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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

". . . I now think I made a little too free with the Climate . . ."


In the hierarchy of the Ordnance in London, the office most directly concerned with the Halifax Citadel was that of the Inspector General of Fortifications. Like so much else about the Ordnance, the title was something of a misnomer. The Inspector General in fact supervised all the activities of the three Ordnance corps — the Corps of Royal Engineers, the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and the Corps of Sappers and Miners. Fortification was only one of the Inspector General's responsibilities. He could not make major administrative decisions (i.e., those involving policy or money or both). These were referred, through the Secretary of the Ordnance, to the Master General and Honourable Board of His Majesty's Ordnance. Theoretically the process was simple enough; the secretary was to lay the matter, whatever it was, before the Master General and board and the latter two were to render a decision. But in reality the process was somewhat different. Despite the impossing formulation, the Master General (invariably a soldier) and the civilian board rarely had much to do with each other, and neither, in most cases, actually made decisions. The important figure in most transactions between the Inspector General and the board was an intermediary, the secretary (properly, the Secretary to the Board of Ordnance). This gentleman was the permanent departmental under-secretary, roughly the equivalent of a modern deputy minister, and his recommendations were usually accepted.

An example will serve to illustrate the workings of the department. The Commanding Royal Engineer at a station would address himself directly to the Inspector General. If a decision was necessary, the Inspector General would write to the secretary, enclosing the engineer's letter and any other documents he considered relevant, giving his opinion and requesting a decision. The secretary would then go through the motions of presenting the case to the Master General and board. In some instances, if the matter was sufficiently important, the Master General would either write a memorandum on the subject or would minute the margin of the engineer's letter. The secretary would then compose a short letter rendering the decision and return it, along with the original correspondence and any marginal annotations acquired since, to the Inspector General, who would then refer it to one of his deputies for transmission back to the station. The whole process could take only a few days. More commonly it took months and occasionally years.

In the summer of 1828, the key positions in the Ordnance were held as follows:

Inspector General of Fortifications: General Gother Mann
Deputy Inspector General: Major General Sir Alexander Bryce
Secretary to the Board of Ordnance: Richard Byham
Brigade Major, Corps of Royal Engineers; Lieutenant General Charles Grene Ellicombe

The Master General, Lord Boresford, had held office for only a few months, and Byham only since 1827. Mann, who had been an engineer for 65 years, Inspector General for 17, and a full general for 7, was, for the moment, the most powerful man in the Ordnance.1


The Inspector General's office acknowledged receipt of Nicolls's Citadel scheme on 21 March 1826.2 Nothing further was heard on the subject for more than two years. Mann contented himself with referring the plans to Sir James Carmichael Smyth for comment, and, when the latter pronounced himself satisfied,3 allowed the subject to drop. It was not until parliamentary approval of the necessary funds was imminent that Mann formally submitted the scheme to the Master General and board for approval.4 His accompanying letter was terse. "I concur with the opinion of Sir James Carmichael Smyth of its [the plan's] fitness for the situation and that the estimated expense, £115,999 appears moderate and, if the measure be adopted, one of great economy." Despite the fact that it was already almost July, he proposed to ask for £15,000 for construction in the current year.

The Master General was in complete agreement. His only contribution was a comment on building methods appropriate to North America. "No more length of work should be laid down than could be completed to the top during the season as covering it for the winter frost occupies much time and is very expensive."5 In fact, no one connected with the higher reaches of the Ordnance seemed to be too concerned about the project. The following day, 17 July 1828, Byham dispatched the letter of approval of the project to the Inspector General.6

Before sending the letter on to Halifax, Bryce appended a couple of suggestions as to how the scheme could be improved. The most important one concerned the cavaliers.

[Colonel Nicolls] is requested to consider whether it might not be advisable to construct the casemated cavaliers in four distinct positions . . . placing one in each Bastion across the Capitals . . . [this] would . . . have the advantage of furnishing a powerful Blockhouse or retrenchment in each Bastion without lessening in any degree the accommodation for Troops & Stores.7

This was London's only quibble with the proposals, and it was added, almost as an afterthought, on the same day that Colonel Ellicombe drew up the covering letter for transmission to Nicolls. Approval had taken only 36 days. Never again would a major decision regarding the Citadel be made so quickly.


For almost three years, the Citadel project had been in limbo. Now that official approval had finally been granted, a whole host of difficulties had to be dealt with. For the remainder of the 1828 working season, Nicolls confined himself to doing some preliminary excavation and addressed himself to the formidable task of finding the materials and workmen necessary to begin building in the following year. In October he sent a progress report to London.

I have made a commencement in excavating the ditch of the West Ravelin which being the lowest part of the West front (the most important) it is necessary should be first excavated in order to afford free water course for what would otherwise be pent up in the ditch.8

He detailed what he proposed to construct in the following year: the west ravelin counterscarp and part of the west escarp. The first was to be built by soldiers (Royal Sappers and Minoes and artificers from the line regiments) and the second by civilian contract.

Nicolls anticipated trouble in procuring enough skilled workmen, so much so that he recommended hiring 20 civilian masons in England and shipping them to Halifax for the working season. He also noted that there were only two brick-makers in Halifax and that local supplies were, in consequence, both insufficient and excessively expensive. He therefore recommended that 100,000 bricks be sent out from England. He concluded his report by agreeing with the Master General's directive about construction methods, but noted that an exception would have to be made in the case of the cavaliers, since "it would not be advisable to construct the whole in one season. . . [The] arch part, which must thereby be done late in the season would never become thoroughly dry, or might even yet be affected by the frost." He proposed erecting the cavalier up to the springing of the arches in one season and turning the arches in the following spring. He did not think that this would be either dangerous or expensive, since the standing walls could be protected for the winter by the scaffolding.

In a second letter, Nicolls dealt with Bryce's suggested alterations to the cavalier. Those he rejected. He considered the northern and western cavaliers to be necessary, the one to cover Camp Hill and the other to enfilade Needham Hill; their function would be impaired by placing them across the capitals of the bastions. He did, however, admit that a third cavalier facing Fort Massey Hill to the south might be desirable, and suggested splitting the north cavalier, leaving four of its seven arches in the original location and removing the other three to the south end of the fort. He concluded,

this division might keep the defence more in equilibrio, but will cause some increase of expense, requiring 2 additional abutments 8 ft. thick — instead of one centre pier of 4. . . .

By allowing the [west] Cavalier B to remain on its present site and dividing [the north cavalier] A into two [north] A, & [south] K, each flanking [the west] B and being flanked by it, it would only be necessary in time of war and alarm, to build up and loop hole their lower doors and windows to form a most powerful Retrenchment within Fort George; which Work is on too small a scale to render a Retrenchment in each Bastion necessary.

The last paragraph of the letter was pure Nicolls;

In offering these explanations, it is with much deference I differ in opinion with Sir Alexander Bryce, even though that difference is in the local, in the principles recommended in his suggestions I entirely concur.9

In fact, Bryce's suggestion was ill-suited to the realities of the site, and Nicolls had made a perfectly adequate rebuttal of it. Nicolls conceived of the cavaliers as gun platforms directed at specific targets and placed them accordingly. Bryce's conception of them as redoubts was more than a little ridiculous, given the situation. Examples of a garrison continuing to hold out when the enemy was busily engaged in setting up gun positions in the interior of the nearly captured fortress were rare, especially so in the case of a work as comparatively tiny as the Citadel. Nevertheless, Nicolls felt obliged to whitewash his difference of opinion, first by subscribing to the redoubt theory, and second by denying that any such difference existed.

As it happened, Bryce and Mann never noticed the difference. What did strike them forcibly was that Nicolls had used that ominous phrase, "increase of expense." A terse reply was drafted within days of the arrival of Nicolls's letter. General Mann agreed with Nicolls's proposal and requested an estimate. "provided it should not exceed the expense originally estimated."10 Nicolls was given no indication of how this could be done. Once again, in an attempt to please his superiors, he had talked himself into a corner.

7 Ground plan of the Citadel in October 1828, Colonel Nicoll's original design. It was drawn at the end of the first working season and shows the progress of the work. (Public Archives of Canada.)

8 "Escarp to be taken down" and "Escarp proposed," 1834. The escarp to be taken down was built to the specifications of the 1828 contracts. The escarp proposed was the final variation on the standard escarp used to replace earlier failures. (Public Archives of Canada.)


Nicolls spent the remainder of the winter of 1828-29 attempting to solve the problems outlined in his letter to Mann. His task was made easier by the fact that his request for stores and civilian masons from England was quickly granted (although the wording of the letter left in doubt the number of masons to be hired),11 but by this time another difficulty had arisen. Up to that point the Engineer department in Halifax had apparently never owned a quarry. In November, Nicolls wrote to Mann outlining the steps he had taken to get possession of a suitable site in Purcell Cove. The property had been escheated to the crown in the preceding year. Nicolls needed money to develop it — specifically £47 10s. 10-1 /4d. for a wharf and roads, and he now requested that London approve the expenditure.12

While he waited for a reply, Nicolls turned to the business of finding a civilian contractor for the escarp wall. Early in November tenders had been called.13 It had been specified that no builder could contract for less than 300 feet, that the work was subject to the inspection of the Engineer department, and that the contractor was to supply his own scaffolding and materials, except for the stone itself, which was to be ironstone from the department's quarry. On 6 December, Mr. William Flinn contracted to build 400 feet of escarp on the terms specified at 12s. 9d. per perch.14 (A perch of masonry was 24.75 cubic feet.) A bond of £1,000 sterling was posted by Messrs. Barron and Trider, guaranteeing performance of the contract. A few days later, a second contract was let to Mr. Peter Hays. The second contract was identical except that, for some reason, Hays got a better deal 13s. 8-1/2d. per perch.15 The wording of the contracts was vague enough to give rise to questions about their legality some years later (see below), but for the moment Nicolls's immediate problems were solved.

There remained the question of the labour force. A large proportion of the force was drawn from the garrison regiments, and Nicolls depended on the good will of the general officer commanding to ensure an adequate supply of workmen from this source. Throughout the winter, Nicolls had supposed that his major problem would be to find enough civilian labourers. In early May he got a nasty jolt. His brother officers were less than enthusiastic about cooperating. A routine request for an increase in the Citadel working party from 100 to 150 regular soldiers touched off a row when Lieutenant Colonel Harris, the deputy adjutant general, revealed that Lieutenant General Maitland, commanding the forces in Nova Scotia, was unhappy about the number of men engaged in work parties.

It appears ... that from the number of Soldiers employed in the Public Departments either as Workmen or on Fatigue, the daily Casualties and Garrison guards, the united strength of the three Regiments would amount to no more than 428 Privates, for all purposes of drill and other Military instruction during the Summer.16

General Maitland disliked having an insufficient number of soldiers to drill and, as a result, decided to cancel all working parties on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the remainder of the summer.

This bombshell came on the very day when Nicolls had written a letter to one of the regimental colonels complaining that his men habitually arrived late and unattended by an officer, the officer "not arriving until some time afterwards."17 Maitland's decision roused Nicolls to one of his few recorded examples of tactlessness. He replied to Harris, comparing the new attitude unfavourably with the cooperation he had received from Sir James Kempt (Maitland's predecessor), complaining that work would be slowed up under the new policy and requesting that at least a token force of necessary artificers be exempted from the ban.18 The next day Nicolls repented of his rashness and wrote a more conciliatory epistle,19 but by then it was too late. Maitland refused to rescind his order and it stood for the rest of the summer, although the general did relent to the extent of taking 10 men from the Georges Island work party and putting them to work on the Citadel at the end of May.20

On 24 June a company of the Royal Sappers and Miners and members of the Royal Staff Corps arrived.21 If Nicolls expected them to alleviate the labour situation to any degree, he was mistaken. Less than two months later he was complaining bitterly about their abilities.

I by no means receive the assistance I expected from the 18th Company of Royal Sappers & Miners, lately sent to this Place. — it is generally deficient in good Workmen, and particularly so in Masons and Bricklayers; the non-Commissioned officers are but of comparatively little service on the works, the two Serjeants being Collar Makers, and the rest not particularly skilful in their trades.22

He suggested that the vacant positions in the company be filled with skilled masons and bricklayers; otherwise it would be necessary to hire a civilian foreman "at additional expense." In the final paragraph of the letter, Nicolls had comments to make on the quality of the garrison soldiers as labourers.

The Staff Corps possesses some very good artificers, but I have kept them as much by themselves as the Service would admit, as it seems natural that Soldiers paid whether they work or not, and others paid according to their diligence and attention [i.e., the Staff Corps] are not likely to mingle well together.

The soldiers who were "paid whether they worked or not" caused at least one incident with a civilian contractor in the course of the summer. Mr. Patrick Kelly, a carter, complained that he was being harassed by both the foreman and the working parties. The former was forcing him to overload his cart in violation of his contract. He claimed that one of the latter had threatened that

if they did not get rum from me they would break my trucks in loading and this they expressed in the presence of the Overseer of Labourers, whom I called upon to prevent such conduct, he made light of my entreaties and said he could do nothing about it.23

Unfortunately for Mr. Kelly, his complaint fell on deaf ears. By the time it was written, Nicolls was convinced that the contractors were at least as much trouble as the troops, and was not at all well-disposed toward them.

In fact, by the end of the summer, Nicolls's relationship with his civilian contractors was beginning to resemble a farce with paranoiac overtones. The colonel had become convinced that most of the contractors were cheating, and laboured mightily to prove it. He had the trucks weighed, the hogsheads measured and the stones counted. Unfortunately for his peace of mind, every time he thought he had proved his case, he found himself thwarted by the deputy commissary general, George Damerum. It was Damerum's business to negotiate contracts and oversee the contractors, and it was his increasingly unpleasant task to demonstrate to Nicolls's satisfaction that most of the illegalities were, in fact, nothing more than misunderstandings.

As an example (admittedly an extreme one), take the case of William Roach, the contractor for lime. Nicolls, on measuring one of Roach's hogsheads, found it to contain less than he thought it should.24 The difficulty lay in the fact that the definition of a hogshead, as set forth in the statutes of Nova Scotia, had inadvertently been carried over into the contract. According to the Nova Scotian government, a hogshead contained "8 Winchester bushels or 96 gallons."25 Unfortunately the two measurements were not the same; 96 gallons was somewhat larger than 8 Winchester bushels. Roach insisted on the bushels,26 while Nicolls held out for the gallons. No amount of persuasion from Damerum and ultimately from the general officer commanding could convince Nicolls that Roach in fact had a case. The correspondence on the subject dragged on into November and was finally settled by compromise only after Nicolls threatened to take the case all the way to the Treasury.

When the working season finally came to an end in mid-November27 everyone was vastly relieved. While all concerned recognized that it had been an exceptionally bad year, they hoped that this only reflected the inevitable difficulties arising from the commencement of a major work. The next season, 1830, would see better results.


One reflection of the season's difficulties was the financial balance sheet. Parliament had granted £15,000 in 1828 and a further £15,000 in 1829,28 for a total of £30,000. Of this only £10,595 had been spent.29 Despite this, neither Nicolls nor London was unduly alarmed. In fact, Nicolls requested and got £20,456 18s. 1d. on the Citadel account in the annual estimate for 1830-31, the largest amount ever granted in a single year for the project.30

One reason for optimism was that the two masonry contractors had managed to build their allotted portions of escarp within the required time. The system having worked so well, Nicolls saw no reason to change it. On 15 October Nicolls issued a specification for 1,000 feet of escarp; the wording of the specification was, in most respects, identical to that of the previous year.31 The first contract was let to Mr. John Metzler on 8 December. It was for 500 feet of escarp at the rate of 12s. 7d. per perch.32 The contract for the other 500 feet went to Peter Hays, who once again managed to get a better rate — 13s. 7-1 /2d. per perch.33

The working season opened early in May with the usual wrangle with Harris about the number of men available for the working party.34 Once work had begun, however, things went relatively smoothly. There were the usual problems with the labour force, but not to the same extent as in the previous summer. Similarly there were few open disputes about contracting. Nicolls contented himself with a protest to London over the wording of Damerum's contracts for truckage and supply (the building contracts had been largely the colonel's own doing). Damerum's contracts were, Nicolls contended, imperfectly worded and were open to criticism on that score.35 Viewed in the light of subsequent developments, this was an ironic complaint.

By the end of the working season, much had been accomplished. A good index of the progress was the rate of expenditure. The work had cost £18,375 in 1830,36 almost twice as much as had been spent in the two previous years put together. While it was true that neither of the two contractors quite completed the required 500 feet of escarp. Nicolls and the Engineer department were in a forgiving mood. On 4 November Peter Hays signed his third consecutive contract with the department, agreeing to complete the portion of the work left unfinished in 1830 and to build another 320 feet of escarp the next year, all for the price of 13s. 7-1 /2d. a perch.37 Four days later Mr. Metzler signed a similar contract; he agreed to complete his portion of the unfinished wall and to build an additional 186 feet. He was to receive the same rate as Hays.38 Both contracts were awarded on Nicolls's recommendation, without further tenders being called.39

The respective officers (Nicolls and other Ordnance staff) defended their actions on the grounds of continuity. There was no point in calling for new tenders, they argued; work by an experienced builder with knowledge of the project was safer and in the long run more economical than work by a new contractor.40 Colonel Nicolls pronounced himself completely satisfied with the work done by Hays and Metzler.41 The reports of both the respective officers and of Nicolls himself made special mention of the "well-shaped large stones" which Mr. Hays used.

Then, on 9 December, 50 feet of escarp in the southwest bastion, which had been built by Flinn in 1829, suddenly collapsed.42 This was bad but not disastrous; Flinn was not, after all, one of the favourite contractors. If it could be proved that the collapse was the result of faulty workmanship, Nicholls had nothing to fear. He promptly submitted the documents relevant to the case to S. G. W. Archibald, the solicitor general of the province, to see whether legal action could be taken, Archibald replied on Christmas Eve. He was not encouraging.

I have carefully examined enclosed to me . . . and I am of the opinion under the Contract and the manner in which it was agreed that it should be executed that there would be great difficulty in this case of compelling the Contractor either to rebuild the wall . . . or to answer in damages for such rebuilding.43

Even if Archibald had been more optimistic, it would have been little comfort for Nicolls. Two days earlier 70 feet of Hays's wall in the northwest bastion had also collapsed.44 It must have been a very gloomy Christmas for the colonel.

It was not until 28 January that Nicolls addressed himself to the odious task of conveying the bad news to London.45 The failure of Flinn's work was the easiest to explain; it had bulged as early as November 1829, and in consequence Nicolls had refused to give Flinn another contract. The work had been clearly defective from the start, although the legal situation was such that criminal prosecution was impossible. Hays's work was another matter. Nicolls was at a loss to suggest an explanation, though he did suggest that the stones used had perhaps been too small. Then, too, the climate was so damp that the mortar had never set properly. He noted the improvements which had been made in 1830 in terms of the thickness of the wall and the quality of the stone, and stated that he entertained no fears about the durability of the work built in that year. To strengthen subsequent building still further, he recommended thickening the escarp sections and using cement to point the faces. He noted that he had used contractors for reasons of economy and speed, since the reserves of military manpower were insufficient to build at so fast a rate. He concluded,

It is with much regret I have to bring a Report of the foregoing nature before you; and beg to assure you that I shall use my best endeavours to profit by the experience gained in the last two Years, and adopt circumstances as much as possible to this Climate, so very unfavourable for building massive walls to retain moistened earth. . . .

I entertain hopes that the Hill will still be completed for the sum originally estimated.

Unfortunately the memoranda and letters sent in reply to this letter are missing. One suspects that they made unpleasant reading. We do know that the Board of Ordnance was at the point of approving a grant of £14,931 on the Citadel account for the 1831-32 season when Nicolls's letter arrived, and that the amount was cut to £4,989, ostensibly because of the unexpended balances.46 We can infer from Nicolls's reply to the missing letters that he was instructed to stop using contract masons after the expiration of the current (1831) contracts. We also know that Colonel Ellicombe addressed a personal letter to Nicolls, and we have Nicolls's reply. It is resigned and almost whimsical in tone.

Dear Ellicombe

I view your note of 2d March as kindly intended — and therefore thank you for it — However, I entertain little apprehension for any thing built at Fort George since 1829, in which year I now think I made a little too free with the Climate — but . . . I have written officially and fully on the subject . . . and there is little pleasure in repetition of this nature. . . .

We are hard at work at the Hill — but we get no Military artisans or Labourers, except Sappers and Staff Corps either for it or the Barrack service, on Wednesdays & Saturdays— This helps to increase the expense considerably, perhaps you could inform me whether this is according to the spirit of the times, and general custom where there are considerable Works carrying on.47

Nicolls's official response took the form of a letter and two estimates for the work which he had intended to have Messrs. Hays and Metzler do in the 1831 working season. The first was for 372 foot of north ravelin escarp; the second for 186 feet of curtain. The new estimates, which took into account both increased dimensions and the use of military labour, exceeded the old by a total of £957.48 The plans were rejected. Fanshawe (the new brigade major) wrote on 29 June,

Sir Alexander desires me to say that he by no means feels confident with a climate such as that of Halifax that the revetments erected in 1830 are sufficient, and further that he cannot sanction the construction of revetments at Halifax of a less mean thickness than that used by Vauban, whose dimensions have now the advantage of long experience over any calculations that rests [sic] in some degree on theoretical data.49

Despite the uncertainty about the future, the working season progressed as efficiently in 1831 as it had the proceeding summer. In fact the department managed to spend £1,000 more in the course of 1831 than it had in 1830.50 But it was clear by the end of the summer that some sort of settled policy on escarp sections was necessary before the work could progress much further. It was also clear that London was no longer disposed to listen to Nicolls, and it came as no surprise when he was transferred to Quebec.

Nicolls made one last gesture. On the plan accompanying the progress report dispatched on 3 September, he proposed a drastic alteration to the eastern front — the abandonment of the ravelin and the substitution of a redan. His explanation of the proposal was brief. It would, he said, afford greater interior space and improve external fire. It provided the ditch with flanking fire "as good or better than that done away with." Finally the cost would be about the same as that of the original proposal.51

London's reply was equally brief and requested plans and a detailed estimate.52 It arrived on the same boat as Colonel Nicolls's successor.

9 "Elevation of Gorge of West Ravelin," 1832. The failed ravelin as it appeared to Colonel Boteler. (Public Record Office, London.)

10 "Plan of Fort George," 1832. This is probably the best large-scale plan of the Citadel in its original form, and was drawn to accompany Colonel Boteler's letter of 14 January 1832. Appended to this version is a list detailing the state of the work in January 1833. (Public Record Office, London.)

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