Thomas Raddall Selected Correspondence: An Electronic Edition

About the electronic version

Copyright 2000. Dalhousie University.

PRINT SOURCE: Thomas Raddall Fonds, Correspondence. From Thomas Raddall to Mr. Charles R. Mont, 02 February 1967. MS-2-202 45.40.

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Just after his novel Hangman's Beach is published, T. H. Raddall receives a letter from one of his Halifax school classmates, Charles Mont. In response to comments from Mont, Raddall relates how he had become interested in writing an historical novel based on the people and events associated with McNab's Island; notes why he had enjoyed his trips to the English port of Manchester when working as a ship wireless operator; and shares memories and information about the Halifax Explosion and their former Chebucto School teachers.

February 2,1967

Mr. Charles R. Mont,
519 Park Avenue,
Prescott, Arizona.

Dear Charlie:
     I was delighted to get your letter and find that I had one
more living link with my school days in Halifax fifty years ago. When
the slump hit Halifax after World War One there was a general exodus of
young men and women, and when I came home from a few years of sea wan-
dering in the summer of 1922 I could find hardly anyone I knew. I left
Halifax myself in the following year, and have lived here ever since.

I remember you, of course. My older sister Nellie had a school friend named
Annie Mont who lived on Chebucto Road near the present entrance to Simpsons-
Sears. Was she one of your family? You certainly had a long trudge to and
from school, especially in winter. I remember a boy named Wilfred Ernst
who used to walk to Chebucto from Dutch Village, and he had one of the best
attendance records in the school. Whereas I, living three doors away from
the school, was often late for roll call.

I camped on McNab's Island for a couple of weeks in the summers of 1914
and 1915, and heard old tales of the McNab family1 and of the hanged men
on the beach. Although I sailed past the island many times in my sea-
going years I never set foot on it again until the summer of 1959. I found
the forts abandoned and the old camp ground a tangle of young trees and
bushes. The old McNab family graveyard, in which Peter and Joanna were
buried, with some of their children and grandchildren and several of their
tenants and servants, is still carefully preserved. The notion of a novel
about the McNabs began to stir in my head, and "Hangman's Beach" went on
from there, although I didn't begin the actual writing until 1963.

In doing the Melville Island research2 I found in the Archives an exact plan
of the old prison made by a British army engineer in 1812, on a scale of
forty feet to the inch. He showed everything, including every latrine and
sentry box. This was priceless in preparing my story. The character I
called "Cascamond" was suggested by the memoirs of a real Frenchman named
Bourneuf,3 who was captured aboard "La Furieuse", suffered a long time in
the Halifax naval hospital with a bad wound in the thigh, went from there
to Melville Island, and eventually escaped to Pubnico. He taught school
there and at St. Mary's Bay, married an Acadian girl, became a successful
merchant and shipbuilder, and eventually was elected to the Nova Scotia
Assembly as the member for Digby County. The memoirs were printed by the
Nova Scotia Historical Society years ago.4 They gave some good descriptions
of life n the prison, the things the prisoners made for sale, etc.

At present I am urging the Armdale Yacht Club, which now occupies Melville
Island, to put up a cairn and plaque to mark the lost graves of prisoners
of war on Dead Man's Island, just across the channel.5

Tell your wife that I made two voyages to Manchester as a young wireless
operator, staying about three weeks each time. The ship lay in Salford
Docks but I rambled all over the Manchester area and found a sweetheart,
a pretty Irish girl who worked in Woolworth's and lived in Longsight. We
corresponded for a few years but I never got back there. I liked the
Lancashire people, though not their climate (all that rain!), and of all
the ports I visited Manchester stands out as the happiest in my experience.

You mentioned Miss Theakston at Chebucto School, also Miss Nichol. Miss
Nichol married a Dalhousie professor and I met her there, years later,
at a tea-and-cake affair of some sort. In 1949 Dalhousie gave me an honorary
doctorate of laws at a special convention in March. It was frightful weather
--a drizzle of freezing rain falling on well beaten snow on the sidewalks,
so that every step was dangerous -- yet old Miss Theakston made her way
there to see the ceremony and have a word with me afterward. That really
warmed my heart.

This year is not only Canada's centennial year but the 50th anniversary of
the Halifax explosion, and the CBC has asked me to write scripts about it
for the national radio and TV networks.6 Were you in Grade Nine that morning?
If so you may remember how the clock flew off the wall and just missed Old
Gander Marshall's head. One girl, Eva Knodell, had her left cheek gashed
from ear to mouth by flying glass, but as far as I can remember the rest
of us got off with small cuts and bruises. And shock, of course.

Like most people in the city at that moment, Mr. Marshall thought the explosion
had happened right where he was and nowhere else. I can still hear him saying
slowly, "some ... of ... the ... little ... boys ... have ... been ...
playing ... with ... dynamite ... in ... the ... basement."

Remember Miss Eva Pye, who taught Grade Seven? I called on her in Halifax
when my first book was published in 1939, and presented her with a copy.
It was a book of short stories,7 one of which ("Winter's Tale") was really
an account of my own experiences and observations on the day of the explosions.
Among other things I described Miss Pye arriving at the school and finding
Old Gander and me standing outside in the snow and watching that mushroom
cloud in the northern sky. In the story I called her "Miss McClintock."
Miss Pye read that bit, and looked up and said, "Now why did you call me
that in your story? I think I know. It rhymes with 'flintlock'. You all
thought of me as a sort of musket, snap-flash-bang!'" And so we did.

If you come this way on your travels be sure to let me know. I'd enjoy
seeing you again and having a yarn about the old times.

Tom Raddall


1. Peter McNab, founder of the McNab family in Nova Scotia, bought the island situated in the mouth of Halifax Harbour in 1783 for �1000, from which time the island became known as McNab's. The beach was regularly used for hangings by the Royal Navy in colonial times. See McNab's Island, Halifax County, Nova Scotia; an historical overview by Brian Kinsman (Halifax: NS Dept. of Natural Resources, 1994, rev. ed. 1995). THR mentions his camping experiences there in his memoir In My Time 23.

2. Melville Island, a peninsula of some 2000 sq. m., located in the Northwest Arm (Halifax Harbour), is now the site of the Armdale Yacht Club.

3. Fran�ois-Lambert Bourneuf (1787-1871), sailor, teacher, merchant, shipbuilder, and politician, was originally allied with the French, then taken prisoner, and later swore allegiance to the Crown. He served four terms as MLA representing Digby, NS. See entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1966-).

4. J. W. Comeau, "Fran�ois Lambert Bourneuf", Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society 27 (1947): 147-72.

5. Dead Man's Island, a small peninsula on the Northwest Arm, was the site of a memorial service on 23 June 2000 honouring American prisoners of war who passed through the Melville Island prison during the War of 1812. See The Daily News 24 June 2000, 1 and 3.

6. THR refers to "The Halifax Disaster of 1917", radio and TV programmes commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and broadcast in September and October of 1967.

7. Here THR means The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek and Other Tales (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1939).