Croydon’s wartime Canadian links: the Halifax explosion, December 1917

By - Wednesday 10th January, 2018

Finding out about Croydon’s First World War connections to the Canadian army

Photo author’s own.

On 6th December 1917, a massive explosion in the harbour at Halifax, Nova Scotia, devastated the town, killed nearly 2,000 people and injured nearly 9,000 more. Whether former Croydonians were among them is not known, because so many of those killed could not be identified.

Despite the support of the Canadians for Britain on the Western Front and other battlefields during the First World War, and despite the fact that many Croydonians who had emigrated to Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries fought, neither the Croydon Advertiser nor the Croydon Times reported the explosion.

The explosion happened when a French cargo ship laden with explosives collided with a Norwegian ship. The explosion was the largest manmade one in history until the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It devastated a half-mile radius of the town and Dartmouth on the other side of the harbour. The tidal wave it created obliterated the local community of First Nation people, and severely damaged the black area of Africville. The Industrial School of Nova Scotia for Colored Children run by the African United Baptist Association (founded in 1853) was destroyed.

The explosion severely damaged one of the Allies’ major ports

The explosion severely damaged the war effort, because Halifax was one of the Allied forces’ major ports.

A massive relief effort was started. The government of Canada gave $8 million, Great Britain $5 million, the United States $5 million, Australia $250,000, and New Zealand $50,000, which was estimated as $296.1 million in 2008 values. There was also voluntary fundraising across Canada, the United States and Britain.

A reconstruction commission was set up with a $30-million fund for medical care, social welfare, compensation and reconstruction. In 1976, with $1.5 million remaining and with 65 disabled dependants, the commission was terminated and its responsibilities transferred to the Canada Pension Commission.

Many Croydonians fought with the Canadian army

In Croydon’s roll call of the dead in the book Croydon and the Great War: The Official History of the War Work of the Borough and its Citizens from 1914 to 1919, many Croydonian émigrés who fought with the Canadians are recorded: George Brazier, James Edward Chandler, William Dowden, Wallace John Gillie, Leonard John Hextall, William Keys, the brothers Albert Edward and Thomas Maltby, William Charles Quinton and Frederick William Rayner.

Lance-Corporal Cuthbert Shipton from Nova Scotia had an uncle, Arthur E. P. Voules, who was headmaster of the Oxford House School at Birdhurst Lodge on Birdhurst Road.

In October 2015, Papa Delta wrote about his grandfather Leonard Fuller, who fought on the Western Front and returned to Croydon in 1920.

In British Columbia there is a railway stop called Croydon

Another survivor of the Western Front was Bertram Richard Brooker, who was a writer, painter, musician – and later advertising agency executive.

On 17th February 1915 as part of the food relief programme, bags of flour arrived in Croydon, sent from Canada, British Columbia (where there is a railway stop called Croydon after our town), and New Brunswick. The local bakers turned these into loaves.

Living in Outram Road in Addiscombe was Frederick George Creed, born in Nova Scotia in 1871, with his telecommunications firm Creed & Company Ltd. Moving from Seldson Road to East Croydon in 1915, it made high-quality instruments, such as amplifiers,  aircraft compasses, high-voltage generators, bomb-release apparatus and fuses.

Canadians enlisted as soldiers, nurses, doctors and railway crew

About 630,000 Canadians enlisted between 1914 and 1918 as soldiers, nurses, doctors, and forestry and railway crews. More than 234,000 were killed or wounded. Among them were my grandfather and great-uncle, both serving on the Western Front, wounded, hospitalised in Britain and returned to the front, both surviving.

There were also black Canadians such as Reverend Captain William A. Wight of one of the construction brigades, and Jerry Jones, who wiped out a German machine-gun nest at Vimy Ridge. The Preston East Unity Baptist Church near Halifax has a roll of honour to its 24 members and followers who served ‘in the great struggle for the freedom of the world’.

The African-American rights campaigner W. E. B. Du Bois, who had been a friend of and visited composer Samuel Coleridge in Croydon before his death in 1912, reported in the July 1918 issue of  The Crisis, the journal he edited, that “Private R Gilbert, a colored man in the Canadian Army, has sent home a German iron cross that was given to him by a German officer when he captured him single handed”. Just some of the histories of those Canadians connected with our borough, who fought so bravely in the First World War.

Photo author’s own.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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