“Desertion” and the quality of the butter


July 11, 1879

885786520When Denis Walsh of Renews signed up  to prosecute the fishery with Messrs. Goodridge and Company of Renews in July 1879 it is likely that he would have signed a standard agreement known to many as the Masters and Servants Agreement.

This agreement that would have stipulated among other things that:

“The said (Messrs. Goodridge and Company) agrees to find and provide for the said (Dennis Walsh of Renews) and supply him during the voyage with provisions in qualities per week that is to say:  2 lb’s Bread ; 1 gallon of molasses; 1 gallon of flour; 5 lb’s of Pork or Beef; 2 oz  of tea and  1 lb of butter… “

Denis Walsh, like many of the fishermen of his day, like many of our ancestors, prosecuted the fishery in a craft with two others. Denis would have remained unknown to history except he liked his butter.  He liked his butter so much that the local St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram described him as “being rather epicurean in his taste”.

It appears that Dennis opened his supply box, looked at the supplies that had been given to him as part of the contract to find ‘rotten butter.”

Denis approached (John) Beavis of Renews who was responsible for the boat and told him he would have got along alright with the supplies that he had been given, only for “the quality of the butter” with which the “bread box” was supplied. With that he told Captain Beavis he was “clearing out till the grievance was removed.”

John Beavis was not amused; on behalf of his employer Allan Goodridge and Company he had Walsh arrested and dragged before Judge Henry Renouf where he was charged with “deserting his Masters Service”. It was not a charge that was taken lightly, under the Masters and Servants Act, fishermen if convicted could spend from 30 – 60 days in jail.

Alan Goodridge & Son was one of the most successful fishing firms in Newfoundland. The firm had branches throughout the colony of Newfoundland including their home port of Renews. The Registry of Newfoundland Vessels reveals that the Goodridge’s were one of the largest vessel owners in that era, registering 197 vessels between 1834 and 1917.

Walsh was ready to defend himself before the good judge  producing a sample of the butter in the court.

The newspaper reporters in the court were sympatric too Walsh, the reporter for The Telegram wrote:

but we didn’t taste it (the butter) didn’t care to, because we might run the risk of being expected to taste the cause of nearly all the trouble …”  

The reporter was suggesting that one of the greatest causes of discontent and increased desertions from the many fishing vessels was the quality of the food.

Judge Renouf upon seeing the quality of the butter also proved to be sympathetic.  Rather than the standard sentence of 30 -60 days in jail  he ordered Dennis Walsh to return to his occupation and further ordered the  supplying merchants, Messrs. Goodridge and Company,  to promise to  provide ‘new butter’ for the crew.

A happy compromise!!

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, holds 70% of the Crew Agreements from 1863-1938, and 80% of the Agreements from 1951-1976. The crew agreements include particulars of each member of the crew, including name (signature), age, place of birth, previous ship, place and date of signing, capacity  and particulars of discharge (end of voyage, desertion, sickness, death, never joined etc). http://www.mun.ca/mha/

Recommended Reading:  Bannister, Jerry: The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Recommended Reading:  The Newfoundland Bank Fishery: Government Policies and the Struggle to Improve Bank Fishing Crews’ Working, Health and Safety Conditions. Fred Winsor, B.A., M.A.  Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1996.