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Rockhead Prison – Also known as City Prison

Submitted by Devonna Edwards

The prison was located one mile north of downtown Halifax, on a high hill above Africville and overlooking the Bedford Basin. It was situated at the corner of what is now Leeds Street and Novalea Drive (previously part of Gottingen Street), built on ten acres of farm land, originally, known as Rockhead Farm. The prison stood alone in the centre of open land with only a few houses close by. The prison remained there for over one hundred years, the Nova Scotia Institute of Technology (NSIT) on Leeds Street is currently situated where Rockhead once stood. The land was purchased in 1857 and the prison was built in 1859 by architect Henry G. Hill.

Rockhead Prison had a total length of 181 feet, and was made of granite. It had a central Octagonal structure which measured fifty-three feet by ninety-nine feet and contained the apartments of the Prison Governor. Radiating from this were two wings, each wing was sixty-four feet long and there was twenty-two cells on each floor. The inside cell-blocks run back to back, facing a corridor and the exterior walls of the building shell. It had eight elegant Romanesque windows extending two floors across the face of both wings. The prison had “old dungeon style” doors with small grated apertures for light and air, but by 1867, open-grill doors of steel had replace them. Later some of the opaque panes of glass from the windows were removed so the inmates could look out at the Bedford Basin. Rockhead also had a large yard for the prisoners to exercise in their spare time.

The Governor for many years was John W. Grant, who succeeded his late father in that office.  

By March 1860 the jail was ready for the transfer of prisoners from the Old Bridewell.The prison only housed ‘short-termers’ (prisoners that had to serve a short time in prison). Rockhead got the petty criminals, the minor violators of the law such as drunkards, prostitutes, thieves, ruffians and those in violations of the Liquor Control Act, as well as people that were incapable of taking care of themselves. Prisoners receiving long sentences were sent to Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick.

The worst feature of Rockhead was that there was no attempt at segregation of “First Timers” from the hardened, habitual prisoners.

Prisoners, both male and female, were made to work during their stay in Rockhead unless they were ill. They worked mainly on the prison farm where they grew potatoes and other vegetables which were grown to feed the inmates. In addition to farming, the prisoners were required to work in the Rockhead Quarry (today situated in Merv Sullivan Park on Novalea Drive). There is a baseball field there now and the area is known to locals as “The Pit.”) In the quarry, prisoners were required to break stone into small pieces so the broken rock could be sold to the City Street Commissioners to be used to build roads. It wasn’t until 1868 that a stone-crusher was put into operation. It was rumoured that rock used for building the MacDonald Bridge was taken from the prison quarry.  

In June 1931 several inmates armed with axes were required to work clearing the bush from the prison farm, two prisoners gained freedom, slipping the prison bounds, under the cover of the bush. One prisoner, last name Wamboldt, had only twelve days left to serve to complete a stretch for a charge of non-support, and the other prisoner, called Zwicker who was just starting his sentence for a two year term, for breaking and entering, were detailed by prison guards to a section of the farm which was covered with a low growth of brush. Here armed with axes, the prisoners were set to work clearing the land. After 4 p.m., guards discovered the two were missing and they were unable to locate them until the prisoners surrendered themselves the next morning.

In the winter male prisoners had to shovel snow at the prison; attend to the long driveway of a hospital located near the Basin shore; and to shovel city streets. Workshops were set up in the prison for the prisoners who were skilled blacksmiths, carpenters and coopers but these workshops were not used to train unskilled prisoners. They made buckets, tubs, wheelbarrows and sleighs, toilet tables, washstands, bureaus, tables, wardrobes, etc. which the prisoners sold and the profits went towards the operation of the jail. Female prisoners did the domestic chores and made clothing for the prisoners. Inmates also nursed the sick and looked after the furnaces, worked in the kitchen, shoe shop and cleaned the facility. The only punishment inflicted was that the inmates were shut in their cells at night.

Some of the governors at Rockhead were William MacDonald, Matthew Campbell, William Murray and George Grant. 

During the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917, Rockhead Prison because it was built of reinforced concrete, stood the shock of the Explosion but suffered considerable damage to its windows and walls. Glass was broken on the Cupola (dome) roof of the main building. Also the roof and north wall of the east wing, roofs of barns, sheds, the cookhouse roof and walls were wrecked. All the windows were practically blown out. The wooden fence surrounding the prison was completely destroyed. The plumbing and heating system was left only partly intact; furnace and water pipes burst causing flooding in the building. There was also a loss of farm produce and many farm implements were damaged.

The roof of the west wing was temporary repaired and that made the west wing, the only habitable place there at that time. There was no loss of life, but some prisoner obtained superficial cuts due to the broken glass.

Rockhead had a hospital within the prison since its construction. It provided health care and shelter to the city’s indigents, health care to the inmates and to soldiers. A doctor was provided for emergency treatment.

On December 1, there were ten males and three female prisoners in custody. After the Explosion some prisoners were sent to the County Jail, some remained to finish their terms and four males escaped. The wounded began to pour in from the surrounding area. About 80 to 90 people came to seek help. Dr. Almon was visiting the soldiers at the prison hospital at that time. He and his assistant were kept busy tending to the injured who filed in. The convalescent soldiers, none of whom was in a very serious condition, were allowed to leave the hospital, and their beds were occupied by the injured civilians. In the afternoon, the two doctors were reinforced by a party of four women. All the beds in Rockhead Prison from the upper floors, were placed down on the first floor ward which made it very crowded. Some of the convalescent soldiers stayed to help nurse the wounded, under the direction of two military doctors. The hospital was also called the Venereal Hospital by many townspeople: in 1889 between forty and fifty soldiers were patients in the hospital with Venereal Disease, (also known or referred to as “Bad Blood”) and at one time the military declared the four streets below Citadel Hill, off-limits to soldiers due to the number of brothels located there. By 1917, the hospital had eighty convalescent soldiers housed there.

In October 1933, there were eighty-four males and eight females incarcerated in Rockhead. Of the ninety-two in custody, forty men and three women were sentenced under the Nova Scotia Liquor Control Act. In 1934 there were 82 cells in the prison, the prison was overcrowded; two men were assigned to one small cell while others had to sleep on mattresses placed on the floor.  

In 1969 the land was sold for development known now as Convoy Place which consists of homes, apartments and townhouses; a portion of the land is where the Institute of Technology Campus stands today on Leeds Street.  

Rockhead Prison was abandoned and replaced by the County Correctional Centre in Lower Sackville. Rockhead was demolished in the 1970s.

Some of the Golden-Age people of Fairview remember Rockhead Prison, that huge sinister building looming high on the hill above Africville. I remember looking out my kitchen window (on McFatridge Road) when just a young girl and wandering, “Who are the people imprisoned in that scary looking building?” What were their crimes?” Apparently many inmates were imprisoned on liquor violations, especially during Prohibition. Customs Officers could arrest a person just by seeing a liquor bottle sitting on that persons table in their own home and immediately they were found guilty of breaking the law. Many families in Fairview know of someone who resided in Rockhead at one time, including me. In the 1920s, I had a close relative incarcerated for six months for a liquor violation during Prohibition.

“NOT JUDGING”, these were hard times, before, during, and after, the depression era !

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