Prince of Wales Martello Tower
Halifax’s Hidden Fortress
The year was 1796, and Britain’s war with Revolutionary France continued to drag on. Fear of a French attack loomed large in Halifax. Driven by the need to defend the city, the garrison commander of Halifax, Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, ordered the construction of a Martello tower at the highest point of Point Pleasant. Inspired by the tower at Mortella Point in Corsica, Halifax's Martello tower was designed to support the existing naval batteries at the southern tip of the peninsula and act as a stronghold in case of an attack by land. Captain James Straton, the Commanding Royal Engineer stationed in Nova Scotia, drew up the plans for the tower, and set British soldiers to work building it later that year.
By 1799, Martello tower was complete, becoming not only the first but also the largest tower of this design in North America. Although Prince Edward commissioned the tower, it was named for his eldest brother, Prince George, the Prince of Wales (later King George IV of England). The circular tower was two stories with a spiral staircase leading to the second-floor entrance. At nearly 8-metres high and approximately 22-metres in diameter, the tower was an imposing structure that overlooked the Point Pleasant. Its defensive and offensive capabilities were no less impressive: with walls 2.4-metres thick, floors nearly a metre thick, and 10 mounted cannons, North America’s first Martello tower was near-impenetrable. Compared to most other Martello towers, Point Pleasant's was built to accommodate a garrison of 200 soldiers, whereas the average tower's garrison was only two or three dozen.
Unfortunately, both Prince Edward’s time in Halifax and the Martello tower’s time as a coastal defense tower were short lived. Only a year after the tower was complete, Edward was ordered home to marry (a union that resulted in the birth of Queen Victoria), leaving behind his many accomplishments and his beloved mistress, Julie de Saint Laurent, for whom he built not one, but two, mansions. The introduction of rifled naval guns in the 1860s spelled the end for Martello towers around the world. Nonetheless, the military found an alternative use for the Prince of Wales Martello Tower, which served as a self-defensible magazine and powder depot until the end of the Second World War. The tower underwent upgrades in the early 19th century, including the addition of the ground-level entrance. In 1996, the Prince of Wales Martello Tower was recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada.
Despite its continued, albeit limited, military use, in 1866, the British government leased Point Pleasant Park to the City of Halifax for 99 years at the cost of one shilling per year. In 1879, Sir William Young, the short-statured Chief of Justice and former Premiere known as "Little Billy," renegotiated the lease to 999 years – the year 2865. The shilling was initially paid to the British Crown but in 1931, the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia took over the responsibility and continues to do so to this day. Beginning in 1964, a shilling ceremony was held annually at Point Pleasant Park to mark the lease payment. While the ceremony eventually fell out of fashion, it was revived in 2017. Some may wonder how the Lieutenant-Governor is paid a shilling given that the coin was taken out of circulation on February 15, 1971. For the 2017 ceremony, the shilling was provided to the City of Halifax by a Haligonian. Today, a shilling is worth approximately 8 cents Canadian – a pretty good deal.