Information Wanted – The Halifax Explosion

I’m a bit late posting my blog on this, as life got a little crazy and I decided that I needed to add my first bout of Covid to the mix (4 days after my latest vaccination. UGH!). However I really wanted to highlight the 106th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is the setting of my next book, WHEN THE WORLD FELL SILENT.
I learned so much while researching this event that happened in Halifax, NS – a place I now call home. Fun fact: despite growing up only a province away, I didn’t learn about the explosion until 12th grade, and I learned about it in a literature class, not history! In Atlantic Lit we read BAROMETER RISING by Hugh McLennan. I LOVED it and through the characters learned about this massive tragedy in Canadian history – the largest manmade explosion until the US dropped the atom bomb on Japan.
It was a natural choice for me to choose this period in Halifax history as the time setting for my book. As I created characters who navigated this tragedy, I also looked for real events and information I could use in developing my story. And while searching for bits and pieces about babies and orphans, I came across this ad from the Evening Post on December 18. The word baby is highlighted, as that was a search term I used at Newspapers.com (what a fabulous research tool!)
Granted, I took a small liberty and used the date of December 23 when one of my characters spies this ad in the paper. But think of it: this child is in the hospital, no one knows her name or who were parents are or where she came from. It is now twelve days after the explosion and no one has come to claim her. Was she orphaned? Separated from her parents? Is someone trying to find her?
The papers were full of these kinds of advertisements and requests for information, and reading through them was, I think, my favorite part of my research process. WHEN THE WORLD FELL SILENT will hit shelves in August 2024… I can’t wait for you all to read it!

Local History: Georges Island and Fort Charlotte

Last Sunday my husband and I took a short boat ride to Georges Island (btw it drives me crazy that it’s not spelled with an apostrophe), which is now a Parks Canada site. We’ve been meaning to do this for a while, and so as part of my birthday weekend, off we went! The weather was nice in the morning once the fog cleared, and didn’t really change to cloud and showers until we were waiting for the ferry to take us back across the harbour to where we’d parked (we love parking in Dartmouth and ferrying over rather than paying for parking and driving downtown).
Georges island has played a part in the defences of Halifax since the mid 18th century… before then it was home to the Mi’kmaq for thousands of years. In its early years, the British used it as a prison for Acadians who were being deported – something I didn’t know before and was shocked to discover. Over 1000 Acadians were held – including children – while waiting deportation by the British.
Fort Charlotte was built there in the late 18th century – Prince Edward named it for his mother – and over the years (19th century) modifications were made to include a tunnel system and massive rifle muzzle-loading guns (the one pictured required 70 lbs of powder for a single shot!). In WW1, submarine nets extended across the harbour from Georges Island each night – in fact, the Mont Blanc entered the harbour the morning of December 6, 1917, because it had arrived too late to enter the evening before; the nets had already been put in place. The resulting explosion between the Mont Blanc and the Imo is the backdrop for my historical fiction coming next year, WHEN THE WORLD FELL SILENT.
In WW2, an anti-aircraft unit was stationed on the island, and they were the last soldiers to be stationed there. It’s been a national historic site since 1965.
I am not a huge fan of tight spaces or being underground, but I did do the tunnel tour and it was not nearly as bad as I anticipated. Ventilation was necessary as well as holes for natural light since black powder was stored in the magazine (the big room in the collage). We also got to see the firing of the noon gun at Citadel Hill…and the boom that echoed a few seconds after. The brick building in the collage is the married quarters (small, with only 2 bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen!), as well as one of the massive guns and the lighthouse. Our tour guide was lovely and the boat to and from quite nice…but then I’m pretty happy when I’m on the water anyway.
We returned to the Halifax waterfront, and then went for a delicious lunch at the Bicycle Thief and dessert – I had my first Beavertail (which is a flat pastry shaped like a beaver tail and then topped with deliciousness)!
There is so much history outside our own back doors. I’m glad I finally got to explore this one a little!

From the Research Files: Bluebirds

One of the things I love about writing historical fiction is all the neat research I get to do. A ton of it never makes it even close to the story, but it does help me immerse myself in the period and the lives of my characters.

Nursing Sisters, Mowat, McNichol, and Guilbride, First World War.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395710)

While I still wait for all the official stuff with my first historical release, I thought I’d give a little BTS glimpse into one of my research topics: Canadian Bluebirds.

Bluebirds were WW1 Nursing Sisters and so named because of their uniform – generally a blue dress with a white apron and the somewhat cumbersome nursing veil… can you imagine having to wear something like this all day? (I’m thinking they must have itched like crazy!) They served both overseas and at home (for a great story featuring a war nurse at the front, check out BLUEBIRD by Genevieve Graham). My main character, Nora Crowell, did her training at the Victoria General in Halifax, and when the story opens in the fall of 1917, she’s serving at Camp Hill Hospital – a brand new hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that cared for convalescing soldiers returning home from the front.

In researching nursing at home, I came across some stories of real women who fulfilled this role, and I gave a few of them walk-on roles during the time of the Halifax Explosion. One is Jessie Smiley. Jessie also trained at the VG and served overseas in England. At the time of the explosion, she was at Camp Hill Hospital. Because she’d worked with Ear, Nose, and Throat patients in England, she was well-suited for treating the facial injuries suffered by so many explosion victims. Another walk-on role is Matron Cotton. I took some liberties here; Dorothy Cotton actually did not return to serve at Camp Hill until 1918, after a varied and incredibly distinguished service during the war – including being in Petrograd and witnessing the revolution.

Jessie Smiley, VG School of Nursing 1915, VG Nursing Archives

Not to be forgotten are the VADs – Voluntary Aid Detachment workers. These first-aid trained women worked at the hospital fulfilling more menial roles such as making beds, seeing to soldiers’ comforts, serving meals. The line almost seems a little blurred with the nurses at times as nurses were often not permitted to perform many tasks. But as the saying goes, necessity breeds invention. “Before the explosion, nurses could only do what doctors said they could do. After the explosion, the need was so great, they were doing things they had never done before, like removing glass, and suturing wounds. Nurses got together and said, ‘We can do more.’” (Gloria Stephens, VG Nursing Archives) Nora, my main character, has a fair hand at suturing – something she’s never done outside of her training before.

To be a nursing sister, a woman had to be single, between the ages of 21 and 38, a British subject (which Canadians were) and trained at a qualified nursing school. And while they carried the title “Sister,” they were not associated with any religious order. Canada was also the only country to give the nursing sisters a rank; they held the rank of lieutenant.

If a woman married, she was required to resign her commission. Let’s just say that that policy led to secrets sometimes being kept… including a secret in my story.




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