“Making raids on the shebeens”


January, 1888

19th-century-liquor-bottles-levin-rodriguezTraveling about Newfoundland in the 1800’s would likely have been more of an adventure then it is nowadays, you would (if you were a drinker) have an occasion to visit a SHEBEEN operated by some very colorful characters.

A “shebeen” is an unlicensed place where illicit liquor is sold; in St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland, the term used was “sheveen.”

In the 1880’s you would have been welcomed to Twenty Mile Pond (now Windsor Lake, St. John’s) by the astute Peggy Rose the proprietor of a “snug shebeen.”  Peggy was not known for giving credit, your attention would be brought to the existence of her premises with a sign that declared “I’ve trusted many to my sorrow. / Pay to-day and trust tomorrow.’

Shebeens in the 1880’s had become so numerous on the Island that the government authorities of the day decided that they had be eradicated.  In Harbour Grace and Carbonear a special effort was being made. The local newspapers of the day reported:

“The guardians of the public peace here have been busily employed lately in making raids on the shebeens.”

In just one week in January 1888 at Harbour Grace, the newspaper correspondent wrote:

I was informed that last week, £70 was collected in fines. (In today’s dollars that would be about $8400.00)   So strictly is the law carried out that persons entering any of the suspected shops are arrested and put on oath as to the purpose for which said shops were visited.”

There was also a brisk trade in illicit alcohol in Carbonear.  The newspaper correspondent reported.

“At Carbonear also, energetic measures are being taken to stamp out the evil. One woman, who refuses to pay the fine very properly imposed, has had a barrel of sugar and chest of tea seized, which might be sold by auction.”

The courts in the process of trying to prosecute the public who frequented these illicit parlors and their proprietors had to listen to listen to a number of amusing stories.

The correspondent for the Twillingate Sun reported on January 5, 1888:

“A policeman entered a shebeen and found a number of persons drinking. A panic ensued, and there was a general stampede.   The transgressor of the law, on being brought before the magistrate, pleaded that he was merely entertaining a few friends. The Judge duly remarked he thought it a strange way to entertain friends, when the said friends tried to hide themselves and their drinking utensils away, on the approach of a constable.”

It is needless to say such a flimsy excuse was proved inadmissible.

Newfoundland Term: shebeen n also sheebeen, sheveen: Unlicensed place where illicit liquor is sold. [Dictionary of Newfoundland English]

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Rooms Provincial Archives explore the extensive newspaper collection. Read the “Letters to the Editor” to see what were the issues of the day.