The streets of Canada: BARRINGTON
In its four salt-scented miles of kinks and jogs it harbors the highest and lowest life in Halifax. It belongs to shopkeepers, seafarers and tenement dwellers...and the eerie ghosts of a panoplied past
Thomas H. Raddall
BARRINGTON STREET weaves its way like a tipsy sailor along the west slope of Halifax harbor from the railway station to the shore of Bedford Basin, a long four miles including the kinks and jogs. You re never far from the water; every cross-lane running down the slope breaks the wall of shops and houses and gives you a loophole view of the harbor. Naturally there's a nau-
In its four salt-scented miles of kinks and jogs it harbors the highest and lowest life in Halifax. It belongs to shopkeepers, seafarers and tenement dwellers...and the eerie ghosts of a panoplied past
TEXT BY Thomas H. Raddall PICTURES WITHOUT WORDS BY Horst Ehricht
BARRINGTON STREET weaves its way like a tipsy sailor along the west slope of Halifax harbor from the railway station to the shore of Bedford Basin, a long four miles including the kinks and jogs. You re never far from the water; every cross-lane running down the slope breaks the wall of shops and houses and gives you a loophole view of the harbor. Naturally there's a nautical flavor. A salt breeze comes up the side streets from the wharves. The uniforms you see are mostly those ol the navy and merchant service. In the steamship offices you can buy a ticket to almost any port in the world. You can buy a beer in taverns called The Lighthouse, The Sea-Way or the Harbor View.
However you don't find much awareness of the sea in the crowds of shoppers, clerks, stenographers and other business types who pour in and out of the buildings. Most of them live west of Citadel Hill in a vast sprawl of residential streets that might be any suburb of Toronto or Winnipeg. To these Barrington is a place to work or to buy or sell, and the harbor is just a cold wind and a smell. This used to surprise me in my own seafaring days but I found it
Continued on next page
true of every big seaport, where the landfa rers and the seafarers live in different worlds. It's true, too, that they meet and mingle on Barrington Street, but the real harbor folk are the ones who live between Citadel Hill anti the water.
This includes the people who actually live on Barrington. The merchants' mile runs only from the railway station to the crossing of Buckingham Street; the next mile takes you to the dockyard and shipyards through a dreary procession of shabby brick or wooden tenements, usually with small shops on the ground floor and lodgings to let upstairs. At the Navy's dockyard Barrington passes under the massive shadow of the harbor bridge, skirts the shore of the Narrows, and takes a wide curve around the Bedford Basin anchorage to Fairview. On this stretch you find an odd succession of smart suburban bungalows, a view of the grim C ity Prison at Rock Head, and the smelly shacks of Africville. In short a journey along Barrington from one end to the other is a tour of the Halifax social world w'ith everything from Government House and Birks' diamonds to the most squalid poverty known to man.
The business mile is the heart of Halifax and every inch of it is precious, but you find no skyscrapers. The average building has four or five stories; most of them are at least half a century old, and some are absolute antiques. You have only to look above the shops. In some of those upper rooms and attics you can still see the little square window-panes of the colonial age. And down below, in some of the basements, you can find queer cellars like catacombs, walled with stone dragged out of the Halifax hillside back in the eighteenth century. Yet the street-floor shops have all the clean glitter of glass tile and chrome and plastic that you find in any main street in modern North America.
To a merchant on the business mile, especially the part between Government House and C ity Hall, the street has a good side and a bad one. On that stretch of Barrington the Haligonians prefer to tramp the east sidewalk rather than the west. Why, nobody knows. But as a result the shops along the east side get the cream of the business, and a frontal foot of land there is worth at least forty percent more than a foot across the street. The city assessors recognize this, and taxes are figured on that basis.
This is a prosperous city, and from old habit Barrington is still the chief shopping street. A lot of money changes hands here in a day. What the future will do to all this is another matter. The narrow and crooked streets of downtown Halifax were laid out in the middle of the eighteenth century w hen a sedan chair at a jog trot was the hottest vehicle in tow n. The motor age has brought a traffic and parking headache that affects merchants and customers alike. Business is moving out along continued on page 38
The seafarers and the landlubbers live in different worlds—but they meet and mingle on Barrington Street
“Suddenly you realize that Barrington and its side streets are what make Halifax tick over”
Spring Garden Road; motor-shopping centres are springing lip in the outskirts.
Meanwhile Barrington hustles along as best it can. It has certain advantages that nothing can take away; the chief merchant shipping docks and the railway station lie at its south end; to the north it has the navy yard, the shipyards and Stadacona naval barracks, a small city in themselves. Right in the middle are Barrington's theatres, restaurants, shops and offices. Grand Parade makes the centrepiece, with City Hall at one end and St. Paul's church just beyond the other. Every day at sharp noon the time gun on Citadel Hill sounds its thunderclap over the Barrington roofs as it has for generations, the shops and offices let forth a swarm of hungry humans heading for the restaurants, and suddenly you realize that Barrington and its side streets arc what make this city tick.
At night it's another story. Halifax has no legitimate theatre. Touring theatrical companies have to put on their shows in a high-school auditorium far across the Common. Barrington Street has the largest and best movie houses, but there are no night clubs or cabarets. Ten minutes after the last movie shows play God Save the Queen the street is as dead as Hamlet’s father. It wasn't always so. Years ago Barrington Street was the night-time haunt of Halifax playboys in and out of uniform, and a parade for ladies of the demi-monde in a variety not to be seen anywhere else east of Montreal. Something of the sort sprang up again during World War II, but it perished quickly afterwards. Old rounders agree that the automobile really killed Barrington’s night life in the 1920s,
when dance-and-dine roadhouses began to appear outside the city and the gay blades took the ancient advice of Horace Greeley and followed the sunset westward.
When I was a boy in Halifax the old main stem had four different names; in fact it was four different streets. They happened to connect with each other by odd zigs and zags, a common feature of Halifax geography, and from south to north they were known as Pleasant Street, Barrington Street, Lockman Street and Campbell Road. After World War 1 the city fathers called the whole meandering thoroughfare Barrington. And Barrington wandered on after World War II, when the name took in the road around Bedford Basin to Fairview. Even Haligonians used to their higgledy-piggledy streets find this a bit confusing. Ask anyone exactly where Barrington begins and ends. Ten to one you'll get a shrug or a wrong answer.
The confusion really began back in 1749, when Colonel Edward Cornwallis brought a rabble of grumbling cockneys straight from London to a wild fjord known to the local savages as Chebucto — “The Big Harbor.” The idea was to set up a rival British base to the French base at Louisburg; ultimately it was to be a springboard for the conquest of Canada. So Halifax was a fiat city that sprang full-panoplied from Britannia's brow. The original town plan was sketched on a London drafting board when the actual site was still a pine ridge and a swamp in the Nova Scotian bush.
On arrival Cornwallis had his surveyor lay off a small grid of streets and crosslanes on the harbor slope of the ridge, and set his cockneys to work hacking
down the pines that covered the whole scene. The middle street along the slope was tagged Barrington—nobody knows why. The other streets in the original layout were named obviously for members of the current British cabinet or their relatives and friends, with George. Prince and Duke streets taking care of the bluer blood. The only Barrington evident in home circles at the time was William Wildman, Viscount Barrington of Ardglass in the Irish peerage. Eventually he became a Secretary of War, but in 1749 he was a nobody. Some say the street was meant to be named after the Earl of Harrington, Secretary of State, and by a quill-driver’s slip a B got into the act. Anyhow Barrington the street became. Sixteen years later the rude forefathers of the hamlet got tired of walking in the mud, planked one sidewalk all the way from Grand Parade to the south end, and for the next fifty years called this splintery promenade The Mall, just to add to the confusion.
At first Barrington Street was just a trail leading to the graveyard outside the town stockade. Death was busy in those early days, what with typhus and smallpox (not to mention Indian raids), and daily funeral parties beat a muddy track through the south gate in the palisades, at what is now the junction of Barrington and Spring Garden Road. Gradually the track reached past the tombstones and went on through the shore woods to Point Pleasant. Indians still skulked among the trees; but for their health the citizens needed a change of view and fresh air once a week, and each summer for several years there was a Sunday afternoon parade of men, women and children, figged out in their best, marching as far as Fresh Water River and back again, under the guard of armed redcoats and paced by fife and drum.
Alas the Kissing Bridge
This so-called river was a brook that flowed out of the swamp behind Citadel Hill, crossed the Barrington track in the woods toward Point Pleasant, and splashed on into the harbor. Ships in the anchorage used to send boat parties to fill their water casks just below the rustic bridge on “Pleasant Street.” Wherever you find sailors you soon find girls; so it became a meeting place of the young and frivolous, known for years as the Kissing Bridge. The stream has disappeared since in a sewer under Barrington Street and the site of the Kissing Bridge is, alas, a sectio?/ 7 railway line.
In my own youth that end of Barrington was still called Peasant Street, a quiet quarter of the well-to-do, with worn and humpy red-brick sidewalks, cobbled gutters, and rows of tall narrow houses in the Georgian and early Victorian style. It ran all the way to Point Pleasant Park, with fine views of the harbor in the part we called Greenbank. Here the Halifax Brahmins flourished in all their glory, a well-nourished caste, cultured in a starchy Victorian fashion, proud of their ancestry (many had British army or naval officers hanging like rich fruit in their family trees, often with titled connections) and rather smug about it. All this stolid contentment was shattered in 1913, when out of a blue sky Ottawa decided to make Halifax a national port. That meant large and extensive modern docks and piers, and the chosen site was Greenbank. Much of Pleasant Street was demolished to make way for railway sidings leading to the docks, and an army of roughnecks dynamited and steam-shoveled a deep canyon through the slate bedrock of the South End to bring the rail line in from Fair-
xiew. The Brahmins fled away towards the still peaceful waters of Northwest Arm. They were never the same again. Nor was Pleasant Street; an amputated rtub, doomed to lose its very name and 10 become the first half-mile of Barrington. The intrusion of the railway yards cut off the clubhouse of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron and left it on the lag end of the street, in the edge of the Point Pleasant woods. To reach it from Barrington nowadays you must travel three long sides of a square by way of the overhead pass at Yonge Avenue. But Haligonians are a stubborn folk. After forty years the yachtsmen still give their address as Barrington Street in the phone book.
When you come to Halifax by train /ou roll across the south end of Barrington (where the Kissing Bridge used to be) and at once you're in the rumbling cavern of the station. Just outside, facing Barrington Street, is the Nova Scotian Hotel. If you get a room looking on the harbor you can watch the shipping moving in and out. and at night the lighthouse on George’s Island regards you with a benevolent green eye. On the Dartmouth side of the harbor, where che Imperial Oil refinery spreads its pipes and stacks and tanks over the slope, you see, after dark, the yellow flame of the waste-gas pipe, tall in the night, flickering like a huge torch and lighting up the whole anchorage. Seen through a copper window screen in the hotel at night the flame shines a cruciform like the Star of Bethlehem on a Christmas card, and airmen at the Shearwater Naval Air Station find it very useful in thick weather when the fog hangs low.
All sorts of people have been entertained at the Nova Scotian, from actual royalty (King George VI and his Queen) to Legs Diamond, famous king of the New York underworld in the wild and woozy days of Prohibition, and his current moll, a Halifax blonde who had made her way into the chorus of Ziegficld’s Follies. During the last war the Nova Scotian was the place to dine and dance—I wonder how many wartime romances started there? — and from its harborside windows you could watch the long convoys moving stoically out or thankfully in from the Atlantic, and often you could hear the sound of gunfire and the woomp of depth charges from the harbor mouth. The Nova Scotian has a bit of park before it. a little island of greensward and shrubs; and there in bronze, life size, stands the Honorable Edward Cornwallis, founder of the city. "r£is able but hot-tempered Englishman staged just long enough to see his cockneys housed and settled, and today he stands on his pedestal gazing out to sea, with his back to the whole thing. He was glad to leave Halifax, although it was the only enduring thing he ever made or did. The rest of his career was a disaster.
On the other side of Barrington, past the bronze governor and his shrubbery, stands a large square building of terracotta-colored brick, built by the Navy League many years ago. During the late war it became headquarters of the combined naval and air staffs guarding the seaways out of Halifax. Here was (and is) the famous Operations Room which governed the long battle with the U-boats in the Western Atlantic and still plays the same role in the cold war of the present time. Officially it is headquarters of Maritime Air Command, which directs all RCAF practice in the shape of convoy escort and anti-submarine warfare, combining with the Navy in these matters—a full-blast operation in these times. The officer commanding here comes un-
der Sociant (Supreme Aiiied Commander Atlantic, at present an American admiral) in the NATO scheme, and the vigilance is round-the-clock, no fooling. If trouble —fighting trouble—ever starts, Halifax will be one of the prime targets. No one in this quiet-looking building on Barrington ever forgets it.
A few hundred yards up Barrington, on the other side, you come to quite another headquarters and a remarkably different flag—the Flying Angel of the Anglican Missions to Seamen. And you meet a remarkable man, the Reverend B.
.1. Williams, a brisk and stocky Welshman who has served the Flying Angel in many parts of the world—all the way from Belgium to Australia. The Halifax roost of the Angel is one of the old Brahmin mansions typical of this part of Barrington Street, tall and narrow, with steps rising eight or ten feet to the front door, with red-brick walls, high-ceilinged rooms and the invariable bay windows. The padre shows you with pride his little chapel in the former dining room, complete with altar and crucifix and a few rows of plywood chairs; and then the
games room, the library, and the social room with its polished floor for dancing —this in what used to be the mansion’s stable. Dancing partners for the Mission's seamen are no problem; the Y.W.C.A. is right next door, and the girls come well chaperoned.
“Sailors," observes the padre, “aren't what they used to be. The pay, the food, and quarters aboard ship today compare favorably with anything ashore, and the life attracts a steadier class of men. Of course we get exceptions." And presto! in comes an exception with a rolling gait
and a somewhat foggy eye, demanding money, which he has left in the padre's charge. The padre goes to the money box, unlocks it, passes over the requested sum. and takes a receipt. No protest, no sermon, just a sigh and a whimsical, “There goes another sixty dollars to the tavern keepers." But in general the padre's word is true. The merchant sailor isn't what he used to be. Thousands of seamen use the mission facilities every year, and in the winter season, when the St. Lawrence is frozen and Halifax takes the bulk of Canada's sea traffic, the place is always jammed.
Then there's a startling wooden ark, painted a glaring blood red and used as an officers' mess by the city militia. In my childhood this was the Ladies' College, a chaste white building where the daughters of the genteel learned everything from water colors to the pianoforte. In that age even small boys were practically shackled to a piano for an hour's practice every day, and my own music teacher used to hold annual recitals in the auditorium of the Ladies' College — a horrid experience for me and the rest of her half-dozen male pupils, if not for her thirty-odd smug little girls. I still have a reminiscent shiver when I pass the place. (I sometimes think it was those piano ordeals that drove me off to sea.)
Then you come to Government House, the fine old Georgian residence for Nova Scotia's lieutenant-governors, built in the time of Sir John and Lady Frances Wentworth. She was a minx and a schemer— a colonial Becky Sharp. Among other adventures she had a love affair with Prince William (later King William IV), when he was a rip-roaring young naval captain on the North American station. Her antics scandalized all Halifax; but Fanny parlayed a svelte figure into a governor's job and a title for her accommodating husband, and eventually for herself a sinecure across the sea as lady-in-waiting to the Queen.
One gorgeous spree
Across the street is the old town cemetery with its stone lion high on the brownstone arch—a monument to Nova Scotians who died in the Crimean War. Among the more ancient tombstones in this patch of green you'll find a slab on pedestals covering the grave of General Robert Ross, the man who captured and burnt Washington (and died in an attack on Baltimore) in the War of 1812. The fleet brought his corpse back to Halifax, preserved in a cask of rum, and buried it with elaborate honors hg:e. In the riots of V-day, 1945, when thirsty tars broke into various Halifax liquor stores, one canny man hid his loot under General Ross’s tombstone and drew it forth, bottle by bottle, as required — a new slant on the good old Navy custom of "tapping the admiral.”
Barrington Street took a bad beating in those riots. Almost every shop window from the Dockyard to Government House was smashed, and most of the shops were looted. Naval personnel, bored with Halifax and the war, worked off their cafard in one gorgeous spree, aided and abetted by merchant seamen of twenty nationalities and by a swarm of civilian males and females of the light-fingered class.
The city and service police were helpless and for twenty-four hours the city was a hoodlum's paradise. Barrington's open places—the Grand Parade, the old town cemetery, the patch of park before the Nova Scotian Hotel—all were the scenes of a fantastic broad-daylight debauch like something staged by Cecil B. De Mille but with a script by Rabelais. At one stage a hilarious tart stood on the
steps of St. Paul’s, called the attention of some sailors to a smart women’s-wear shop across the street, and cried out, “Boys, I want a bathing suit.” The boys promptly smashed into the shop and brought her half a dozen “to try for size.” She did. too. there on the church steps, while the mob cheered.
Saint Paul’s lost none of its ancient dignity. The old wooden church (its timbers came from Boston when the towm was founded more than tw'o hundred years ago) has seen many odd things in its time: a congregation of savages chanting in the Micmac tongue: regiments of stiff blue-coated Hessians, each with his pigtail done up in an eelskin, marching to hear a German sermon; a succession of famous worshippers from James Wolfe to Ralph Connor (who raised some oldfashioned Anglican eyebrows by wearing the kilts in the pulpit); and never forgetting Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, commander of the garrison for six years during the Napoleonic Wars, and his charming little French-Canadian mistress Julie, who called herself Alphonsine Thérèse Bernadine Julie de Montgenet de Saint Laurent. When you step inside St. Paul’s you find a curiously quiet retreat across the road from some of the main shops. My father used to take me there as a boy: and from time to time I look in to recapture the old memories, and to glance at his name on the bronze memorial to the dead of World War I.
A few steps away is the Grand Parade, where in the days of an imperial garrison whole regiments of redcoats used to assemble with their bands for a ceremonial changing of the guard. Nowadays when the Canadian Black Watch are in their Nova Scotia quarters, they send their pipes and drums to play every summer day in the Grand Parade, in full fig —plumed black busbies, red coats, kilts, sporrans, diced stockings. They draw a crowd always, and sometimes you see Mayor Leonard Kitz slipping out of his office in City Hall to stand and enjoy the pibroch at close range.
In summer ’56 when the Black Watch were aw'ay for a time on divisional manoeuvres, Halifax had its bagpipe music just the same. It came from one small girl, Deanie Munroe, fourteen years old, wearing full Highland costume with the soft blue-white-and-green Nova Scotia tartan. Each morning from ten to the crack of the Citadel’s noon gun, and each afternoon from two to four, Deanie walked slowly up and down the plinth of the War Memorial in Grand Parade, playing everything from The Barren Rocks of Aden to The Road to the Isles. Not one in twenty Haligonians has a drop of Highland blood but all Nova Scotians have a built-in passion for the pipes. And Deanie was charming in herself. There were times when you could hardly hear the notes of her chanter for clicking of the cameras.
Years ago someone gave me a tartan tic—I think it was the Royal Stewart— and I was wearing it one day on Barrington Street when I met the late Premier Angus L. Macdonald. "So you’re a Scot, too!” he said. “You never told me."
I was honest about it. I said "Mr. Premier, I’m sailing under false colors. My blood is pure Sassenach. My father was a Cornishman and my mother came from Kent."
Angus considered this gravely for a moment. "Well,” he said judiciously, “if your father was a Cornishman your blood is half Celtic. That’s nothing small, my friend. It makes you a half-brother to any of the Gaels.” And after further consideration he declared grandly, “Tom, you have my permission to wear any tartan you like—even the Macdonald!" In
among the gravestones when you step inside the old town cemetery—he’s there to mow the grass of course, but he knows who's in every grave and talks about them as if they were old friends.
And the ghosts. I miss old Wallace MacAskill, best of sailors and finest of marine photographers, a true poet of the camera, pottering about his little shop up a dark flight of stairs — though the shop is still there and you can still buy his pictures. I can see the ghosts of Len Acker and Owen Trider, sportsmen and gamblers born, who used to meet daily on Barrington Street, walk to the corner of Buckingham (where the old electric trams used to bounce and clatter from four directions), and bet a hundred dollars on the number of the next car to heave in sight, odd or even. Ant. Roy Mitchell, the Negro heavyweight, a beautifully built fighter and a good one who went blind, got religion, and used to preach to Barrington’s passing throng from the entrance to Grand Parade.
There’s never anything dull about Barrington if you keep your eyes and ears open and take your time. And don't forget your nose. There are interesting smells on Barrington: the rich blast of malt from the tavern doors, whiffs of hot food, of pastry, of silks and furs, and the peculiar expensive scent that goes with the silver and diamonds in jewelry shops; the smell of wet grass after rain in the old town burial ground (God bless General Ross and the heroes of Sebastopol). The gamy smell of the old seedy characters who inhabit the benches under the elms of Grand Parade; the sweeter cachet of chocolate from Moir’s factory just above; the dry smell of paper and old varnish that drifts out of a hundred offices; the dim religious smell of Saint Paul’s, and of Saint Mary’s just above Barrington on Spring Garden Road, where my father (a stout Protestant) loved to come and hear the Catholic choir. The masculine tang of the tobacco shops and the men’s wear shops, including the wet-dog reek of Hebridean tweeds which are so popular in these parts; the old stink of Imperoyal when the wind’s that way; and always and everywhere the smell of salt and kelp drifting up the side streets from the docks—Barrington couldn't live without that, nor could Halifax; the city’s motto says so.
But you need a bit of second-sight, a touch of the eerie, if you want the full smack of the street^ for Barrington is haunted by the long procession of the past. This is where they came; the sweating cockneys hacking down the pines and finding the skeletons of D’Anville’s men; the pigtailed sailors from the ships, the drunken Indians and stoic squaws, the blue-clad Hessians and buckskinned rangers, the press gangs armed with clubs and cutlasses, the redcoats who fought at Bunker Hill, the wild black Maroons from the hills of Jamaica, the tough Bluenose privateersmen fresh from battle on the Spanish Main, the lads of Ross who captured Washington and burned the White House in revenge for Toronto in the War of 1812. This is where they still walk; the ghosts of Boscawen and Wolfe and Jefferey Amherst, Rogers of the Rangers, General Howe and his fancy woman Mrs. Loring, John Moore who died at Coruna, Hardy who kissed a Halifax bride in his arms not long after Nelson died in those same arms off Trafalgar, Charles Dickens, Joe Howe, D'Arcy McGee, Tom Moore, the Irish poet, Captain Marryatt, Leon Trotsky and the rest— there’s no end to ’em — including five princes who became kings of England and one who became king of France.
This is the place. Right here. You can’t escape them—not on Barrington. +
my Barrington Street memories I like that one best.
I first knew the street forty-odd years ago as a small boy, when it was a dirty thoroughfare, paved only in the street-car tracks, muddy in spring and fall, with the sea winds blowing clouds of dust along it in the summertime. I came to see Barrington's glamour later as a young seaman when, with my cap cocked on three hairs, I stalked the sidewalks with what I hoped was a devastating eye on the girls. In those days the old street to me was Piccadilly and Broadway rolled into
one—and I'd seen the others, mind. And Barrington really had color in those days. Color and noise—the old yellow tram cars had square wheels according to popular belief—and it seems to me people laughed and yelled and had a lot more fun than they do nowadays, when electric trolley coaches whisper along on rubber tires and everybody speaks in hushed tones as if someone or something important were dead.
Just the same 1 ’ike Barrington still. I get a kick out of the Runyoncsque characters you meet there. People like The
Admiral, alias Joe O'Brien, who always wears a gold-braided yachting cap but actually worships horses and spends half his time following the gee-gees about the tracks of the Maritime provinces. And Blind Dukeshire, who sits against a building with his tin cup and his three shopworn pencils, day after day near the busy corner of Sackville. And Johnnie Greenan, the crippled magazine vendor, who considers the baseball man’s finest invention and makes a pilgrimage—and damn the cost-—to the World Series every year. And the little old pixie who bobs up