When Halifax was settled by Governor-Colonel Edward Cornwallis for Great Britain in 1749, the small island in the inner harbour near the settlement was named after King George II. A large number of the first English settlers disembarked on Georges Island while the transport ships that had brought them later ferried British troops from Louisbourg; the island was deemed easily defensible against incursions from possible French or Indigenous attacks.
The island had earlier been selected as the grave site for the French Admiral Duc d’Anville, who had led the 11,000-strong French Naval invasion force to attempt to recapture Fortress Louisbourg from the British. An estimated 2,000 French troops and sailors perished at sea or died from disease, including d’Anville, who was buried on what would become Georges Island on 17 September 1746. The mission was aborted and the survivors returned to France. After Britain settled Halifax in 1749, a French warship was permitted to visit the harbour to reclaim d’Anville’s body from George’s Island, for re-interment at the Fortress in Louisburg. Legend has it that his heart was shipped back to his family in France.
The first fortifications on Georges Island were constructed in 1750 under the direction of Royal Engineer John Brewse. An earthwork with a palisade containing a battery of seven 32-pounder smooth bore cannons was in place by November that year. The battery faced West and was intended to defend against French ships gaining access to the inner harbour and attacking the town, as hostilities were increasing in the lead up to the French and Indian War that began in 1754 and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). An additional nine 24-pounders were mounted the following year, and during the war years barracks, subterranean powder magazines and storehouses were added.
During the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) the defences on Georges Island were further improved, with various redans, lunettes and demi-bastions added – all earthworks – and the armament increased to a total of 48 guns. These consisted of six 42-pounders, twenty-nine 24-pounders, three 18-pounders, nine 12-pounders and a 6-pounder.
With the French Revolutionary Wars beginning in 1792, and Halifax now being the principal base of the Royal Navy in North America, a further upgrade of the port’s defences was required. During this period Prince Edward, son of King George III served as Commander-in-Chief in Halifax, and it was under his direction that Fort Charlotte was constructed on the island. Named for Edward’s mother, Queen Sophia Charlotte, the fort was star shaped and built of granite quarried near Purcell’s Cove; with a central blockhouse accommodating an officer and 40 men; barracks for 300 men; and two semi-circular batteries outside the star fort mounting a total of twenty 24-pounder cannon, along with furnaces for heating shot. It was completed in 1798.
Tensions leading up to the War of 1812 caused Fort Charlotte to be again upgraded under plans drawn up by the Commanding Royal Engineer at Halifax, Captain Gustavus Nicholls. The star fort and central blockhouse were levelled in 1811 and replaced with a Martello Tower, 50 feet in diameter and 30 feet high, with stone walls 5 to 6 feet thick, completed in 1812. At the same time a new parapet was constructed to link the two semi-circular batteries, resulting in a symmetrical oval polygonal fort of ten faces.
Little was done to Georges Island over the succeeding four decades however, with the American Civil War highlighting tension between the United States and Britain; Halifax’s defences were again significantly upgraded in the 1860s. Fort Charlotte was reconstructed, with a South-facing horseshoe-shaped Upper Battery mounting eight modern 7-inch rifled muzzle loading (RML) guns, and below that a Lower Battery consisting of four casemates with four heavy 10-inch RMLs. These powerful guns had an effective range of 2,000 yards and their 400-pound projectiles could penetrate 12 inches or wrought iron at 1,000 yards; they covered the entire Southern part of Halifax Harbour out to Ives Point on McNab’s Island. The Martello Tower was replaced with a large earth banked magazine in 1877 and the eight smoothbore cannons were removed from the North-facing battery in 1878, while the centre of the island became a labyrinth of underground magazines and tunnels to service the batteries.
During the 1870s too, Georges Island became the site of the Submarine Mining Establishment, the headquarters for manufacturing and deploying mines to create defensive minefields within Halifax Harbour. Located on the Northeast slope of the island, the facility was constructed between 1873 and 1876 and operated until 1906. It consisted of a gun cotton tank, well, loading shed, torpedo stores, cable tanks, workshops and various support buildings, with a tramway linking the main buildings and the jetty where the mines were loaded onto vessels for deployment.
During World War I (1914-18) the defences on George’s Island were manned by troops of the Canadian Garrison Artillery, who served the pair of 4.7-inch quick-firing (QF) guns mounted there for defence against small swift craft entering the harbour. Accompanying these were anti-submarine nets that stretched to the shore from either side of Georges Island, and searchlights to illuminate enemy vessels at night.
In the Second World War (1939-45) Georges Island served as a location for anti-aircraft defences consisting of a 40-mm Bofors gun to cover the ocean terminals. The end of the war marked the last time that George’s Island was used for defending Halifax, a role it upheld for two centuries after the founding of the city.
Recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1965, today Georges Island is administered by Parks Canada. Plans call for restoring Fort Charlotte, upgrading public facilities and opening the island to visitors beginning in 2019-2020.