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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 17

The Halifax Citadel, 1825-60: A Narrative and Structural History

by John Joseph Greenough

The Bureaucratic Process


The process by which the "heap of ruins" on Citadel Hill was transformed into a permanent fortress began, oddly enough, with the abandonment of the naval force on the Great Lakes. It had become obvious in the course of the War of 1812 that naval control of the lakes was necessary to preserve the British position in the Canadas. It was taken for granted at the end of the war that contingency planning would, in future, hinge on the naval question; the army would confine its activities to the retention of key points like Quebec and Kingston.1 This policy was abandoned almost before it was properly implemented for a number of reasons, all of them having to do with British imperial policy in the post-Napoleonic period and few of them directly concerned with British North America.

The most important consideration was financial. Between 1792 and 1815 the direct cost of the British military establishment had soared from £4.5 million to £58 million.2 The latter figure horrified politicians of every ideological stripe, and Napoleon was barely on his way to St. Helena when the drastic cuts in expenditure began. By 1819 the total spending on the military had fallen to about £16 million, and it remained at or below this figure for decades.3 In this atmosphere of relentless cheese-paring, there was no place for a naval arms race on Lake Ontario. Even the cost of maintaining a skeleton establishment — £24,000 in 18164 — was considered excessive. A more economical method of defence had to be found.

There were other considerations. Expenditure on colonies had always been unpopular, and in the post-war period an increasingly large number of politicians objected to it on both fiscal and ideological grounds. Anti-colonial sentiment became widespread, and no government could afford to ignore it. Post-war diplomacy complicated the picture still further. The maintenance of a naval force on the Great Lakes acted as an irritant in an era when the British government wanted to improve relations with the United States. In the end, it was neither the Treasury nor the Colonial Office which settled the issue; it was the Foreign Office. By concluding a treaty with the Americans in 1817 which demilitarized the lakes (the Rush-Bagot agreement), the diplomats rendered the post-war military's plans ineffective. Although the naval establishments were not finally abandoned for over a decade, it was obvious that a new policy was necessary.

Not surprisingly, the impetus for such a new policy came from the colony. London was quite content to ignore the whole business, and but for a wholly fortuitous circumstance the old pro-war pattern of piecemeal work undertaken reluctantly in response to pressure from one or another of the colonial authorities would have been repeated. The circumstance in question was the installation of the Duke of Wellington as Master General of His Majesty's Ordnance in 1819. Since the Ordnance was responsible for all fortification, it was the department toward which all colonial schemes tended to converge. Most Masters General had tended to ignore the whole odious business — what was the point of having an Inspector General of Fortifications if not to handle such matters? In this, as in much else, Wellington was exceptional. He was capable of reducing a very complicated problem to a single brilliant memorandum. More importantly, he was the only soldier with sufficient prestige to force the government to take notice of his proposals. He was a very busy man, but somehow, along with the Spanish question, the diplomatic intricacies of the European conference system, the various ills of the royal family and the many other unrelated problems awaiting his attention, he managed to find time for the problem of Canadian defence.

The immediate occasion for Wellington's intervention was the arrival of a long dispatch from the Duke of Richmond, the governor in chief of the Canadas. A vacuum had been created by the collapse of naval strategy and the army had been quick to fill it. Richmond, filtering the reports of his military advisers, had drawn up a comprehensive report on the subject of Canadian defence and had sent it off to London in August 1818. The report, which was concerned exclusively with Upper and Lower Canada, proposed strengthening the works at Quebec, Ile-aux-Noix, Kingston and Montreal, developing canal navigation, defending the Niagara frontier and improving the militia.5 The trouble was that no one took Richmond too seriously. He had impeccable social credentials (he was descended from one of Charles II's illegitimate children), but he was regarded as something of a lightweight — a reputation which was, if anything, reinforced when he had the bad taste to die mysteriously (apparently of rabies) in the Upper Canadian wilderness the following summer. His military reputation was probably worse than his administrative one. Half the army either remembered or had heard about his escapades at Waterloo where, as an interested former officer, he had had the uncanny ability of appearing at the least opportune moment. His report would probably have been forgotten had it not been passed on to Wellington who, having considered it, produced another of his concise and brilliant memoranda.

"I am about to communicate to Your Lordship," Wellington wrote to Bathurst on 1 March 1819, "my opinion upon the plans of defence for these provinces." The memorandum which followed dealt, in eight pages, with everything from the overall strategic concepts involved to the escarp revetment of the fort at Ile-aux-Noix. Wellington abandoned the theory of naval superiority: "It can scarcely be believed that we shall be able to acquire and maintain that naval superiority." He substituted a system of strong points and protected supply routes, and detailed the manner in which the system could be operated in time of war and the quantities of men necessary to do it. It was an entirely defensive strategy, and the two key components were communications and fortification.6

Wellington's analysis was accepted, and for several decades, the 1819 memorandum was the bible of Canadian defence. For the moment, however, there was no attempt made to implement his recommendations systematically. Money was granted for those projects which seemed most urgent — Quebec, the canals and the fort at Ile-aux-Noix. The latter (christened Fort Lennox. Richmond's family name) was something of an ominous sign for the future. Richmond had estimated that the work would cost £10,000. By 1825 it had absorbed £57,000 and was still incomplete.7

In 1825 a crisis in Anglo-American relations caused by the question of the former Spanish colonies in Latin America brought the problem of North American defence to the attention of His Majesty's government once again.8 The government became uncomfortably aware that its entire policy, insofar as it had one, was based on an eight-page memorandum by a man who had never personally been to North America. Wellington himself had the solution: a commission of engineer officers empowered to make a survey of the whole question on the basis of extensive travel in the colonies. Similar commissions had investigated conditions in other colonies since Wellington had taken over the Ordnance department, so there was a precedent. In the case of British North America the idea was particularly appropriate, since there was in fact no local authority (despite the theoretical jurisdiction of the governor in chief) capable of producing a comprehensive survey of all the colonies, In this way the Atlantic seaboard was, for the first time. linked with the Canadas in the strategic reasoning of the British government.

The duke's instructions to his commissioners echoed the considerations outlined in his 1819 memorandum, and added the problems of overland communication from Quebec to New Brunswick and the defence of Saint John, New Brunswick, Halifax and the Atlantic coast as subjects for investigation. In each instance Wellington had provided specific suggestions for the guidance of the officers. In Halifax, for instance, the commissioners were instructed to examine both the harbour defences and "the ground on which Fort George [the Citadel] . . . now stands."9

Wellington chose Sir James Carmichael Smyth as president of the commission. Four years earlier, in recommending Smyth for baronetcy, the duke had described him as "a highly respectable officer [who] has many foreign orders," adding that he had "a very large fortune."10 Smyth had been chief engineer at Waterloo,11 had already headed a similar commission in the West Indies,12 and was shortly to be made a major general at the relatively young age of 46. In short, he was the quintessence of a rising engineer.

Smyth and his two fellow commissioners, Lieutenant Colonel Sir George Hoste and Captain John Harris, toured the colonies in the summer of 1825. The colonial engineer establishment had never seen anything quite like it — a wealthy baronet, backed by the government and bearing personal instructions from the Duke of Wellington. The progress of the commission through the colonies in the summer of 1825 was rather like that of Lord Durham 13 years later. Indeed a comparison between the two is not altogether inapt: both embodied attempts by the British government to bring order to a confusing situation; both represented an expedient which had not been tried before in Canada, and both were to lay the foundations for future policy for years to come.

The commissioners ended their journey at Halifax in September, and there they wrote their report. The report was, for all intents, Wellington's instructions expanded to book length, with specific details on local conditions and estimates of the amount of money needed to implemont each item. The only major difference lay in the commissioners' advocacy of limited offensive operations against the United States if war were to break out (paragraph 52).13 For the rest, the commission recommended major fortresses at Montreal, Kingston. Niagara and Halifax, canalization of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, and a dozen or so lesser works of various sizes from Amherstburg to Annapolis Royal. The total cost of all proposals was estimated at £1,646,218.


The Smyth report now passed into the realm of British politics. Colonial defence was unpopular, and the commission's recommendations seemed likely to provoke an explosion if they came under formal debate in Parliament. The vicissitudes of the report at the hands of successive governments during the following three years reflected both the essential unwillingness of even a Tory administration to risk much over it, and the relative position of Wellington in the changing ministries.

It was a period in which the old Tory party, which had governed England more or less continuously since before the turn of the century, was in the process of slow disintegration. Lord Liverpool had been in power since 1812. His administration was becoming increasingly divided into moderate (Canningite) and extreme (Ultra) factions, and as a result was more and more inclined to avoid provocative action whenever possible. It was this ministry which received the commission's recommendations in December 1825. Accompanying them was a letter from Wellington to Lord Bathurst advocating that the recommendations be acted upon quickly. "I earnestly entreat, then, Your Lordship's attention and that of his Majesty's Government to the enclosed document; and that I may be authorized to have these measures proposed to Parliament in the next session."14

Two months later, Wellington elaborated on the manner in which he proposed to present the recommendation. Noting that it would "be impossible to go before Parliament on this subject without laying before the House, the whole of our scheme," he suggested that the report be communicated to "a secret committee of the House." By this means he hoped to secure approval for the whole scheme. For 1826 he proposed to ask for £100,000, £20,000 of which was to be allocated for Halifax.15

The cabinet had no intention of doing any such thing. Someone had carefully read the Smyth report, and noted that in each recommendation Smyth had instructed the commanding engineer at each station to present a detailed estimate. Would it not be wise to wait for such estimates to arrive? After consultations involving the Clerk of the Ordnance, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Liverpool himself, it was decided to ask for only £25,000 in 1826, all of which was to be spent on the Rideau and Ottawa canals.16

Wellington, writing to Smyth in August 1826, was still optimistic,17 but even as he wrote, the detailed estimates were being received by the Inspector General of Fortifications. The estimates were, to say the least, alarming, most of them exceeding Smyth's own predictions, some of them by phenomenal amounts (see Table 1). The grand total now stood at £2,335,55418 and there was no guarantee that the new figure would be definitive. Perhaps some people at the Ordnance and the Treasury remembered that Fort Lennox had gradually exceeded the original estimate sixfold. It was hardly surprising that the projects fared little better in 1827 than they had in 1826; the government asked for only £56,000 for canals and £5,000 for preparing materials at Kingston.19

Table 1. The Smyth commission: comparison between the costs as estimated by the commissioners and as estimated by the Engineers at the Stations*


1 Grenville canal£20,000£ —

2 Other Ottawa canals50,000£ —

3 Rideau Canal169,000474,844

4 St. John's, Lower Canada50,00048,187

5 Chambly50,000198,289

6 Châteauguay55,00043,033

7 Montreal citadel250,000315,122

8 St. Helen's Island (Ile Ste-Hélène)42,50052,311

9 Fort Henry201,718214,649

10 York50,000132,312

11 Niagara fortress250,000288,746

12 Mouth of the Ouse50,00083,000

13 Chatham50,000117,593

14 Amherstburg62,00067,966

15 Penetanguishene30,00056,632

16 Halifax, Citadel, etc.160,000115,998

17 Needham Hill6,0008,865

18 Fort Clarence40,00032,528

19 Annapolis Royal30,00039,209

20 Windsor30,00031,389

21 Saint John, N.B.14,019


*PAC, RG8, Series II, Vol. 6, part 1, Smyth report; and Ellicombe memorandum of 1 March 1828 in Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur, Duke of Wellington . . . (London: J. Murray, 1867-80), Vol. 3, pp. 81-3.

Even this limited grant caused trouble. In the debate over the Ordnance estimates, one honourable member

alluded to a rumor which he had heard of certain works that were going on in intention to erect a line of forts on the River St. Lawrence. He wished to know whether these projects were to be carried out without any information being given to the House on the subject.20

Sir Henry Hardinge replied for the government. Sir Henry was Clerk of the Ordnance and certainly knew about the Smyth report. Nonetheless he flatly denied the allegation — a fact which indicates how little inclined the government was to bring the report before Parliament. Sir Henry did, however, admit that

there were undoubtedly parts of that territory which required additional defence. With respect to Halifax, for Instance, it was recommended that quarters be provided for a body of troops and a proper building provided for the reception of stores. These measures appeared to be necessary; because if an enemy turned the sea batteries, as the place was at present situated, the town must fall into his power.21

Quarters for a body of troops, and a proper building for the reception of stores; in this (rather unsuitable) disguise the Halifax Citadel project arrived before the British Parliament.

Two months later, the chances of the project receiving a more forthright explanation before the Commons receded still further. In April, Liverpool became incapacitated and the ministry fell apart. Canning, the representative of the left wing of the Tory party, became prime minister and the Ultra wing slunk off into opposition. Although Wellington claimed not to be an Ultra — he fancied himself above party22 — his reaction made even the most diehard Tory blush; he resigned from the supposedly non-political office of commander in chief (which he had acquired when the Duke of York died the preceding January) and pronounced himself disgusted with the whole business. A moderate Tory government holding office with Whig support was, to say the least, highly unlikely to consider spending money on Canadian forts, and with the most prestigious political supporter of the project sulking at Apsley House, even the Ultra Tories were inclined to forget about it.

Canning was ill even before he became prime minister, ironically as the result of a chill contracted at the Duke of York's funeral. In August 1827 he died, plunging the Tory party and the English government into an even deeper crisis. The king cast around for a middle-of-the-road prime minister and decided upon Viscount Goderich. It was not a happy choice. "Goody" Goderich, "as firm as a bull rush"23 was unable to keep his fractious ministers under control. He is remembered, if at all, as the only British prime minister who never faced Parliament.

The king's second choice was only slightly better. Wellington tried to form a middle-of-the-road government, but was only temporarily successful. Whatever else the duke may have been, he was not a politician. Indeed, he confessed when he was still a cabinet minister that he imperfectly understood the workings of the House of Commons.24 In short order he managed to drive the Canningites out of his cabinet in May 1827, and then, by espousing Catholic emancipation, alienated the Ultras as well in 1829. It was inevitable, under a Wellingtonian ministry, that the Canadian defence scheme would got a hearing. During the early stages of the disintegration of the duke's ministry, the Smyth commission's proposals arrived before the Commons.

The occasion was an investigation by a Select Committee on Public Expenditure into the workings of the Ordnance department. To make the sums of money involved seem less formidable, the proposals of the Smyth commission had been grouped into three classes. The first, headed "first and most urgent," included the Halifax Citadel, Kingston and several other works. The total cost of works in this class was estimated at £798,215, although the fine print conceded that the total grant would, "taken in round numbers," amount to £900,000. The cost of the other two classes ("indefinitely postponed" and "entirely postponed") amounted to £533,581 and £528,963 respectively. The grand total for all the works proposed, excluding the Rideau Canal, was £1,860,760.25

It was too much. Even the division of the works into separate classes and the use of such tags as "indefinitely" and "entirely postponed" could not disguise the fact that acceptance of the recommendations could entail the expenditure of anywhere up to £2.5 million in North America, and this at a time when the total budget of the Ordnance department in any given year was only about £1.5 million.26 But a compromise was reached. Of all the proposed works, only the Ottawa-Rideau canals, the fortifications at Kingston and the Halifax Citadel were salvaged.

A few years later, Lord John Russell recollected that, during Wellington's administration,

2,000,000 [pounds] were demanded to be expended in the fortification of Canada. Those with whom he then acted successfully opposed voting away so large a sum. A new committee was appointed and it was intimated that, if those who opposed the former proposal would consent to the works then going on, the 2,000,000 [pounds] would not be pressed.27

If Lord John's memory can be trusted, the ministry had not been entirely candid. Although work on the canals was indeed in progress, the only work at Kingston had been the result of the 1827 grant of £5,000 for the preparation of materials, and nothing whatsoever had been done at Halifax. There are grounds for believing, therefore, that the Halifax Citadel, which first arrived in the Commons as a small untruth, may have passed through the House as the result of a much larger one.


Once a compromise had been reached, the passage of the remains of the government's Canadian defence policy through the Commons was assured. The debate was, nevertheless, a noisy one, with every shade of political opinion in full voice. On 3 July 1828, a supplementary estimate for £330,664 for new works at Kingston and Halifax was placed before the Commons,28 and on 7 July Sir Henry Hardinge, the Secretary at War, moved a series of 22 resolutions for the Ordnance supply, the twenty-first of which read:

Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Committee that a sum not exceeding 30,000 I be granted to His Majesty towards defraying the expenses of military works at Kingston . . . and Halifax . . . upon a estimate [sic] not exceeding, for both these projected works, the sum of 330,6641.29

When the resolution was read, an amendment was proposed:

leaving out the first "that" to the end of the resolution, in order to add the words, "it is imprudent in the present financial condition of this country, to engage in military wars in British North America."30

In the debate which ensued, it was soon evident that the purely military and financial arguments were the least important, although they did occasionally provide some unintentional humour. For example, one Mr. Fitzgerald (a Tory) argued that "Halifax was one of the finest harbours in the world, and as long as we held it and had a canal to carry stores into the interior, the Americans would never again venture to attack us on Lake Ontario."31 One suspects that the majority of the members present were equally ignorant of Canadian geography, and their ignorance made them indifferent to the whole business. They knew only how they were expected to vote.

Most of the speakers in the debate were chiefly interested in the implication of colonial fortifications on the relationship between colony and mother country, and beyond this, in the whole future of colonies. One of the radical speakers, for example, combined a skeptical view of the future with the traditional radical objection to colonies:

There was no certainty he said of our being able to hold Canada. When these works are finished, the colonists might take it into their heads to say we are not satisfied with your government; we wish to be ourselves ...." But, he would ask, of what benefit was Canada to us in a commercial point of view. He would say that, instead of a benefit, it was a disadvantage.32

But this was a relatively superficial speech. The more thoughtful speakers were aware of the political discontent among the colonists, and were concerned that the government was spending a good deal of money on a policy which was, at best, peripheral to the central issues.

Henry Labouchere, a moderate radical, provided a good example of this line of reasoning. He pledged support for the resolution "with this condition — that efforts should be made . . . to give Canada a wise, an efficient and conciliatory government."33 In this he found himself in virtual agreement with Mr. Huskisson, a Canningite, who went one step further and looked forward to the day when there should be an amicable separation between colony and mother country.34

The most articulate statement of this view of the colonial relationship was made by Lord Howick. Howick's statement was particularly appropriate, since it would fall to Howick, later in his career and as the third Earl Grey, to implement the Durham report. Howick suggested that Britain "might in time prepare for separation, not by fortifying the Canadas but by preparing them to be independent."35

The task of summing up for the ministry fell to Robert Peel, the Home Secretary and government leader in the Commons. He presented the proposed fortifications as the most economical means of holding the colonies. He skirted the issue of good colonial government, suggested that the loss of the colonies would have an adverse effect on the empire, and concluded by speculating that, even in the event of separation, "it was by no means certain that this money to improve them with adequate means of defence would be ill expended."36

The amendment was defeated by a majority of 75.37 Shortly thereafter, with the final passage of the Ordnance estimates, the surviving items of the Smyth commission's recommendations were approved by Parliament.


The events of the spring and summer of 1828 marked the first and last occasion when an attempt was made to get Wellington's Canadian defence scheme through Parliament. Thereafter, the only debate was about the mounting expenditure on those items which had been allowed, and this, in time, grew acrimonious. But by then Wellington was in opposition, and the sight of his Whig successors reluctantly defending the remnants of his policy must have been one of the few pleasures he ever derived from the whole business.

In time, as other crises prompted new examinations of the problems of Canadian defence, younger ministers were afraid to approach the old duke. He was rumoured to be bitter about the subject. "He always harks back," Lord Derby explained, "to a plan laid down by himself in 1826. the expense of which was so enormous that all governments have deferred acting upon it."38

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