Mess History

Mess History

Royal Artillery (RA) Park Officers’ Mess is the oldest military Mess in Canada, serving officers in the Halifax garrison since 1816. The site of RA Park was acquired in 1799 from John and Richard Cleary for £150, in the name of Prince Edward, to provide soldiers quarters, stores, officers' accommodations and a headquarters for the Royal Artillery personnel stationed in Halifax. Its acquisition resulted in the move of the Royal Artillery personnel and equipment from congested quarters on Argyle Street, opposite Grand Parade, Where the World Trade and Convention Centre is now located. Around 1800, the Royal Engineer Establishment consisting of RE Square and the South Barracks were established on the east side of RA Park to provide accommodations for the Royal Engineers. These lands were thus incorporated into the Halifax fortifications, which became collectively known as Imperial Fortress Halifax, with similar status as the Imperial Fortress of Bermuda, Malta and Gibraltar.

Shortly after obtaining RA Park, several small wooden verandahed barracks were built adjacent to the former main entrance to RA Park on Sackville Street, opposite the road leading up to Citadel Hill. These buildings later became guardrooms. A two and a half story verandahed barracks for 59 soldiers was completed in 1803, running east-west, taking up the north half of the present main parking lot. In 1805, the Commanding Officers’ Quarters were completed on the east side of the soldiers' barracks, where it still stands today.

The Officers’ Quarters (for 12) were completed in 1812, on the west side of the soldiers'barracks. Additional land was acquired to the west of the Officers’ Quarters in 1812 to build the Officers’ Mess. The construction of the Mess was however delayed to 1815-1816 due to the effects of the War of 1812, specifically the upgrading of the numerous fortifications around Halifax Harbour. During the 1803-1812 period numerous small buildings were built along Sackville and along the eastern fence, near what is now Brunswick Street; three gun sheds, two stables, a carriage shed, a repair shed, a wheel shed, a wagon shed and several other small storage sheds. A headquarters building containing an orderly room and offices was built in front of the Officers’ Quarters, running north-south. The two stables were of sufficient size to accommodate six horses allocated for the officers, as well as a number of workhorses to haul guns and wagons. The basement area of the Officers’ Mess was never used as a stable, contrary to popular myth. The acquisition of the piece of land where the Mess now stands was accompanied with a court battle. Its eventual acquisition resulted in the "bending" of what is now called Queen Street to the west. The Mess was built for the officers of RA Park and RE Square, and was initially known as the RA & RE Officers’ Mess. A stained glass window over the Mess entrance still bares this title.

During the later part of the War of 1812, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke led a military expedition to Maine from Halifax in late August 1814. He captured the coastal area of Maine from the St. Croix River to the Penobscot River, setting up his base in the Port of Castine. The war came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on 24 December 1814. Sherbrooke had, by that time, taken in 10,000 pounds in custom duties, which he had imposed on all imports and exports through the Port of Castine. These funds became known as the Castine Funds. In October 1815, the British Board of Trade directed that the Castine Funds be devoted to general improvements in Nova Scotia. Sherbrooke left Halifax in 1816, without having touched the Castine Funds, to become Governor General of "Canada" in Quebec City.  
In 1816 George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie, became the new Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. Dalhousie, with the concurrence of Sherbrooke, used 1,000 pounds of the Castine Fund in 1817 to establish the Officers Garrison Library in Halifax. The library was set up similar to the Officers Garrison Library in Gibraltar. Half of the books were purchased in England (books of character and value) and half in New York (books of light reading and trifling value). This was the first library established in Halifax. The library was set up first in a private house near Government House, then it was moved to the Administration Building of the Glacis Barracks on Cogswell Street, then in 1886 to the new specific purpose built building at RA Park. In 1818, Dalhousie used the remaining 9,000 pounds of the Castine Fund to establish "Dalhousie College", which later became known as Dalhousie University. It was located at the site of the present City Hall at the Grand Parade. 
By the 1870s, the north wing was added to the mess. One of the two entrances to the Messes was once designated as the "Ladies Entrance." The angled entrance to the Mess was added sometime in the early twentieth century, together with the cloakroom, and what is now the Mess Manager's office. Much of the interior woodwork, as well as the fireplaces, on the main floor are original. Photographs from the 1800s show the Commanding Officer's Residence, The Officers’ Quarters, and the Mess to be similar design with their signature boxlike entranceways. Photographs from the late 1800s provide a good record of the building of that period. RA Park remained virtually unchanged, as a self-contained barracks and headquarters, for the next 70 years. A drill shed was added near the corner of Queen and Sackville Streets by the 1880s. Near the drill shed was also built a two-story, warlike stores building.

Changes in military living came slowly. First, the brick Garrison Military Library was completed in 1886. In 1902 the Garrison Officers obtained approval to rename the Garrison Officers’ Library, the Cambridge Military Library, after the Duke of Cambridge who had been Commander of the British Army for over 40 years. Next came the new Officers’ quarters and the married Warrant Officers’ Quarters, both completed in 1903 of brick. The old wooden Officers Quarters were torn down to make way for the new Officers Quarters.  
A memorial to the members of the 9th Siege Battery who lost their lives in the Great War is located just 10 meters north of where the Soldiers’ Barracks were located. The Battery was raised from members of the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery based in Halifax and Esquimalt. They were permanent force members of the coastal defence artillery, who were initially prohibited from going overseas due to the high priority given to the defence  of Canada during the early years of the war. The unit was finally approved and sent overseas in 1916. The members went from working on 9.2 inch  6 inch coastal guns to 6-inch siege guns. The monument is the oldest of the  13 Artillery Monuments in Canada. The RCA Association of Canada assists in its maintenance.

RE Square and the South Barracks were torn down shortly after WWII, permitting the extension of Brunswick Street to Spring Garden Road. RE Square was located where Brunswick Street extension now runs to Blower Street and the South Barracks were located where Cambridge Suites Hotel now stands. All wooden buildings in RA Park were torn down just after WWII except for the Mess and the Commander’s House. The brick duplex on Brunswick Street was formerly the Married Warrant Officers’ quarters. Since WWII, it has been used at various times as Senior Officers’ Quarters and as accommodations for 3rd Intelligence Company. The former single Officers Quarters was used as a number of years as Senior Married Officers’ Quarters and is now currently used as the Headquarters for 36 Canadian Brigade Group.

During WWII a 40-foot by 100 foot "H" hut was erected south of the Cambridge Military Library to provide additional accommodations in RA Park. It was used as Officers’ Quarters until the early 1970s at which time it was torn down. Officers who lived there, dined at the Mess and the Mess still operated as a traditional "British" Officers Mess until just after unification. Bar chits could still be used by mess members at that time. Many of the living in officers were active in the local military sailing club, which owned the "Pongo" Tancook Island schooner (See Note Below).  It was originally called the "Vicki Anne".  The name was changed to PONGO. Up until the 1970s, the number of public drinking establishments in Halifax was very limited. The Mess thus remained an extremely popular watering hole. The vast expansion of the Armed Forces in the 50s and 60s brought a large number of officer cadets to Halifax, both Regular and Reserve, to attend local Universities. The Mess remained quite popular with the lower paid cadets. 

With the integration of the forces came much change including higher pay, significant downsizing, and facilities rationalization. All of which had a direct affect on RA Park. At the time of unification, a Black Watch Officer posted to Halifax went to the Wardroom to draw his room key for accommodation previously arranged at RA Park. The duty "Killick", thinking the Black watch badge on the new green uniform was a Padre's badge, gave the officer, a Captain, the VIP Suite at RA Park which was traditionally reserved for the living in Padre. Neither the new Padre, who had arrived later in the summer nor the Black Watch Captain realized the difference until much later when the Black Watch Captain inquired as to why he had the best room in the  hut.

Although Britain had removed its troops from Canada in 1871, it maintained its two naval bases: Esquimalt in British Columbia and, more importantly, Halifax. Halifax would be home to a British regiment and several batteries of the Royal Regiment of Artillery until 1905. The eastern half of RA Park can be seen in the top right hand corner and these artillerymen are shown in the Halifax Citadel next to a Rifled Muzzle Loading Gun - nicknamed a 'bottle gun
RA Park was one of 25 British military properties transferred to Canada when the British Forces left Canada in 1906. The Royal Canadian Artillery took over control of RA Park from the Royal Artillery the same year. The wooden structures were in poor condition at the time, having under gone 100 years of military use. With some well-needed maintenance, these buildings were brought back to good condition to provide very valuable service for the next 40 years under RCA control. The General Officer Commanding the regional militia district used the Mess as a residence during the period 1907-1920: The senior RCA Officer occupied the Commanding Officer's Residence until 1945. RA Park remained under RCA control until the end of WWII. From 1945 until unification of the forces in 1968, RA Park remained under the command of the Regional Army GOC. From unification and the resultant stand down of Eastern Command, senior Naval Flag Officers resided at RA Park. Since the formation of Land Forces Atlantic Area in 1992, the regional Army Commander has resided in RA Park.
The Mess is filled with historical mementos and room names. At the entrance to the Mess is a series of panels, which list all the military Commanders in Acadia and Nova Scotia since 1605. The walls of the Mess are covered with the many interesting military prints, paintings, pictures and badges tracing the history of those Mess members who have come before. Of particular interest are the names given to the dining room, sunroom, piano room, and sitting room; respectively they are the Plow, Page, Elkins, and Craig rooms. They are all named after distinguished Officers who served both in WWI and WWII. 

The Mess is still a popular meeting spot for serving and retired Officers, as well as the many distinguished associate members. It has a very warm, down home atmosphere, appreciated by all, located in the heart of the city, surrounded by over 250 years of history. Mess functions are always well attended from the New Year's Day Levee, the monthly carveries, and the summer barbeques to the many individual unit and special organization functions. The Remembrance Day Service held at RA Park is extremely well attended. The Mess is used as a meeting place for a variety of military associated organizations such as the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia, The Army Cadet League of Nova Scotia, the Maritime Air Group Association, the Military Engineer Association, the Halifax Rifles Association and the Geritol Club.