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Remember This? Napoleonic War Prison on Dartmouth’s Newcastle Street

Today's 59 Newcastle Street is the former location of a wooden building that served, from approximately 1793 to 1805, as a prison for French PoWs. 

Newcastle Street is part of a small, quiet mid-20th century subdivision on the edge of Downtown Dartmouth, off of Pleasant Street. 

While strolling the neighbourhood, perhaps headed towards the Dartmouth Heritage Museum's historic Evergreen House, located at 26 Newcastle Street, or to the paved trail along Dartmouth Cove that links the Woodside and Alderney ferry terminals, it is hard to imagine that this area could be the site of an 18th century Napoleonic War prison.

According to Dartmouth's late town historian, Dr. John P. Martin, in his classic Story of Dartmouth, today's 59 Newcastle Street is the former location of a wooden building that served, from approximately 1793 to 1805, as a prison for French PoWs. 

It was destroyed in 1946, during the construction of the subdivision. However, Harry Piers of the Provincial Museum visited and recorded the prison building in 1929 and pictures of his visit survive on the Beamish on-site database at the Nova Scotia Archives.

In 1844, John P. Mott, Dartmouth businessman and politician, established a soap and chocolate factory in the area of his Hazelhurst estate. The French prison was used for soap making and was expanded. 

According to page 23 of The Story of Dartmouth, in addition to chocolate and soap, "Mott's manufactured cocoa, candles, cassia, pepper and other spice condiments. These products were sold all over the Provinces and in Newfoundland. The factory buildings were along the level near the original shore line."

Interestingly, the Newcastle Street prison was the scene of a dramatic escape, worthy of a Canadian Heritage Minute. 

According to an 1805 Royal Gazette notice from Halifax PoW agent John McKeller, copied on page 113 of The Story of Dartmouth; "Whereas 14 of the French prisoners at the Depot of Dartmouth effected their escape from the Prison on the night of July 23rd and took with them the Ferry Boat, whereby it is feared they may seize on some coasting vessel and thereby get clear of the Province, one guinea reward for each prisoner re-taken will be given for their apprehension. And I do hereby caution all persons from harboring any of the said prisoners as they will be prosecuted to the utmost rigor of the law."

In 1884, during the construction of the railway in Dartmouth, bones were uncovered all along the edge of Dartmouth Cove. 

It is thought that some of the skeletons, particularly in the vicinity of Old Ferry Road (which cuts through Newcastle Street), were associated with the French prisoners. 

According to page 417 of The Story of Dartmouth; "By September they were evidently in the vicinity of the Mill Cove, for a report of that date said that the cutting down of the banks revealed the presence of human bones. At one place a coffin was unearthed with a cannon ball on top. Nothing remained inside but the skull and some mouldering bones, a heavy gold ring and a few coins. One was an Irish penny dated 1781. To the south of Old Ferry wharf ... were found two skeletons, one skull measuring 26 inches, and the large thigh bones showed that there were giants in those days. The other skull had the teeth nearly intact, one being filled with gold."

Although the area of the French prison and Mott's soap and chocolate factory was heavily modified during the expansion of Newcastle Street, it is possible that some remains of the circa 1793 building and artifacts relating to late 18th and early 19th century PoW life survive, to some degree, underneath the neighbourhood. 

If you encounter such remains, please contact the Nova Scotia Museum.

David Jones is an archaeologist and historian from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Thursdays at Noon, David Jones has a weekly thirty minute history segment on The Rick Howe Show, NEWS 95.7. David would love to find physical evidence of the Newcastle Street French prison.

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