March 9, 1914
The St. John’s daily newspaper the Evening Telegram in March month ran a column during the sealing season under the banner “Sealing Notes.” The column was eagerly read by the hundreds of men who were arriving in St. John’s looking for berths on the sealing vessels that were tied up in St. John’s harbour. These men were reading the newspaper column looking to see when and where they had to go to get their ‘ticket’ or ‘sign the articles’ to go to the ice.
On March 9, 1914, the Evening Telegram reported:
“The S.S. Newfoundland sailed last midnight (March 8) for Wesleyville. Captain Wes Kean went in charge, though it was expected he would have to take command of the Bellaventure owing to the illness of Captain Robert Randell, but the latter is now sufficiently recovered to go to the icefields.”
The next day the S.S. Newfoundland pushed through the loose ice towards Wesleyville where the young Captain picked up the remainder of his crew. On March 12th, the S.S. Newfoundland left for the ice-field.
Wes Kean was headed to the ice fields where he was keeping a look out for the S.S. Stephano under his father, Captain Abram Kean, a veteran sealer. Although the two ships worked for competing firms, the father and son had agreed to alert the other of any seals they spotted by a prearranged signal.
On March 30 the S.S. Newfoundland found that it was jammed in the ice and could not proceed. Wes Kean ordered his men off the ship the following morning (March 31) He instructed them to walk to the Stephano, believing the sealers would spend the night onboard his father’s steamer after a day of hunting.
The men did not stay on the Stephano, they were ordered to get back on the ice to start scullin. What resulted was that for two days, 132 sealers were stranded on the ice in blizzard conditions and without adequate shelter. 77 men died on the ice, rescuers found only 69 bodies; the remaining eight had fallen into the water. Most of the survivors lost one or more limbs to frostbite.
Wes Kean went to his bunk thinking that his men were on the Stephano, his father made the assumption that the men had returned to the S.S. Newfoundland. The two men could not communicate with each other the owner of the S.S. Newfoundland, A.J. Harvey and Company, had removed the ship’s wireless, the firm was interested in the radio only as a means of improving the hunt’s profitability and did not view it as a safety device.
If Captain Robert Randell had remained ill, Wes Kean would not have been on the S.S. Newfoundland, he would have been on the sealing vessel the Bellaventure that was equipped with a Marconi wireless operated by George Serrick of Bay Roberts.
On April 4, hundreds of anxious spectators lined the St. John’s waterfront as the Bellaventure steamed through the Narrows carrying the 69 corpses stacked on its deck. The Evening Telegram reported:
“The vision sent a shudder through the crowd, the bodies had been laid there just as they were brought in from the ice, many of them with limbs contracted and drawn up in postures which the cold had brought about.”
New Exhibit: The Rooms Provincial Museum presents: Death on the Front: The Sealing Disaster of 1914: (March 26 – November 16) in the Level 3 Museum Alcove. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the two terrible calamities in the history of the sealing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. One tremendous spring blizzard off the island claimed 251 lives between the sinking of the Southern Cross and the harrowing ordeal faced by sealers of the Newfoundland left stranded on the sea ice for two days. The exhibition features artifacts and imagery connected to these tragedies.
Panel Discussion: The Rooms Provincial Archives on March 26 @ 7:00 p.m. presents ” In the spirit of the front”: A Panel Discussion with Jenny Higgins, Larry Dohey and Morgan MacDonald The seal hunt is a story of superlatives. It’s about men who pushed themselves to the limits of human strength and endurance in one of the most unforgiving places on the planet– the North Atlantic ice fields. Join our panelists for a look back into the working life of a sealer in the early 1900s; hear stories of bravery and resilience and of The Newfoundland Sealing Disaster that continues to resonate with us a century later. TICKETS REQUIRED. Tickets are $5 and free for Rooms Members.
Book Launch: The official launch of The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt edited by Shannon Ryan on Thursday, March 13, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm at the Elks Lodge (Carpasian Road, St. John’s, NL). The book will be available for purchase. The editor will speak at the beginning of the event and then sign copies. There will be light refreshments and a cash bar. For more information, please contact Flanker Press at 709-739-4477 ext. 24 (toll-free at 1-866-739-4420 ext. 24).
Book Launch: Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster by Jenny Higgins. In March 1914, 132 men from the SS Newfoundland scrambled onto the treacherous North Atlantic ice floes to hunt seals. Lost in a sudden blizzard, the sealers wandered for two days and nights before rescue. Only 55 made it back alive. This disaster had a deep and lasting effect; one hundred years later, the story still resonates. 72 pages + pull-out maps and documents. (The official launch will be in mid – March by Boulder Publications, 198 Neary’s Pond Rd, Portugal Cove Conception Bay, NL (709) 895-6483).
Commemorative Service: The Home from The Sea Campaign is holding a commemorative service on the 100th Anniversary of this disaster and invite you to stand shoulder to shoulder their efforts to recognize those sons and fathers who perished.
Date: March 31, 2014
Time: 10:00 AM
Location: George Street United Church
130 George Street West, St John’s
If you are in the area of Elliston on March 31st, a service will be held at the United Church at 7:30 PM. For more information: http://www.homefromthesea.ca/