Serving hard time in Halifax
Melville Island Prison in 1929. In the early 1800's, it held prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives
Today, Rockhead is the name of a liquor store and Melville Island is home to the Armdale Yacht Club, but in the 1800s they were prisons. But, they aren’t the only ones in Halifax’s 267-year history. Read on to learn about Halifax’s notorious and lesser-known prisons.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British sent French prisoners of war to Halifax, but the prison hulks (old ships, no longer seaworthy and used as floating prisons) along the Bedford Basin and naval dockyards weren’t equipped for that many people.
The city decided to lease Kavanagh’s Island on the Northwest Arm from merchant James Kavanagh and bought the land a year later. They renamed it Melville Island after Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville.
On July 9, 1803, the first French prisoners were transferred to the island. They tried to make the best of their situation by establishing businesses and keeping pets, selling many of their goods to Halifax residents.
The War of 1812 brought even more prisoners to Halifax. By 1813, about 900 men were imprisoned at Melville, including a few remaining Frenchmen. This led to overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. Disease spread easily. A cemetery on nearby Deadman’s Island holds those who died.
Some prisoners attempted to escape. In 1812 one American and three French prisoners were permitted to go into the city, but didn’t return. A reward of one guinea was offered for each escapee’s capture.
In 1815 the last of the prisoners were released. Melville was later used to house African-American refugees from the United States, as a quarantine hospital for typhus patients, and as another military prison before the yacht club took over the island in the late 1940s.
Northwest Arm Penitentiary
Built in 1844 just outside of Point Pleasant Park, the Northwest Arm Penitentiary had 98 cells. Jailers encouraged inmates to be active during their incarceration, training men in trades such as blacksmithing and stonecutting. Female inmates could often be found spinning, knitting, or doing laundry.
According to Halifax’s Northwest Arm: An Illustrated History, the prison was squalid. In the 1860s federal inspectors found that “cells, corridors, yards, and workshops were all filthy” and that inmates and guards needed to wash more often. Subsequent reforms improved conditions (relatively).
As with Melville, some prisoners tried to escape. One group stole a schooner from a nearby wharf, while another prisoner was rumoured to have hidden in the barrens behind William’s Lake, after swimming across the Northwest Arm.
The prison closed in 1880 after Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick opened. It was later home to Poor House residents following an 1882 fire. Workers demolished it in 1948.
Built in 1865, the County Jail was behind the Spring Garden Road Courthouse. It held people charged with minor offenses and those awaiting trial. It had 18 single cells and four double cells.
Despite being a well-used facility, the jail was crowded, dimly lit, and poorly ventilated. An article in the Evening Mail from 1924 called it a “House of Shame.” According City of Order: Crime and Society in Halifax 1918–35, when it reached capacity some prisoners slept in the hallway.
But a 1927 Grand Jury report said it was a suitable place for those awaiting trial, if not for convicted criminals. It remained open until 1969 when a new jail opened in Lower Sackville.
Opening in 1864 and closing in 1969, Rockhead, AKA the City Prison, stood at corner of Novelea Drive and Leeds Street. It had 82 cells and took both male and female prisoners serving sentences that were less than two years long.
As part of their rehabilitation, prisoners often tended the Rockhead Farm, worked in the kitchens and shoe shop, and cleaned the facility. According to City of Order, people praised the prison for its approach to redemptive work, despite the work being seen as degrading. It was, however, “the nearest approach [the city had] to a penal institution conducted according to modern ideas.”
The Halifax Explosion in December 1917 heavily damaged Rockhead. Jailers transferred most of the prisoners while making repairs. They were back in their cells by the end of the month.
After Rockhead closed, inmates moved to Lower Sackville. Workers demolished the building in the 1970s. Today, the name lives on: Premier Wines & Spirits took the moniker when it moved to North Street and rebranded as the Rockhead Wine & Beer Market in 2014.
In the late 1800s the Halifax police station and the city lockup, made up of 15 cells, were located in city hall. According to City of Order, “vagrants, drunks and unemployed transients often spent a night or a weekend, in these cells as part of the police department’s effort to rid the city of undesirables.”
The lockup had one famous prisoner in 1896: escape artist Harry Houdini. As part of a publicity stunt to promote his upcoming show in Halifax, police handcuffed Houdini behind a heavy locked door, with most of his clothes in another cell. He escaped, taking the leg irons with him. They were part of his show for many years after.
Citadel Hill soldiers who committed minor crimes also faced time in a jail cell.
If a sentence was less than seven days, soldiers went to the lockup in the guard room. If the crime warranted a sentence of seven to 28 days they were put in the garrison cells and for more than 28 days, they were sent to Melville Island.
It’s rumored that two guards were escorting a prisoner to Melville when he escaped under the cover of rain. Instead of holding onto their prisoner, the guards tried to shelter themselves and the man broke free. They gave chase and yelled for the sentry to stop him, but the sentry was in his guard box to avoid the rain and didn’t see him coming.
Today, you can visit the garrison cells and lockup at Halifax Citadel National Historic Site.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.