Fort Needham was begun in 1776 during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) as a landward defence for the Halifax Naval Yard, which was established in 1759. The fort was sited on top of James Pedley’s hill, a 229-foot (70-metre) elevation in today’s North End of Halifax, just over a kilometre northwest of the Naval Yard. Constructed under the supervision of Captain William Spry, the Commanding Royal Engineer (CRE) in Halifax, it consisted of a small pentagonal earthwork, surrounded by a ditch, facing southwest. The four forward-facing sides were 75 feet (23 metres) each and the gorge, or rear face, measured 100 feet (30 metres) across. The fort mounted four 24-pounder smooth-bore cannons - two on its northwest face and two on its south flank. It was entered via a wooden bridge over the ditch on its gorge, and had two small barracks within to accommodate 50 men. There were also caponiers or covered passageways in the ditch, to allow the defenders to fire along the ditch. This first iteration was allowed to fall into ruin after the American Revolutionary War wound down.
The fortification was initially called Pedley’s Hill Redoubt, but became known as Fort Needham by 1778. The source of the name is uncertain, but believed to be after one of two British Army officers who were present in Nova Scotia during the American Revolution. Francis Jack Needham, a Captain in the 17th Regiment (Light) Dragoons and later the 1st Earl of Kilmorey is one possibility, with the other being John Needham, a Lieutenant in the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot. John Needham is considered the most likely namesake, as he was closely associated with William Spry and served under Colonel Eyre Massey, the commander of British troops in Nova Scotia at the time and after whom Fort Massey was named.
In the early 19th century, with Britain engaged in the Napoleonic Wars with France and with still simmering hostility with the newly independent United States, it was deemed prudent to rebuild Fort Needham as a key Naval Yard defense. The new fort was constructed in 1807/08, on the site of the earlier fort’s ruins, and was overseen by Lieutenant James MacLauchlan, temporary CRE Halifax at that time. Again the fort took a pentagonal form, with similar dimensions and orientation. The berm or earthen wall surrounding the fort had fraising, which consisted of sharpened wooden posts set horizontally into the outer face of the berm to present an additional obstacle to an attacker. This version too had four cannons – 12-pounders on traversing carriages – likely one on each forward face, as well as a rebuilt barracks for 60 men. A musket-proof blockhouse with two 12-pounder carronades was added in 1808, on the shoulder of the hill about 400 feet (120 metres) NNW of Fort Needham – this to cover the hollow ground north of the fort where an enemy might approach sheltered from the guns of the fort.
After the hostilities with the United States ceased in 1815 after the War of 1812, both Fort Needham and the detached blockhouse were again allowed to fall into disrepair. Some remains of the barracks could still be seen in the early decades of the 20th century and an aerial photograph from 1931 clearly showed the outline of the earthworks; but today nothing remains of Fort Needham save the name of the park that now occupies its site.
The area where Fort Needham was located today forms Fort Needham Memorial Park. The fort itself stood at the southern end of the sports field, about 30 metres in from Novalea Drive, with its front facing west-southwest towards Livingstone Place. The detached blockhouse to the north of the fort would have been located in the same park, on the rise east of Novalea Drive across from Stanley Place.
On 6 December 1917 during World War I a collision involving the munitions ship S.S. Mont Blanc occurred in the Halifax Narrows, just 600 yards (550 metres) northeast of the site of Fort Needham. The resulting blast, known thereafter as the Halifax Explosion, killed 1,635 people, with another 6,000 maimed or blinded. Most of North End Halifax was destroyed and thousands were left homeless. The federal government at the time used the War Measures Act to take charge of disaster relief and recovery efforts. Fort Needham was purchased by the Halifax Relief Commission in 1918 and some improvements were made to the derelict site over the next four years. The site was transferred to the City of Halifax in 1942, with an agreement being reached between the commission and the city in 1949 to develop Fort Needham hill as a memorial park to honour the victims of the Halifax Disaster. In 1986 the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower was added, and memorial service is held at the site annually on 6 December.