For most of this area’s history—long before the Public Gardens or the Halifax Common existed—the Mi’kmaq lived, and fished and hunted, amidst trees, bogs, and ponds here. In the next Public Gardens landmark, we’ll hear more about this hunting and fishing, including a story of the last person, a Mi’kmaw man, Joe Toney, to kill a moose on the Common. Through various developments, this land was utterly transformed as the Common and later the Public Gardens emerged. By the nineteenth century, the Public Gardens had become a site of highly cultivated nature, civic pride, and leisure pursuits.
In 1763, King George III set aside two hundred and thirty-five acres for a Common, which initially stretched from Cunard Street (in the north) to South Street. North American colonies frequently designated common lands for diverse uses such as cattle grazing, hosting markets, and military training. Halifax was no different. By all reports, the area consisted mainly of bad soil, small trees, and marsh land, but locals made the best of it, growing crops, pasturing animals, and even building dwellings. By the nineteenth century, Haligonians had begun discussing another important aspect of common land: the right of citizens to access such lands for fresh air and exercise. And as Halifax grew in size and importance on the world stage, its leading residents began to look to the Common as a way to show off their city’s and country’s beauty.
But where are the Public Gardens in all this? Well from the animating ideal of highlighting local beauty and acknowledging the benefits of common lands, the Public Gardens emerged in stages. First, the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society, led by politician and journalist, Joseph Howe, was established in 1836. Howe had long argued for public gardens on educational grounds: they were pleasant places where the public could learn about and better appreciate flowers and horticultural science. The Society secured land from the city along Spring Garden Road, establishing the Horticultural Gardens, also called the People’s Garden, in 1841.
Initially open to the public and geared towards education, the People’s Garden became too expensive to run as a free, public space. Within a decade of being established, the Garden became a commercial endeavour. Plants were harvested and sold here, and while the Society’s members and guests could come and go, the general public could enter the Garden only once a week, for a fee. In other words, the Horticultural Society did not grant full-time access to the public. This move reflects wider trends on the Halifax Common: various pieces of the Common were being sold into private control throughout the nineteenth century. While there was less publicly accessible land, there were major developments that some (wealthier) members of the public enjoyed, including a cricket club, a covered ice rink, and the Wanderers’ Amateur Athletic Club.
A second step towards the creation of today’s Public Gardens comes from another leading Halifax citizen, John McCulloch, silversmith and city alderman. McCulloch opened an adjacent public garden open to all (this was in 1866). The third major step in the Public Gardens’ development happened in 1874. McCulloch’s public gardens merged with Howe’s Horticultural Gardens/People’s Garden (as well as some adjacent swampy wetland!) to form a larger, truly public, city-owned garden.
While the Gardens had achieved their full size, many embellishments and improvements were added over the years. As part of what Nova Scotia historian Thomas Raddall calls an “awakening of culture” in Halifax, features like the wrought-iron gates and a large, “ornate bandstand,” hosting “excellent bands,” were added to the Gardens (Halifax: Warden of the North p. 224-5). The bandstand, in particular, was a major draw for the public, as you will find out if you visit some of the other Public Gardens landmarks on this tour. Even in the twenty-first century, the Friends of the Public Gardens carefully maintain the Gardens’ Victorian character.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, the Halifax Public Gardens were internationally recognized for their elegance, beauty, and music. On the Public Gardens tour, you’ll find writers from different countries and continents praising the Gardens. Canadian writers like James Macdonald Oxley (from Halifax) and Charles G.D. Roberts (from New Brunswick; later a Nova Scotia resident) relay a palpable civic and national pride as they describe this Halifax achievement. Visitors and tourists, too, take note of the Gardens. American writer and world traveller Anna L. Ward, for example, writes of multiple days spent strolling amongst the flowers. And writers have some (writerly) fun, too. Francis Duncan can’t help but point out that the Horticultural Gardens are “a place with a tautological name” (p. 31). In other words, the Horticultural Gardens might as well call itself Garden Gardens.
The Gardens have other literary connections: just outside the gates and across Spring Garden Road is Victoria Park. Victoria Park boasts statues of the Scottish literary giants, Robbie Burns and Sir Walter Scott, linking New Scotland (or Nova Scotia) to Scotland. Meanwhile, Hugh MacLennan, author of Two Solitudes and the great Halifax novel Barometre Rising, grew up on South Park Street just outside the Gardens; while his childhood home survived the 1917 Halifax Explosion that he would later chronicle in Barometre Rising, the house was bulldozed to make way for extra parking at the CBC building, itself now replaced by a new condo building, as the Friends of the Public Gardens explain (p. 82).
Literary figures meet folk tales and ghost stories here. In their long history, the Gardens have not been immune to strange, sinister occurrences. One of the Gardens’ main features—the pond with the replica miniature Titanic—is called Griffin’s pond not to honour a statesman or philanthropist but after a Lawrence Griffin hung for murder in 1822. Public executions occurred on the Common close to where the Gardens now are and Griffin is buried in nearby Camp Hill cemetery where, as the Friends of the Public Gardens, suggest “it is no distance for the ghostly remains of Lawrence Griffin to find repose around the pond that ever since has borne his name” (p. 74).
So while today we think of flowers and leisurely strolls in the Public Gardens, it has been the site of much human drama, of survival and death, sustenance and recreation, natural beauty and supernatural stories. The Public Gardens raise contradictions as the site of organized nature, privatized public space, exclusive community gatherings. Listen carefully to the different ways that our writers address these tensions.
But there is one point of agreement from almost everyone: the Public Gardens are beautiful. If you’ve seen the Gardens in person, it will be easy to recognize, in these texts, the pleasure that comes from describing a place that really feels special and provides quiet solace in the midst of a busy, noisy city.
Cameron, Peggy. “Foreword.” Writing the Common. Poetry Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Halifax Common, 1763-2013. Gaspereau Press Limited, Kentville, N.S.,
Duncan, Francis. Our Garrisons in the West: Or, Sketches in British North America. London: Chapman and Hall, 1864.
Raddall, Thomas. Halifax: Warden of the North. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965.
The Friends of the Public Gardens. The Halifax Public Gardens. Halifax: The Halifax Public Gardens, 2013.
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