The Provincial Penitentiary

Submitted by Devonna Edwards

It was located one-half mile from the city of Halifax, on fourteen acres of land overlooking the eastern shore of the North West Arm, close to Point Pleasant Park. Today that site would be on Inglewood Drive, directly across the Arm from the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron on Purcells Cove Road.

The Penitentiary’s cornerstone was laid on June 24, 1841 and the facility opened on October 15, 1844.

When the Penitentiary first opened it admitted 21 convicts: 18 males and 3 females. It also housed 13 military prisoners (as well as six prisoners from the ship Saladin).

The Penitentiary was 148 feet long and forty-two feet wide, and built of granite. It was U-shaped, with the front block being much thicker and longer than the two wings. Each wing was 96 feet long and 24 feet wide. There were three floors in the middle section with two on the wings: The middle section measuring 48 feet at its highest point. Each floor had a long room in the center of the building, which was composed of thirty cells; the cells were very small in size.

On the first or ground floor, in the middle section was one large cell room with a cook’s house at one end. At the other end, there was a main door, with a hall and separate rooms for the reception room, office, guard room and kitchen. From the guard’s room were stairs leading up to the women’s cells and down to the cellar. In the wing leading off this side was a scullery, a pantry, a room for coals and stairs leading up and down. In the opposite wing there was the dining room with a stone shed at the far end.

The second floor was much the same as the first, with cells taking up the middle section. At the one end (above the hall on the first floor) was the Warden’s apartments. There were two parlours, a bedroom and a nursery. The Warden’s apartments were separated by a wall from the cells. In the wing by the apartments were a Roman Catholic Chapel and a hospital. In the opposite wing were a shoemaker’s shop and a Protestant Chapel.

The third floor had more cells above the first and second floor cells, and a temporary broom store was in the middle section. At the end of the middle section was a store room, and in the other end above the Warden’s apartments was another bedroom and eight women’s cells in one large room. There were no wings on the third floor.

There were about eleven windows across the front of the Penitentiary with about nine across the back. The wings had about five windows across the inner sides of most floors. Each floor was about eight feet high and there were two chimneys at either end of the middle section The middle section in the cell blocks was open from floor to floor, with a platform running alongside the cells.

In the lower part of the yard was a 2 story frame building, which was 72 feet by 22 feet and had a passage way; on one side was a wash house and a carpentry shop, and on the other side was a blacksmith’s shop. On the outside of the walls was a stable and pigsty, with a driving shed in front. The Penitentiary had a wharf on the Arm which gave them travelling excess to the sea as well. Water was obtained from a well or a tank for storing water.

Discipline was strict and rigidly enforced: prisoners who disobeyed were severely punished by extending their term; forcing them to wear chains; or placing them in solitary confinement.

On the second floor, there was a hospital for the prisoners, where a doctor visited the institution regularly and inmates who were ill, were placed in the infirmary. Special precautions were taken to maintain the prisoner’s health; when the prisoners were admitted they were thoroughly bathed; required to wash their face and hands, once a day; feet once a week; change clothes and shave once a week; with a haircut once a month. Prisoners were given three meals a day made of plain but wholesome food.

Men and women never associated as they were separated at all times. Both male and female prisoners had their own exercise yard.

The Governor ruled over the prison making sure it ran efficiently. It was his responsibility to admit prisoners and to see that discipline was maintained at all times. The keeper, the Under-Keeper and the Deputy Keeper were all required to follow the Governors orders at all times. While on the job, the guards could not read, write, talk, sleep, relax, smoke, drink, sing or whistle. They had strict rules that forbid no intermingling between them and the convict.

Some of the crimes committed by the inmates were: larceny, attempted rape, arson, forgery, using counterfeit money, concealing birth, horse stealing and highway robbery, etc.

The prisoners escaped fairly frequently. Usually they escaped across the Arm either by swimming or by stealing a boat. One story told of an escape by a prisoner who swam across the Arm and found a cave on the other side, where he remained hidden for a long time until the search for him was discontinued. Local people supplied him with food during that time because they heard of the suffering endured by the prisoners in the jail and felt compassion for him. A hole in the rock in the roof served as a vent for smoke. The entrance to the cave was difficult to find in the maze of woods and boulders which surrounded it. The cave was located on the western shore of the Arm, near William’s Lake.

It was very costly to keep the Penitentiary going, thus the prisoners worked to help off-set the expenses. The inmates were made to work in the prison garden, which provided turnips, carrots and other vegetables and that helped cut the cost of food needed to supply the prisoners.

Male prisoners also had to clear and level the ground in front of the prison, make roads, build the wharf, and prepare foundations for the workshops. They made shoes, brooms and furniture to be sold. They also were trained in trades such as blacksmithing, tailoring and stonecutting.

Female prisoners did laundry for the convicts, knitted socks, spun yarn and did other domestic duties under the direction of the Matron which was usually the Governor’s wife.

Six crew members of the ship “S S Saladin” were imprisoned in the North West Arm Penitentiary for their role in mutiny aboard the ship. Two of the crew were found not guilty but the other four were charged with piracy and murder, found guilty and were sentenced to die by hanging. On July 30, 1844, the four murders: George Jones, John Hazleton, Charles Anderson and William Johnston travelled up Tower Road; taken in two closed carriages, along with one Anglican and three Roman Catholic priests to a small knoll on the South Common (today that site would be in front of the Victoria General Hospital). On each side of the carriages marched a robust guard of the 1st. Royal Regimen with fixed bayonets. The four prisoners were young, the eldest not more than 22 or 23 years of age. They were dressed in black with white shirts; each man had a coil or rope around his arm, the other end of the rope was knotted around his neck. A company of the 52nd Regiment of Foot formed a circle around the scaffold and kept the large audience at a distance following the deaths. The bodies were committed for burial; the earth not the sea received these souls. An exhumed skull, (rumoured to be found in the area which today would be under the sidewalk in front of the former old Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road) from one of the gallows victims, later was used to teach anatomy to medical students.

The old prison was also where Mate Douglas, from the brig “Zero”, was imprisoned for life, for the murder of the captain aboard the ship just off the shore of Nova Scotia. His accomplice, a black seaman named Doucey, was hung at Halifax in 1866.

On the prison property there was a grave of an unknown women, who died at the penitentiary. The grave was situated on the bank near the shore of the Arm, surrounded by a railing and maintained by the authorities of the prison. The grave was unmarked and is now obliterated.

By 1880, when the prison was inspected, it was found to be seriously disorganized; the building was grimy; the beds were dirty; the guards were unkempt and were not doing their job and the inmates were disorderly.

On July 16, 1880, the convicts were removed from the Provincial Penitentiary to the new Maritime Penitentiary at Dorchester. In the Acadian Recorder dated July 16, 1880 an article described the transfer; dressed in yellow and black, the prisoners were handcuffed two by two and taken in horse-drawn buses to the North Street Railway Station. At the station they were placed in a special train and taken to the new Dominion Penitentiary at Dorchester.

After the Poor House, on the corner of Robie and South Streets, burnt on Nov. 7, 1882, the inmates were transferred to the old Penitentiary. The Penitentiary was somewhat altered and improved, but was over-crowded. The inmates stayed there until Oct. 1886, when they were sent to the newly built Halifax City Home.

In 1895 the former Penitentiary became a power house for the People’s Heat and Light Company. The gas plant was owned by Henry M. Whitney of Boston. By 1902 assets of the People’s Heat and Light Company were sold and at that time the company was bought by the Halifax Electric Tramway Company Limited. After World War 11, the property was bought by financier F.B. McCurdy.

The Penitentiary was demolished in 1948. Much of the granite from the prison was recycled, transported and used to build St. Mary’s College, later to become Saint Mary’s University located on Robie Street. Some of the granite was used for a retaining wall at the head of Purcell’s Cove, and for a retaining wall on Inglewood Drive. The site of the Old Penitentiary was flattened and the area known as Franklyn Park, was divided into residential lots.