Button - Halifax Penitentiary

This is an extremely rare example of an early Canadian penitentiary uniform button. The Halifax Penitentiary was originally known as the “Provincial Penitentiary of Nova Scotia” when it opened on October 15, 1844. This penitentiary contained 90 cells and was located on 14 acres on Halifax’s North-West Arm around what is now Inglewood Drive, near Point Pleasant Park. An interesting fact is that Halifax City Councillor Alexander Keith (of Beer brewing fame) laid the cornerstone on June 24, 1841.

At Confederation, in 1867, it was one of three existing penitentiaries that were placed under federal jurisdiction, along with the “Provincial Penitentiary of New Brunswick” in Saint John and the “Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Canada” at Kingston, Ontario (later Kingston Penitentiary). The Halifax and Saint John Penitentiaries were closed in 1880 when they were amalgamated at the new “Maritime Penitentiary” (a.k.a. Dominion Penitentiary) at Dorchester, New Brunswick. This new institution, more commonly known as “Dorchester Penitentiary” today, represented the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

On July 16, 1880, fifty-eight men were transferred from Halifax to Dorchester. The last inmates, two women, were transferred on October 14, 1880, effectively marking the close of the prison.

This 2-piece button measures 2.4cm in diameter and appears to be cast in bronze (or perhaps the brass has darkened). It may have had a silvered wash originally which has tarnished. The cypher of Queen Victoria with a slightly stylized version of her St. Edward’s crown is at centre surrounded by the name of the institution in block capital, sans-serif letters. A small circle appears at the bottom. Perhaps the most unusual feature is the back mark. Where the manufacturer’s name or a reference to the quality of gilt usually appears here, this button bears a profile image of a swimming swan over a ribbon bearing the Latin motto “Presta Et Prevale”. This appears to translate to “Be Prepared and Beware”, almost a subliminal message to the penitentiary officer wearing the item, as it could not be easily read while being worn.

ItemButton – Halifax Penitentiary
Dimensions2.4cm diameter
Period Madec.1867- c.1880
Period of Usec.1867-1880
Halifax Pen tunic button