Halifax was the headquarters for the Royal Navy’s North American Station from 1758 until 1819, and continued as its summer headquarters for the next century until 1906 (the winter location being in Bermuda, with the designation having by then changed to the “North America and West Indies Station”). The land in Halifax’s North End on which the Royal Naval Burying Ground is located was purchased by the Royal Navy in 1781 during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) to permit the expansion of the Naval Yard that had been created earlier in Halifax in 1759. A Naval Hospital was completed on the waterfront just north of the Naval Yard in 1783 and the Burying Ground was established about a hundred yards inland from it in support. The first burial took place that year.
The early burials over the first eight years from 1783 to 1791were undocumented; the first registered burial took place in 1791, that of carpenter James Couch of the 50-gun, fourth rate HMS Adamant (the grandfather of Lieutenant Edward Couch of HMS Erebus, who perished on Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition to discover the Northwest Passage). There were a total of 953 registered burials between 1791 and 1910 when burials at the site ceased, although there are today just 84 surviving grave markers. The vast majority of the graves are unmarked. Most of those interred were working class Royal Navy seamen, many having died “falling from aloft” or by drowning or disease, as well as Royal Marines. There are additionally a number of monuments remaining at the site that commemorate sailors who died and were buried at sea. The Burying Ground also contains the remains of some sailors’ family members – women and children – and dockyard workers. The total number of remains is unknown, but is estimated to be well over a thousand, organized in tight rows. The oldest grave marker with an identifiable inscription is that of Fredrick Scales, a seaman of the 14-gun HMS Vernon dated 1808.
A number of the sailors killed during the War of 1812 battle between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake are interred at the RN Burying Ground, with two large monuments to the men from the two ships located on site. Other prominent markers commemorate deceased members of the ships companies of various flagships of the Royal Navy Commanders-in-Chief of the North America and West Indies Station: HMS Winchester (1841), HMS Wellesley (1850), HMS Cumberland (1852), HMS Indus (1859), HMS Nile (1861), HMS Duncan (1866), and HMS Royal Alfred (1869); often these were dedicated by the Commanders-in-Chief themselves.
Little was done to keep the Burying Ground in any sense of order for the first 80 years of its existence. In 1860 Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Milne KCB established a regular system to ensure all burials were recorded, and had the Burying Ground divided into 30 sections. In 1871 Vice Admiral Sir Edward Fanshawe CB improved the divisions of the plan and made permanent provision in the annual naval estimates for grounds maintenance. For a number of years a groundskeeper lived at the Lockman (Barrington) Street entrance to the cemetery.
Grave markers were made of a variety of materials including wood. Many have deteriorated or completely decomposed over the years, including a number damaged by the Halifax Explosion that occurred in 1917 just 900 yards (800 metres) north of the Burying Ground. Three of the wooden markers were placed in the collection at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic a number of years ago to prevent their further deterioration.
The 1½ acre (0.6 hectare) site today lies within Canadian Forces Base Halifax (Stadacona), adjacent to and just west of Barrington Street, measuring approximately 300 feet (90 metres) by 250 feet (75 metres). It was turned over from Britain to the Government of Canada in 1911. Although the Burying Ground is enclosed by a fence with a locked gate, it can be accessed via a request to the Naval Museum at Admiralty House, also located at CFB Halifax. The museum also holds a register of known burials.
The Royal Naval Burying Ground is not currently a National Historic Site of Canada.