“A friend of the lunatics”

October 18, 1900

Archival Moment

The Waterford Hospital was once known as the Lunatic Asylum

The Waterford Hospital was once known as the Lunatic Asylum

Walking past the “Lunatic Asylum” (now known as the Waterford Hospital) citizens were gladdened that officials were “endeavoring to get a water supply to the building’  but upon closer inspection they were  not so happy to discover that it was the “poor unfortunate inmates” of the hospital that were doing the work!!

The lot of the ‘lunatics” in the early 19th century was not a happy one. They were often confined to basements, attics and jails under the most wretched conditions and it was only with the founding of the St. John‘s public hospital in 1813 that a separate ward was established for them.

With the opening of the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ on Waterford Bridge Road, St. John’s in 1854 as the Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases it was thought that the lot of the lunatics would improve. “A friend of the Lunatics” in October 1900 was not so confident that advances had been made.   In a letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram he wrote that he was walking past the hospital and “was troubled to find that its poor unfortunate inmates, are compelled to dig from early morning till late at night, endeavoring to get a water supply to the building.”

He was so appalled at the situation that he demanded “that the Board of Works institute an enquiry into the management of the Lunatic Asylum.”

He wrote “Is it fair to the inmates of that institution to have them wading in water, digging over half a mile for this supply.  I say it is not, and the person in charge ought to be brought to account for his conduct.”

The initiatives that were coming under criticism were likely instituted by Dr. Lawrence Keegan who believed that having the patients working was a positive and effective form of occupational therapy, he felt that some patients did benefit from working especially the able-bodied.  Keegan who had been on tour of asylums in Great Britain, England, Scotland and Ireland in 1899 and had consulted with British experts that saw value in physical work.

The ‘friend of the Lunatics’ concluded his letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram:

“We have an engineer who is competent to improve the method of said water supply.  Why should the doctor (Lawrence Keegan) be consulted, he is not there for that purpose. Let him attend to the strawberry beds and try to help the revenue in that way, but leave the water supply to Mr. (Hubert C.) Burchell, (Newfoundland Government Engineer from 1884 to 1905) who I am certain, who is not in favor of employing lunatics to take the bread from the mouths of taxpayers.”

The practice was soon discontinued, the new administrator of the Asylum, Dr. James Sinclair Tait believed that this type of occupational therapy was ineffective and fiscally unsound and had such new initiatives cancelled.

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online data base – https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections use key words – lunatic and Waterford.

Recommended Reading: Out of Mind, Out of Sight by Patricia O’Brien: A History of the Waterford Hospital. St. John’s: Breakwater Books; 1989.

Old Word: Middle English: from Old French lunatique, from late Latin lunaticus, from Latin luna ‘moon’ (from the belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity)

Remembering and revitalizing the “rooms” of a fishing village.

Old Coast, New Coast: Petty Harbour, Newfoundland

Remembering and revitalizing the “rooms” of a fishing village.

The Rooms

The Rooms

Published October 14, 2016

Sitting on the edge of the dock, swinging their legs back and forth, children eagerly await the return of their fathers. The fishermen left at sunrise, guiding their small boats out to fertile inshore fishing grounds to pull in cod with handlines. Read More: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/article-short/old-coast-new-coast-petty-harbour-newfoundland

World War II came home to Newfoundland.


October 14, 1942

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: C 2-48; Remember the SS Caribou and Her Gallant Crew

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: C 2-48; Remember the SS Caribou and Her Gallant Crew

In the early morning hours of October 14, 1942 a lone German torpedo from the German submarine U69 hit the  SS Caribou,  the Sydney to Port aux Basques ferry on  route to Newfoundland, under Captain Benjamin Tavenor.  World War II came home to Newfoundland.

Immediately following the hit chaos ensued as passengers, thrown from their bunks by the explosion rushed topside to the lifeboat stations.

Of the 237 people aboard the Caribou when she left North Sydney, 136 had perished. Fifty-seven were military personnel and 49 were civilians. Of the 46-man crew, mostly Newfoundlanders, only 15 remained. Five families suffered particularly heavy losses: the Tappers (5 dead), the Toppers (4), the Allens (3), the Tavernors (the captain and his two sons), and the Skinners (3). The local press reported:

 “Many Families [were] Wiped Out.”

News of the sinking sparked much outrage as victims,  friends and families, and the populace at large, condemned the Nazis for targeting a passenger ferry. An editorialist with The Royalist newspaper in St. John’s wrote that the sinking:

“was such a useless crime from the point of view of warfare. It will have no effect upon the course of the war except to steel our resolve that the Nazi blot on humanity must be eliminated from our world.”

The Channel/Port aux Basques area was the worst hit as many crew members of the Caribou were local men. A funeral on October 18 for six victims was attended by hundreds of mourners, and a procession that followed the bodies to the grave sites reportedly measured two kilometres long.

Recommended Archival Collection:  Search the Rooms Archives on line:  https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections

At The Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to read  VA  40- 16:  A page from The Evening Telegram, St. John’s, NL. with several newspaper articles about the sinking of the SS Caribou, including names of those lost ; death of assistant matron, Agnes Wilkie, General Hospital.

Recommended Reading: Thornhill, H. It Happened in October : The Tragic Sinking of the S.S. Caribou. Newfoundland: H. Thornhill, 1945.

Recommended Song:  The Caribou; Lyrics can be found at: http://www.mun.ca/folklore/leach/songs/NFLD1/17A-05.htm

Are you in my pew?


October 8, 1991

Basilica Cathedral Parish receipt for pew rent. Pew #28.

In the 1800’s because voluntary offerings in Sunday collections were unpredictable, pastors introduced pew rents to stabilize parish finances.  Originating in Germany, the pew rent system was common place in North America by the 1840’s. In the new churches it was used to secure a steady income from which the debt on new buildings could be paid.

Parishioners could literally “rent a pew”.  It was reserved for their use during one or all of the Sunday Masses and other devotions and events.  Typically in most churches a  brass plate  was inserted with  a card holder where the name of the family “renting” the pew  was inserted.

The pews were also in demand.  Every Sunday notices were read reminding parishioners if they had not paid their “pew rent” that they should pay immediately or forfeit the right to claim the pew!

The practice was so prevalent that for certain celebrations in St. John’s that the Archbishop of St. John’s had to make a special plea that the “pew holders”  in the Basilica Cathedral give up their pews for special occasions. For example when Pope Pius XI died in 1939, Archbishop Roche requested:

“Pew holders in the upper centre section are requested to give their pews on that day (February 19, 1939)  for the use of those who desire to attend the ceremony ….

The same notice would go to pew holders when the  Basilica Cathdral hosted sacred  concerts.  One such notice read:

“On Wednesday Evening next at 8:00 o’clock a Sacred Oratorio will be held in the Cathedral on the occasion of the opening of the new organ. A small charge will be made for admission – the proceeds to go towards the expenses of the Organ which will be over eight thousand dollars. Pew holders will please understand that they must not expect to claim their pews on that occasion as they will be occupied by ticket holders.”

In some diocese the practise was so prevalent that regulations ensured that a proportion of pews (at least one sixth) always remained free to insure that the poor would have a seat in the church. The seats of renters who had not arrived before a certain point in the celebration were also regarded as free for occupation by others.

The idea  of “pew rents”  was  for some a great source of scandal, it was inevitable that it was the poor  that were edged out to perch on benches and stools at the back or middle of the church.

To an outsider the effect of rented pews in church could be off-putting.  A vistor to a church in Monmouthshire, Wales wrote in 1882:

“I did go once  (to the church) but the people were all shut in, and the folk in the pews  looked at me as if I had got in without paying: so after walking up and down several times, like a man in a station trying to get a seat when the train is full, I went home.”

In most churches in Newfoundland the idea of “pew rents” was allowed to fade away quietly. In place of pew rents for a particular pew, in some churches, a general pew  collection or second collection was held every Sunday. In the Basilica Cathedral Parish this general offering was seen by some parishioners as a way to hold on to the pew that they saw as “their family pew.”  To this very day older parishioners continue to sit in what was “their family pew.”

The pew collection, previously the pew rent, was officially ended by a decision of the Basilica Cathedral Parish Council on October 8, 1991.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Archives of the R.C. Archdiocese see “The Pew Rent Receipt Books” these books  identify the particular pew that was assigned to a family.

Recommended Reading:The English Anglian practice of pew renting, 1800-1969. Bennett, John Charles (2011) Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham, England.

“Firing for the school”


October 7, 1900

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives. VA 118-18.4 Girls and women sitting behind stove, possibly in school room .(Note the coal bucket near the stove)


At the end of the mass on Sunday, October 7, 1900 the parish priest at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in St. John’s (now Basilica) took to the pulpit to make the usual announcements.  On this particular Sunday the priest also took great pains to explain because of the increase in the price of coal that the families of the children in the parish would have to take on some of the responsibility for “firing for the school”.

The priest told the congregation:

Owing to the increase in the price of coal His Lordship the Bishop (Michael Francis Howley) wishes the parents of the children attending schools in the neighborhood of the city to understand that he cannot supply fuel as usual from the education money and they are expected to help provide firing for the school. “ (Source: Book of Publications, Sunday, October 7, 1900)

Until the 1950’s most rural schoolhouses in the province were outfitted with nothing but a small wood or coal -burning potbelly stove in the corner or center of the room.  It was up to the students to heat the classroom.

A common sight in small towns and villages was a child trudging off to school carrying a couple pieces of wood or small bucket of coal, his or her contribution to the day’s supply of fuel. The older boys took turns lighting the fire and during the cold winter mornings all the children would bundle around the stove until the temperature rose high enough to make it sufficiently warm to sit in their regular places.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Provincial Archives Division at The Rooms explore MG 365  three logbooks (1916-27, 1918-29 ,1947-54) which document the operation and administration of St. Mary’s School, Southside, St. John’s. The logbooks contain handwritten entries by teachers describing school activities, student performances and events affecting the operations of the school.

Search the Archives: : https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections

Recommended Publication:  Schooling in a Fishing Society: Education and Economic Conditions inNewfoundland andLabrador 1836-1986 Volume 1 & 2 by Phillip McCann.St. John’s,  Newfoundland: Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER),MemorialUniversity of Newfoundland, 1994,   277 pp. and 329 pp.

Lost Phrase:  The expression “firing for the school” has fallen into disuse.  Have you seen the expression “firing for the school” in other sources?

“Moisture might be noticed in many an eye … “

Archival Moment

October 4, 1914

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: A 8-28; Soldiers of the First Newfoundland Regiment marching at Pleasantville, St. John’s.

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: A 8-28; Soldiers of the First Newfoundland Regiment marching at Pleasantville, St. John’s.

October 4, 1914, is a significant date on the Newfoundland and Labrador  calendar, it was on this date that the Newfoundland Regiment set sail on the transport vessel the SS Florizel to fight for Country and King. This was the first of some 27 groups to embark from Newfoundland’s shores during the course of the First World War.

These men that marched from the camps in Pleasantville on Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s to the Florizel are the men that are celebrated in our history as the First Five Hundred, or by their other popular designation “The Blue Puttees.”

These were the men that faced near annihilation at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916, and costly major engagements in October at Gueudecourt and at Monchy-le-Preux. On the battle field these proud soldiers solidified their place in history. The Regiment earned no less than 280 separate decorations, 77 of which were awarded to original members of the “first 500” of which 170 were killed in action.

On October 4, 1914  as they marched through the streets of St. John’s to their transport they were not thinking of death, this was an “adventure” for them.  For many it would be the first time away from home.

The day following their departure from St. John’s, a reporter for the St. John’s newspaper The Daily News, wrote:

“The 1st Newfoundland Regiment actually started for the front when they left Pleasantville at 4:30 Saturday afternoon.  (October 3, 1914) Under the command of Captain Franklin the volunteers headed by the Catholic Cadet Corps (C.C.C.)  Band proceeded by King’s Bridge, Circular, Military Roads, Prescott  and Water Street to the Furness Withy Company’s pier where the transport Florizel lay to take them away.

Thousands accompanied them on the march from the camp and crowds gathered along the route to bid them God’s speed. The principal buildings, stores and many private residences were gaily decked with flags as was also all the shipping in the harbour.

The crush, all the business have been suspended, near the embarking point was indeed a sight, the gathering being undoubtedly the largest ever seen in the city. Every vantage point was seized to see the men go by only with the greatest difficulty did the police and the men of the H.M.S. Calypso keep the crowds from pressing on to the pier.

The volunteers are indeed a body the Colony may be proud of and as they swung along, they warmly answered the wishes of their good friends. All were in high spirits and showed plainly their eagerness to be off, evidencing the true spirit of patriotism.

At the pier His Excellency the Governor, Lady Davidson and children and Premier, members of both branches of the legislature, clergymen of all denominations and citizens prominent in every walk of life, had assembled.  Arriving at the pier, each company was drawn up inside the entrance and marched on board the ship, between lines of people whose enthusiasm knew no bounds, the (Catholic Cadet Corps)  C.C.C., (Church Lads Brigade); C.L.B, , Methodist Guards and Salvation Army bands meanwhile rendering spirited airs,  also the hymn  “God be with you till we meet again.”

Some little delay was caused in the embarking, the men being delayed by friends who would not be denied the saying of the last farewell. As the men ringed along the ships rail a continuous outburst of cheering was kept up.

Many pathetic scenes were witnessed and suspicious moisture might be noticed in many an eye while those who had immediate relatives in the ranks wept bitterly.


Photo Credit: At the Rooms Provincial Archives: A 58-68; 1st Newfoundland Regiment along the Florizel’s rail ready to depart St. John's October 4, 1914.

Photo Credit: At the Rooms Provincial Archives: A 58-68; 1st Newfoundland Regiment along the Florizel’s rail ready to depart St. John’s October 4, 1914.

At last all the men, their kit and supplies were on board  and at 6 p.m. the transport hauled of to the stream. Whistles sounded, guns blazed forth, the C.C.C. on board the tug John Green played, the British marching song “It’s a long way to Tipperary”  the members of the contingent and thousands  assembled joining in the chorus. Surrounded by a flotilla of tugs, motor and row boats the Florizel came to anchor in the stream.

All night and yesterday the boats remained near the ship, while the waterside premises particularly the King’s wharf were lined with people anxious to see a relative or friend who might come on shore. … she (Florizel) got underway and steamed grandly through the Narrows, those on shore cheered wildly. Many of the boats and launches accompanied the ship outside the heads.  … Those who had enlisted but were not among the 525 selected bitterly expressed their disappointment.”

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the Archives: https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections

Recommended Exhibit: The First World War had a profound impact on Newfoundland and Labrador. It involved thousands of our people in world-changing events overseas and dramatically altered life at home. Our “Great War” happened in the trenches and on the ocean, in the legislature and in the shops, by firesides and bedsides. This exhibition shares the thoughts, hopes, fears, and sacrifices of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who experienced those tumultuous years – through their treasured mementoes, their writings and their memories. – See more at: https://www.therooms.ca/exhibits/always/beaumont-hamel-and-the-trail-of-the-caribou#sthash.lv9JmCbn.dpuf

Recommended Reading: Out of a Clear Sky: The Mobilization of the Newfoundland Regiment, 1914-1915 by Mike O’Brien, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies.  Volume 22, Number 2 (2007)    Memorial University of Newfoundland.  Article on line. http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/nflds/article/view/10117/10390




St. John’s man tells court he was carried away by the fairies.

Archival Moment

October 1, 1880

Residents and tourists are reminded at the beginning of the  D'Iberville Trail  near New Perlican, Trinity Bay to  prepare for fairies.  (Photo Credit: Stephanie Tucker, 2017)

Residents and tourists are reminded at the beginning of the D’Iberville Trail near New Perlican, Trinity Bay to prepare for fairies. (Photo Credit: Stephanie Tucker, 2017)

Judges have to deliberate on the evidence that is brought before them, evidence that at times might be challenging to believe. On October 1, 1880 the distinguished Newfoundland jurist Judge James Gerve Conroy had to consider the evidence – he had to consider the existence of fairies.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a rich fairy folklore tradition that is full of stories about fairies (also known as the Good People or the Little People) these fairies are often troublemakers and it was these trouble making fairies that landed (John Ebbs) before the courts.

Ebbs appeared before the Central District Court in St. John’s determined to recover the amount of his summer’s wages from his employer. The employer, Mr. J. Hickey refused to pay his salary arguing that “he (Ebbs) was absent from his work place, without leave, for about thirteen days.”

Ebbs argued that he had done all that he could to get to work, he told the count:

“he left his home two hours before dawn for the purpose of going to work and that all he remembered was seeing a funeral, when he lost his senses and was carried away by the fairies.”

 A witness was called to support his story, the witness under oath told the court “that he discovered the plaintiff, (Ebbs) three days afterwards, lying speechless on the ground.

 Hickey was not amused, the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram reported:

 The defendant (Hickey) did not deny the allegation concerning the interference of the fairies, but submitted that the lost time should be made up.

Judge Conroy found the story of Mr. Ebbs “losing his senses and being carried away by the fairies” as being convincing and in his judgment ordered that the amount that Mr. Ebbs was suing for  “with the exception of some cash”   be paid by  Mr. Hickey.

The Irish born Judge Conroy did not challenge the veracity of the story about being carried away by the fairies, the defendant Mr. Hickey did not deny the allegation concerning the interference of the fairies, Mr. Parsons the lawyer for the plaintiff and the lawyer for the defendant Mr. Greene all remained silent.

It would appear that the courts in St. John’s did believe in fairies.

If you should have an encounter with fairies traditional precautions should be taken, bread carried in the pocket is always a good idea when venturing out into the woods. It might be used as an offering, to allow the human to escape. The other sure way to escape the fairies is to turn an article of clothing inside out.

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the Archives: https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections Type:  Central District Court or GN 170.

Recommended Reading: Rieti, Barbara.  Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland. St. John’s, ISER Books, 1991.   “The fairies” of Newfoundland oral tradition are variously envisioned, encountered and interpreted, and this study presents some of these concepts and experiences.