Halifax was the focus for the Supreme Court in its early years, but as the population grew so did demands for trials to be held in outlying communities. In 1774 the court began holding sessions twice a year in Annapolis, Kings and Cumberland counties, and these “circuit” sittings were extended to the entire province by 1851. In newer settlements, court was sometimes held in shops, private homes, and even in the local tavern. The court’s stature and civic pride demanded better, and the nineteenth century witnessed a courthouse building boom across the province.
The result was a collection of impressive buildings, many of them still standing – monuments to the pursuit of justice. Towns vied to become the site of the county courthouse and enjoy the status and economic spinoffs they provided as litigants and witnesses converged for court business. Courtrooms echoed with cases of all kinds, from lurid murders to mundane disputes over unpaid bills. The courthouse was often the focus of community events, hosting public meetings, political rallies and serving as an enlistment centre in wartime. Many early courthouses were housed in the same building as the county jail, and it was – and remains – common for the Supreme Court to share facilities with other courts. In many areas the Province has built larger, more secure justice centres, a trend that will continue as age, building codes and increasing caseloads make some older courthouses obsolete. Several of these landmarks have already found second careers as museums.
Annapolis County – Annapolis Royal, 1837
As the birthplace of Canada’s common law system of justice, it is fitting that Annapolis Royal has a courthouse described as “expensive and magnificent” and “probably the best in the province” shortly after its completion in 1837. Adjacent to Fort Anne, it replaced a courthouse dating from 1793 that burned in 1836. The first floor, built of granite blocks, houses the jail; the stuccoed second storey, accessed via two flights of stairs meeting at the central entrance door, contains offices and the Supreme Court’s oak-paneled courtroom. Four columns frame the front door and the hipped roof is topped with a cupola added during renovations in the 1920s. It is the oldest courthouse in the province that remains in use.
Antigonish County – Antigonish, 1855
With its imposing Greek Revival columns and tall windows, the Antigonish courthouse stands as a monument to the town’s mid-nineteenth century pride and prosperity. It was too grand for some people’s tastes – a number of residents signed a petition to the legislature that complained of the “considerable sum of money” spent on the building. While the date of construction is uncertain, descendants of its builder – Antigonish contractor Alexander McDonald, known locally as “Sandy the Carpenter” – suggest it was completed in 1855. The county jail, built of stone, is attached to the rear of the building. The courthouse survived a serious fire in the 1940s and continues to be the venue for the area’s Supreme Court cases.
Argyle (District) – Tusket, 1805
The oldest surviving courthouse in Canada, Tusket’s venerable courthouse was completed in 1805 to serve an area that was in the midst of an economic boom fueled by shipbuilding, fishing and milling. A bell tower at one end of its gabled roof, directly above the main entrance, gives the building the look of a church and belies its dual role as a courthouse and jail. The building was doubled in length in 1833 and was lengthened again in 1870, but otherwise its facade has undergone few changes in two centuries.
The most famous trial held at the courthouse took place in 1922 – Omar P. Roberts was convicted of killing his housekeeper and became the last man hanged for murder in Yarmouth County. The building was used for court sessions and housed the offices of the Municipality of Argyle until 1976. Through the efforts of three local residents, the courthouse was restored and reopened in 1983 as a museum and archives.
Barrington (District) – Barrington, 1843
Barrington’s New England settlers built this courthouse as the community’s “town house” – the site of the local jail as well as a venue for town meetings and elections. When the District of Barrington was established as a separate municipal unit in 1854, the building became its courthouse. The second floor housed the courtroom, judge’s chambers, jury room and robing rooms for lawyers. It is the province’s third oldest surviving courthouse, but renovations and additions over the years have muted its formal Georgian symmetry.
Cape Breton County – Sydney
As Cape Breton’s largest urban centre, Sydney has long been the focus for court business on the island. The city’s earliest courthouse was built in 1786 and stood on North Charlotte Street. It was replaced in 1868 by a new structure on DesBarres Street. It, in turn, was replaced by a new courthouse in 1901, built near the site of the original courthouse and designed by the Hopson Brothers. This courthouse burned in 1959 and a modern, multi-storey courthouse to serve Cape Breton County was opened in 1962 on Crescent Street, overlooking Wentworth Park. Poor indoor air quality forced the closure of the courthouse in the 1990s, but it was later renovated, rechristened Silicon Island and is now home to high-tech businesses. The county’s courts are now housed in the Harbour Place development on Charlotte Street.
Colchester County – Truro, 1904
A building “more in harmony with the wealth, intelligence and public spirit of Colchester.” That was the goal of the citizens of the county and the bustling railway and factory town of Truro when they set out to build a new courthouse at the dawn of the twentieth century. By then the town’s courthouse was approaching its sixtieth year and was considered a “rather disreputable structure,” its Greek-inspired columns defaced with graffiti and its interior “shabby and not at all imposing.”
In 1903 a leading architect of the day, James Dumaresq of Halifax, was commissioned to design a new courthouse, a massive brick building trimmed in sandstone. Four stone pillars, two storeys in height, frame the main entrance to the structure, which also houses the county council chambers. A four-storey turret graces one side of the building, and a mix of windows topped with arches and keystones add interest to the facade. The large courtroom is crowned with a coved ceiling that frames a skylight of decorative leaded glass, allowing natural light to flood in. When completed in 1904, the warden of Colchester declared the building “second to none in the Province.” An addition was added in 1972 and the building remains in use by the court.
Cumberland County – Amherst, 1889
Built of red sandstone quarried within the town limits, this substantial courthouse befitted Amherst’s position as a major manufacturing centre when it was built in 1889. An arched central entrance and scalloped carvings above the tall windows combine to create an impressive facade. The second-floor courtroom is reached using a pair of elaborately carved staircases. An addition was added to the rear of the building in 1960s to provide more office space. It is the fourth courthouse to serve this county, replacing a wooden structure on the same site that burned down in 1887. It borders on a park formerly know as Court Square but renamed Victoria Square in 1887 – the year the previous courthouse was destroyed – to mark Queen Victoria’s fiftieth year on the throne.
Digby County – Digby, 1910
The fire that destroyed the Annapolis Royal courthouse in 1836 provided an opportunity for the residents of western Annapolis County to demand their own municipality – with its own courthouse and registry offices. Digby County was duly established in 1837 and the town of Digby was chosen over Weymouth, a port further to the west, as the site of the courthouse. The original Georgian-style structure was considered inadequate by the turn of the century and a larger brick structure was erected on the same site and completed in 1910. It features castle-like rounded turrets, topped with a conical roof, at each corner. Prominent architect Leslie Fairn, fresh from designing the King’s County courthouse in Kentville, drew up the plans. The building also housed the county council chambers and the courtroom features a two-tier public gallery and the scales of justice carved into a wood panel above the judge’s bench.
Guysborough County – Guysborough, 1843
Even though it dates to 1843, the Guysborough courthouse is the third to serve a county founded by disbanded British soldiers after the American Revolution. The first courthouse, which also housed the jail, was built in 1790 and a replacement was completed in 1825. It was replaced, in turn, by a simple, one-storey courthouse with a gabled roof and windows featuring Gothic arches reminiscent of a church. A separate jail building was erected next door. When court was not in session, the building hosted municipal council meetings and rallies and housed exhibits for agricultural fairs held on its grounds. Court sittings moved to the town’s new municipal building in 1973 and the courthouse is now a museum.
Halifax County – Halifax, 1860
The Supreme Court convened for the first time in 1754 in a building at the corner of Argyle and Buckingham Streets, now the site of the Scotia Square office towers. After this building burned down in July 1789, court was held for a time in a large room at the Golden Ball tavern. Space was then leased from a local merchant – a “low, dark” upstairs room in a warehouse located on the site now occupied by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. A new County Courthouse was built for the lower courts about 1810, adjacent to the city’s open-air market on George Street, but the Supreme Court was destined for grander surroundings. Upon the completion in 1818 of Province House, the fine sandstone building on Hollis Street that houses the Legislature and its offices, the Supreme Court moved into the second-floor chamber now used as the Legislative Library.
By the 1850s a decision was made to consolidate all the courts under one roof. After fires razed many downtown buildings during that decade, officials abandoned plans for a wooden structure in favour of a more fireproof one made of stone, to protect the legal records it would house. A Toronto-based architect, William Thomas, was retained and created a palatial structure in sandstone, replete with carvings of the faces of snarling lions and stern, bearded men. A temple-like projection from the facade dwarfs the entrance doors and those who enter – a fitting image to convey the power and majesty of the courts. After its completion in 1860, a city directory gushed that the building “cannot be surpassed for architectural beauty by any city of the same size on the continent of America.”
Located near the foot of Spring Garden Road, the building initially housed two courtrooms. An addition to the back in the 1880s added a third. Matching wings were erected on either end of the building in 1908 and 1930 to add additional courtroom and office space. The courthouse suffered $19,000 in damage in the 1917 Halifax Explosion, even though it was far removed from the site of the blast. Its courtrooms have been described as the “most flamboyantly decorated” of any in the province, rich in fine woodwork and plaster details. One of the courtrooms even featured an elevator that could ferry prisoners directly into the courtroom from the cells below, but it was removed in the 1930s after is malfunctioned and left a prisoner trapped between floors.
After a modern Law Courts complex for Halifax County was built on the waterfront in 1971, the old courthouse (designated a national historic site in 1969) was transformed into a provincial government library. The seven-storey Law Courts provided eleven courtrooms – enough for the Supreme Court and its newly created Appeal Division, as well as the County and Provincial courts. By the 1980s, however, more judges and support staff were needed to deal with an increasing caseload and the building proved too small to accommodate all levels of court. The Provincial Court returned to the refurbished Spring Garden Road courthouse in 1985.
Hants County – Windsor 1950
Hants County is divided into two smaller municipalities, East and West Hants. The largest town in West Hants, Windsor, emerged as an important commercial and railway centre and was home to King’s College, the province’s first institution of higher learning, until it was relocated to Halifax in the 1920s after a disastrous fire. Windsor was among the first communities outside Halifax to host Supreme Court sittings after the circuit system was established in 1774.
A courthouse was built on the present-day site of Christ Church in 1804, and was followed by a succession of court buildings at the corner of King and Victoria streets. The courthouse erected in 1897 was an elegant, two-storey brick building, with a hipped roof and large domed windows. It burned in December 1946 and the current courthouse was built at the same corner in 1950, with chief Justice J.L. Ilsley laying the cornerstone. Charles Killinbeck of Kentville produced the functional design, which is far less ornate than its predecessor, and the building also housed the county jail and its 17 cells. Court sittings have been transferred to the regional justice centre in Kentville.
East Hants had its own courthouse as early as the 1860s. It was built in Gore, a small farming community where antimony – a metal used to strengthen lead – was mined for export to Wales from the 1880s until 1917. The courthouse stood for 90 years on a site known locally as ‘Judgment Hill,’ but it was no longer in use for court sessions when it was destroyed by fire in 1956.
Inverness County – Port Hood 1936
In 1824, shortly after Cape Breton was annexed to mainland Nova Scotia, the island was divided into judicial districts and Port Hood, on the western coast, was proclaimed the site where the “Courts of Common Pleas and Session of the Peace shall hereinafter be held.” With its large harbour and thriving fishing industry, Port Hood was a natural choice as shiretown (the seat of local government) when Inverness County was established in 1837.
The community has had a succession of courthouses, all located on the aptly named Court House Square. The first was a small stone structure built sometime after 1825. It was replaced in 1872 by a building that boasted a large courtroom with galleries ringing the rear and side walls, giving spectators prime seats for viewing the proceedings. This courthouse was destroyed by fire in December 1935, along with many of the court records it contained. The current courthouse was completed in 1936 and renovated in the 1940s. A major extension was added to the north end of the building in 1967 to provide additional office space.
King’s County – Kentville, 1903
Kentville replaced Wolfville as the administrative centre for King’s County in the 1780s, and a combination courthouse and jail was built in 1829. It was destroyed by fire 20 year later but the replacement courthouse was considered “scandalously inefficient” and “an eyesore to the community” by the turn of the century. A leading Maritime architect, Leslie A. Fairn, was commissioned to design a new courthouse on Cornwallis Street in 1903.
Built of brick and topped with a cupola and weather vane, the building housed county offices on the ground floor and the Supreme Court chamber on the floor above. The courtroom is ornate, with stained walnut paneling and the scales of justice carved in wood above the judge’s bench – reputedly the work of a local inmate. According to one observer, major trials would prompt men from all over the county to converge on Kentville and “all day remain spell-bound in the stifling courtroom, listening to the evidence as the various witnesses were called.” A modern Law Courts, part of a new municipal building, opened on the same street in 1980 and the old courthouse is now the King’s Historical Society Museum.
Lunenburg County – Lunenburg, 1892; Bridgewater, 1893
Courthouses and municipal offices bring jobs, economic spinoffs and prestige to their host communities. Towns would sometimes vie for the honour of being the “shiretown” or county seat, and in Lunenburg County this rivalry led to the construction of two courthouses. Lunenburg, founded in 1754 and only the second Nova Scotia settlement established under British rule, erected a courthouse in 1775. When a replacement was needed in the late 1800s officials in the bustling lumber town of Bridgewater also claimed the right to host the new courthouse. After three years of debate and legal actions, courthouses were built in both communities.
The Lunenburg courthouse, completed first in 1892, is a towering building of brick and stone designed in the Second Empire style that features a mansard roof and entrances that project from the centre of the facade. Bridgewater followed a year later with large wooden structure in the same architectural style, with a central tower rising over the main entrance. Both buildings provided courtrooms, judge’s chambers and jury rooms. The county council, saddled with the expense of maintaining duplicate facilities, agreed to hold its meetings at both buildings on an alternating basis.
Pictou County – Pictou, 1856
After its creation as a separate district in 1790, Pictou was in desperate need of a courthouse. The first sittings of the Supreme Court were reportedly held in a barn that also housed a pig sty and, in summer, jurors retired to a nearby pasture to consider their verdicts. A courthouse and jail building was erected in 1813. The prosperity of the county’s coalfields and factories led to the construction in the 1850s of an ornate two-storey building decorated with exterior architectural flourishes and intricate wood carving and mouldings inside.
The impressive Supreme Court chamber was two stories high, with a spectators’ gallery and a stained glass window depicting the goddess of justice with her sword and scales. A federal government heritage report described it as “the most elaborately detailed courthouse constructed of wood in Nova Scotia.” Sadly, the building fell victim to arson and burned to the ground in 1985. By then court sessions were held in a new facility, the Pictou Justice Centre, built on the town’s waterfront in the 1970s.
Queen’s County – Liverpool, 1854
With its classic architecture, the Queens County courthouse in Liverpool would be at home among the temples of ancient Greece. A large portico, spanning the entire width of the front facade, is supported by four massive, fluted columns. The impressive wooden building was erected in 1854 to replace a predecessor that visiting Supreme Court judges condemned as “truly disgraceful.” The new building, in contrast, was praised in the local newspaper as “very comfortable, substantial and well built.” It is also compact, consisting of an entry hall, courtroom and rooms for the judge and lawyers laid out on a single floor. A dispute among local officials over where it should be sited within the town continued even after its completion – one of the first cases heard within its walls dealt with an attempt to withhold payment to the builder. Built the year the Supreme Court marked its centennial, it remains in use.
Richmond County – Arichat, 1847
The port of Arichat, on Cape Breton’s southern coast, was one of the province’s busiest ports – hailed as “the key to the Canadas” due to its strategic location at the entrance to the Strait of Canso – when its impressive courthouse was erected in 1847. The designer of this “ornament to the County of Richmond,” as local officials described it, was Alexander McDonald, who went on to build courthouses with nearly identical Greek-inspired facades in Sherbrooke and Antigonish. Besides housing the jail, Supreme Court chamber and offices, the courthouse was the heart community life from its inception until the early 1900s, hosting election debates, gala balls and even traveling vaudeville shows. A rear addition was built in 1978 to house municipal and court offices and the courtroom remains in use.
Shelburne County – Shelburne – 1903
After this South Shore town was founded by Loyalists in 1784, court was held in a rented house near the centre of the community. Archival records show a permanent courthouse was built about 1849 at the corner of King and Mowat streets. The current courthouse, a three-storey, wood-frame structure, was built in 1902-03 and designed by Halifax architect Harris S. Tremaine. A two-storey brick addition was completed in the 1960s. The building houses a courtroom, municipal and court offices, the sheriff’s department and a jail.
The courthouse was the scene of Nova Scotia’s last execution. In December 1937, Everett Farmer of Shelburne was hanged for the murder of his half-brother. A makeshift gallows was built in a room on the building’s second floor that was so small, it could barely accommodate the executioner and the half-dozen witnesses (the practice of holding public executions ended in the mid-1800s). A large beam was erected across the ceiling of the room to support the noose, which dangled over a hole cut in the floor. When a trapdoor covering the hole was sprung, the condemned man’s body dropped through and into the room below, breaking his neck.
St. Mary’s (District) – Sherbrooke, 1858
In 1841, within a year of the District of St. Mary’s being carved out of neighbouring Guysborough County, a courthouse was built at its most important village, Sherbrooke. Almost immediately, local officials began raising money and making plans for a more elaborate structure. The builder, Alexander McDonald, copied the Greek Revival plan he had used in his earlier courthouses in Antigonish and Arichat, with four temple-style columns to frame the main entrance. The courthouse was used for an array of public meetings and lectures over the years, but officials rejected a bid to use it for a dance school.
Named in 1815 in honour of Sir John Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor, the settlement became a boom town after gold was discovered in the area in the 1860s. Little changed since the gold rush ended in the late 1800s, the community found new life in 1969 as the province’s largest museum. More than 25 of its historic homes, shops and public buildings have been preserved as they were a century ago and are open to the public. Among them is the courthouse, was continued to be used for court sessions until July 2000. With its excellent acoustics, the courthouse has found new life as a venue for concerts and theatrical performances.
Victoria County – Baddeck, 1890
Victoria County was created in 1851 but managed to soldier on without a courthouse for almost four decades. A jail was built in 1852 at Baddeck, the county seat, but court sessions apparently were held in the home of the local magistrate. The jail was demolished and replaced in 1890 with the courthouse that still stands on the site. The granite-block first storey housed the jail and offices, with an oak staircase leading to the Supreme Court chamber on the second floor. The second storey was built of wood, with large windows overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes. A wing to house additional court and municipal offices was added in 1967, matching the original architecture. A further expansion was completed in 1980.
Yarmouth County – Yarmouth, 1933
Yarmouth, the largest community in southwestern Nova Scotia, was a major centre for trade, fishing, shipbuilding and manufacturing in the nineteenth century. The community’s first courthouse was built in 1820, but two of its three replacements succumbed to fire. The courthouse built in 1863 burned down in 1921. A new one was erected, only to be destroyed by fire a decade later. The current courthouse was opened in 1933 and survived a 1988 fire. A two-storey structure built of brick, its functional exterior incorporates traditional Georgian features and symmetry that produce a blend of the old and the new.
Sources: C.A. Hale, The Early Court Houses of Nova Scotia, vols. 1 and 2, Manuscript Report No. 293, (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1977); Hale, “Early Court Houses of the Maritime Provinces,” in Margaret Carter, comp., Early Canadian Court Houses (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1983), pp. 37-77; South Shore, Seasoned Timbers, vol. 2: Some Historic Buildings from Nova Scotia’s South Shore (Halifax: Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, 1974); Master Plan for Nova Scotia Courthouse Facilities, prepared for Departments of Justice and Transportation and Public Works, March 31, 1997; Dean Jobb, Shades of Justice: Seven Nova Scotia Murder Cases (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1988).
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