Halifax’s Public Gardens may not have been open to everyone, all the time, but the Gardens certainly catered to many tastes. The Gardens have been the site of agricultural shows, concerts, public readings, and more informal meetings: strolls, picture-taking, and chance encounters. Now we’ll look at some of the fun to be had in the nineteenth-century Gardens.
During a busy few days in 1853, the Gardens became a rural oasis in the city, as described in The Provincial; or, Halifax Monthly Magazine’s gossip column:
“On the 5th [of October] the Agricultural Exhibition was opened at Halifax, and held in the gardens of the Horticultural Society. It had been preceded by a Ploughing Match on the 3rd, held at Willow Park, and an exhibition of fireworks on the evening of that day. The exhibition of live stock, grain, fruit, and vegetables, was creditable to the country. A large number from both country and town visited it during the two days, and all expressed great satisfaction at the result. A dinner was held on the 5th at Mason Hall, and an exhibition of fireworks terminated the day’s proceedings” (p. 439).
It was clearly a busy few days—with many exhibitions—including much activity in the Gardens.
Leisure and sociability in the Gardens have long focused on music. If you’ve ever been to a public concert in the Gardens—in the twenty-first century, the Friends of the Public Gardens continue to organize concerts throughout the summer—you’re actually part of a very long tradition. The music-filled summer atmosphere of the nineteenth-century Gardens is evoked by Canadian writer Sir Charles G. D. Roberts in his 1892 Canadian Guide-Book:
“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” (p. 224).
Visitors to the Gardens not only listened to music but got in on the fun themselves:
“There were patriotic concerts in the Public Gardens with music by militia bands, with water sports on the big duck pond, and hundreds of couples dancing on the lawns to the sedate tunes of Buchanan’s Orchestra” (p. 229).
That is how Nova Scotian historian, Thomas Raddall, looked back on the nineteenth-century Gardens, sketching out an active, happy space.
American writer, Anna Ward, visited the Gardens in the nineteenth century and celebrated the fun and fashion of the Gardens’ music days:
“Especially are the gardens attractive on ‘music days’—every Saturday afternoon during the Summer—when the garrison bands furnish charming music to a home audience, who thoroughly enjoy the privilege. If the stranger would see the people of the city and study their characteristics, he cannot do it to better advantage elsewhere. The scene is a gay one. In addition to the bright-colored costumes of the ladies, there are the scarlet coats of the military, their wearers strolling about the walks or lolling upon the benches that are plentifully provided at every turn” (p. 28).
Ward emphasizes the human activity, the whirl of people and activities, the colours of fashions and fireworks, the sounds of music and voices. In this description, it is clear that the Gardens are definitely urban green spaces, a vital part of Halifax's social life. Today the brightly coloured costumes are still here but more likely to be worn by bridal parties, prom goers, and cruise ship passengers. But the parade of colour remains, as do the music, the walkways, the benches. So come take a stroll, a rest, or maybe a picture: the gardens are full of photo ops too.
“Our Monthly Gossip.” The Provincial; or, Halifax Monthly Magazine 2.11 (1853): p. 439. Canadiana.ca, 2019.
Raddall, Thomas. Halifax: Warden of the North. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965.
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.
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