Our exhibit, Explosion! Dartmouth’s Ordeal of the 1917 Disaster, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. It opened to the public on July 14, 2017 and is scheduled to remain until January 2018. One particular artifact on display that has garnered much attention is Frank Baker’s diary. In lieu of this, we have decided to write a blog post to give more information and background on Frank and on his valuable window back to 1917.
Frank Herbert Baker was born on 10 September, 1897 in the town of Broughton, in county Northamptonshire, England. He was the fifth child born to Henry Herbert Baker and Frances Lenton. His parents separated in 1900, however, leaving the family in dire financial circumstances. To make ends meet, his mother worked as a dressmaker to support the family. Frank also sacrificed for his family; although he was a bright lad, he left school at the age of 14 to apprentice as a butcher in order to help.
When he became of age, Frank served as a member of the British Royal Navy in the First World War. He did this mainly on the North Atlantic stage. His various postings include: the Leviathan, the Highflyer, and the Penbroke I. While he was in Halifax, he served as a patrolman on the Acadia, checking for hidden cargo and spies. The Acadia’shistory is also intriguing in its own right. It began as the CSS Acadia, built in 1913 as a hydro-graphic vessel meant to chart the North Atlantic and Arctic. However, during the First World War it was converted into the HMCS Acadia and did patrol work for the navy. The Acadia is still in existence and is docked at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic wharf, open for public viewing in the summer. See here for more information.
The Halifax Explosion occurred on 6 December, 1917, at 9:04am. It was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons. It was caused by two ships, the SS Imo and the Mont-Blanc, colliding in the narrows of the Halifax Harbour, the body of water between the cities of Dartmouth and Halifax in Nova Scotia. The SS Imo was a Norwegian steamship chartered by the Belgian Relief commission to bring supplies to Europe. The SS Mont-Blanc was a French munitions vessel filled with volatile explosives being transported from New York to France. Their collision sparked a fire that lit the Mont-Blanc’s explosives, causing the ensuing disaster. The explosion killed about 2,000 people, and injured 9,000 more. Moreover, it destroyed residential homes, leaving as many as 25,000 homeless. More Nova Scotians were killed in the Halifax Explosion than in the First World War, and the blast from the Explosion was felt all over the Maritimes.
Frank bore witness to this explosion while he was onboard the HMCS Acadia. He recorded his experience in his diary, noting the aftermath of the explosion as well. After the war he returned to the butchery trade, becoming a manager at the William Street Butcher’s shop in Kettering. By 1935 he was the general manager for the butchery division of the Kettering Industrial Cooperative Society, which looked after 38 butcher shops, an abattoir, and a meat-producing factory. In 1924 he married Jessie Liddington, a woman from the nearby village of Pytchley. They had four sons together. Frank was always an avid writer and continued to write detailed accounts of his life in his diary until the 1970s, when he gave his collection to his son, Rex. In 1973 Frank returned from work and moved his family to Perth, in Western Australia, to be closer to his children who had emigrated there in the 1960s. He died on 16 May, 1977 from cancer. His wife, Jessie, passed away within months of Frank.
As mentioned, Frank gave his diary to his youngest son, Rex Baker. Rex had the diary in his home in Australia for over 40 years without looking at it. This changed in January of 2016. After reading his father’s diary and noticing that he had described the Halifax Explosion, Rex saw the historical value it held and contacted Bonnie Elliott, the executive director for the Dartmouth Heritage Museum, and offered to donate the diary. With the 100th anniversary of the explosion only a year away, the timing was exceptional. He and his wife, Jan Baker, proceeded to transcribe the diary, and visited Halifax and Dartmouth later in 2016 to personally deliver the diary. They also went to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to view the Acadia.
Rex told the DHM that his father rarely ever talked about the war, and never mentioned the Halifax Explosion. He did, however, tell his son a few amusing stories, one being an incident where he was almost militarily charged with desertion after falling into the sea while painting the exterior of a ship. The charge was later downgraded to AWOL. Rex continued by saying that he believes Frank would have loved to return to Nova Scotia after the war, but events prevented him.
The diary that Rex donated to the DHM begins on Tuesday, 9 October 1917, and ends on Monday, 14 January, 1918. Besides the valuable entry on 6 December, Frank wrote of his duties in examining vessels passing through the Halifax Harbour, checking cargo and documentation. On days when he had shore leave, he would go across to Dartmouth to visit friends.
The diary is currently on display at Evergreen House, located at 26 Newcastle Street, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The diary is opened to the page denoting Frank’s experience during the Halifax Explosion. Admission is $5 to the museum, which includes a guided tour of the heritage house as well as admission to the Explosion exhibit. We’d love to share this piece of history with you.
By COURTNEY MRAZEK
(Written using Karen Colter’s summarization of email correspondence and donor questionnaire, and Courtney Mrazek’s research into the Halifax Explosion.)