accelerating expansion involving the entire metropolitan region.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Halifax's population stood at 110,000. Dartmouth had benefitted quickly and enormously from the Macdonald Bridge — it had now become a city, and with its own amalgamated suburbs had a population of 60,000. Bedford had a little over 2,000, while the total combined population for Lower, Middle and Upper Sackville was still under 1,000. Halifax, Dartmouth and the whole region were about to undergo phenomenal industrial and commercial growth. At the end of the 1990s, some 350,000 people reside within the newly-instituted Halifax Regional Municipality.

If somehow we could bring back, for just a moment, even a few of those settlers of 1749, I believe they would feel that the hopes and aspirations they had experienced on first sighting the majestic expanse of Chebookt had been well fulfilled. I would hope that they would see us now as true Haligonians, ready to meet the challenges that the next century and the new millennium will surely bring.

In publishing Halifax and Its People / 1749-1999, the staff of Nova Scotia Archives have sought to commemorate, on this our city's 250th anniversary, the ordinary lives of past generations of Haligonians, via a fascinating series of some 150 images selected from the institution's large photographic holdings. We are privileged to be able to enter into those lives through these photographs, chosen to illustrate such varied themes as Occupations, Entertainment and Social Events, The Life Cycle, Halifax at War, Royal Visits, Education and Institutions, and Sports and the Great Outdoors. We are fortunate that the Archives has succeeded so well in preserving and presenting such vivid imagery of our past. The institution is to be congratulated.

Brian Cuthbertson
Halifax, Nova Scotia
August 1999


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