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McNabs History: Sections 6-8

McNABS ISLAND, Halifax Co, Nova Scotia: An Historical Overview

Brian Kinsman / Parks and Recreation Division, NS Dept of Natural Resources: April '95

Go to Start | Contents | 7.0 H.M.S. TRIBUNE | 8.0 MAUGHER BEACH


In April of 1866, the S.S. England, a steamship from Liverpool, England, bound for New York with 1202 passengers, suffered an outbreak of cholera. With many of its crew stricken, the England found it necessary to seek refuge at Halifax.

Cholera, one of the most dreaded diseases of the nineteenth century, was no stranger to the citizens of Halifax. In 1834, a major outbreak had occurred in that city which claimed 600 lives. In 1854, over 1,500 cholera victims had died in Saint John.

Port authorities in Halifax, well aware of the potential devastation which could occur if the disease reached the city, ordered the England to anchor in the shelter of McNabs Cove. Over 400 stricken passengers were transferred to the Pyramus, a surplus naval ship which had been anchored just off Findlays Wharf (Figure 17). Those passengers from the England that appeared healthy were then removed to McNabs Island where they were initially housed in buildings used by workers who were constructing Fort Ives. When all passengers and crew had been removed the Cunard Company, owner of the England, began to clean and fumigate the ship.

Little Thrum Cap, at the extreme south of McNabs Island, was designated as an appropriate burial site for those who had succumbed to the dread disease. Additional burial pits were also dug in the vicinity of Hugonins Point by "volunteers" from the city prison.

Dr. John Slayter, the port health officer, provided a graphic, albeit grim, description of the effect of the cholera disease upon its victims:

The illness is virulent, causing death often in less than 12 hours. There is very little pain and purging, some die passing their feculent stools. They have cramps in their stomach and legs, but not to any extent. There is gangrene, cold extremities, vomiting and purging, but during the first stages when aroused they brighten up. Their hands and feet get purple, pulse is small from the beginning, tongue is whitish but not thickly furrowed. There is some suppression of urine. They die from collapse. When dead, their legs and hands are twisted up and very hard to straighten in coffins.
Those not stricken by cholera were subjected to extreme hardship due to of the lack of proper shelter, adequate food, and clothing on the island. On April 14, 1866, Dr. Slayter, wrote to Dr. Charles Tupper, city health office and provincial secretary, from McNabs Island:

The arrangements here are very bad from want of help...more of the people on shore are dying of starvation. When food is sent the strong seize it and the sick and the old who have no friends suffer, having no food. Last night was very bad ... Frank Garvie [a Halifax physician] and myself were ashore most of the night, getting women and children in from the Woods, they having been refused admittance into the tents on account of their not having friends.
Earlier that day soldiers had been sent to the island to try and preserve order. They established their headquarters in the house recently vacated by Captain Hugonin.

All of the passengers were subsequently removed to the south end of the island, near Lyttleton's home and close to present-day Fort McNab. Sentries were posted on the narrow strip of land near Wamboldt's cottage because of a fear that some passengers would escape to Halifax or Dartmouth where the cholera might spread like wildfire.

Dr. Slayter himself contracted cholera on April 16, and succumbed to its effects the following day. He was the last new case of cholera to die on McNabs Island. Two days later the England sailed for New York with its healthy passengers and crew. Fifty-five from the ship remained on the island for several more days. Although reliable statistics were not kept, an estimated 200 cholera victims are believed to have been buried on McNabs Island. The graves at Little Thrum Cap have since washed into the sea while the remaining burial site on Hugonin Point lies hidden beneath the underbrush.

With upwards of 800 hundred people from the England roaming McNabs Island, all of whom were potential carriers of cholera, the residents of the island must have been alarmed. Martin reports that "everyone who had the means or opportunity fled to the country." Perhaps no one lived in greater fear of contracting cholera than Captain Westcote Lyttleton near whose home so many of the ship's passengers and crew encamped. It is not difficult therefore, to understand why he chose to sell his property on McNabs Island a short time later.

Shortly after the England departed with her remaining passengers and crew, John McCurdy petitioned the government for $1,164 in damages for losses he suffered. McCurdy had a portion of his property used for the burial ground and was otherwise inconvenienced by the presence of the passengers on his land.


In 1797, the worst marine disaster ever to occur in Halifax Harbour took place when H.M.S. Tribune ran aground off McNabs Island. The Tribune, a 44 gun frigate, had sailed from England in September, 1797, to escort a convoy bound for Newfoundland and Quebec. On October 19, she lost sight of her convoy and made for Halifax, arriving there on the 23rd of November. Rather than wait for the services of a local pilot, as was the normal practice, the ship's Captain decided to proceed into the harbour on his own.

At about noon, the vessel had approached so close to Thrumcap Shoal, at the southern tip of McNabs Island, that the ship's master became alarmed. Before proper action could be taken, however, the Tribune drove up onto the shoals. The Tribune's distress signals were quickly answered by several military boats, but her Captain would allow no one to abandon ship. Instead, he tried to free his stricken vessel by throwing many of the guns and other heavy articles overboard.

By nine o'clock that evening the Tribune was finally freed from the shoal just as gale force winds began lashing the harbour. With her rudder smashed, the Tribune drifted helplessly toward the treacherous shoals and high cliffs at Herring Cove. To make matters worse, the ship's hull had been so badly damaged that her pumps were unable to keep up with the incoming waters.

Shortly after 10:30 P.M., H.M.S. Tribune foundered off Herring Cove. Many of the men gained the shrouds and masts which protruded from the icy waters, but by morning most had perished. In all, over 200 drowned, including several women and children. The promontory near Herring Cove which overlooks the final resting spot of the Tribune is still referred to as Tribune Head.

Among those who perished were two men from McNabs Island. Shortly after the Tribune struck Thrumcap Shoal, Alex Hawthorne, another man by the name of Ray (possibly George Ray who was listed in the 1798-80 survey) and a third unidentified man, all from McNabs Island, boarded the ship to render assistance. Even after it became apparent that the ship was doomed, the Captain ordered the men to remain on board. Ray managed to get off by promising to bring help from shore, but Hawthorne and the third man were drowned.


Peter McNab's house was located within easy reach of his fishery business on Maugher Beach. Curing fish, however, was not the only use made of the beach. From the 1780's until the second decade of the nineteenth century, military authorities maintained gibbets at the seaward end of the beach. These gibbets were, in fact, a framework from which the bodies of executed military personnel were displayed as a grim warning to others who might consider mutiny or desertion. The bodies, often tarred to slow the action of the elements, were visible to all ships entering or leaving the harbour. On one occasion, four men held responsible for an August, 1809, mutiny aboard H.M.S.Columbine were executed on September 18 and later left to dance from the gibbets on Maugher Beach.

Tradition recalls that Peter McNab was greatly upset by the presence of the gibbets so close to his home. On a particularly stormy night, when several bodies hung from the gibbets, the rattling of chains and creaking of the structure so angered Peter McNab that he and several tenants cut down the bodies and destroyed the gibbets.

When British authorities finally abandoned the gibbets it was done not to appease McNab and his tenants but because a more practical use for Maugher Beach had been found. In 1815, construction of a martello tower, later to be named Sherbrooke Tower, began near the outer tip of Maugher Beach, the first fortification to be established on McNabs Island. Built to assist in the defence of Halifax during the War of 1812, Sherbrooke Tower was not completed until 1828, thirteen years after work had commenced. Upon completion, a lighthouse was placed on the tower to aid in navigation.

The lighthouse was later the scene of an incredible display when, in 1852, the Nova Scotia Government placed the facility under the exclusive control of Dr. Abraham Gesner for one month. In December of that year Gesner used his newly discovered kerosene fuel to operate the light atop the lighthouse. It is said the experiment was so successful that mariners veered off course to witness the amazing spectacle.

A sketch of Maugher Beach, drawn shortly after completion of the fortification, shows Sherbrooke Tower and several buildings which occupied the beach (Figure 18). Those buildings at the harbour end of the beach were in use during construction of the tower and were perhaps associated with construction efforts or the fishery there. Two of these buildings remained in 1853, although a map completed in that year lists them as "wooden buildings in a state of decay."

Officers Quarters were located near the landward end of Maugher Beach, adjacent to the wharf.

Margaret Cook recalls that "from the hill above the lighthouse, during the War of 1812, Peter II and his family watched the "Shannon" tow the "Chesapeake" into Halifax Harbour."

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This Internet version of McNabs Island: An Historical Overview is provided by the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists (FNSN) as a contribution to the park planning process.

July 14, 2011