“We could hear their cries all night below us.”

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: IGA Lantern slides, Pouch Cove, IGA 1-189

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: IGA Lantern slides, Pouch Cove, IGA 1-189

November 29, 1875

On the night of November 29, 1875, the Schooner Waterwitch left St. John’s bound for her homeport of Cupids with 25 souls on board. She never made it to Cupids; in the middle of a blinding snowstorm she struck rocks just north of Pouch Cove.

In the local St. John’s newspaper, The Times, the Anglican Minister of Pouch Cove, Reginald Johnson wrote:

“We had a frightful wreck here last night. The schooner Waterwitch, … to and belonging to Cupids, in the Bay, total loss. There were 25 souls on board, – out of which we saved only 13. I was on the spot soon after the terrible news reached the houses, and helped to haul up the survivors. Every man was hauled up fast to about 100 fathoms line, as the wreck could not be approached. We could hear their cries all night below us. It was frightful! The people have behaved nobly ….”

The loss of the 12 men and women on that cold November night is celebrated in song and story with much of the credit for the rescue of the survivors, given to Alfred Moores of Pouch Cove. He allowed himself to be lowered to the ship by a rope from an overhanging cliff so that he could carry the people to safety.

Also recognized for their role in the daring rescue were David Baldwin, Eli Langmead, William Noseworthy, and Christopher Mundy.

The horror of the night is told in the verses of the song the Waterwitch that is still song in Pouch Cove.

But, hark! Another scream is heard, the people get a shock,
Another female left below to perish on the rock;
When Alfred Moores makes another dash, as loud the wind do roar,
And brings a woman in his arms in safety to the shore.

The town of Cupids went into deep mourning; nine of the dead were from their small place.

A year after the tragic event Governor and Lady Glover at Government House, St. John’s presented Alfred Moores with the Silver Medal of the Royal Human Society. The other four were presented with the bronze medal for their heroic effort. The present location of the medals is not known.

Recommended Museum: The Pouch Cove Museum located in the Town Hall has a small exhibit commemorating the sinking of the Waterwitch.  The Cupids Legacy Centre has a model of the Waterwitch as well as a piece of the original wreck.

Recommended Song: Sung by Richard Moores [d.1975] of Pouch Cove, NL (son of the song’s hero, Alfred Moores) and published in MacEdward Leach And The Songs Of Atlantic Canada © 2004 Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA). http://www.wtv-zone.com/phyrst/audio/nfld/01/witch.htm

Recommended Book: The Loss of the Waterwitch & Other Tales by Eldon Drodge, 2010, Breakwater Press.



Prisoner Escapes Penitentiary, Reward Posted

Archival Moment

November 25, 1887

"Manslaughter Without Mercy"

“Manslaughter Without Mercy”

There was much excitement in St. John’ on November 25, 1887, the talk in town was all about the whereabouts of Michael Whelan, a convicted murderer who had escaped from the penitentiary at Quidi Vidi Lake. The local newspapers ran advertisements that stated:

“Whereas, Michael Whelan, a prisoner in the Penitentiary, under sentence of manslaughter, escaped recently from prison, and is now at large. Notice is hereby given, that reward of two hundred dollars will be paid to any person or persons who shall give the police authorities such information that shall lead to his arrest; and all persons are cautioned not in any way to harbour or aid the said Michael inn his escape.”

Michael Whelan, a fisherman of Horse Cove, (now St. Thomas) was charged with the willful murder of Livi King of Broad Cove, on the 6th of October 1883.

Witnesses swore that the tension between the two men was driven by alcohol and religion. According to the trial testimony it seems that the custom of those travelling from St. John’s to the Broad Cove – Portugal Cove area in those days on horse and cart was to make an occasional stop for a drink along the way. They stopped at M. Lundrigan’s to pick up a bottle to bring home, next they stopped at Walsh’s, near the pond, for a few drinks. It was here that the trouble started. It seems that Whelan “was cursing the Orangemen” and King threatening to “go down and haul down the chapel.” Nothing good was to come of this.

Michael Whelan pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering Levi King when he was arraigned. The trial took place on November 28, 1883. It took the jury one hour to decide on a verdict of “manslaughter without mercy.” Whelan was sentenced to prison for life in H. M. Penitentiary.

On November 25, 1887, between seven and eight o’clock seven prisoners left to work on a drain which they were constructing from the General Hospital (Forest Road)  to Quidi Vidi Lake in the charge of two prison officials. Amongst the prisoners was Michael Whelan.

Whelan had been slowly plotting his escape gradually ingratiating himself into the good books of the prison officials. He was rewarded for his good behavior by being allowed to join the other prisoners in their work detail. While at work in the drain he asked to retire “for a natural purpose”. He was permitted to do so.

In the meantime the prison wardens were distracted by the other prisoners, when Whelan saw this he made a dash for liberty; he was a powerful man and a fast runner; he followed the margin of Quidi Vidi Lake to the East end. The officer gave chase; Whelan outdistanced the prison officials and disappeared into the White Hills.

Despite an intense search using all of the police resources and the large reward offered for Whelan’s capture, he was never caught. Police watched his home and questioned his friends but to no avail, he was not to be found.

An inquiry into the escape established that this was a planned escape, not some spontaneous act by the prisoner. Whelan’s prison guard told the inquiry that he should have known that something was up because Whelan had taken his Rosary beads that had always hung on his bed post. Typically,  when he went with the prison work crews  the beads were left in his prison cell.

There were lots of rumors about what happened to Michael Whelan, some said that he made his escape to Placentia, a town where the Whelan family were well established, and from there he got away to America in a fishing schooner.

It is known that his wife left Newfoundland some years after his escape for America, fueling rumors that he had established a home somewhere in the Boston States. Twenty years following his escape in November 1906 the Evening Telegram speculated that she was living with him in Boston.

The Whelan’s were among the first settlers of Horse Cove; the town changed its name to St. Thomas in 1922 and was amalgamated with Paradise in 1992. St. Thomas with the amalgamation is now the oldest settled part of the town of Paradise and the Whelan’s remain among the residents.

It is not likely that Michael Whelan came home but did any of his kin visit with him? Did he keep his connections to friends and family in Horse Cove?

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives see GN2.2 Evidence taken at the Magisterial Inquiry, The Queen vs Michael Whelan for the felony of Prison Breach, November 29, 1887. A transcript of the trial can be found in the Evening Telegram (St. John’s, N.L.), 29 November 1883.

“The Dancing Season in St. John’s”

Archival Moment

November 28, 1894

$_12In late November of 1894 a young clerical student challenged the Editor of the local St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram to encourage a debate about the merits of dancing.  The young clerical student wrote:

I want to know whether it is right or wrong, and perhaps if a discussion on the subject were opened up, one would be better able to judge.”

A number of subscribers to the Evening Telegram took on the challenge and penned letters making their positions known and they had very definite opinions.

Elizabeth A. Nyle from her home on Freshwater Road, St. John’s was the first to enter the fray stating quiet categorically that she was quite opposed to dancing. She wrote:

“It (dancing) involves extravagance of dress, and too often a shocking indelicacy of dress likewise. It involves contacts and caresses of young men and women which stimulate sensual passions. It kindles salacious thoughts.  An evening spent in that way is not a recreation, it is a “revealing,” and ministers to vanity, frivolity, jealously and fleshy lusts , which war against the soul.”

Other letters to the Editor supported the notion of dancing. One woman writing under the pen name Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts) wrote:

“I should certainly say that there can be no possible harm in this innocent pastime, as dancing is one of the most pleasant ways of taking exercise. It suits all classes, old and young, the old folks almost becoming young again under its vigorous influence. … It certainly is the great key to social intercourse, unbending even the most rigid in their endeavor to keep up with the music.”

If you were to go out dancing in St. John’s in the 1890’s  the two most popular dances were the ‘Valse” and the “Minuet.”

The “Valse” was a relatively new dance in St. John’s and in 1894 considered “the dance”,  but  it seems “very few people knew how to dance it well.”  Today we know the “Valse”  as the Waltz . When  first introduced into the ballrooms of the world in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, it was met with outraged indignation, for it was the first dance where the couple danced in a modified Closed Position – with the man’s hand around the waist of the lady.

The “Minuet” was also very popular at the time it was described as “being very graceful and when seen from a distance looks very imposing.”

In November 1894 all of the “Assembly Halls”  in St. John’s were actively advertising for the “dancing season.” The West End Amusement Club was offering “dancing assembly’ every Wednesday night.  The British Hall offered “dancing assembly” every Thursday night.

In St. John’s, “Christmas dancing was the chief amusement ; in fact it is the “dancing season”  when old and young alike join in the sport, making old Father Xmas glad he came once more.”

It is likely that Mrs.  Elizabeth A. Nyle was not amused.

Recommended Archives:  Memorial University of Newfoundland – Archives and Special Collections. In 1982, the Centre for Newfoundland Studies and the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA), together with members of the local performing arts community, launched a joint project to collect primary material dealing with the history of the performing arts (theatre, music and dance) in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Archivist: Colleen Quigley.

The Long’s Hill Cemetery – A Silent City

The Long’s Hill Cemetery – A Silent City

Long's Hill Cemtery, St. John's (1810 - 1849)

Long’s Hill Cemtery, St. John’s (1810 – 1849)

In 1849 legislation was introduced in the Colony of Newfoundland closing all cemeteries in St. John’s, including the cemetery for the Roman Catholic’s on Long’s Hill that was opened in 1811.   What happened to the Long’s Hill Cemetery? What was St. John’s like between 1810 -1849?

Larry Dohey, Manager of Collections and Projects at the Rooms Provincial Archives will discuss the history of the cemetery, using archival documents, in a presentation Tuesday,  24 November 2015 at 7:30pm

Location: Hampton Hall at the Marine Institute .

Please forward to family and friends who may be interested.


Newfoundland shoe factories tender for army and seal skin boots

Archival Moment

November 18, 1915

Advertisement: Evening Telegram, 1915

Advertisement: Evening Telegram, 1915

With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Newfoundland business men began to look for commercial opportunities and one of the first prospects came in the form of an advertisement from the war office in England asking for tenders to supply winter boots for the soldiers at the front.

The managers of Newfoundland boot and shoe factories were quick to pull their samples and price lists of the top boots made in their factories.

The St. John’s businessmen reasoned:

The boots turned out by our factories for fishermen and seamen have always given satisfaction and are absolutely impervious to water. Our factories should also be able to turn out an equally serviceable army boot and if the samples being sent … meet with approval at the war office it is likely that our manufacturers will be given a share of patronage.”

A contract no matter how small would have been a substantial business opportunity.   It was not about to happen, the Newfoundland factories could not compete against the established factories in England. An estimated 50 million pairs of boots and shoes were made in Northhamponshire area of England during the war, not just for the British Army but also for France, Russia, Italy and other allies.

Factories had always employed women, mostly in the closing room for their stitching and sewing skills. But with many men leaving the factories to serve, women increasingly took on other roles within the factories.

Not as good as Newfoundland boots!!

The boots that were being distributed were not has functional as hoped. In 1915 it was realized that a fungal infection of the feet brought on by exposure to damp, cold conditions was proving to be a huge problem. Some 20,000 casualties resulting from ‘trench foot’ were reputed to have been suffered by the British Army during the close of 1914. The Newfoundland businessman having tried decided to try another business approach.

In Newfoundland, businessman, Mr. Edgar Bowring and Governor Walter Davidson were encouraging experimenting with seal skin boots as the official Army boot. Many of the young Newfoundland soldiers knew the value of the sealskin boots because of their experience wearing the sealskins while prosecuting the seal fishery back home.

On February 12, 1915, Sir Walter Davidson, Governor of Newfoundland wrote in his diary:

Sir H. (Sir Henry Wilson, British Director of Military Operations) writes me that the War Office is experimenting with our sealskins for army boots and that Mr. Edgar Bowring is pushing our interests”

The experimenti  was short lived, on February 28, 1915, Governor Davidson wrote in his diary:

Sir H. writes that our seal leather is not in favour with the War Office expert for boots”

Young Newfoundland soldiers were not dissuaded, if they could not get the proper foot gear from the army they would get them from home. These young men from Newfoundland in the wet and damp trenches of Europe were quick to write home asking for their parents to send them seal skinned boots. These soldiers knew that they would be the most effective against trench foot. Local newspaper advertisements in St. John’s boasted:

Nearly every day we sell at least one pair of Skin Boots to be sent to the trenches they are so much superior to all other kinds of footwear that the wearer of a pair is envied by all those who are not so fortunate. You may be wise to send your boy, a pair and be sure to get the best kind – sewn with sinew.”

Recommended Archival Collection: The Rooms Provincial Archives: MG 136.5 Governor Walter Davidson fonds (February 1-28, 1915)

Recommended Exhibit: Pleasantville: From Recreation to Military Installation. Level 2 Atrium Pleasantville before the First World War was the site of the St. John’s cricket grounds. With the declaration of war, Pleasantville quickly emerged as a tent city, the home of the storied “First 500”. It was here that the First Newfoundland Regiment recruits began preliminary military training during the months of September and October of 1914. This exhibition highlights some of the activities and training of the Blue Puttees up to their embarkation on the SS Florizel for overseas service.

Recommended Museum Exhibit: Flowers of Remembrance: Level 2 Museum Vitrine: A number of flowers are associated with the First World War by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, including the familiar forget-me-not and poppy. Such commemorative flowers and their role in the collective memory of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are profiled. Using artifacts and period imagery relating to The Great War commemoration, The Rooms staff explore the significant role these flowers played across the last century.

Tidal wave reached the Burin Peninsula


November 18, 1929

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: A86-90; Eastern Cove Pond, Lord’s Cove. The Rennie home. Sarah Rennie and three of her children were found drowned in the kitchen. Survivor Maggie Rennie was found in her bed on the second floor

On November 18, 1929, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale out in the Atlantic Ocean on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland created a tidal wave ( (tsunami).  When the ground shook at 5:02 p.m., some thought there had been an explosion in the mines or on a distant vessel. Yet nothing immediately followed the violent tremor so people resumed their previous activities.

Traveling at a speed of 140 kilometers per hour, the tidal wave reached the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland  at 7:00 p.m.

Detailed accounts of the devastation were made known on November 23 when a deputation from Burin consisting of Hon. G. A. Bartlett, Rev. Fr. James  Miller, and Capt. W.H. Hollett traveled to St. John’s to meet  with the Executive Government.

Father Miller (the Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s Parish, Burin from 1925 -1934) spoke to a reporter from the “Evening Telegram”  (the St. John’s daily newspaper) and told him of the distress and needs of the people in the stricken area.

Father Miller told the reporter that the fishermen were hit hardest, not by the loss of their own fishing gear, boats and stages, but by the fact that in many cases the whole community depended on one or two firms, now so badly shattered that it was impossible.

Several times during the conversation with The Telegram reporter Father Miller referred to heroic rescues by the local fishermen. In the darkness, with chaos everywhere, they calmly set about their work – climbed floating houses, searched amongst debris, and rescued the women and children.

“They (the fishermen) were most heroic, but they least suspect it” Father Miller told the Telegram.

This giant sea wave claimed a total of 28 lives – 27 drowned on the Burin peninsula and a young girl never recovered from her injuries and died in 1933. This represents Canada’s largest documented loss of life directly related to an earthquake.

At Port aux Bras a fisherman saw his home being swept away. He tried to save his wife and family but was blocked by another floating house. He was helpless as his imprisoned family whirled into darkness. His house was pulled out to sea faster than a boat could steam.

Mr. Ern Cheeseman of Port au Bras on the Burin peninsula in a letter to his brother Jack a few days after the tsunami wrote:

You could hear the poor humans who were caught, screaming, women and men praying out loud. Oh God, Jack, it was terrible Excuse this scribble but we are not over the shock yet. Every move one hears one jumps expecting the same to happen again.”

The Newfoundland government sent ships with doctors and supplies. Canada was the largest foreign donor donating $35,000 individual Newfoundlanders raised more than $200,000 to help their countrymen.

Apart from the Burin tsunami, two others have been reported, at Bonavista in 1755 as a result of the Lisbon earthquake, and St. Shott’s in June 1864. These caused damage, but no reported loss of life.

Recommended Archival Collection: At The Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to read MG 636: South Coast Disaster Relief Committee Report consists of a list of losses by settlement, reports, telegrams, correspondence, minutes of meetings; regarding the tidal wave and earthquake disaster on the Burin Peninsula, 1929. The collection also includes a report of the South Coast Disaster Committee, 1931.

Recommended Archival Collection:  Take some time to look at the Tidal Wave photographs in the collection of the Rooms Provincial Archives.  A series consists of ten postcards documenting the damage to Burin area during a tidal wave (tsunami) along the South Coast of Newfoundland, Nov. 1929. The photographs were taken by Rev. James Anthony Miller, Roman Catholic priest, Burin. Miller’s film was developed by S.H. Parsons & Sons. The photographs were reproduced as postcards by Parsons. The photographs were also published in the New York Times (8 Dec. 1929).

Recommended Reading: Hanrahan, Maura. Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster.St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2004.

Newfoundland sealing vessel on Russian postage stamp?

 Soviet postage stamp, 1977. Ice-breaker steamship “G. Sedov”. She was originally the Newfoundland sealing steamer Beothic.

Soviet postage stamp, 1977. Ice-breaker steamship “G. Sedov”. She was originally the Newfoundland sealing steamer Beothic.

Archival Moment

November 19, 1915

On November 20, 1915 The St. John’s newspaper The Evening Telegram reported:

“Another member of our steel sealing fleet the Beothic went out through the narrows last evening (November 19, 1915) never to return again. She proceeds via New York to Archangel, (Arkhangelsk) Russia. The purchase price of the ship was $210,000.”

The 240.4 foot  Beothic was well known and loved in Newfoundland , built by D & W Henderson Limited Glasgow, Scotland and launched in 1909 she was the property of the Job Brothers of St. John’s.

Steel steamers were introduced to the seal fishery in 1906; by 1914, Newfoundland had “the finest fleet of Sealers and Ice-Breakers in the World.” The annual four to six-week hunt could not support such expensive steamers.

The original scale model (approximately 7 feet) of the Beothic that was built for the Job Family of St. John’s is held in a private collection.

The original scale model (approximately 7 feet) of the Beothic that was built for the Job Family of St. John’s is held in a private collection.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 Russia was desperate for steel hull l ships to use as icebreakers to keep White Sea and other Russian ports open for munition ships from Britain. In addition to negotiating for the purchase of the Beothic the Russians were also negotiating with other merchant families in St. John’s for the purchase of other steel hull sealing vessels.

The first ships sold were Reid Newfoundland Company’s freight and passenger steamers Lintrose and Bruce, both of which had been employed on the run between North Sydney and Port aux Basques. By the spring of 1916, five other vessels had been sold to the Russian Admiralty: A.J. Harvey’s icebreakers Bellaventure, Bonaventure, and Adventure; and Baine Johnson’s he Clyde.

On arrival in Russia, the Newfoundland sealing steamer the Beothic was fitted with steam engines and was renamed after Russian Captain and Polar explorer Georgy Yakovlevich Sedov.

This icebreaker became famous as the first Soviet drifting ice station.

In the summer of 1937 the Beothic (renamed the Sedov) and the Bruce (renamed the Malygin) while researching the ice conditions, became trapped by sea ice and drifted helplessly.

Owing to persistent bad weather conditions, part of the stranded crew and some of the scientists could only be rescued in April 1938. The Sedov, had to be left to drift in the ice and was transformed into a scientific polar station.

The Sedov kept drifting northwards in the ice towards the Pole. The scientists aboard took astronomical measurements, made electromagnetic observations, as well as depth measurements by drilling the thick polar ice during their 812-day stay aboard the Sedov.

Eventually, in January 1940, she was rescued and brought into the harbour at Murmansk, Russia.

The former Newfoundland sealing vessel was immortalized by the Russian government in 1977 with the creation of a postage stamp to celebrate the work on the first scientific polar station.

The ship was scrapped at Hamburg, Germany in 1968.

The Newfoundland  icebreaking steamer Bruce (Malygin) is also celebrated on a Russian postage stamp. She was the first Soviet tourist cruise to the Arctic but that is a story for another day.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives, VA 44: The   James St. Pierre Knight fonds. This photograph album documents a trip by James St. P. Knight as medical officer on board the Job Brothers sealing steamer Beothic under Master George Barbour. The album is comprised of 41 photographs (b&w) depicting the activities of the sealers on board the SS Beothic and at the ice fields in 1911. The album also includes Knight’s berth ticket to the sealing hunt.

Recommended Reading: Chafe, Levi George. Chafe’s Sealing Book: A History of the Newfoundland Sealfishery from the Earliest Available Records Down to and Including the Voyage of 1923. Ed. H. M. Mosdell. St. John’s: The Trade Printers and Publishers Ltd., 1923.

Recommended Reading: Mike O’Brien, “Producers versus Profiteers: The Politics of Class in Newfoundland during the First World War,” Acadiensis XXXX, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 45-69.

NOTE: Not to be confused with The steamship “Beothic,” formerly named the “Lake Como”, built in Lorain, Ohio, USA in 1918 . The Neptune Steamship Co., Ltd. acquired the vessel and registered it at St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1925. The vessel was re-registered the following year to the Job’s Seal Fishery Co., Ltd., also of St. John’s. The vessel is also well known for its role in the rescue of survivors from the S.S. “Viking” which exploded off Horse Islands, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland, March 16, 1931. The “Beothic” was first on the scene, and helped to transfer surviving crew members to other ships