Remembering the Halifax Explosion

On the hundredth anniversary of the disaster, we look back at how some of the city's children miraculously survived

Children standing in front of Christmas tree
During the holidays, hospitals and shelters took in many children left homeless after the explosion. Ross Dunn

On December 6, 1917, the Imo, a Belgian relief ship, accidently struck the French ship the Mont-Blanc in the Narrows, a thin waterway between Bedford Basin and Halifax Harbour. Unbeknownst to most people in the vicinity, since the Mont-Blanc wasn’t flying the proper flag, the ship was carrying 2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of gun cotton, and thirty-five tons of benzol.

The Mont-Blanc caught fire and started drifting toward Pier 6 and the northern Halifax community of Richmond. At 9:04 a.m., the ship exploded in the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Two thousand people died from the blast itself and from subsequent tidal waves and exposure to the elements, while another 9,000 were injured. A large section of Halifax’s north end, roughly 2.5 square kilometres, was obliterated, along with the First Nations community of Turtle Grove on the opposite side of the harbour. Other areas, including Halifax’s South End neighbourhood, parts of Dartmouth, and Africville, an African Nova Scotian community along Bedford Basin, sustained damage.

Later that morning, Toronto Daily Star readers were told Halifax was “wrecked,” and hospitals were overflowing with patients. One-fourth of the city “lay flat,” as flame and smoke filled the air. The Omeneca Miner from British Columbia described the scene as a “morgue,” with an estimated 5,000 dead, and the Redcliff Review from Alberta said Halifax was “almost in ruins,” with hundreds dead and many buildings on fire.

For some caught in the firestorm, there was no time to react or run away. Out of the 2,000 who died, 482 were under the age of fourteen and 242 under the age of five. In total, children represented 30 percent of the casualties from December 6.

The Halifax explosion affected entire generations. Survivors not only lost friends and siblings, but would forever carry the physical and mental scars of that day. As newspapers rushed to print information, stories of tragedy and survival changed as the days went on, amid the confusion, to form a picture of a developing event.

As the explosion was occurring, Mary Knaut, matron of the Halifax Protestant Orphanage at 1274 Barrington Street, ushered twenty-one children and several staff into the building’s basement. Knaut, fearing the city was being bombed, took her charges to the safest place—or that was what she thought.

The building collapsed around them within seconds and it was thought everyone had died—except one child who was not at the orphanage at the time and another who was there. Fragments of information offered hope—sometimes false hope—to those parents who had entrusted the orphanage with their children. Often, parents who felt they couldn’t care for their children, such as men whose wives had died, would leave their children at the orphanage’s care until they were more equipped to do so.

On December 9, the Halifax Herald noted that due to the diligent effort of one father to find his children, a few survivors from the orphanage were discovered. John Howard, a soldier, had scoured both the wreckage and the city for five of his children who had been staying at the facility for a few days. According to official records, Howard was a widower as his wife, Bernice, had died in 1912.

On Saturday, December 8, he managed to track down three of his children—Katie, Austin, and Stella—but his son John, commonly called Jackie, and Raymond were still missing as of December 11. Raymond would be located after a few more days of searching, but eleven-year-old Jackie had died at the orphanage. Howard was also able to find five other children who had been placed in the orphanage’s care, but neither their names nor any information about how they had managed to survive was given to the newspapers.

Records show that twenty-four children and three staff members died, but some reports said twenty-one children and an unspecified number of staff, including Mary Knaut and assistant matron, Ethel May Melvin, died. The Halifax Herald noted seven children were survivors from the orphanage, while a list of possible survivors was in the December 11 Morning Chronicle and Daily Echo. Included on the list were Clarence Ross, Gertrude Reid (Cook), and Teresa Lancaster, who was thought to have left the orphanage of her own accord but had not been found yet. The note about Teresa would prove to be wrong, as her body was never identified or found and she was officially listed as missing, having last been seen with an unnamed woman.

The seven survivors listed by the Herald may or may not have included five-year-old Isabella Robertson. Her father, Duncan Robertson, described her as a “fair-haired” child and thought she had survived based on a story he was told the previous day by Stella Howard, one of John Howard’s children. Stella recalled seeing Isabella in the playroom during the explosion and said that a soldier managed to rescue her and one of Stella’s siblings. She did not know what happened to Isabella after that. No one named Isabella Robertson is listed among the dead in the official records. However, a five-year-old named Elizabeth Robertson who was at the orphanage is listed as having a father named Duncan. It was thought she had been taken away in a car following the explosion. She is listed in the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book as one of the deceased, as her remains were not found.

The story of the orphanage and its children didn’t stop with the Howards and the Robertsons. A few days after the explosion, a pale, grief-stricken man was reported to be standing outside what remained of the building. He knew what had happened but could not bring himself to acknowledge the probable truth. The unnamed man’s wife had died a few months previously, leaving him with three young children. Unable to care for them on his own, he had, only a week before, put them in the orphanage’s care. Now he did not know whether they were dead or alive, but it was reported he clung “desperately to hope that something may be learned touching on the fate of his little folk.”

There were others looking for orphanage children, and they were using whatever means they could to find them. A notice from the Daily Echo on December 10 asked anyone with information about any of the children to “kindly communicate” with Mrs. H.W. Cunningham on Cornwallis Street.

Photograph Courtesy the Beaton Institute

Hundreds of stories about children made their way into the news in that first week, even if the children weren’t named. Many of them were without parents and did not seem to know what to do. There were so many youngsters roaming among the ruins that police tried to establish some type of order by rounding up children who were wandering “through the wilderness of wreckage weeping bitterly or calling for their mothers.” Children were often among those pulled from the rubble, even days after the explosion. Some had managed to survive without food, water, or proper clothing when others had died waiting for help.

Today, one of the more famous stories connected to a child affected by the blast is that of Eric Davidson, who was around three years old in December 1917. He had been playing near a living room window with a toy train when the glass blew in around him, blinding him. Left without sight, Davidson didn’t let his injury hinder his life; he became a very successful mechanic, using his sense of touch and his memory to do his work.

If there was any mention of Eric in those early days, his would have been merely one of the many child-focused stories that flooded newspapers. But there were other children, although many of their names are not known today. Their rescuers were often not named either, but these short stories showed how important the recovery efforts were. If these children could survive the blast, fire, being buried, and a snowstorm, then there was still hope—even if it was a fragment of hope—for parents and other family members.

One little boy was found alive due to the loyalty of a family pet. On December 8, two days after the blast, soldiers were clearing away the remains of a cellar, thinking no one could be alive at this point among the ruins—until they heard a faint bark. The soldiers moved quickly because they knew they couldn’t all have imagined the same noise, so something or someone had to be there. Carefully, they moved away pieces of debris, wood, glass, and stone and found a dog, and the animal was not alone. A little boy of about three years old was with it, seemingly unharmed.

This child was not the only one to be found in a cellar or basement or kept safe by a family pet. Frank Leonard of Saint John, New Brunswick, was helping with recovery efforts when he came upon a wrecked house. One room was still standing, while everything else around it was destroyed. As he came closer, he found an extremely tired, hungry, and frightened child huddled next to a puppy. The child and the dog both seemed uninjured, save for malnourishment and exhaustion. A baby who was found alive by rescuers was kept warm by a collie puppy, which would not leave the infant’s side. The child’s dead mother lay nearby.

For every story of survival there were dozens more of tragedy. One group of soldiers had been working for an hour with “superhuman strength” to save a young girl pinned beneath the ruins. When they finally lifted off the last board, they found she been unable to hold on, and “her spirit fled and it was merely a body they lifted out.”

Private Benjamin Henneberry had recently returned home to Richmond after being injured during the war, but no one would be able to tell he had been hurt as he dug through the ruins of his house. “Here was my home,” the soldier told a passerby, “and I am sure I heard a moan a moment ago.” If he did or if he did not, it didn’t matter; people stopped to help him. They dug and dug until they unearthed someone.

Henneberry had found a baby, which he thought was his eight-month-old daughter, Olive. The child, who had been protected by an ashpan, was lightly injured and semi-conscious. Henneberry now had hope, but this hope was short lived. The bodies of his wife and five other children were discovered as he and volunteers manoeuvred through the rest of the debris.

A few days later, the baby he thought was Olive turned out to be Annie Liggins, who would famously be known as Ashpan Annie because of the way she survived. Baby Olive’s body was never recovered.

Annie’s mother and brother were killed in the blast and her father was serving overseas when the explosion occurred. Later in life, she was employed as a laundry worker and had two children, and she died in 2010 at the age of ninety-five.

Another soldier, who had been tasked with digging through wreckage, came upon a baby that was still alive after having been buried for a few days. Carefully lifting the child out of the wreckage, the unnamed soldier realized the child was his own baby. His wife and five other children were reported to have died. The baby recognized its father and “laughed up on the face of its deliverer, unconscious of all that its rescue meant.”

Destroyed schools accounted in large measure for the horrific death rates among children. Between two unnamed schools, only seven out of 550 students survived, and another report said 200 students died in a Dartmouth school. Newspapers wrote about how many students they lost, but they also commented on how a place of learning had turned into a place of death. And this was due to more than just the number of students who had died. Many buildings, such as the Chebucto Road School, were used as temporary morgues to house the dead.

In another section of the city, amid the chaos and stories of the dead, injured, and dying, a baby was born. Mr. and Mrs. George Kidson of Barrington Street announced the birth of their daughter on December 7. Sadly, however, not all those who gave birth during or immediately after the explosion had children who survived. At one of the hospitals, “five little children were borne tenderly,” although a few hours later “five little corpses were borne tenderly out.”

The stories went on and on and some were never told, at least in the papers. Some children, including five-year-old Alfred Bowan, who died at home, and an “unknown boy 6 or 7” who was injured, would just be names or descriptions among thousands of other names and descriptions.

Excerpted and adapted from Breaking Disaster: Newspaper Stories of the Halifax Explosion.

Katie Ingram
Katie Ingram has written for Maclean's, Halifax Magazine, and The Coast. She is the author of Breaking Disaster: Newspaper Stories of the Halifax Explosion.