Halifax, established in 1749 by Britain to counter rival French presence in the region required defending against French attack in the years following its founding. Halifax Harbour itself, one of the largest natural harbours in the world, needed a series of forts and gun batteries to fend off a potential invasion from the sea. At its widest point the inner harbour spans over 1¼ miles (2 kilometres); and the channel east of McNab’s Island (Eastern Passage) provided a possible entry route via which a seaborne enemy could avoid the main harbour entrance to gain access to the town and naval anchorage.A fortification therefore was required on the Dartmouth side of the harbour to work in partnership with Georges Island to defend the inner harbour.
The Eastern Battery was constructed in 1754 on a promontory on the shore directly east of Georges Island. Designed by Governor Edward Cornwallis’ principal engineer John Brewse, the fortification stood 35 to 40 feet above sea level and consisted initially of a small battery of seven 12-pounder smooth bore cannon mounted by the end of October that year. This was improved shortly afterwards by the addition of a number of 24-pounders, in place by January 1755, giving an effective range of about 1,200 to 1,500 yards (1,000 to 1,300 metres). Some 50 to 60 gunners were stationed in the battery, and a jetty stood about 200 yards to its northwest, used during construction and for resupply.
During this period relations between the French and English had deteriorated and war was expected at any time. The Seven Years’ War broke out in 1756 and Haligonians prepared for French attack they thought could come at any time. The capture of St. John’s, Newfoundland by the French in 1762 led to repairs to the walls of the battery, but Halifax was not attacked. When the war ended in 1763 work stopped on all fortifications. Over the next twelve years Eastern Battery and other earthworks became run down.
By the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) the Eastern Battery had assumed the two-part form it would resemble for over a century: a powerful lower battery along the water’s edge with a supporting fort above and just behind. At this time the lower battery consisted of a blunted redan, a straight 360 foot (110 metre) long forward-facing section with two short flanks, mounting a total of fifteen 24-pounders. Behind this, on higher ground stood a four-sided earthen fort, an elongated redoubt with demi-bastions at the western corners, known later as the upper battery. A large H-shaped barracks building was constructed within the fort, similar in form and appearance to Fort Anne in Annapolis Royal. This later served as a temporary magazine for all Halifax, with nearly 7,000 barrels of gunpowder stored there in 1784; two small barracks were then built outside and to the north of the fort.
When Prince Edward, Duke of Kent arrived in Halifax as military commander in 1794, he undertook a vast rebuilding and improvement programme of Halifax’s defences. The lower battery was changed from a blunted redan to a crescent-shaped structure in 1795. At the same time its armament was reduced from fifteen to ten 24-pounders, but these were now mounted on traversing platforms which, permitting a greater arc of fire, were more effective. In the upper battery, a redan was added to the east (rear) side of the redoubt to provide greater protection to landward. A barracks for 16 men was completed in 1798.
As the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars progressed in the late 1790s and early 1800s further upgrades were made to Halifax’s defences. At the Eastern Battery a Martello tower designed by Captain James Straton CRE was constructed in middle of the redoubt by 1798. This replaced the earlier H-shaped barracks/ magazine in that location. One of five such towers constructed in Halifax during that period (out of over a dozen built in Canada), its design was however unique. It had three stories plus a gun platform on top, including a basement seven feet below ground level. A circular ditch 7 feet wide and 8 feet deep surrounded the tower, and two caponiers flanked the ditch. It was built of sandstone, possibly from Pictou, while the others were of local ironstone or granite. The tower was uniformly cylindrical, rather than tapering towards its top, and measured 50 feet in diameter with a height of 35 feet above ground level (42 feet above the bottom of the ditch). The walls were 6 feet thick, with musketry loopholes on all levels, and it accommodated 164 men. Gun ports pierced the walls on the upper (barrack) level in four places and in three places on the ground level. There were also embrasures for several carronades on the top platform and a powder magazine in the basement. In the centre stood a vertical cylindrical ammunition hoist 8 feet in diameter. Armament consisted of four 32-pounder carronades and two 8-inch brass howitzers, all on standing carriages.
Prince Edward, under whose direction the Martello tower was built renamed the entire fortification in 1798 as Fort Clarence, with the new tower named the Duke of Clarence’s Tower. This name was in honour of the Prince’s brother William, Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews and later King William IV.
The British Board of Ordnance recommended newer, heavier smooth-bore guns for Halifax’s defences in 1852, and by 1859 Fort Clarence was fitted with four 68-pounders and six 32-pounders, giving slightly increased range.
With advances in weaponry during the 19th century, Halifax’s defences required a complete overhaul by the time of the American Civil War (1861-65). Fort Clarence itself was completely reconstructed between 1863 and 1869 at a cost of about $271,000. It was the largest amount spent on any of Halifax’s defences at the time. The new fortification retained the Duke of Clarence’s Tower, but removed its upper level (the parapet had already been reduced to 3 feet high on its eastern side and 6 feet on the western side in 1812) and reworked it for use as simply a barracks on the first and second floors and a reinforced magazine in the basement. All other parts of the redoubt surrounding the Tower were replaced.
The new defences consisted of a semi-rectangular hexagon-shaped concrete, ironstone, granite and brick structure, made up of a counterscarp (outer wall) 18½ feet high, a 30-foot-wide dry ditch and an escarp (inner wall) 12½ feet high. The outer wall of the dry ditch had a musket gallery facing the fort that contained loopholes for riflemen to shoot at any enemy soldiers who were able to get into the ditch, a feature unique to Fort Clarence and the Citadel among Halifax’s forts. The only way into the fort was through a seven-foot-high tunnel and across a sliding drawbridge on its north side, which could be pulled back into the fort by a hand crank. A new massive lower battery in the shape of an irregular blunted redan was built along the waterfront facing west. This lower battery consisted of two 158-foot-long main faces and a 118-foot-long southwest flank. It featured underground bomb-proof casemates or gun rooms, of masonry and concrete with brick arches, containing eleven 9-inch, 12-ton rifled muzzle loaders. These massive guns, each crewed by nine men, fired a 256-pound projectile with an effective range of 1,800 yards, and were capable of penetrating 10 inches of wrought iron at 1,000 yards. These improvements ensured that Fort Clarence would continue to be one of the most powerful gun batteries in Halifax’s defences, able to command the entire lower harbour as far as Point Pleasant and McNab’s Island.
Additional construction was undertaken at Fort Clarence in 1880 by the Halifax firm of John Brookfield, a Yorkshireman who moved to Halifax in the mid-1860s after building railroads in New Brunswick. Brookfield received contracts for most of the construction of new fortifications in Halifax over a 40-year period. Besides Fort Clarence, this included Ives Point Battery, Fort McNab and Fort Hugonin (all three on McNab’s Island), as well as the Halifax Graving Dock. Concrete emplacements for two 64-pounder Moncrieff guns with disappearing carriages were added to the upper battery in 1880. The gun carriages could be raised above the parapet and lowered by counterweights. These faced east and were intended to defend against a possible land attack from the Eastern Passage Road.
The four northernmost casemates of the lower battery were converted to barrack rooms in 1889/90. Although Fort Clarence was by this time lightly manned, for several years the Halifax Garrison Artillery would occupy the fort for one day each fall to fire its huge guns with a deafening roar. At same time, the remaining ground floor story of the Tower was removed, the basement remaining as a magazine. From this time on the value of Fort Clarence decreased as newer forts were built farther to seaward to defend against even more powerful longer-range guns in modern ironclad warships.
In 1900 two 4.7-inch quick firing QF guns were mounted on concrete emplacements at the southwest corner of the parapet of the upper battery, paired with three searchlights nearby on the waterfront to repel fast torpedo boats.
By 1906 when the Halifax Fortress was handed over from Britain to Canada, Fort Clarence had a garrison of just three soldiers. It was stripped completely of its armament between 1906 and 1913, the 4.7-inch QF guns being transferred to the newly-built Connaught Battery, between York Redoubt and Purcell’s Cove. After the Halifax Explosion of 1917, explosives were stored there from the damaged naval magazine next to the dockyard, as well as from several ships. The fort was used to store ammunition until 1927, when a new facility was built on the shores of Bedford Basin. The remaining fortification was sold in 1927 along with its surrounding 34 acres of land and water frontage to the Imperial Oil Company for $19,000 for future development of its oil refinery, which had opened in February 1918 adjacent to the fort.
That expansion happened during the Second World War. Oil was so important to winning the war that one of Canada’s oldest defences and an important link with the area’s military past, was demolished. The work commenced in June 1941 and continued through the summer; the dry ditch was filled in and bulldozers levelled the site, burying much of the fort. By late August, most of Fort Clarence had disappeared in preparation for construction of new facilities. Hauling away each of the fort’s heavy 9-inch guns (weighing 12 tons each), which had been installed in the 1860s, proved to be a formidable task requiring two bulldozers for each gun.
When the demolition was finished and the site levelled, four steel storage tanks were erected in record time. Three more tanks were still needed, but steel was a priority commodity for shipbuilding and could not be obtained. Instead, the last three tanks were built of concrete, a difficult and costly alternative. These tanks were completed before the end of the war in Europe and played a key part in Operation Shuttle, which kept oil flowing to Britain for two years before the United States entered the war.
A bronze plaque was unveiled at the site in October 1956 by the Premier of Nova Scotia, The Honourable Henry Davies Hicks, on the occasion of the opening of new units at the Imperial Oil Refinery, “in tribute to the industry and vigilance of the first citizens of this district.” The plaque can be found today (2021) in the corner of the parking lot on the east side of Pleasant Street, across from the entrance to the Imperial Oil Dartmouth Terminal.
The refinery, which ceased operation in 2013, was later completely dismantled. Today, much of Fort Clarence’s structure remains intact, below ground level. Recently, some archeologists and historians have suggested that Fort Clarence should be excavated and established as a military tourist attraction. It would be in scale second only to the Halifax Citadel.