Category Archives: Archival Moments

“The present generation in Newfoundland . . . leaves a mighty inheritance”


March 29, 1869

The Mullock Episcopal Library (now the Basilica Museum) is home to some of the oldest books in the province.

On this day (29 March 1869) the talk in the town was all about the death of the Catholic Bishop of St. John’s, John Thomas Mullock.
John Thomas Mullock was born in 1807 at Limerick, Ireland.  In July, 1850, he became the Catholic Bishop of Newfoundland.

He is celebrated for much that he did for the local church, he completed the splendid Cathedral (now Basilica) of St. John’s, built the Episcopal Library now the home for the Basilica Museum, founded St. Michael’s Orphanage, and established St. Bonaventure’s College.  All buildings designated in 2010 as part of the Ecclesiastical District of St. John’s by Parks Canada.

He would have likely celebrated the building of The Rooms in the neighborhood of his Basilica Cathedral.  He had hoped that the neighborhood around the Basilica would become the academic and cultural centre of the town.

He was also keen to make Newfoundland a hub of activity in the emerging communications industry.  Long before the first attempts to lay a submarine cable across the Atlantic he was (1857), the first to publicly propose the feasibility of connecting Europe with America by means of submarine telegraph.

In a series of two lectures on Newfoundland given in St John’s in 1860 he revealed his hope in his adopted land:

“The present generation in Newfoundland . . . leaves a mighty inheritance to their children, and we are forming the character of a future nation.”


Recommended Reading: Ecclesiastical History of Newfoundland, volume II / by Archbishop Michael F. Howley, edited by Brother Joseph B. Darcy, associate editor, John F. O’Mara.

Will the new craze of “Velocipede Riding” come to Newfoundland?

March 20, 1869

Try this on the hills in St. John's, NL

Try this on the hills in St. John’s, NL

There was much excitement in St. John’s during this week in 1869. The people of the town were anxious to see the “newly imported velocipedes”   that were available for viewing at the Fishermen’s Society Hall on Queen’s Road.

Edward Morris, General Manager of the Newfoundland Saving’s Bank was so fascinated by the phenomena that he recorded in his diary (March 20, 1869) that even the ailing Roman Catholic Bishop (John Thomas Mullock) was determined to leave his sick bed to see the “newly imported velocipedes.”

The velocipede was invented in France in 1865, upgrading previous bicycles with the addition of pedals to the front wheel. In 1868 E. B. Turner, an agent for Coventry Sewing Machine Makers, England,  was on holiday in Paris where he witnessed the new craze of velocipede riding. Having tried the machines himself he returned to Coventry, England with a new velocipede and persuaded the machine manufacturers to revive their flagging fortunes by manufacturing the bikes themselves.

These bicycles became known as `Boneshakers` due to the severity of the ride afforded by their solid wooden or metal wheels.

In 1869 the Franco-Prussian War broke out and all metal production in France went to the War effort, therefore the French bicycle industry ceased temporarily and English production took over.

In 1871 the penny farthing was invented and took over from the Velocipede, so ending its production.

Recommended Archival Collection: Diary of Edward Morris, Archives of the R.C. Archdiocese, St. John’s.

New Word: velocipede: French vélocipède, from Latin veloc-, velox + ped-, pes foot — fast foot.

What happened to Sheelagh’s Day?


March 18

What ever happened to Sheelagh’s Day? Time to bring that tradition back.

In Newfoundland and Labrador there has been a long established tradition to refer to the day following St. Patrick’s Day  as Sheelagh’s   Day.

As early as 1819, the Anglican Missionary and historian Lewis Anspach who wrote the first general history of Newfoundland wrote:

“It is hardly in the power of any priest in the world to hinder an Irishman from getting gloriously drunk, if he is so inclined, on the whole of the 17th of March, as well as the next day in honour of Sheelagh….”

The St. John’s newspaper, The Newfoundlander on reporting on the celebrations of the members of Benevolent Irish Society in St. John’s on March 17, 1829 wrote:

The company continued to retire, successively, until six o’clock on Sheelagh’s morning, (March 18) at which hour, we understand, a few of the campaigners might have been seen, as usual, piously and patriotically employed in “drowning the shamrock.”

Other than  Ireland and Newfoundland only Australia is known to have celebrated Sheelagh’s   Day. There is evidence  that it was celebrated in Newfoundland as early as 1819  with reference in Australia first appearing in the 1830s .

As with St Patrick’s Day, Shelah’s Day was associated with celebratory drinking.

 The first mention of Sheelagh’s Day in Australia occurs in a 1832 newspaper report of a woman who was charged with a number of minor offences, and who pleaded in her defence that her behaviour could be blamed on the fact that it was Sheelagh’s Day.  The Sydney Gazette,  on March 24, 1832  reported that Martha Grayburn was brought before the courts and  argued  in her defense  that she was under the influence on ‘ Sheelagh’s Day’ . The newspaper reported:

“Shelah’s Day.—Martha Grayburn, ‘a would if I could, but I can’t’ sort of a lady, was brought up for the commission of divers peccadilloes on the evening of Sunday. Martha pleaded ‘Shelah’s Day’ in extenuation, and was ordered to ‘go and sin no more’.”

As in Newfoundland the clear indication is that Sheelagh’s Day is an occasion for the continuation of the festivities of St Patrick’s Day, no doubt including the consumption of alcohol.

The  Australian newspaper , the Brisbane Telegraph  reported on  March 16, 1876:

” It is in small towns, villages, or hamlets, in the bush, on the outside of civilisation, where drunkenness reigns on St. Patrick’s day, and worse on Shelah’s day.”

 Shelagh (also Shelah, Sheila, Sheilah, Sheelah) in Irish folk legend is somewhat of a mystery she is variously described as the wife, sister, housekeeper or acquaintance of St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

Sheelagh  Lives on in Newfoundland Folklore


The final brush of snow is on the way

In Newfoundland few refer to March 18 by her name day; nowadays her name is only invoked with reference to any storm that takes place on or shortly after March 18 – the storm being referred to as Sheelagh’s Brush.

So ingrained in the Newfoundland psyche is the association of with Sheelagh and the last storm of the winter season is  that the fishing fleets were reluctant to put out their gear and the sealing fleets were reluctant to take to the ice preferring to wait until after Sheelah’s Brush had passed.

Sheila’s Brush typically brings a heavy snowfall. The snow is attributed to Sheila’s sweeping away of the last of winter. But, once the brush blows through  – it signals that Spring is just around the corner.

Pity her name is not invoked as it was in our past. It is time to reclaim March 18 to give this day, the traditional name, Sheelagh’s Day.


Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives  take some time to look at MG 612  the BIS  collection  it consists of minutes of  the BIS (1822-1933, 1938-1970, 1973-1979); agendas (1964-1970); Centenary Volume (1806-1906); loan receipts (1905-1906); journal (1910-1920); cash book (1920-1931); ledger (1939-1944).

Museum Exhibit:  take some time to see: Talamh an Éisc – The Fishing Ground , an exhibition  at The Rooms, that introduces the Irish peoples who have been in Newfoundland and Labrador since the late 1600s, the exhibit explores the communities they built and celebrates the contributions they made to life here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Recommended Reading:  Freitag, Barbara. 2004. Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma. London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 62-67.



“Drowning the shamrock”


March 17

Photo Credit: “Drowning the Shamrock” Illustrated London News, March 19, 1853

Photo Credit: “Drowning the Shamrock” Illustrated London News, March 19, 1853

The St. John’s newspaper, The Newfoundlander reporting on the celebrations of the members of Benevolent Irish Society (BIS) in St. John’s on March 17, 1829  wrote:

The company continued to retire, successively, until six o’clock on Sheelagh’s morning, (March 18) at which hour, we understand, a few of the campaigners might have been seen, as usual, piously and patriotically employed in “drowning the shamrock.”

The  Newfoundland tradition called “drowning the shamrock” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day, when the shamrock that has been worn in the hat or lapel is removed and put into the last drink of the evening.

A toast is proposed and then, when the toast has been honored, the shamrock is taken from the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder.

Time to bring back the tradition of ‘drowning the shamrock.’


Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives  take some time to look at MG 612  the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS) collection. This collection consists of  the minute books  of  the BIS (1822-1933, 1938-1970, 1973-1979); agendas (1964-1970); Centenary Volume (1806-1906); loan receipts (1905-1906); journal (1910-1920); cash book (1920-1931); ledger (1939-1944).

Museum Exhibit:  take some time to see: Talamh an Éisc – The Fishing Ground , an exhibition  at The Rooms, that introduces the Irish peoples who have been in Newfoundland and Labrador since the late 1600s, the exhibit explores the communities they built and celebrates the contributions they made to life here in Newfoundland and Labrador.





Do you know about Patrick’s Pot?

imagesCAF5JTEEArchival Moment

March 17 (Tradition)
One of the earliest and best accounts of daily life at the Labrador fishery can be found in Nicholas Smith’s book ‘Fifty-two Years at the Labrador Fishery’. In his book he makes reference to a  Newfoundland, St. Patrick’s Day tradition,  that is no more.

Smith writes:

“The ice was very heavy and in large sheets; consequently slow progress was made for the first few days, but on March 17th, St Patrick’s Day, Captain William  …  called everybody at daylight to get out to their ‘Patrick’s Pot’ as we were among the seals, and plenty of them.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador a ‘Patrick’s Pot’  suggests a ‘windfall’ in terms of sealing jargon it referred to a seal herd spotted on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17). When spotted especially on St. Patrick’s Day there would be much excitement.

St. Patrick’s Day would have been early in the  ‘sealing season’ and a good omen. The herd would represent a portion of the sealers salary for the year.

Patrick’s Pot or Paddy’s Pot had another meaning for children, when visiting relatives on St. Patrick’s Day silver coins were traditionally given to children, the coins given were referred to as Paddy’s Pot. In the Folk and Language Archive at Memorial University is found reference to this tradition in interviews that were conducted with informants.   One gentleman reported when giving a coin to a child the person typically said:  “and here’s a Paddy’s Pot for ye, me little colleens.’

Wishing you the very best on St. Patrick’s Day. May you find your pot?

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives read the journal of Dr. William Waddell (MG 1006.1). The journal documents a typical sealing voyage including a description of the vessel and role of the crew.

Recommended Reading: Fifty-two Years at the Labrador Fishery (London: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1936.

“Journalists and their discreditable doings”

Archival Moment

March 14, 1881

The political reporters that now cover the news at the Confederation Building do so only after considerable thought and reflection on the discussions that they hear in the legislature. It was not always so!!

In March 9,  1881, John Rorke  Sr., a member of the Executive Council (Cabinet) in in the William Whiteway Government lashed out at reporters for the:

disagreeable manner in which the Reporters furnish (report on) the debates of the Assembly, causing much complaint and dissatisfaction, even to both sides of the House.”

Rorke and other members of the House of the Assembly, located in the Colonial Building on Military Road, St. John’s were suggesting that the bias of the reporters and their newspaper editors was the news.

At the time St. John’s boasted a number of daily newspapers including, Newfoundland’s first newspaper The Royal Gazette, (1807 – 18??), the Morning Chronicle, (1862-1881), The Newfoundlander (1827 -1884), The Ledger (1875 -1882) and The Evening Telegram (1879 – present).  Each was trying to carve out their own readership and in the 1880’s they took some very definite Editorial positions.

In the 1880’s the two big “editorial” discussions in Newfoundland were about Confederation with Canada and support for a railway.

The Morning Chronicle was the principal anti-Confederate newspaper; The Newfoundlander was the principal Confederate newspaper and enthusiastically supported the railway.

The Editors did not mince words, one Canadian Editor wrote about the Editor of the Evening Telegram in a most unflattering manner. He wrote:

“Canada has one determined enemy. He lives down at Newfoundland in the City of St. John’s. He is the editor of the Telegram, that humorously ill-natured sheet, which, as we once before pointed out, has abused everything in Newfoundland that was good for the Island.”

The editor of the  Evening Telegram  referred to another Editor as  “as a vile ingrate and unworthy of the countenance of any political party”

Journalists drinking and playing cards in the " Reporters Room" in the Colonial Building.

Journalists drinking and playing cards in the ” Reporters Room” in the Colonial Building.

As the Editors sniped at each other the reporters in The Reporter’s Room, located in the basement of the Colonial Building were often distracted from their journalistic calling.  In a letter to the St. John’s paper the Evening Telegram, on March 14  one  ‘Eye Witness‘ to the shenanigans of the Reporters  wrote:

“Now, Mr. Editor can this be wondered at when it is well known that the Reporters Room has been used, not so much for quietness, in getting up their reports, as for smoking, drinking and card playing, “draw poker” in particular, some members of the Assembly and even outsiders, entering into the spirit of such doings”

Imagine the shock to the public to discover that the Reporters Room in the basement of the House of Assembly in the Colonial Building was being used for “smoking, drinking and card playing…”

What were these journalistic thinking?

Why is there no ‘Reporters Room’ in the Confederation Building ?

Recommended Archival Collection: The Rooms Provincial Archives Division holds microfilm copies of over 30 Newfoundland and Labrador newspapers dating from 1810 – 1982.  See also  The Historical Directory of Newfoundland and Labrador Newspapers 1807 – 1996.

Recommended Website

Recommended Museum Visit:  At The Rooms Provincial Museum visit the exhibit ‘Here, We Made a Home’ in The Elinor Gill Ratcliffe Gallery – Level 4. This exhibit highlights some of the events associated with the political history of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The harbour is quiet, no slides for the children.

Archival Moment

March 6, 1907

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives. B 4 - 148. James Vey Collection

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives. B 4 – 148. James Vey Collection

The first week in March month in St. John’s traditionally saw the population grow by the hundreds as the “men from the bay” began to arrive in the city hoping for a berth on the sealing vessels going out to prosecute fishery.

The city, especially the waterfront, would be busy with activity. Many of the men would be looking for lodgings as they awaited news of a berth on one of the vessels, some consumed a little too much and  there were the inevitable rows between the ‘bay men’ and ‘the townies’ looking for the same work.

The Gambo Slide

It was not only St. John’s that was a hub of activity the other hub was the town a Gambo. In the first week of March, 1907 the St. John’s newspaper, The Daily News reported:

“Last night there were 100 men at Gambo, who had walked from Wesleyville and vicinity, to take the train. About 200 more are expected there, this morning, which will be the last coming from that section.”

The Gambo train station was the terminus for just about all of the sealers who would walk the trek from Wesleyville to the train station in Gambo, “an unpleasant tramp” that took from 24 – 32 hours.

However, there would be much excitement in Gambo, especially among the children. The children would be waiting for the Gambo slide.

The Gambo slide was a small lightweight sled that was constructed by the men of Wesleyville and area, that they used to pull their sealing gear and clothes.  As the men of Wesleyville, now exhausted from walking, approached Gambo, the children of the town would be on the outskirts to help them pull their slide for the last few miles.

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives. Start of the Slide Race. A11-19. Elsie Holloway Studio, St. John’s.

The children knew once they pulled the “Gambo slide” to the train station, the sealers would board the train for St. John’s and the slides would be theirs!

It was not only the men from Wesleyville that were walking into Gambo to catch the train, the Daily News reported on March 6, 1907:



“Eight hundred men will leave Greenspond, Newtown, Pools Island and neighboring places, this morning and will walk over the ice to Gambo, and come into St. John’s by train.”

Walking in the unpredictable weather especially in March month,  the slides not only served to lighten the loads of what the fishermen had to carry, if the weather “turned on them”, they could always burn the slides and use the  wood as a heat source.

One story goes that upon arrival in Gambo  a small group of young men  from Greenspond, Bonavista  Bay had hours to wait for the train.

“So to keep the fire going we broke up our slides which we had used to drag our suitcases or clothes bags on. This kept the fire going for two or three hours … I was some glad when the train finally came, and, I had never been on a train before in my life.”

With the loss of markets for seal products, the hustle and bustle that came with the preparations for outfitting the boats and signing on the crews in St. John’s is no more.

The first week of March on the St. John’s waterfront is now quiet.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives read the journal of Dr. William Waddell (MG 1006.1). The journal documents a typical sealing voyage including a description of the vessel and role of the crew.

Recommended Reading: The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt  edited by Shannon Ryan, Flanker Press,St. John’s, NL.

Recommended Reading: Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster  by Jenny Higgins.  Boulder Publications, Portugal Cove Conception Bay, NL.


Ashes, fasting and movies.


Ash Wednesday (March 6) is the beginning of Lent.

What are these ashes all about?

ash-wednesdayA colleague looked at another colleague and wondered why she had “ashes” on her forehead.  (March 6, 2019 TODAY ) in the tradition of most Christian churches (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and others) it is Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum or day of ashes.

Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent, in the typical Ash Wednesday observance, Christians are invited to the altar to receive the ashes. The Pastor applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each, while speaking the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or the dictum “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19).

For over twelve hundred years on the dies cinerum (day of ashes) faithful followers have approached the altar and received ashes upon their foreheads. These ashes are made from the burnt palm branches that were blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year.

Abstaimning , fasting and generally changing one’s lifestle during Lent was  taken very seriously.  People would often give up there favourite food, would refuse to play cards and or attend dances and other social functions.

Imagine, no movie for 40 days!!

Times have changed!

No movies during Lent

No movies during Lent

During Lent of 1909, Michael Francis Howley, the Catholic Archbishop of Newfoundland was very concerned about a relatively new form of entertainment that had become quite popular. His concern about this “new entertainment” stirred him to release a Pastoral  Letter to be read in all churches. The Pastoral Letter outlined the rules and regulations of Lent for that year.  The letter was very direct and forbade Catholics:

“to attend any worldly amusements; such as balls, dances, even in private houses, parties, theatrical or other entertainments, such as these new forms of moving pictures, or shows of any kind held in Public Halls by whatsoever name they may be called.”

The idea of abstinence and fasting  is not exclusive to the Christian world.

Buddhism, the Buddha Himself encouraged monks and nuns to limit their food intake after the noon meal, and therefore it is common practice among Buddhist monks and nuns to refrain from eating after noon until the next morning on a daily basis.

Jews fast for six days which are spread out at various times in the Jewish calendar year; this means abstinence from food and liquids for both men and women – unless certain exemptions are necessary such as illness or pregnancy. The most important and holiest day of the Jewish year is Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), and on this day Jews will fast and pray for a period of 25 hours.

Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset for 30 days during the month of Ramadan, (which is the month the Prophet Muhammad revealed the Quran), followers are to abstain from food, liquid and smoking. Fasting is considered the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam (These pillars are: i. Creed; ii. Daily prayer; iii. Almsgiving; iv. Fasting; v. Pilgrimage), and it is obligatory for both men and women.


What is in your pancake? Shrove Tuesday


March 5, 2019

Pancake ChefMardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday. The day is also known as Shrove Tuesday (from “to shrive,” or hear confessions) or Pancake Tuesday.

The custom of making pancakes comes from the need to use up fat, eggs and dairy before the fasting and abstinence of Lent begins. This year Ash Wednesday is on March 6.



On Shrove Tuesday,  (March 5) Christians were encouraged to confess their sins so that they were forgiven before the season of Lent began.

The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression short shrift”. To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to his excuses or problems. The longer expression is, “to give him short shrift and a long rope,” which formerly meant to hang a criminal with a minimum of delay.

What is in that pancake

Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren’t allowed in Lent. Pancakes are eaten on this day because they contain fat, butter and eggs which were forbidden during Lent.

Photo Credit: The Rooms; Children at dinner IGA 33.41

Pancakes were a simple way to use these foods, and one that could entertain the family. Objects with symbolic value are cooked in the pancakes, and those who eat them, especially children, take part in discovering what their future will be as part of the meal.




The person who receives each item interprets the gift according to the tradition:

  • a penny—to symbolize poverty
  • a nickel—to symbolize wealth
  • a string—to symbolize a fisherman (if a boy got the string, he would be a fisherman, if a girl did, she would marry one)
  • a holy medal—the house blessed with a priest or a nun.
  • a hair clip—hairdresser or barber
  • a button — to symbolize that you would never marry – a bachelor or an old maid
  • a pencil stub – a career in teaching: imagine a lead pencil in your food!)
  • a thimble—to symbolize that you would be a seamstress (a girl) or a tailor (a boy)
  • a wedding ring—to symbolize that you would marry soon




“The long and hungry month of March”


March 1

Photo Credit: At the Rooms Provincial Archives: VA -15-A -28-10 Twillingate Garden Cellar

In Newfoundland and Labrador the month of March has traditionally been referred to as “the long and hungry month of March.”  The expression finds its origins in our ‘food’ history.

“The long” is taken from the fact that March follows – the shortest month in the year – February.  “The hungry month” can be explained by looking at the availability of food especially root vegetables and how supplies were preserved throughout the winter months.

The preservation of food for our ancestors (before the weekly and for some daily visit to the grocery or convenience store) typically involved freezing, salting or pickling.

With no electricity one of the essential structures to be built on the family property was the “root cellar.”  Root cellars served to keep food supplies from freezing during the winter months and cool during the summer months.

Typically, families would put a variety of root vegetables in the cellar in the fall of the year; the main vegetables being potatoes, turnip, and carrot.  Other food supplies placed in the root cellar over the winter months included beets, preserves, jams, berries, and pickled cabbage.  Fish and wild game also found a place in the cellars including turres, moose, caribou, salt meat, and salt fish.  In addition to what was stored in the cellar  some families had access to  domestic animals such as cows, goats, and sheep.

As the winter wore on the supplies that had been gathered and stored in September and October  – especially the vegetables – would gradually diminish,  by late March, supplies would be very low.

The coming of March  marked a time of optimism and hope.  March was the time for sealing or “swilin’ time.” Seal meat would give some reprieve to `the long and hungry month of March’  by which time the family food store was very low.  At this time of the year, in many parts of the province, sealing provided the only opportunity to obtain fresh meat and the pelts brought long awaited cash.

It would be springtime before the hope of the first new vegetable of the year would show, the spring green, know locally as dandelion leaves, the first vegetable after a long winter.

It is the long and hungry month of March.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms there is a small collection of photographs under the search terms:  agriculture, gardens, crops, and hay.

Did you know that Newfoundland and Labrador imports 90 per cent of its produce?  The Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (RANL) has been representing the interests of the Food Service Industry in our province for close to fifty years. RANL works with various groups and agencies to increase the use of local product to showcase our unique terroir in our restaurants.  Read More:

March is Nutrition Month:

Recommended Web Site: Elliston, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador is the Root Cellar Capital of the World.

Lost Words: “Lazy Beds”:  a type of potato bed – a farming method where the sod was not removed but turned over with the shovel between the beds, thus simultaneously forming the trenches and raising the beds.Newfoundland andLabrador is one of the few places in the world where this type of potato bed can still be found.