The Nine O'Clock Gun at Stanley Park
Vancouver's Nine O'Clock Gun
It's been hit by lightning, plugged with rocks,
short-circuited, silenced by work stoppages and even (briefly) stolen
but Vancouver's famed old Nine O'Clock Gun hasas faithfully
as circumstances have allowedboomed out the time of day from
its home in Stanley Park for 107 years now.
The early life of this famed 12-pounder muzzle-loaded
naval cannon is vaguely known. Thanks to an inscription on the gun
itself, we know it was made by H & C King in 1816, the year
after Waterloo. It's numbered DCLVII (657).
A royal cipher, lower on the barrel, tells us King
George III was the monarch when the gun was made (although George
had been insane for some years and the Prince of Wales was acting
as regent) and we can also see the letter M, a monogram for the
Earl of Mulgrave, Master General of Ordinance at the time.
Many of the clippings mention it was made in the
Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich, a London borough, but I've been unable
to find a connection between the H & C King inscription and
the Woolwich factory (which still exists and is known as the Royal
cannon was more than 70 years old before it ever got to Vancouver.
What had it been doing all that time? Probably poking out of the
side of a British ship, but there's no record of what ship, or where
the ship served. Back around 1816, most of Britain's troubles seemed
to be happening inside its own borders ... but India was being subdued
and maybe the gun saw service there.
We do know that, in 1856, the British government
gave 16 cannon to the provinces of Canada (Confederation
was still 11 years away), that at least three of those cannon got
to the Pacific coast after a long trip around the Horn, and that
two of them ended up flanking the entrance to the legislative buildings
in Victoria. (Those two were melted down in 1940 as part of the
war effortafter all, each of them weighed 1,500 pounds or
The third and surviving cannon is our old friend,
the Nine O'Clock Gun.
[Story continues below...]
It was sent first to Nanaimo, where local coal miners
had been made jumpy by the local native people. I've seen no indication
that it was ever used in anger but it wouldn't be surprising to
learn that it was fired off now and then just to impress anyone
who might have aggressive notions.
The gun next turns up in Esquimalt as a result of
the British argument with the United States over the placement of
the international border. Then, the threat of trouble with the Yanks
having passed, in 1898 gun No. 657 was installed in Stanley Park.
It was first fired October 5, 1898. (We got that date from a newspaper
of the time.)
There was, apparently, a time when a dynamite explosion
was set off daily at 9 p.m. in the park as an aid to navigation.
William D. Jones, the lighthouse keeper at Brockton Point was, it
is said, required to detonate a charge of dynamite at that time.
In 1922 Jones described using an exaggerated fishing rod
to dangle the explosives and detonator over the water. We confess
to not understanding how an explosion at 9:00 p.m., in the dark,
could act as "an aid to navigation.
Why was the cannon set up in the park? The usual
explanation is that it was originally installed by the federal department
of fisheries to be shot off at 6 p.m. to alert salmon fishermen
in the harbor that it was closing time for fishing.
Some variants of that add it was used for that reason
on Sundays only. Then, the story continues, as fishermen moved farther
out of the harbor in pursuit of fish, the use of the gun for signalling
the fishing curfew became an anachronism, but it was decided to
retain the gun as a time signal with the boom re-scheduled to 9
Until we researched this story, that's the version
we would have given you if you'd asked. Now were not so sure.
Here's an excerpt from a January, 1939 interview
the late city archivist, Major J.S. Matthews, had with pioneer Herbert
McDonald. Matthews is speaking:
. . . imagine Vancouver as it was: No lights,
no telephones, no conveniences. There wasn't a house south of Robson
and from there to the Fraser River was bush. One thing they did
have was a volunteer fire department and on top of the firehouse
there was the usual fire bell. That was the only means of checking
the time, for it was rung at 8 a.m., noon, one and 6 p.m. every
There were two objections to the bell: One
was you couldn't hear it very far and the other was that, if the
bell-ringer didn't count straight and rang it twice instead of the
usual once, the whole town would be packing the family heirlooms
in a blanket ready to evacuate before another fire . . . two rings
meant fire and after their first experience (in 1886) that was the
one thing those early pioneers feared most. [The reference is to
the Great Fire of June 13, 1886 that destroyed the city.]
Then, too, the ships in the harbor had no
means of checking their time and, as Victoria had a gun that was
fired at noon for the purpose of regulating ships' chronometers,
ship captains asked for one here.
There's no mention by Matthews or McDonald of a
salmon-fishing curfew. Frustratingly, there's also no clear indication
that the gun was installed as a replacement for the four-times-a-day
firehouse time signal. Still, that's the obvious implication of
the Matthews remarks.
Today, more than 100 years after its arrival in
Stanley Park, with frequent exceptions that we'll outline in the
future, the Nine O'Clock Gun booms out its nightly messagea
message heard at Granville and Hastings five seconds after nine
o'clock, in Marpole 30 seconds after that, in New Westminster a
full minute after nine and in Mission (it's been heard there more
than once) more than three minutes after nine.
Its fired electrically these days, and flashing
red lights warn passers-by of the imminent blast.
Norfolk, Virginia has a Nine OClock Gun, also
used for timing purposes. Read an interesting account here.
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