Never fired in anger: the shore defences of Charlotte Town

As a trained and experienced military officer, Samuel Holland knew a thing or two about defending a position. He had been at both Louisbourg and Quebec when the British overwhelmed the French and he carried lessons learned about defence forward when he was surveying the Island of St. John in 1764-1765.  His report at the conclusion of the survey includes comments regarding the defensive capability of the three principal towns he had made allowance for in the survey.

The site for Charlotte Town, he noted,  had the advantage of easy communication, a fine site and a good water supply. Equally important in its favour was the fact that

…a Battery or Two some Distance Advanced, will Intirely Command the Harbour. An Enemy attempting to Attack the Town, cannot do it without Great Difficulties, Viz. having Passed the Batteries at the Entrance of the Harbour , they must attempt a Passage up Hillsborough and York Rivers, the Channels of Both which are Intricate, and the Entrances of the Respective Channels will be so near the Town that it must also be Attended with the Greatest Hazard, shou’d they Land any Troops on either side of the Bay of Hillsborough, they must still have the River of the Same Name on the East, or Elliot or York Rivers on the West to pass before they Could effect anything of Consequence.    

What is not mentioned in the defence summary is the fort site on which both the French and English had built rudimentary earthworks.  When Holland arrived in 1764 they were in ruinous condition and Charlottetown was to succeed the Fort Lot as the administrative capital of the colony, which at the time was simply part of Nova Scotia.  With the end of the war with the French, defence had become a reduced priority and Fort Amherst was abandoned soon afterwards.

The lack of “a Battery or Two some Distance Advanced,” meant that when conflict next arose Charlotte Town had nothing to defend it. In 1775 two American armed cruisers boldly sailed past empty and decaying Fort Amherst and anchored in front of the town without opposition. They landed armed shore parties and seized supplies, valuables and several of the colony’s officials.  Although America was in a state of war with Great Britain the latter action was deemed to be somewhat unsporting and eventually led to their return and an apology from George Washington – possibly the last time an American President apologized for anything.

The return of the officials led to a flurry of defensive activities. Phillips Callbeck, acting as administrator of the colony’s government in the absence of Governor Walter Patterson, developed a proposal to defend Charlotte Town. Seventeen cannon which had been abandoned in the ruined Fort Amherst when the garrison was removed in 1768 were moved across the harbour and installed in a timber-fronted fortification – grandly called “Patterson’s Battery” which had been built at the western end of the town’s waterfront.

Detail from Charlotte Town The Capital of the Island of St. John by Thomas Wright ca. 1780. Patterson’s Battery is at the west end of what would become Water Street

The plan also called for a battery on the height of land overlooking what was known as Tartar’s Wharf at the foot of what would later be named Great George Street. Other proposed defences included small redoubts to which the inhabitants of the town would retreat in the case of a raid or invasion. Although begun these were never finished. When Military engineer William Booth visited in 1785 he found that the largest of these had been burnt by the inhabitants as it was “a harbor for muskitos.”  During the same visit he found that although well-situated, Patterson’s Battery and the garrison buildings had never been finished and were in very poor condition.

Following the outbreak of war with France in 1793 Patterson’s Battery was repaired and in 1798 when Prince Edward was commander-in-chief of the British Forces in North America with his headquarters in Halifax, it was completely re-built and re-named as St. George’s Battery. At the same time an additional battery (and the only one still in existence)  was built at the Governor’s Farm. This four gun emplacement was named “Kent Battery” in honour of the Prince, who was also Duke of Kent.  A blockhouse which mounted two guns, protected by another battery of four guns was built at Beacon Point on the west entrance to the harbour which soon acquired the name Blockhouse Point.  Additional protection was provided by a further battery with four guns on the east side of the harbour channel. This fortification was named for the Duke of York and its short existence is still commemorated by the name Battery Point.  Finally the old Tartar’s Wharf emplacement at the foot of Great George Street was enlarged to mount six guns and was given the name Fort Edward or Prince Edward Battery. This apparent interest by the Prince in the welfare of the colony led to the vote in the legislature to rename it as Prince Edward Island.

Detail of 1845 Chart of Charlottetown Harbour showing location of defensive works.

By the first year of the 19th century a vessel approaching Charlotte Town faced, on paper at least, formidable defences. It would have to sail beneath cannon at Blockhouse, York Battery, Kent Battery, St. George’s Battery and Prince Edward Battery before anchoring off the town.  However, the heightened level of defence did not last for long.  In 1802 the Great George Street battery had been disassembled and the land sold off for development.  The name of the Prince Edward Battery was transferred to the battery at Fanningbank.  A report in 1803 showed all the fortifications to be miserable condition.  Only the Blockhouse was really useable. The shoreline had eroded at St. George’s Battery. At the Prince Edward Battery several of the guns were simply lying on the ground and they has been removed completely from the York Battery at Battery Point. To add insult to injury the contingent of Royal Artillery responsible for the guns, seven men under command of a corporal, was transferred to Halifax the same year. The St. George’s Battery was again re-built but this time moved 100 feet back from the shore to avoid tumbling into the harbour through erosion. After 1804 the Garrison of Charlottetown usually included a small contingent of Royal Artillery whose chief employment seems to have simply been maintaining the equipment.

As the century progressed threats from the French (and after 1814 from the Americans) receded and the emplacements were barely maintained.  It was increasingly clear that whatever tensions may have persisted in Europe the strategic importance of Prince Edward Island was virtually non-existent.  The British Army Garrison was withdrawn in 1855 and returned only for the ceremonial occasion of a royal visit in 1860 and to address tenant league unrest a few years later. With the garrison recalled to Halifax, Charlottetown’s fortifications, consisting of St. George’s Battery, Fort Edward and the Blockhouse,  were dismantled and the ordnance and equipment shipped to Halifax. The Blockhouse continued to be used as a signal station and later a lighthouse.

Detail from 1845 chart showing location of Ordnance Grounds and St. George Battery. Note that Pownal Wharf has not yet been built.

The Garrison and the St. George Battery, known as the Ordnance Grounds, which consisted of the property south of Sydney and west of what is now  Union Street, being surplus to requirements, were transferred from the Imperial Government to the Colony in 1863. Taking advantage of the windfall, and rejecting the suggestion that it might become a public park the entire property was carved into 21 building lots and auctioned off the following year with the proceeds going to the colonial balance sheet. New streets including Haviland Street and Dundas Esplanade were for many years the most prestigious addresses in the city until many (including the Esplanade itself) were gobbled up by the expansions of the Charlottetown Hospital and disappeared.

The fortification legacy is limited. Battery Point with its short-lived battery is now a subdivision. The Blockhouse continues as an aid to navigation with nary a nod to its defensive importance. Prince Edward Battery, now grandly called Fort Edward is the sole survivor of the lot.

There is one other symbol that remains. When the battery at Blockhouse was being dismantled an 18 pound cannon slipped over the bank and was deemed too difficult to retrieve. In 1860, just prior to the visit of the Prince of Wales, the gun was brought to Charlottetown and imbedded with the muzzle up at the corner of Queen and Grafton Streets. Originally surmounted with a flagstaff which bore the Union Jack throughout the Prince’s visit it continues to represent the days when Charlottetown needed protection from the dangers which arrived by sea.

A more detailed account of the harbour fortifications can be found in David Webber’s “On Guard, The Defences of Charlottetown Harbour” The Island Magazine #64 Fall/Winter 2008 pp. 31-37. For more on the military history of Prince Edward Island the best sources are David Webber’s A Thousand Young Men  Charlottetown: 1990 and James B. Pollard’s Historical Sketch of the Eastern Regions of New France … and Prince Edward Island Military and Civil. Charlottetown: 1898



2 thoughts on “Never fired in anger: the shore defences of Charlotte Town

  1. Richard

    I love this blog, maritime history in my own backyard, the rivers I boat on.
    Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Hell Hath no Fury to Match that of an Offended Victorian | Sailstrait

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