As the Halifax Common and later the Public Gardens emerged, they became the source of settler civic pride. Of course, the land on which the Public Gardens sits is part of the traditional and contemporary territory of the Mi’kmaq. Before we go any further, it’s important to emphasize that for much longer than it has been the Public Gardens or the Halifax Common, this land was lived on by the Mi’kmaq and was covered by white pine and red oak, bog and ponds—see the previous landmark for more accounts of the Mi’kmaw presence in this area. An emphasis on pride and patriotism shaped nineteenth-century settler descriptions of the Public Gardens; while these accounts give us insight into how this place was thought about at the time, we’ll remember as we go on that these descriptions are rooted firmly in settler, specifically British, understandings and uses of nature, land, and community.
If you’ve ever been to Halifax, you’ve likely caught a glimpse, or at least a mention, of the Public Gardens. It’s hard to miss this long-standing feature of the city. The Gardens are not only centrally located but Haligonians have long been proud of them. Indeed, a central argument for establishing the gardens in the first place was to demonstrate the country’s virtues and instill a sense of patriotism, as gardening historian Alex Wilson explains (qtd by The Friends of the Public Gardens, p. 12).
In the nineteenth century, the Gardens were a frequently discussed feature of the city. In The Canadian Guide-Book (1892), Canadian writer and poet Sir Charles G. D. Roberts describes the Gardens to his tourist and sportsmen audience:
“One of the chief ‘lions’ of Halifax is situated where Spring Garden Road intersects with South Park St. We refer to the beautiful Public Gardens, perhaps the finest in Canada or the Northern States. […] On the picturesque waters of the pond are interesting water-fowl, including black and white swans. On Saturday afternoons a military band plays from four till six; and on summer evenings concerts are often given, when the grounds are brilliantly illuminated. At the western end are tennis-courts” (pp. 224-5).
The Public Gardens are the finest then, not just in Canada but in the Northern States too…a bit of a patriotic jab, there, perhaps? There’s clearly much to boast about: the Gardens’ beauty, wildlife, and entertainment, both musical and athletic. This “lion,” this pride of the city and even the country, is not to be missed.
Civic pride is an important theme in descriptions of the Gardens. It is, after all, through local Halifax effort that nature has been skillfully reordered into this symbol of the city’s success and refinement. Many writers highlight the cultivated, landscaped quality of the Gardens. Take the editor of the Halifax Witness describing the Gardens in 1869, for example:
“Near the city of the dead [the Camp Hill Cemetery] is the public garden, brightly blooming, now, showing richly the result of skill and enterprise and ever watchful care” (Stewart’s Literary p. 261).
Then American travel writer Anna L. Ward wrote in 1888 that:
“The Public Horticultural Gardens, on Spring Garden Road, in the very heart of the city, are extensive and tastefully laid out. They are well cared for, and will repay many an hour, or many a day, spent in strolling amid their flowery fragrance” (p. 28).
And here’s Charles G. D. Roberts again:
“The grounds cover 18 acres, and are most tastefully laid out and adorned, besides being endowed with great natural beauty to begin with” (p. 224).
The three writers quoted above all mention the Gardens’ “great natural beauty,” but they also emphasize the “skill,” “enterprise,” and “care” taken to carefully and tastefully lay out these grounds. The Victorian Public Gardens are, perhaps above all, a testament to human reordering of natural environments. The Gardens allowed Halifax to signal a new era in its development, showcasing the city’s good taste and ability to afford a garden focused on beauty and pleasure. Boston, for example, had developed its Common, and its adjacent Public Gardens, into a renowned symbol of civic vitality. Philadelphia was known for its gardens.
Of course, there’s an underside to all this beautiful cultivation. In the nineteenth century, this civic pride was only accessible by a specific swathe of Halifax residents. The Mi’kmaq and their way of life had largely disappeared from this particular area. And for some of their history, the Gardens were only accessible to members or those who could afford an entrance fee (see a previous landmark for more on this); even when the Gardens became more public, certain features like the skating rink (coming up in a later landmark) were accessible only to the well-heeled. For some of their history anyway, the Gardens were a place for the wealthy and fashionable to see and be seen, just like Old World urban green spaces like London’s Hyde Park.
Editor of the Halifax Witness. “Halifax Scenery.” Stewart’s Literary Quarterly Magazine 3.3 (Oct. 1869): pp. 259-64. Canadiana.ca, 2019.
Roberts, Charles G. D. “Halifax.” The Canadian Guide-book. A Guide to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland, including Full Descriptions of Routes, Cities, Points of Interest, Summer Resorts, Information for Sportsmen, Etc. New York: D. Appleton, 1891, pp. 218-38. Canadiana.ca, 2019.
Wilson, Alex. “The Public Gardens of Halifax, Nova Scotia.” The Journal of Garden History 3. 3 (2012): pp. 179–192. Qtd in The Friends of the Public Gardens. The Halifax Public Gardens. Halifax: The Halifax Public Gardens, 2013. p. 12.
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