Halifax was established by the British in 1749 to expand their presence in Acadia – today‘s mainland Nova Scotia – and to counter the fortress at Louisburg on Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) that France had built earlier that century. The Royal Navy (RN) began to use the major harbour at Halifax as a fleet anchorage for operations in the region soon thereafter, with the French and Indian War beginning in 1754, leading to the broader Seven Years War in 1756.
In 1757 Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne‘s fleet blockading Louisburg suffered considerable damage from a hurricane. With the nearest naval repair facilities in distant England, Jamaica and Antigua, the Admiralty decided, as a result, to create such a facility in Halifax. The first attempt was to create a careening wharf on Georges Island in Halifax Harbour, but the work being undertaken in that exposed location was promptly destroyed by a northerly gale. The next location chosen, at Gorham‘s Point, was a mile north of the Halifax town walls, where HMC Dockyard now stands. To the initial two-acre site, seven additional acres were added the following year. Construction began in 1758 and the first careening wharf was in place by the summer of 1759, understood to have been supervised by Sailing Master James Cook – later Captain and famed Pacific navigator and explorer. The new naval yard – the King‘s Yard – was formally established by an Order-in-Council on 7 February 1759 and was the first royal dockyard in North America. It would be a strategically significant base for the Royal Navy for the next century-and-a-half, until Britain‘s withdrawal from Canada in 1906.
The naval yard initially consisted of a capstan house to accompany the careening wharf, a mast house and associated mast and spar ponds, a boathouse and storehouses. A sail loft was added in 1769 and a dockyard clock was installed on its peak in 1772. The same clock, presented to the City of Halifax by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1996, is the only remaining feature from the 18th century naval yard and the oldest working timepiece in Canada, predating the Halifax Town Clock on Citadel Hill by 31 years; it stands today outside the Halifax Ferry Terminal at Chebucto Landing.
Repairs and upgrades to the King‘s Yard were conducted in a piecemeal fashion whenever Britain found itself in a conflict. The period between 1775 and 1818 saw significant development of the yard as Britain was engaged in the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars and their North American sideshow, the War of 1812. Defensive blockhouses were added on the landward side of the yard and Forts Coote (1775), Needham (1778) and Duncan (1793) were established for greater protection, and a house for the Resident Commissioner was built in 1785. Additional land was acquired to the north of the naval yard in 1783 and a naval hospital and victualling yard were established, which included also a dead house (morgue), “lunatic cells,” a fever (quarantine) ward, wharf and ancillary buildings. A second mast pond was created in 1784 in the northern part of the yard. A large, triple residence was constructed in the victualling yard in 1815 which is still used today as senior officers‘ residences - the oldest remaining dockyard structure. The hospital burned in 1819 and a replacement with its own jetty was finally built in 1863, becoming the Royal Naval College of Canada in 1910 after the British departed. A magazine was added north of the hospital in 1872.
When Britain transferred the naval yard to Canada in 1905 the facilities consisted of 24 acres of land, the hospital, victualling stores, coal stores, various workshops and residences (some 75 buildings), five wharves and three slipways. The yard remained largely dormant until the start of the First World War in 1914, when it again was upgraded for use. Wharves were added along with additional storehouses and workshops – in total 12 new site features were introduced.
The Halifax Explosion on 6 December 1917 caused extensive damage to the dockyard. The Royal Naval College of Canada was nearly ruined and several cadets and staff injured, two other buildings were destroyed and virtually every other building was damaged. Naval casualties from the blast were 22 killed and 8 injured.
Limited maintenance and modernization was done at the dockyard in the inter-war years and many buildings were removed. By 1938 only six of the 75 buildings transferred from Britain to Canada in 1906 remained. The Second World War (1939-45) would see the last 19th century dockyard buildings torn down as well as all pre-1935 buildings in the southern part of the yard, to be replaced with modern facilities during the dockyard‘s greatest period of change. The capstan house and sail loft, which had existed since 1759 and 1769 respectively, were torn down in 1940. Over the war years 67 new site features were introduced, 14 of which were still part of the dockyard in 1995.
Since the Second World War a number of new buildings have been added, the most prominent of which are Fleet Maintenance Facility Cape Scott (named the Prince of Wales building) in 1983, the Maritime Forces Atlantic Headquarters (1984) and the Main Base Supply Building (1996). The synchrolift for lifting submarines out of the water was built in 1968 after the RCN acquired three Oberon-class submarines, and the associated submarine shelter was added two years later.
Today‘s HMC Dockyard is completely unrecognizable from the King‘s Yard of the 18th century. The site of the original capstan house and careening wharf was about where the Main Base Supply Building is located with the logo “Canada‘s Atlantic Fleet,” that can be seen from Barrington Street just south of the Macdonald Bridge. A large scale diorama depicting the naval yard as it existed in 1813 is displayed at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.
The dockyard is today the home of the Royal Canadian Navy‘s Atlantic Fleet, consisting of seven Halifax-class frigates, six Kingston-class coastal defence vessels, one or two Victoria-class submarines and, currently under construction (2020), four Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and offshore patrol ships. The dockyard additionally hosts visits by warships from Canada‘s allies, such as the United Kingdom, the United States and various other NATO and friendly nations, and provides a winter berth for the iconic Second World War corvette HMCS Sackville, Canada‘s Naval Memorial. HMC Dockyard forms part of Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Halifax, the largest Canadian Forces Base in Canada with approximately 10,700 military and civilian personnel.
HMC Dockyard was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1923.
Boileau, John. “Halifax and the Royal Canadian Navy” Halifax, Nimbus, 2010.
Elson, Bryan. “Canada‘s Bastions of Empire: Halifax, Victoria and the Royal Navy 1749-1918” Halifax, Formac, 2014.
Gurney Smith, Marilyn. “The King‘s Yard: An Illustrated History of the Halifax Dockyard” Halifax, Nimbus, 1985.
Gwyn, Julian. “Ashore and Afloat: the British Navy and the Halifax Naval Yard before 1820” Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 2004.
Raymond, Brent. “Tracing the Built Form of HMC Dockyard – Nova Scotia Museum Curatorial Report Number 88” Halifax, Province of Nova Scotia, 1999.