Francis Mackey and the Halifax Explosion

Black-and-white photograph of a large smoke plume after the collision between the ships Mont Blanc and Imo, resulting in the Mont Blanc exploding in the Halifax Harbour.

On the morning of December 6th, 1917, Pilot Francis Mackey was guiding the French ship Mont Blanc into the Bedford Basin when, at the narrowest point of the harbour, the Norwegian ship Imo collided with it. The Mont Blanc, laden down with high explosives, caught fire and, about 20 minutes later, exploded. The blast, which was the greatest man-made explosion until the invention of the first atomic bombs, levelled the Richmond district of Halifax, parts of Dartmouth, and wiped out the Mi'kmaq community of Turtle Grove. On today's episode, we talk with retired teacher and author Janet Maybee. Her book Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey attempts to clear Mackey's name and restore honour to the Mackey family.

Duration: 1:07:59

File size: 62.5 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: January 15, 2019

  • Transcript of podcast episode 51


    Josée Arnold (JA): Welcome to Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage. I'm your host, Josée Arnold. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.

    During the First World War, Halifax Harbour was Canada's maritime nerve centre, and was crowded with wartime shipping traffic. Ships would gather there to form convoys to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing.

    On the morning of December 6th, 1917, Pilot Francis Mackey was guiding the French ship Mont Blanc into the Bedford Basin when, at the narrowest point of the harbour, the Norwegian ship Imo collided with it. The Mont Blanc, laden down with high explosives, caught fire and, about 20 minutes later, exploded.

    The blast, which was the greatest man-made explosion until the invention of the first atomic bombs, levelled the Richmond district of Halifax, parts of Dartmouth, and wiped out the Mi'kmaq community of Turtle Grove.

    Since that fateful day, Pilot Francis Mackey has borne the brunt of the blame for the Halifax Explosion.

    On today's episode, we talk with retired teacher and author Janet Maybee. Her book Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey attempts to clear Mackey's name, and restore honour to the Mackey family.

    Accompanying this podcast, as always, is a set of photos on LAC's Flickr page. Among the great images of the event and the aftermath are three maps, designed by Gordon Campbell. These detailed and precise maps can be referenced while listening to this episode, to get a better idea of the geography and setting of the scene, as it was on December 6th. We highly recommend checking them out! Look for the Flickr link in the show notes on LAC's podcast page.

    Also, during this episode, there will be some re-enactments involving some of the key people involved in the tragedy.

    Helping us with this episode's interview will be LAC military archivist Alex Comber.


    Alex Comber (AC): Can you explain your connection to Francis Mackey and why you decided to write a book about him?

    Janet Maybee (JM): I'll do my best. It's kind of a strange thing the way things happened in my life. I never set out to be an author, although I had done great deal of writing in my life, usually press releases for worthy losing causes, that kind of thing. And the thesis for my master's degree at Dal [Dalhousie] on the history of theater in Halifax, so I'd spent a lot of time in the archives.

    And in my teaching career, I had found school libraries and brought in books about the explosion, particularly the work of Janet Kitz, so I was fairly familiar with the explosion stories. Then my great good fortune, a friend of mine who's an editor at UBC Press, brought me a copy of John Griffith Armstrong's book, The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy, left it behind for me to read and it turned out that he had got most of his material from Library in Archives Canada. So that really triggered my interest in, you, know, this is where you go if you want to find accurate information that doesn't exist anywhere else.

    On with how it all happened that I got connected with Mackey in particular. I was living on the Eastern Shore and my parents had wound up in two different nursing homes in Halifax. I was driving a great deal, so I decided to buy a house in Halifax to shorten the travel time, and also as a refuge for some of my various children. I got interested in the house when I found out from one of the neighbors that it was a survivor of the explosion.

    Then I was able to meet a couple of women who had grown up in the house. And they had massive photograph albums of the house as it used to be. So of course, I'm crawling through those with great interest, and up comes a photo of a very dignified looking, rather portly gentleman, standing by the picket fence. I said, "Who is that?" They said, "Oh! That's Francis Mackey, our step-grandfather."

    You can imagine my chin hit the table at that point because all I'd ever heard of Francis Mackey was that he was the bad guy. He was the careless pilot who'd caused the collision, which caused the fire, which caused the city to be destroyed. So I took it from there and discovered more and more things about the family, including the fact that his widow, his second wife, had wound up living in the very part of the house that I had my studio in, after his death. So I thought, "Well, perhaps that's who's been poking me in the night. There's a story here, and I need to find out more." So that's how it all began.


    JA: In doing research for her book Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey, Janet frequently interviewed Mona and Ed Holmes, the daughter and son-in-law of Francis Mackey. Mona, in her 90s when interviewed by Janet, still had very strong memories of her father, and of the events of December 6th, 1917.


    JM: I was adopted by them. That was rather strange, because if one stood on the other's shoulders one of them might look me in the eye. I didn't quite fit physically, but I just loved having time with them. And it's just amazing that both of them were so clear-headed for so long. One of the tragedies of my writing career was that I had first of all a draft done, because the book didn't come first. I'll need to back up and explain that.

    I had done a draft for an article I was writing for Northern Mariner, which is the peer reviewed journal of the Canadian Nautical Research Society. I'd been working on that for a period of time. So this was 2009. I called Mona and said, "I've got a draft ready, I want to come over and read it to you." She said, "Oh, we have company now. Come tomorrow morning." Tomorrow morning she had a fall, went into a coma and never recovered.

    Needless to say I felt quite sad about that, but I know she knew that I was doing my best to get it done, because the whole point of my interchanges with her was discovering that she was telling me things that had happened to her family that she had never told anyone before. She felt that at 93 it was high time she did, finally, let the world know that it had not been easy for them.

    AC: You mentioned that—

    JM: In the end, I had promised to her that I would do my best to redeem his reputation and remove the burden of guilt and shame that still hangs over the family to this day.

    AC: And you mentioned that she actually hadn't given previous interviews on the topic. That was interesting.

    JM: She'd refused to talk to Janet Kitz, who as you perhaps know, went about in the 1980s gathering up survivors. And most of them hadn't spoken either. They kind of put the lid on it, it was . . . if we don't talk about it perhaps it didn't happen, or the memories were just too painful, memories of the loss and so on, that they just didn't want to go back there. She persuaded them to get together and share their memories with each other. However Mona was still a firm isolationist and refused until she decided that I seemed to be safe and have her best interests at heart, so I was very grateful for that opportunity.


    JA: Before we get to the events of December 6th, 1917, Janet gives us some info on the pilots in the Halifax Harbour, and what forms of communications were used on ships in the early 1900s.


    JM: I was very fortunate that Peter MacArthur, who's the chief financial officer of the current Pilotage Authority, agreed to write an introduction for the book. He's a historian of matters pilotage and went into some detail about the history of pilotage in Halifax. He makes it very clear that by 1917 there was still nothing like we had nowadays, there was no ship-to-shore radio, no inter-ship marine communication other than whistle signals and flags.

    Which meant that message was just not that easily transmitted from one ship to another, especially if they weren't in sight or in hearing of each other. The pilots in Halifax Harbour were extremely well trained, they knew every corner, that they had to turn and every rock they had to avoid. Interestingly enough, Mackey was asked that in the inquiry, they said "I bet you knew every rock" and he said, "Well no, some of the pebbles I might not have known."


    Fairly confident in his abilities. They were well trained at that point, they knew everything that had to be done to get people in and out of Halifax Harbour safely, but they didn't go farther than that. The end of this pilotage run was at Chebucto Head and then they would let the freighter or the steamer or whatever go away on its own. They got back on the boat, came in. It was a hard life, because especially in World War I, the traffic had suddenly tripled and quadrupled.

    They were not getting the holiday time they used to have in the original part of the 1900s. They would go out on one of the schooners for a week at a time and then have a week off, but from the beginning of World War I, they were on duty all the time.

    AC: I wonder if you might back up a bit for our listeners and just actually kind of define what a pilot does, because the concept of the captain of a ship versus a pilot in a harbor, it might be interesting for listeners.

    JM: Well, you know it's still a matter of some concern that when a ship even now it comes into the harbor and a pilot comes aboard, the pilot is supposed to be completely in control, but if the captain decides to take over and take command or overrule something the pilot has suggested, he has the right to do that.


    JA: The role of a maritime pilot was to come aboard a ship and help in manoeuvring while arriving or departing a port.

    We asked Janet if she could give us some background on Pilot Francis Mackey.


    JM: I can do my best because I had plenty of information given to me by his daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren. I eventually did get to meet several of the grandchildren, they knew some of the stories too, and it seemed like his whole life was spent on the sea. Young men in that era didn't get the opportunity to stay in school very long. He went as far as grade eight, his writing was impeccable and his reading was extreme. He was a poet and a writer himself, and I did get quite fascinated looking at some of the scripts he's left behind, when we find kids these days can't read or write cursive writing.

    He was very well educated for a young fellow of his time, but he went to sea by the time he was 12 years old. He was at first a cabin boy on ships up on the St. Lawrence River and subsequent to that went fishing with his father soon as he got a little bit bigger on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland; had several interesting times there including falling overboard and being rescued, great good fortune.

    From there he went on into pilot training and managed to complete all the levels of pilot training in about three years, he was pretty prodigious at this, a natural I guess. He had no difficulty at all with his licensing exams. He got second class in 1895, first class 1898, a master certificate in 1899, so that made him the best-qualified pilot working at Halifax at the time.

    AC: What meant that you were a second-class pilot versus a first-class pilot? Was it the size of the port or the types of vessels you could—?

    JM: It would be the tonnage of the vessels, and that still applies. Pilots these days still have to work their way, as they say, up the tonnage. They start with the smaller ships and as they get confident with that they get to run the bigger and bigger ones until finally, they can get assigned to the floating hotels that come in called cruise ships. I don't know if you've been in Halifax Harbour lately, but it's pretty daunting when you see some of these vessels come in that occupy a great deal of view plane.

    AC: I spent some time in Charlottetown and there you have a much smaller harbor and some of the same sized ships. [chuckles]

    JM: Wicked. I've decided, you see, that I want to be a pilot when I grow up because I think they have the most fascinating life.


    AC: When you mention tonnage, I'm not sure our listeners would be very familiar with tonnage. Could you maybe just define that term?

    JM: Tonnage refers to the actual size of the ship. I don't think they're necessarily put on a scale and weighed, but it's just assumed that if you have a certain length then the tonnage is less than someone of a big—a much larger length.

    AC: In 1917, who was in charge of the Halifax Harbour? And I know this is quite a complicated question.

    JM: It's a complicated question and a crucial one because this is the reason things were in such rough shape. We had, at that point, the brand new Canadian Navy, that had just been formed in 1910. It consisted of a couple of drifters and a beat up, old British vessel tied to the war and not much else.

    AC: The HMCS Niobe, yes. You had Rainbow out on the Pacific coast.

    JM: Exactly. So, back for the occasion of the war came the British Navy. So we had commander Chambers of the British Navy who, of course, outranked anyone on the Canadian side, even though some of them had been officers in the Royal Navy. There were those two sources. There were also convoy officers, convoy commander, because by this time in 1917, convoys of vast numbers of boats were forming in Bedford Basin, preparing to go oversees. To be protected by some of the British warships because Canada didn't have any suitable at that point for the task, and to be sent out in the hope that some of them would make it across without being blown up by the German submarines.


    JA: A convoy would have been a number of ships travelling together across the Atlantic, under the protection of British warships.


    JM: So you've got convoy commander and British admiral, Canadian Navy, the chief examining officer, who was Canadian Naval official. The former Port Authority manager, who considered that he ought still to have a say in some of this, but seldom was asked. [chuckles] So far as I can see, there was some moments in the hearings later when he protested that he really hadn't been able to get much information out of the other sources. And a lot of statements in the press after the fact, about how confusing the situation was in Halifax Harbour.

    AC: Right. You've got Royal Navy, you've got Royal Canadian Navy, you have the Peacetime Port Authority, you have convoy officers, examination officers, the actual pilotage authority. You could see how that—

    JM: Well, the pilotage authority was a separate entity, and I guess what happened was that they decided— It was all the confusion there was about sources, of orders being given. They were the ones who knew the harbor best. They really had not a lot of faith in these prairie chickens who had come to join the Canadian Navy. [chuckles]

    AC: Now that's a term I need you to define: prairie chickens.


    JM: That's how they referred to the people who had joined the Canadian Navy and had never been anywhere near the ocean, let alone on the sea.


    AC: So the reverse of a fish out of water!

    JM: [chuckles] Exactly. Totally. It just seemed to a lot of people afterwards looking at the situation, was that it was very difficult to determine who, in fact, was giving the final answer. The pilots had, for instance, written many times, please—to Ottawa—saying, "We need more pilots, we need more boats. There's too much happening here." The chief examining officer had said, he was being overburdened and that he didn't want to be the goat, if something bad happened that he couldn't prevent. It was a really messy situation. It's surprising, as a matter of fact, that the chief examining officer did say after the explosion, he was surprised that something like that hadn't happened before. But whatever was going on in Ottawa, people were not paying attention and not thinking anything really seriously had to be done about it, so nothing was changed until after the explosion and even then and it's very difficult to get coherence out of the whole system.

    AC: Can you describe what happened on December 6th, 1917, in the Halifax Harbour?

    JM: What happened on December 6th was the result of any number of chances, if any one of the list of 25 or so chances that I listed in the last chapter of the book had changed one way or the other, the whole story might have been different. What happened first of all was that the Mont-Blanc was loaded in New York by the order of the British Admiralty, with a concoction of chemicals that never should have been transported all on the same boat and certainly should never have been brought into a harbor where people lived all around the edges, and that's something that came up time and again in the inquiry.

    Why was Halifax allowing—or the federal government—allowing a ship loaded with this kind of misery, to come into an inhabited harbor instead of staying outside or going somewhere far away. Anyway in came Mont-Blanc, slowed down by a storm, therefore too late, on the night of arrival, to get through the submarine nets and had to moor for the night at the examining ground out at McNab's island. Terrance Freeman from the examining office came out and said, "What have you got here?" And he was told what they had there and you'd think that once he heard the list of explosives on board, including picric acid, TNT, guncotton, barrels of benzole on the deck, he might have said, "Turn around and go out to sea," but no, it turns out that there was absolutely no basis on which he could refuse entry to the ship. No one has ever said, somebody comes in this condition you have to turn them away. "Okay, well, see you in the morning," and Mackey, of course, appealed for special escort or some kind of arrangement so that he could get up to the Bedford Basin safely. It never came. He was told the next morning, just proceed, you're fine. Well, it turned out not to be the finest move and at the same time that he left anchorage at McNab's island and headed up the Dartmouth side, which was the proper place for him to be, out of the Bedford Basin came Imo. Imo should have left the day before, but had been delayed because its coal supply didn't arrive on time before the submarine nets closed.

    So by chance, of course, it was going out and apparently at a very high speed because people who were witnesses mentioned several times there was a white foam at the bow that indicated she was going considerably faster than harbor traffic was supposed to go, and, for reasons that we still don't know, remained on the Dartmouth side instead of moving over to the Halifax side, where she should have gone, according to the rules of the road. This is where its whistle signals come into the story, because Mackey promptly blew the signal that said, "I'm claiming my rightful water, I belong over here, you move," and Imo kept blasting back and saying, "No, I'm staying over here."

    At the very last moment in order to avoid a head on collision, Mackey and the captain of the Mont-Blanc made the decision, pretty much simultaneously, that they needed to move across the bow of Imo and out into the center of the harbor.


    JA: The captain of the Mont-Blanc was Captain Aimé Le Médec.


    JM: And this is a perfectly legal move in order to avoid a collision, it's not usually done, but in this situation it was quite a reasonable thing to do. For a minute or two the two ships were parallel and looked liked they could pass safely, but just then Imo went a stern, which brought her bow around and smashed it right into the forward hold of Mont-Blanc. She was going a stern and therefore pulling back and the sparks that flew as metal scrapped against metal, immediately started a fire with the benzole that was dripping down from broken barrels and into the gash in the side of Mont-Blanc.


    JA: Ok. Let's recap. The morning of December 6th, we have the Mont-Blanc, piloted by Francis Mackey, loaded down with explosives and flammable chemicals, heading up the narrows on the Dartmouth side—the right side—of the channel. At the same time, we have Imo, empty of cargo, leaving the Bedford Basin, also coming into the narrows, also on the Dartmouth side. This is a problem. The two ships collide, starting a fire on the deck of the Mont-Blanc.


    JM: So, there you are faced with an obvious tragedy in the making. Imo didn't realize what was going on and spun around a few times thinking maybe we should get back in to Bedford Basin and see if we've got damage—didn't get very far. Meanwhile, pushed by the bump that they'd received—it was more than a bump, it was really quite an attack that came from Imo's intrusion into the side of the ship—Mont-Blanc was drifting toward the Halifax side at a pretty good clip. At this point the captain of the French ship, knowing what his crew was standing on and feeling that it could go any second, they said they didn't know they would have 20 minutes before the explosion. They thought that might go any second because of the cargo and the flames and smoke that were shooting out. There was no way for them to fight the fire, absolutely nothing they could do to stop it.

    So he ordered the crew of Mont-Blanc to lifeboats and they, along with pilot Mackey, rowed to the Dartmouth shore. I think he kind of guided them to a spot over there where he knew there was a beach they could land on. So that's what happened on the harbor.

    AC: I've always been really surprised at the load that Mont-Blanc was carrying—all of the explosives, but also the deck cargo—the fact that you had both explosives and what seems to be like an incendiary type, literally highly flammable fuel loaded all over the deck. It struck me as a strange way of loading a ship. Have you encountered—are there other examples of ships loaded like this? It seems just shocking when you—

    JM: Never in my experience, that's for sure, and the British Admiralty apparently did the design. Many of the French crew afterwards said, "Why did we even get onboard, after they were finished loading we should've just jumped ship, [laughs] because it was obvious from the beginning that this was an insane thing to do.

    AC: Right, to have barrels loaded with highly flammable fuel on the deck, exposed to elements, exposed to whatever might happen outside of the safe envelope of the ship's holds, it seemed to me—it surprised me.


    JA: The Mont-Blanc's crew, along with Pilot Mackey and Captain Le Médec, now in lifeboats rowing towards the Dartmouth shore, yelling and frantically waving their arms, trying to warn people about the impending disaster.


    JM: They did a great deal of that but you can imagine that the focus of any ship in the neighborhood was the burning vessel that was flying toward the Halifax side. They were not being given much attention from the ships and, of course, there was the problem in addition that they were speaking in French, and nobody was understanding their calls. Francis Mackey himself encountered a man that he knew well, James Murray, who he had worked with before on various occasions, and he felt that even Murray didn't understand him because he was just flying by and trying to get to shore to warn somebody.

    He was one of the senior officers in the harbor who would probably have had a pretty good idea of what the cargo was on that ship, but he didn't stop either, and really at that point there was not much that could have been done because, again, you don't have any cell phones that you can call somebody on the shores and say, "Get everybody away from the harbor, get people away from their windows."

    It was just, you know, people are drawn by the vision that they're seeing and the popping up of—all those barrels of benzole were flying into the air and exploding one at a time, just like fireworks on the 1st of July or whatever. Everyone is attracted to this great demonstration and not realizing what kind of danger they were up against. Certainly, the French crew rowing away did try their best to warn people and yet this was one of the things that was brought up against them time again in the hearings, that, "How dare you just take off and row yourselves away to safety and not warn any of us." They insisted that they tried and just weren't heard.


    Francis Mackey

    "I was shouting out to the men in the vicinity…I called out to everybody in sight that the ship was in danger and likely to explode. I yelled out to everybody that there was danger…I did not notice any men on pier 8 and 9…I think I was too far from pier 8 for them to hear me. I called out there and did everything I could possibly do to let everyone hear me, whether at piers 8, 9 or 10 or anywhere else."

    Francis Mackey

    "There was no way to get at the hoses or try to sink the ship and no way to guess how long before the whole mess would explode. The Captain saw the only thing to do was save his crew and ordered the lifeboats lowered. All hands got aboard them, though at first the Captain refused to leave the ship. I persuaded him not to waste his life."


    JM: This is part of the major tragedy in that no one on shore knew the hazard that this ship was carrying. So the Halifax Fire Department had a brand-new engine, the first motorized engine they'd ever had, and the Patricia got loaded up with eight or so of their best firemen and headed for the wharf thinking, "We'll take care of this." They didn't do too well, they got blown sky-high and only one person survived. There were many boats, small boats sent from some of the ships that were in the harbor at the time, and attempts were made to attach a line to the Mont-Blanc and pull it away from the wharf where it was grounded against pier 6. But that didn't work either because you have to realize this was a heavily laden ship with the amount of gear on there, and it had rammed fairly quickly into the shore. It wasn't just touching the pier, it was grounded into the material on the shore so pulling it out became an impossible task. Sadly a number of those people were killed too when the explosion happened. It was not exactly a happy time for people who wanted to do the right thing and yet didn't realize the amount of danger they were facing.


    Francis Mackey

    "After being told of the nature of the kind of explosives, I thought it might blow off in an instant. I didn't think it would last that long…I can't give it exactly in minutes, but it seemed about, I should say, from 15 to 18 minutes, probably it might have been 20. I was not looking at my watch. I was busy to see how everybody was taking it and shouting out to two women at the time. I went up on the banks to be looking at things and expecting the Mont Blanc to go off any time. I stood there; Le Médec came back and put his hand on my shoulder. Come on! Come on! So we both turned around to run and we didn't get any distance. Just as quick as that, we were knocked down."


    AC: What results is the explosion, this absolutely catastrophic detonation that kills somewhere in the range of 2,000 Haligonians. Also some folks living on the Dartmouth side, the complete devastation of Richmond, what I believe is the north end of Halifax as well. Can you talk a little bit about the degree of this damage, this human and material damage to Halifax?

    JM: As you perhaps heard, sailors returning from the fields of Flanders said that they'd never seen anything worse in the war in Europe than the devastation they came home to. You have to remember that some of them would be coming home to try to find the remnants of their own houses and families, and not being able to find anything except possibly some ashes and bones. It was a horrible, horrible time for those families. The devastation of the north end of Halifax was extreme as was in fact a fairly good chunk of Dartmouth, although people tend not to talk about that side. There were many, many houses over there destroyed.

    And worst of all, the indigenous community at Turtle Grove was pretty well emptied of all its human habitation. Again, there's a part of the story that has not often been told because it's always focused on Richmond and what was left there. There were so many incredibly awful stories, and I've tried to stay away from them myself because other people have told them and told them very well. Including artists who've done sketches, like Arthur Lismer happened to be in Halifax at that time and he's done some very evocative drawings of what he saw as he wandered through the devastated area. So for me to try to dive into that and make any comment that really reflects the horror of it all is pretty difficult.


    JA: In the end, over 2,000 people lost their lives, either from the initial explosion, the tsunami that resulted from the blast, or the fires that raged afterwards. Over 9,000 were injured and hundreds were blinded by flying glass from windows and doors. Churches, houses, schools, factories, docks and ships were destroyed. More than 2.5 square kilometers of Richmond, Halifax's north end, was completely levelled. Thousands were left homeless. The blast even shattered windows in Truro, Nova Scotia, over 100 kilometers away. It was the largest man made explosion prior to the invention of the first atomic bombs.


    JM: I guess I just want to diverge from that to say, "We can't do anything really at this point to help those people whose houses and families and lives were completely destroyed." But by changing the narrative, we can help this one family, by restoring Mackey's reputation as an honorable man who definitely was not at fault for this. Lift the blame that his family feels because every year when the anniversary of the explosion comes around, it's bound to appear in some news report, television or newspaper that Francis Mackey was the man that caused the explosion that killed 2,000 people and destroyed half the city.

    This is not exactly a fair way to have to remember somebody who was entirely blameless in this situation. He became the scapegoat and we can talk about that more later I'm sure.

    AC: I agree. Let's turn to Francis Mackey. What role did the press and the newspapers have in condemning Pilot Mackey after the explosion?

    JM: They got the story by virtue of listening to Charles Burchell, who was the lawyer representing the owners of Imo. And what should have been an inquiry into the determination of how this terrible accident came to happen, became a fight between the two shipping companies to make sure that neither one had to take the blame because needless to say, they could see it was going to cost them a great deal if they were decreed responsible. So the two shipping companies were at loggerheads through this, what should have been a sensible inquiry. Francis Mackey came down, he hadn't even been charged or called to come, but he came, thinking, well, obviously my perspective on this might be of some use as we talk about what was going on here. It turned out that in fact he was on trial without ever having been charged. Charles Burchell, this young lawyer of considerable passion, he lied up and down in sideways about Mackey. He would make suggestions such as, you were probably drunk on the job. In spite of the fact that Mackey would very calmly reply no, there was nothing to drink on board the ship. The headlines the next morning would say what Charles Burchell had said, so that the people of Halifax are getting the impression that Mackey, in fact, was out of control and probably to blame.

    JA: Alex asked Janet about the fate of the Mont-Blanc. What was left of the ship after it exploded?


    JM: Nothing. Well, sorry, I shouldn't say nothing because I had a big chunk of it in the backyard of my Cabot Street house. Fragments and pieces of Mont-Blanc were scattered over an area of probably about 10 square kilometers or more. There are pieces of anchor over on the Dartmouth side and other in Armdale part of Halifax. Many small fragments found here and there all over the city in the backyards of—people are still, for instance, if they are changing a whole roof that hasn't been fixed for quite a number of decades, they'll sometimes find pieces in the roof embedded, but it was definitely just plain disintegrated.

    AC: Let's return to the events just immediately after the explosion. The next question would be, What role did the concept of British fair play have in blaming Mackey?

    JM: As I mentioned earlier, if Mackey had died he would have been heroic, but because Pilot Hayes and captain Fromm of Imo were killed, no blame could be attached to them according to the concept of British fair play. This was promoted most vigorously by Louis Demers who was the Dominion Wreck Commissioner and a very fierce character indeed. He would not admit to any discussion of any blame falling on Imo, even though most witnesses were quick to say that Imo was on the wrong side of the harbor. Therefore, people were extremely surprised when she was given no chastisement whatsoever, and all the blame laid on Mont-Blanc and on Mackey and Le Médec, and all of this because of this heroic concept that British fair play doesn't allow you to condemn the dead because they cannot speak on their own behalf.

    AC: The progress of the inquiries in the aftermath is quite convoluted. I was hoping we might jump to what, to my mind, is the culmination, which is the laying of criminal charges. Could you talk a little bit about that?

    JM: Criminal charges were laid after the preliminary hearing, which was conducted by McLeod. He also decided that all three, the captain of Mont-Blanc, pilot Francis Mackey, and Evan Wyatt, a chief examining officer, should all be referred for criminal charges, and later on at the actual hearing or trial that included a charge of criminal negligence. Francis Mackey, at that point, had not been jailed after the preliminary hearing because his pilot authority bailed him out. The other two were bailed out by their particular representatives behind them. When it came to this hearing and the charges being laid, there was no further help for Mackey at that time. The other two, again, were bailed out, but he was sent to the common prison.

    This must have been an incredibly difficult moment for him and his family because he was an extremely upright, private man, who had never committed anything close to a crime in his whole life. He was a devout Catholic, well respected in the community. To be shoved into jail with people who, if they had been reading the Halifax Herald, would regard him as the villain who destroyed the city, must have been a tad uncomfortable. Not to mention for his wife and family who were not at all happy at home, and not clear on when and how they will ever retrieve their husband and father. Difficult times, indeed, and so unnecessary.

    AC: Mackey was in jail from—I believe it was March 6th until March 16th, 1918?

    JM: That's right. At that point, his lawyer had brought a plea of habeas corpus, which was heard by Judge Benjamin Russell. He's a very sensible man. He was one of the founders of the Dalhousie Law School, and his portrait is up on the hall there.


    JA: Habeas corpus is a court petition, which orders that a person under arrest and detained be brought before a judge for a hearing to decide whether the detention is lawful.


    JM: He very quickly said, "There is absolutely no way that this evidence supports a claim of criminal negligence, and therefore, we cannot hold this man in prison. Dismissed." Needless to say, that was a great relief.


    JA: Judge Benjamin Russel summarizing his decision to release Francis Mackey from prison.


    Judge Russel

    "When Captain Mackey, pilot on board the Mont-Blanc, was ------- for manslaughter in the death of his colleague and others, I was asked to test the matter by the issue of Habeas Corpus. It seemed to me that, so far from being negligent or careless, as charged in the information, the defendant had taken every possible care to prevent the collision which was about to be caused by the conduct of the Imo. In fact, I went so far in my decision as to say that I even doubted there was any mistake of judgement that had been made by the Mont-Blanc, considering the manner in which she was being crowded over on the Dartmouth shore by the course of the Imo. In any case, it surely cannot have been manslaughter for a defendant to have done what was best in his judgement to prevent an impending accident even if, in spite of his best efforts, the struggle was unsuccessful."


    "To suppose Mackey had anything in the world to do with the disaster was an utterly lunatic notion. Yet my impression is that the Grand Jury insisted on finding a true bill and placing him on trial. When the bill reached me I got rid of it in the shortest and easiest way possible. It was simply nonsensical, and the fact a grand jury could find it was symptomatic of the condition of the common feeling."


    JM: So, at this point, the questions went on and on for some time yet, but not directly involving Mackey in terms of his personal freedom or his ability to earn his living. There were referrals onward because the two shipping companies decided to sue each other for $2 million. That was sent onward to the Supreme Court of Canada who did a split decision, very cleverly, and from there to the Privy Council in London. All of that took about five years all together.

    By the end of that time, Mackey felt he had been vindicated because no blame was laid on him for having caused all that misery and destruction. What had happened, in the meantime, was that he was not allowed to return to his work as a pilot.


    JA: Mackey was released from jail, but, had lost his pilot's license. So, with a wife and six children to support, he found himself unable to work as a pilot.


    AC: You point out that by this time the damaged had been done both to him, his reputation, and his family. Could you maybe explore more of what the impact of this campaign against him did to his loved ones, his family?

    JM: Absolutely. The worse possible scenario for a very tight-knit family who had never had anything but praise and delight in his work, and in his involvement as father and husband. As it happened, they had at that point five children, and the sixth was on the way to be born eight months after the explosion. They had a great deal of stress, needless to say, coming around this time with him being in prison and not knowing what or when would happen, how he would be treated, and how they would survive.

    Mona remembers, of course, being only four years old at the time, that even after he was released from prison, thanks to Judge Russell, she would walk with him down the streets in Halifax and there would be, she remembers, men in black suits yelling across and saying, "Murderer." How would you feel if you were four years old and your father is being called that kind of name from people on the street?

    Her father, she says, just told her to, "Stand up straight and walk tall," which would be hard since she was only about two-and-a-half feet high. He encouraged her to realize that she had certainly done nothing wrong and neither had he. Yet, the attacks continued in the newspapers over and over again for a period of several years until finally, he got his license restored. There's a great deal of finagling going on in Ottawa behind that part of the story.

    The other children were deeply affected too, because they were older and more aware of what was happening. Mona, I think, escaped the worst of the damage, because being young she was spared some of the discussions that would have gone on about, "What are we going to do? How is this going to impact the family in the future?"

    The oldest daughter had been grievously injured at St. Patrick's School. She'd had window glass blow into her face and into her chest.

    AC: Right, a very common injury as a result of the explosion.

    JM: Absolutely. She was one of the ones who did not ever recover happily from the whole thing. Being older, I think, some of the older children were damaged psychologically in ways that they carried for the rest of their lives. I did find this out from a great granddaughter of hers, who looked after her in her later years, that she still had traumatic memories about the whole thing, even when she was in her late 90s.

    Another of the daughters was a brilliant artist. She was never able to maintain course and speed in that line, because she felt guilty all the time that she had survived.

    Then one of the saddest things is the fact that Mackey's wife, Lillian, who had been the mother of his six children and the love of his life, died much too young. Mona would say to me, time and again, "It was the stress that killed her." If you can imagine living through that with children, not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from and listening to all the trash talk in the press and in the public. It must have been extremely difficult for her. She died at the age of 47, leaving Mackey a widower with six children to manage, and still no job.

    AC: How long did it take again to get his license, his pilot's license back?

    JM: It didn't happen. Interestingly enough, the thing that finally triggered a return was the change of government. I'm sure you will allow me to go into a little bit more detail on that since most of that information I found at Library and Archives Canada, much to my delight and relief, because I had no idea. No one around here actually had paid attention to the fact that he didn't immediately go back to being a pilot. It was only when I talked to the family that I found out that that did not happen.

    When he was first charged, he turned his license in at the pilot commission office, and he stuck it behind a book on a shelf. He had cut a little piece out of the side of it, because he said, "Then I'll know it's mine."

    He assumed that as soon as this silly business was over with he'd get his license back and go on with business as usual. Because he had, in fact, been continuing to pilot ships out after the explosion and before all of this uproar happened and that put him in court and in line for a jail sentence.

    AC: Yes, I found that very interesting. Later in December 1917, he's actually busier than normal it would seem.

    JM: Busier than ever. In fact, he was one of the pilots who took out the first convoys five days after the explosion, when the harbor was cleared enough of the debris to allow for that convoy to finally get going. Then he took out probably 20 more ships after that, because nobody in the pilotage business or in the shipping community blamed him at all for anything that had happened.

    The big stop happened only when the Ottawa people intervened and said, "You can't be letting him do that. How can you be—this man is accused of a terrible crime. He can't be out there piloting ships."

    AC: It might be a good moment to talk about who the minister of marine and also naval services was, during that period of the Borden government.

    JM: Oh indeed. You need also, as part of the back story, to realize that Prime Minister Borden is deeply involved here, because he was the Member of Parliament for Halifax, and is becoming a great deal of pressure to recognize that he hadn't taken very good care of his own city. The harbor was in very bad shape in terms of the confusion of who is in charge, and the fact that requests for extra pilot boats and so on had gone unheard.

    At this point, he begun to be quite frantic about—well, I won't say frantic, prime ministers don't become frantic, surely—worried, shall we say, about the possibility of Ottawa having to take some blame, and therefore some financial risk involved in what would be required to put the city back together again.

    Okay, back to his appointment of Minister of Marine, and this was done in October of 1917, he appointed Charles Colquhoun Ballantyne, who had no background on the sea at all. He was a Montreal businessman, and due to the fact that he had married a wealthy woman, he became the owner of the Sherwin-Williams Paint Company. Being a businessman was his best background.

    In the months leading up to the explosion, he was paying no attention to Halifax at all because he was busy trying to get elected to Parliament in the election that was coming up just a couple of weeks after the explosion happened. That election did not take place in Halifax, but in the rest of Canada, it happened on December 17th. He did get his House seat.

    In the meantime, he had paid no heed at all to what was going on here. That's one of the fascinating things I discovered in my time in Library and Archives Canada, one of the staff cheerfully wheeled me out an enormous trolley full of Ballantyne's papers. I went through them with great eagerness and discovered not one single mention of the explosion, just all the speeches that he'd made trying to get elected.

    Anyway, he was not particularly helpful to Mackey. I think very quickly, because the prime minister was worried about how this was going to reflect on Ottawa, he became urgently requested to make sure that somebody at the Halifax end of things was available to take the blame.

    Questions went out from Borden's office. Again, this is from the great source of Library and Archives Canada. Borden's own papers were an immense source of help. So down comes Ballantyne. He didn't show up in Halifax until the 29th of December, at which point he announces that Halifax is the best regulated port in the country.

    Anyway, he was the man who for the next four years, refused every application that was made by Mackey, his lawyers, the shipping community, and the other pilots to get him restored to service. Usually, he didn't even bother to answer or give his reasons why, it was just no, no, and no.

    AC: Janet, there's no evidence—it almost reads like a vendetta—but there's no evidence that he knew Mackey before this, or that there is any personal connection. That's right, isn't it?

    JM: Absolutely none. If he'd had any personal knowledge, it would have had to be that this was a man of impeccable reputation. He'd spent 24 years piloting, and as well, having a master's certificate so that he often was conducting vessels as a captain. "Not a scratch," Mona would say. He'd never had an accident of any sort, not even a bump against the dock.

    There was nothing that Ballantyne could have found to discredit him in terms of his abilities and his service. It just had to be that we need to have somebody on the local scene, because by this time, of course, Le Médec has gone back to France, where he eventually wound up getting a medal of honor; [chuckles] not for that occasion but for his ongoing service.

    And Evan Wyatt, the chief examining officer, had fled to Boston with his wealthy wife. So, Mackey was the only one left on the scene that could serve as the available local scapegoat. Yes, it went on for the next four years. The only thing that changed, it was the defeat of that government and the loss of Ballantyne's seat despite the fact that he apparently spent $40,000 to get elected. He lost his seat.

    The incoming Liberal government, Mackenzie King appointed one of his lieutenants from Quebec named Ernest Lapointe as Minister of Marine. The appeals immediately went off to this new Minister of Marine, who took one look and said, "Well, of course, give them man his license back. We need him to be in active service."

    The license came back and was delivered to him on Valentine's Day, February of 1922. But by this time, of course, he was so deeply in debt that it was going to be a long haul before he would ever be comfortable again. He'd spent all his life savings and everything that, perhaps, his wife's family had donated to keep him afloat, and what little he could earn by other jobs; taking vessels, because he had a master's certificate, he was able to go up and down the coast. In fact, he even took a ship up to St. Lawrence at one point. That was pretty much all gone.

    He would have, during that time, earned at least $1,700 as a pilot, so his lawyer asked for that by way of compensation for lost earnings unfairly, and was told, "No, you better be happy with the fact you got your license back." Case closed.

    AC: When he's reinstated, does he go right back to piloting ships in Halifax Harbour?

    JM: Absolutely, and spent the next 20 years doing that on all kinds of conditions, and weather, and ships. Very difficult life. I'm sure you can imagine what it's like to try to crawl up the side of a heaving ship on a winter's windy day out in the entrance to the harbor.

    AC: What does Mackey's retirement look like?

    JM: Mackey's retirement became the best part of his life, although his family insists that every year when December 6th came around, he would retreat into his—he had a little room in the house that he called a "fish shack". His raincoat that he'd been wearing the day of the explosion that had been stripped off, he said as if it was cut with a knife right around the bottom, it was hanging there, and all his fishing gear, and some of his painting equipment.

    He would just disappear in there and he didn't want to talk to anybody. He definitely didn't want to read any newspapers. I've gone back through the newspaper files from many, many years, and it just never failed that on the anniversary of the explosion, his name would be mentioned as the cause.

    He never quite got out from under that, at least in terms of the press, who tend to be rather lazy and just repeat what they heard and not go out and do the actual research, until, finally, CBC sent someone to interview him in 1958. That is about an hour-and-a-half of original stories, only six minutes of which ever appeared publicly, but the rest I have because I was able to get the CD upon which it was recorded. To hear Mackey tell the story from his own perspective, it's really quite fabulous.

    A lot of this I've incorporated into an interactive map on my website, and you can actually see the mapping of the proceeding of the ships and how they came together, and all with Mackey's own statements about what was going on. Of course, not in his original voice, I had to get a friend to do the narration for me because we weren't allowed to broadcast the CBC CD as such, but there it is. You can find out for yourself exactly what he was thinking at every moment of that day on the 6th of December 1917.


    JA: To hear these re-enactments and see the interactive maps on Janet's website, go to It's a great resource if you want to learn more about the Halifax Explosion and Francis Mackey.

    Alex asked Janet what sources she used in writing her book?


    JM: I should be loyal to the Maritime Museum because I'm still tagged as a research associate there, but it turned out that they had absolutely nothing on Pilot Mackey. They've made amends now. Roger Marsters, who isthe new curator there, has put together a wonderful exhibit concerning Explosion lore, changed the old one around quite dramatically, and it's excellent. If you get a chance to come to Halifax, you need to go down there and walk through it because it's stunning.

    There's one section where you can walk through almost like a tunnel where you have Dartmouth on one side, Halifax on the other, and it's as if you're standing on the deck of a ship in the harbor, observing the damage on both sides of that harbor. It's really wonderful.

    The Nova Scotia Archives, also, of course, I went there promptly saying, "What do you have on Francis Mackey?" and I found a folder that had one piece of paper in it. This was not very encouraging [laughs], which is why I took John Griffith Armstrong's advice because he was the one who encouraged me to go there. He was working on his book about the explosion in the Navy.

    He said, "That is the place where the major files are kept, and you need to be there." So I got myself up to Ottawa and met John Griffith Armstrong in the library cafeteria, and we chatted at great length. He introduced me to some of the staff, and encouraged me to go there as much as I could.

    Unfortunately, in the situation of my life at the time, I only had about two or three days, a very short window of opportunity at that time. I got great advance help from a woman named Gloria, whose last name I don't have in my mental files. We did a lot of negotiating ahead of time, so some things were ready for me when I got there.

    As I mentioned, there were others on staff who somehow, magically, produced all manner of material that just about floored me because I'm thinking, "I can't do this all in three days." I made an attempt to do as much as I could and got some material photocopied to send to me later. Then I did go back for a second round because it was just too much altogether.

    When you are starved for information in a situation such as I had been in Halifax, and find that Library and Archives Canada has the goods, it's at the same time delightful and horrifying because it means that you have everything I needed to know up there, and I can't get at it too easily. We arranged for a lot of the material to be sent to me.

    I guess one of the biggest hassles was discovering that a great deal of the correspondence that I really desperately wanted, between the Ministry of Justice and the Minister of Marine, had never been seen by anybody before. It was off-limits because of solicitor-client privilege. I said, "Oh, this has got to not happen, because this is material I really, really need."

    I was able to get Mackey's pilotage files, the correspondence from Alexander Johnson, who was the deputy minister of Marine, to Crown Counsel William Henry; all the information that had gone back and forth from Louis Demers and Drysdale into Borden's files, was even pilot communication there, and the decision of Drysdale and the condemnation that came in around that time.

    I guess the biggest gift that I got from Library of Canada resources—Library and Archives Canada—was the negotiation that went on to have those forbidden files released. It took about 16 months of some intervention from a person in the Information Commissioner's office who was from Dartmouth and who knew the story, and who had been able to read those files and said, "You've got to have these."

    I don't know what went on in the background, but apparently they got transferred to the Department of Transport, and so no longer did solicitor-client privilege exist. Up to that point, I had received wonderful photocopies of this material, which would say, "Dear Sir," with a date, and then, black, black, black, black, black, "Yours truly". I still have all those documents too, because it's kind of a neat thing to look at and say, "Well, in the end, I found out what's under that redaction."

    AC: That's excellent. In the end, it was a win for access and it sounds like you also logistically prepared for your research visit to Ottawa. We always recommend researchers contact Reference Services in advance to make full use of LAC resources. Well, that's wonderful, Janet.

    JM: It worked out extremely well for me. I would love to get back to it sometime when I'm not in a rush.

    AC: Last question, Janet. What lesson as Canadians can we all learn from the persecution of Francis Mackey?

    JM: I've thought about that a great deal. I think the lesson that is most needed is keeping an open mind, and doing your own research, and doing research carefully, preferably at a reliable institution such as Library in Archives Canada, and not going with gossip that you hear or hand-me-down information from people who may have an axe to grind, or who have absorbed material that was fed to them along the way by people with no great interest in the truth.

    I believe that families need to be protected and defended from this kind of defamation. I know it happens in other circumstances too, so perhaps we all need to stay tuned a little better when we see suffering and wrongful blame going on, that we take more of an interest in pitching in to help.

    One of the things that has been said all along was that Mackey was one of the pilots who probably made too much money on the sly, that they soaked the incoming ships for more than they should have paid, blah, blah, blah. This man was so remarkably conscientious that it took him seven years to pay back the debt to his lawyer.

    Mona remembers going every Friday to the lawyer's office with an envelope of money until it was all paid off. I've got the envelope that says, "Last payment, $12.69." This is not the kind of man that you would think of as being profligate or in any way incorrect in his life. I want him defended. I want him praised. I want the dishonoring to stop so that his descendants don't have to deal with it time and again.


    JA: If you'd like to learn more about the Halifax Explosion at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at Also, check out our Flickr album for this episode. You can access a direct link to the album on the episode page for this podcast.

    To learn more about Pilot Francis Mackey, and our guest Janet Maybee, visit

    Thank you for being with us. I'm Josée Arnold, your host. You've been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thankyou to our guest today, Janet Maybee. Also, big thanks to LAC military archivist Alex Comber for doing the interview for this episode. Special thanks also to Théo Martin, Tom Thompson, Karine Brisson and Ellen Bond for their contributions to this episode

    Thanks as well to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, in Halifax Nova Scotia.

    This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.

    If you liked this episode, you are invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Tunein Radio or the RSS feed located on our website.

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