The 9 O’Clock Gun is a cannon located near Brockton Oval in Stanley Park at Vancouver, British Columbia. The Gun is shot every night at 21:00 (9 p.m.) PT. The crests of King George III and Henry Phipps, 1st Earl of Mulgrave, Master-General of the Ordnance at the time the cannon was cast, are on the barrel.
The gun is a 12-pound muzzle-loaded naval cannon, cast in Woolwich, England in 1816. Seventy-eight years later, in about 1894, it was brought to Stanley Park by the Department of Marine and Fisheries to warn fishermen of the 18:00 Sunday close of fishing. On October 15, 1898 the gun was fired for the first time in Stanley Park at noon.
The 21:00 firing was later established as a time signal for the general population and to allow the chronometers of ships in port to be accurately set. The Brockton Point lighthouse keeper, William D. Jones, originally detonated a stick of dynamite over the water until the cannon was installed. The cannon is now activated automatically with an electronic trigger which was installed by the Parks Board electrical department. It is still loaded daily with a black powder charge. The fluorescent lights illuminating the gun from overhead go out exactly ten seconds before it fires, and turn back on a few seconds afterward.
The 9 O’Clock Gun has been silent for at least five periods: once during World War II, in 1969 when it was stolen and held by University of British Columbia Engineering students until a “ransom” was donated to BC Children’s Hospital, in 2007 during a work stoppage, in 2008 when UBC Engineering students painted it red and on 20 May 2011 with no explanation. After the 1969 theft, the cannon was surrounded by a stone and metal enclosure as shown in the photo.
The gun was restored and new pavilion designed by local architect Gregory Henriquez of Henriquez Partners Architects in 1986 and built as a centennial gift to the city from Ebco Industries, Chester Millar, First Generation Capital, and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In the past there was an ESSO floating gas station permanently anchored in line with the gun and on at least one occasion someone was able to toss rocks from the beach below into the barrel which then perforated the ‘O’ in the large illuminated sign above the barge. The barge was moved slightly after that event.
The 9 O’Clock Gun has had its own Twitter Parody Account since May 21, 2012 in which it tweets “BOOM!” every day at 21:00 Pacific Time. https://twitter.com/the9oclockgun
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 has—as faithfully as circumstances have allowed—boomed 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 Arsenal).
The 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 effort—after all, each of them weighed 1,500 pounds or 680 kg.)
The third and surviving cannon is our old friend, the Nine O’Clock Gun.
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 p.m.
Until we researched this story, that’s the version we would have given you if you’d asked. Now we’re 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 day.
“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.
Feb. 2, 1969: A Stanley Park ransom
Police are baffled and Vancouverites reel following the discovery that the city’s famous Nine O’Clock Gun has been kidnapped from its emplacement in Stanley Park.
“It was all done with somebody who had expert knowledge of this kind of thing,” explains park board chairman Andy Livingstone in an interview with the Vancouver Sun. “It wasn’t somebody going down there and casually taking it.”
Because of the precision of the theft — and because it’s Engineering Week — UBC engineering students are the prime suspects, but concrete leads are scarce. The following morning, a ransom note will arrive at City Hall which reads: “Dear Sir: As you are probably aware, the Nine O’Clock Gun has been kidnapped. If the City of Vancouver wants it back, a photo of our Mayor Tom Campbell or a reasonable substitute should appear in the Vancouver Sun on Tuesday, donating $100 to the Children’s Hospital.”
Campbell — a public figure despised by the city’s youth — will not respond to the ransom note, given that he is in the hospital for stomach surgery. And unfortunately, his replacement, acting mayor Hugh Bird, will also not be in a charitable mood.
“The city certainly is not going to start to pay ransoms to people who carry out irresponsible actions,” Bird will claim. “It’s not the policy of the city to make grants to worthwhile causes because of a ransom note.”
Despite the city’s refusal to pay the ransom, the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) will raise more than $1,500 in public donations to return the 1,500-pound gun — all of which will be immediately donated to the Children’s Hospital. The gun will be “found” by UBC engineering students four days later, with EUS chairman Fraser Hodge denying any knowledge of the incident. City police are unable to say whether charges will be laid.
“But,” says inspector Victor Lake, “a pretty dim view will be taken of the incident.”
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 message—a 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.
It’s fired electrically these days, and flashing red lights warn passers-by of the imminent blast.