Women plea for justice

Archival Moment

August 1891

Harbour Grace Court House

Harbour Grace Court House

We do not often hear the voices of women speak to us from the pages of history especially the wives and sisters of poor fishermen but an incident in Carbonear in 1891 forced some women to take action.

In early June 1891, George Peckam and David Clarke of Victoria Village near Carbonear, Stephen Howell, Mark Dean, James Reid, and John Powell all of Carbonear were convicted “on a charge of disobedience of orders and refusal of duty.”  They were all crew members on the banking Schooner Argonaut.

When these six  men signed up  to prosecute the fishery on the banking Schooner Argonaut it is likely that he would have signed a standard agreement known to many as the ‘Masters and Servants Agreement.’  This agreement covered the contractual obligations of the fishermen and the consequences of disobeying the Captain or deserting the vessel.

These Carbonear fishermen would likely have also been aware of the Statutes of Newfoundland passed in 1888 that detail laws concerning dissertation of a Banking Schooner. The law read:

  “When any person, fishermen, shoreman or shareman, shall fail or refuse to perform such contract or agreement without showing cause therefor, such as unseawothiness of the vessel, insufficiency of food, absence of suitable accommodation, or a medical certificate or some other good excuse, any justice may, upon complaint by some employer or his agent, issue his warrant and cause such person to be apprehended and brought before him. “

Disobeying orders and or refusal of duty automatically meant 30 – 60 days in jail.

The Stipendiary Magistrate in Carbonear, James Hippisley who heard the case  was not sympathetic to the men. He gave the maximum sentence.

The mothers and children of the six men were devastated. These men were the bread winners in their families; if they did not work their families would face starvation.

On June 15, 1891 the five women made an emotional plea in the form of a petition to the Colonial Governor of Newfoundland, Sir John Terence Nicholls O’Brien begging  for some form of relief  and that that their men be released from the prison in Harbour Grace.

In the petition Susannah Peckam explained that her son George Peckham had “six children the eldest is only ten years old.”

Martha (Clarke) Howell the mother of Stephen Howell explained that he had five children, the eldest is seventeen and that her husband is a cripple and unable to work. She was determined to get her son releases. This was the second petition presented on his behalf.

Martha Clarke the sister of David Clarke explained that she is “deprived of the ways and means of assisting an aged father of 76 years according of the duty of a child to a parent.”

Margaret (Butt) Dean the wife of Mark Dean explained that she had no support and that they were responsible for “an aged father (84) and mother (60) and two young children.”

Sophia (Mulley) Reid the mother James Reid explained that she would be “deprived of all help.”

Cecily (Gillespie) Powell pleaded for the release of her son John Powell “who has four in family the oldest 17 and labors under heart disease and very often bad with it and often falls down.”

Cecil Frane, the Secretary for Governor O’Brien, responded to the petition. He wrote:  “the case of the prisoners has already been reported upon,  Magistrate Hippisley and the Governor refused to release Howell who first petitioned and the other cases are exactly similar.”

From June till early August 1891 the six men languished in the Harbour Grace prison.

It would be a difficult fall and winter because they had no income, no share in the summer catch of fish.  Their families faced starvation and destitution.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives see GN 2.22, Box 12, v. 2, no. 27. , p. 104-111 (15 June 1891) Petition requesting  for relief due to losses incurred by imprisonment at Harbour Grace of sons and husbands, crew of banking schooner Argonaut.  Letter to Robert Bond, colonial secretary from Cecil Fane, private secretary, governor, enclosed. p. 104-11

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.