Author Archives: Larry Dohey

“Christmas cake lottery season”

Archival Moment

December 17, 1884

Cake LotteryThere was a time in St. John’s when most people preferred to take home their ‘Christmas Cake’ after rolling the dice?

A Christmas experience that was quite popular in St. John’s, Newfoundland from the 1860 – 1890’s was the annual Christmas Cake Lottery. The practice was in fact so popular that many in people referred to the Christmas season as the “cake lottery season”.

On December 20, 1884, the St. John’s newspaper The Evening Telegram reported:

“The ‘cake lottery season’ has now attained its height, and the confectionary business is fairly blooming.”

The competition between the ‘cake bakers’ for the attention of the public was huge with bakers in St. John’s vying for the attention of the Christmas shoppers to purchase their “large and elegantly decorated stocks of delicious cakes.”

A St. John’s business directory in 1884 reported that that there was approximately 90 bakers registered in St. John’s. Almost every street in the town had a registered baker. In addition to the independent neighborhood bakers most Confectionary Stores had on staff at least one baker and many with more to meet the baking demands of their customers.

The notion of the cake lottery was so ingrained that an exception was made in the governments law “The Act of Suppressing Lotteries, 1864”; that allowed the ‘cake lottery’ “lawful during seasonal general festivity to hold Cake, Bazaars and other lotteries.”

There were those that were suspect of how the lotteries operated. On December 17, 1885, edition of the St. John’s Evening Telegram cautioned:

“Now that the customary Christmas Cake Lotteries have again come around, and the luck ‘turn to die’ enables many a one to win a frosted cake, who would otherwise be without one, I hope that the proprietors of these enterprises will see to it that honest persons only, and competent to reckon, will be given charge of the tables.”

It appears that in previous years that the newspaper reporter had observed that there was some skullduggery. In fact he had observed:

“ an instance, last year, of collusion between a party in charge of cakes and a confederate, by which the winner was cheated out of his right. It was done by snatching up the dice quickly after the last throw, before those interested could see the number of dots, and the dealer declaring his friend to have thrown the highest number and giving him the prize.”

The popularity of the tradition of holding the cake lotteries remained very prevalent until 1892. In the Great Fire of 1892 many of the bakeries that had normally participated had been destroyed by the conflagration.

It was in 1895 that the cake lottery was gradually replaced by the notion of a cake raffle.   The move saw patrons on designated nights buying raffle tickets rather than throwing the dice to win the Christmas cake.


Lived for his work after death of wife and child


December 16, 1852 

Photo Credit: Front facade, O’Dwyer Block, Water Street, St. John’s.

On December 16, 1852 the prominent Waterford, Ireland born merchant Richard O’Dwyer who had established himself as one of the more wealthy businessmen in St. John’s was in mourning over the loss of his infant daughter Mary Wilhelmina. The infant child was baptized immediately after birth with Reverend Kyran Walsh serving as both godfather and priest at the baptism.

The loss of his daughter was compounded five days later on December 21 by the death of his young wife Mary Frances McKenna O’Dwyer.

It is believed that the young mother (Mary Frances, age 26) and infant child (Mary Wilhelmina) are both buried in the Roman Catholic Cathedral (now Basilica) that was still under construction at the time of their deaths.

There were in the 1850’s few public memorials in St. John’s but being a wealthy citizen of the town Richard O’Dwyer had the financial resources  to commission a memorial to celebrate the life of his wife and child. On the west wall in the Basilica Cathedral is a memorial that O’Dwyer commissioned that depicts an angel carrying a young mother and child to heaven.

O’Dwyer Legacy

With the death of his wife and child all of Richard O’Dwyer’s energy was directed to his business interests.  He is also responsible for at least three significant architectural contributions to the town (now city) of St. John’s.

He was responsible for the construction of the  O’Dwyer Block of Buildings at (295-301 Water Street, St. John’s. Built in the mid-nineteenth century, the stone and mortar O’Dwyer Block was one of St. John’s earliest major merchant buildings, not made of wood. The structure is a classical commercial block constructed after the St. John’s fire of 1846.  Richard O’Dwyer built the block of buildings for his offices and retail stores with sufficient space to accommodate other merchants.

O’Dwyer also built the nearby Murray Premises as a warehouse storage area.

He is also credited for building The Thompson Building  at (303-305 Water Street) For decades, the Thompson family owned the building and ran their family jewellery store business there until it closed in the mid-1990s. A store specializing in Newfoundland merchandise and the offices of the popular Newfoundland magazine The Downhomer, now operates in the building.

Recommended Reading:  Robert Mellin: A City of Towns: Alternatives for the Planning and Design of Housing in St. John’s, Newfoundland (CMHC Canadian Housing Information Centre, 1995: Ca1 MH 95C37), Residential Heritage Conservation in St. John’s (Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2005.

The first Christmas cards arrive in Newfoundland


The local St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram in an article on December 25, 1883 suggests that the first Christmas card was not introduced into Newfoundland until after 1868.  The newspaper reported:

“Even in the celebration of Christmas, what vast changes and improvements has Terra Nova seen within these fifteen years!  A  ‘Christmas Card’  was then (1868) utterly unknown, now what millions of them pass from ‘hand to hand’, wafting with pretty colors and gracious sentiments, the very spirit of the grand old season.”

The tradition of sending commercial Christmas cards can be traced to 1843. A gentleman by the name of Sir Henry Cole (in the press of the day he was referred to as Old King Cole) had several problems that he was trying to resolve.

In the 1840’s Christmas cards were very expensive; they were individually painted and delivered by hand. Henry did not want to have to contend with the expense and he especially disliked the idea of writing a personal greeting to each person. He also wanted the message on his Christmas cards to bring attention to the importance of supporting the destitute during the Christmas season

Then the answer came. It was a marriage of art and technology.

Sir Henry commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to paint a card showing the feeding and clothing of the poor. It was a triptych with scenes on each of the side panels depicting the charitable essence of Christmas; feeding the poor and clothing the homeless. In the center was the message “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year To You” under a colorful drawing of a family celebrating, their wine glasses raised in a toast.

“King Cole” had good intentions, but his Christmas card design, showing a child enjoying a sip of wine, was described as “fostering the moral corruption of children.”

Originally the custom  was not to post the Christmas Card but rather cards were passed from “hand to hand.”

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives Division take some time to look at MG 63.356 – MG 63- 358 these files consist 125 Christmas cards produced by the International Grenfell Association.

Recommended Web Site:
The selected Christmas cards in this exhibit depict the diverse landscapes, communities and peoples of northern Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The Unfortunate Turkey”

Archival Moment

December 23, 1879

santa-turkey1In Newfoundland, the ‘turkey’ has long been associated with the Christmas season. One of the earliest references to the bird was made by Lewis Amadeus Anspach in his history “A History of the Island of Newfoundland”  published in 1819.  Anspach wrote:

“Men and women exchange clothes with each other, and go from house to house singing and dancing, on which occasion Christmas-boxes are expected, and generally granted previous to the performance. [The Christmas boxes are] presents, not in coin. . . but in eatables, from a turkey or a quarter of veal or mutton, or a piece of beef just killed for the occasion, down to a nicely smoked salmon.”

Anspach was referring to the Christmas tradition of ‘mummering’; as part of the tradition food was given to the mummers for their performance.

A document written in 1584 lists supplies to be furnished to future colonies in the New World; “turkies, male and female” were included on the supply list. It is possible then that turkeys may have been part of the supplies furnished to the early settlers in Newfoundland at Cupids (1610) and in Ferryland (1621).

For some, they were determined to have the turkey on their Christmas table, by any means! The local St. John’s newspaper The Evening Telegram reported under the headline “The Unfortunate Turkey” on December 23, 1879:

“Martin Phelan, Seaman, 37 Boggans’ Lane (St. John’s)  got into trouble yesterday and it was all about a turkey. Martin, being something of an epicure, felt an irresistible desire to adore his table on Christmas Day with a fat turkey belonging of Captain McIssac and he so far succeeded into getting the biped into his procession, but Martin committed a larceny, the result of which was that he had to appear before his worship (Judge Prowse) who remanded him for a week. It is now more than probably that he will have to take Christmas Dinner in the Penitentiary.”

Donate a turkey: Every year, your local CBC collects frozen turkeys (and vegetarian alternatives) so every family in Newfoundland & Labrador can enjoy a delicious turkey dinner for the holidays. The CBC Turkeys for Christmas Drive runs throughout the province from December 2 – 23rd. If you’re in St. John’s, you can make your donation to CBC at 95 University Avenue on Monday to Friday, from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. For more information:

Recommended Song: The Man That Slits The Turkey’s Throat At Christmas by Robin Laing

Old Word: “biped” an animal that uses two legs for walking.

Knights of Columbus Fire – 99 Dead


December 12, 1942 

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: VA 141-3; Identifying victims of the Knights of Columbus] fire a the temporary morgue , St. John’s.

On Saturday, December 12, 1942, many people in St. John’s were sitting at home behind their blackout curtains, listening to “Uncle Tim’s Barn Dance” on the radio station VOCM. This weekly program was broadcast live from the Knights of Columbus Leave Centre (Hostel) on Harvey Road in St. John’s.

Just after 11:00 pm, people listening to the broadcast heard the singer on stage break off in the middle of a song, and then someone shouted “Fire, Fire.”  Sounds of people panicking could be heard, then smashing glass, then the broadcast went silent.

About 500 people were in the building when it caught fire. Most were listening to the radio broadcast, but some were sleeping in the servicemen’s hostel.  The windows in the hall of the newly-built K of C Leave Centre had been boarded over to meet blackout regulations. Doors were either locked, or barred from the outside. The wooden building burned very quickly. Paper streamers that had decorated the ceiling of the hall ignited and fell onto the people below. A few windows and doors were smashed open, but many people could not escape.

As the building rapidly burned to the ground, 99 people died, and another 107 were hurt.

St. John’s had seen many serious fires over the years, but never one with such loss of life.

At the time, there were rumours of sabotage by a German agent, but the cause of the fire was never determined.

Residents had reason for concern.  Bell Island (just 20 minutes from St. John’s) is one of the few locations in North America that German forces directly attacked during the Second World War. U-boats raided the island twice in 1942, sinking four ore carriers and killing more than 60 men. On September 5, 1942 the  Germans sunk the  Strathcona and Saganaga. Twenty nine men were killed in the attack. The next attack at Bell Island occurred almost exactly two months later, on November 2, 1942.

If you walk along Harvey Road today, (not far from the Tim Horton’s) you will see a set of cement steps that seem to lead no where, this was the site of the Knights of Columbus Leave Centre. At the top of the steps is a granite memorial commemorating those who died in the fire.

Recommended Archival Collection:  GN 128 Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Destruction by Fire of the Knights of Columbus Hostel, December 12, 1942In this collection researchers will find  typed transcripts, questionnaires completed by military personnel, commissioner’s notes, statements by civilian witnesses, lists of civilian witnesses, and eight blueprints of the Knights of Columbus Hostel.

Recommended Book: The Last Dance by Darrin McGrath: Flanker Press, St. John’s, 2002.

Terms of union with Canada signed


11 December 1948

On December 11, 1948, following two months of discussions the Newfoundland and Canadian negotiating teams signed the terms of union that would eventually see the country of Newfoundland become a province of Canada.

The Newfoundland negotiating team that went to Ottawa to discuss the terms of union was composed of National Convention members Gordon Bradley, J.R. Smallwood, Albert Walsh, Chesley Crosbie, Gordon Winter, John McEvoy, and Philip Gruchy. They met with representatives from the Department of External Affairs, including Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson, as well as Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

The teams worked for a period of approximately two months in 1948, using the draft terms from 1947 as a starting point. Although for the most part the process went smoothly, there were a few stumbling blocks, such as the provision of transitional payments to offset Newfoundland’s deficit. The Canadian government was also reluctant to make firm commitments without a legislature present in Newfoundland. Eventually a mutually satisfactory agreement was completed and on December 11, 1948 the terms of union were signed by all except Chesley Crosbie.

Crosbie had been the leader of the Economic Union Party, a party that proposed a free trade agreement with the United States  as an alternative to Confederation. He believed that if Newfoundland could export its resources to the United States the economy would be strong enough for responsible government to succeed. He did not sign these terms because he felt that the financial clauses would not allow Newfoundland’s provincial government to balance its books.

The irony is considerable, his son John Crosbie, the former Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, became a prominent politician, serving as a cabinet minister  in the government of Brian Mulroney.  As the Newfoundland representative in the  Canadian federal cabinet he fulfilled his father’s dream and became the architect of the Canada – U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Recommended Archival Collection: In appending their names to the Terms of Union each of the signatories were given a copy.  Did you know that the original provincial  copy of the Terms of Union with Canada is held at the Rooms Provincial Archives.

Recommended Exhibit:  Here, We Made a Home in  The Elinor Gill Ratcliffe Gallery - Level 4.  has a copy of the Terms of Union on exhibit.

Recommended Reading: Confederation: Deciding Newfoundland’s Future, 1934 to 1949 by James K. Hiller, St. John’s, Nfld: Newfoundland Historical Society, reprinted with minor corrections 1999.

Recommended Reading: Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders: The Story Of Newfoundland’s Confederation With Canada by Greg Malone. Knopf Canada (2012).


“Symbolic but important recognition of Labrador”


December 6, 2001

Labrador on the map.

On December 6, 2001, an amendment to the Canadian Constitution officially approved a name change from the province of Newfoundland to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.   The process of the name change began in 1964 with the passage of the Labrador Act an act that permitted the province’s government to refer to itself as the Government of Newfoundland andLabrador.

In April 1999, the Newfoundland House of Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution authorizing the Governor General of Canada to issue a proclamation amending the Constitution of Canada to change the name of the province to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Then, a year and a half later (October 2001), the Government of Canada introduced a resolution in the House of Commons to change the province’s official name. At the time,  the then Premier Roger Grimes stated,

“Labrador is an important and vital part of this province. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is firmly committed to ensuring official recognition of Labrador as an equal partner in this province, and a constitutional name change of our province will reiterate that commitment.”

Subsequently the province’s postal designator was changed from NF to NL.

John Cabot first used the term “new found isle” in 1497. The name Labrador is generally understood to have originated from the Portuguese word “lavrador” or  “small landholder”, and is probably attributable to João Fernades, a Portuguese explorer.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At The Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to read  MG 8.  The collection consists of textual and cartographic records compiled by P.T. McGrath in preparing the Newfoundland Government’s arguments in the Labrador Boundary Dispute (1906-1926). Some of the maps of the province of Quebec continue include Labrador.

Recommended Museum Visit:  At the Rooms Provincial Museum take some time to enjoy the exhibit: From this Place: Our Lives on Land and Sea: The Husky Energy Gallery – Level 4:  A rich tapestry of cultures exists in Newfoundland and Labrador: Strong ties to the land and the sea are the threads running throughout. Four Aboriginal Peoples – Innu, Inuit, Southern Inuit and Mi’kmaq – have lived in Labrador or on the island of Newfoundland for centuries. Europeans (livyers) – settled both places beginning in the early 1600s. The stories presented in this gallery highlight how the province’s peoples connected, and are connected. It is a story of how this place shaped its peoples and how different cultures have shaped and continue to shape this place.

Recommended Book:  A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Edited by Newfoundland Historical Society, Boulder Publications, 2008