Category Archives: Archival Moments

Body dropped on the doorstep of the magistrate

Archival Moment

29 April 1834

Photo Credit: Gibbeting is the use of a gallows-type structure from which the dead or dying bodies of executed criminals were hung on public display to deter other criminals

Photo Credit: Gibbeting is the use of a gallows-type structure from which the dead or dying bodies of executed criminals were hung on public display to deter other criminals

On the evening of 29 April 1834, a large crowd gathered in Harbour Grace to cut down the gibbeted body of Peter Downing a convicted murderer.

Downing was convicted in early April for the brutal murders of a school teacher (Mr. Bray) , his infant son and a servant girl. For his crimes Downing was sentenced to be hanged, dissected and gibbetted.

For much of the month of April the people of Harbor Grace were forced to look on the gibbeted body of Downing.

The residents of Harbour Grace, approximately one thousand,  had had enough, they removed the partially decomposed body of Downing,  paraded it  through the town, past the Court House, and dropped it on the doorstep of a magistrate, Dr. Stirling, along with a note, signed  by anonymous which read:

Dr. S.  This  is your man you were the cause of bringing him here take and bury him or Look Out should you  be the cause  of allowing him to be put up again we will mark you for it,  so do your duty and get him out of sight. 

truly  a friend,

Anonymous Carbonear

Dissection and gibbeting were punishments that had long been established in England and her colonies for crimes of traitors, murderers, highwaymen, pirates, and sheep stealers.  The intention was that the body of Peter Downing would be left as a grim reminder and would stay on the gibbet for a year or more until it rotted away or was eaten by birds.  Gibbeting was formally legalised in Britain by the Murder Act of 1752.

Gibbeting was not generally accepted by the people in Newfoundland.  Many were offended by the sight and odor of a decaying body, others believed that the decaying bodies spread disease, others felt that being hung by the neck till dead was enough, even a criminal should meet his Creator in his full body.

In Harbour Grace, Dr. Sterling heeded the content of the note from the angry citizens. The decayed body of Peter Downing was buried immediately at the Court House, and no attempts were made to have the incident investigated or the body gibbeted again.

In Newfoundland “gibbetting” is well documented. In St John’s, Gibbet Hill, a small peak close to Signal Hill, takes its name from the practice.   The location was very intentional.  Anyone looking towards Signal Hill would see the ‘gibbeted bodies.”  A reminder to heed the laws of the colony!

Newfoundland for a number of years held the dubious distinction of being the last place in the British Empire to proceed with gibbetting.   The last man believed to be gibbetted in England was William Jobling on August 21st 1832. The last man in the British colonies was likely John McKay, in 1837. He was gibbeted on a tree near Perth, Tasmania.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to explore the records of the Office of the Colonial Secretary. This office served as the official repository for Newfoundland state records and as the registry for varied legal and statistical documents, the collection includes extensive holdings relating to all aspects of Newfoundland political, economic, community and social life.  In particular take some time with GN 2/2  this  series consists of correspondence, reports, petitions, and records related to the operations of government in Newfoundland. The records include summaries of court cases.

Recommended Reading: Plebian Collective Action in Harbourt Grace and Carbonear, Newfoundland, 1830 – 1840, Linda Little  (1984) . Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Recommended Activity: Visit Gibbet Hill in St. John’s, imagine the horror  the gibbetted  bodies struck in the hearts of the  citizens of St. John’s as they stared at the decaying bodies overlooking their town.

Fish Plentiful, But No Salt

Photo Credit:  The Rooms;  Spreading fish on a flake. VA 15A 13.4

The St. John’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram,  reported on June 19, 1923 that families in St. Mary’s and Placenta Bay  were all facing a rough summer.  In interviews  with  Mr. Edward Francis Sinnott, Member for the district of Placentia and St. Mary’s, it was reported that he had received messages from St. Bride’s,  Placentia Bay last night stating that fish had struck in plentiful, but owing to the lack of salt the men can not engage in catching same.

The message further stated  “that a serious situation has arisen in the Bay because of the shortage of salt and supplies in the district. Already many fishermen have been compelled to bar up their houses and leave the country because of impending conditions.”

The news of the first sign of fish in this section was always welcome in past seasons, but not so today when anxious fishermen who have large families dependent upon them can only wait and hope for relief. The shortage of salt is serious to these people, who are thus prevented from securing good catches at this season when fish is so plentiful.




The response of some Irish Newfoundlanders to the Great War

April 30, 1917

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives Division A 58-152, For Victory, a Newfoundland infantryman in field dress standing in front of an unfurled Red Ensign containing the Great Seal of Newfoundland.

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives Division A 58-152, For Victory, a Newfoundland infantryman in field dress standing in front of an unfurled Red Ensign containing the Great Seal of Newfoundland.

On April 30, 1917 Revered Daniel O’Callaghan, Parish Priest of  the  the R.C. Parish in Flatrock wrote to Archbishop Edward Patrick Roche of St. John’s complaining:

 “ For months the people in Flatrock have been subjected to a deal of scornful remarks, and to unfair and unjust treatment from so-called patriots because our men have not volunteered.” Father O’Callaghan was particularly incensed that “the Flatrock men have been refused berths to the ice-fields”

The letter is evidence that those who did not volunteer in the war effort were discriminated against.

The Irish born O’Callaghan had at the beginning of WWI discouraged the men of Flatrock from volunteering for the war effort. He is reputed to have told his parishioners that there was no pride “in standing under the British rag.”

Born in South Down, Ireland in 1875, Daniel O’Callaghan, the young Irish Priest in Pouch Cove may have been taking his lead from what his ‘clerical’ contemporaries were doing in his home country,  Ireland. Within the Roman Catholic Irish hierarchy, there was disunity and a lack of a common purpose about the war. The leading archbishops in Ireland in 1914, Archbishop Michael Logue of Armagh and Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin were not in favour of the war or were at best ambivalent and refused to support recruiting or indeed lend any support at all to recruiting. The bishop of Limerick, Bishop Edward Thomas O’ Dwyer, was openly anti-British.

The refusal of the “so called patriots” to give a berth on the ships going to the ice fields to prosecute the seal fishery would have meant economic hardship for the Flatrock men.

O’Callaghan is also  given credit for establishing the tradition of having the famous Regatta Crews from Outer Cove carry there boat to Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s on Regatta Day. Many saw it as a ploy to keep the crew members away from drink on the big day.

Recommended Reading: “Lives Recalled: Deceased Catholic Priests Who worked in Newfoundland 1627-2010”  by Rev.  Francis A. Coady, St. John’s, NL.

Recommended Website:   Find  the Regimental Records of the men of the Newfoundland Regiment here. This is a work in progress not all records are on line. The  Newfoundland Regiment and the Great War: 



College built from Prison Stone

Archival Moment

April 27, 1857
St. Bonaventure’s College – The Old College

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: E 35-28; St. Bonaventure's College.

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: E 35-28; St. Bonaventure’s College.

St. Bonaventure’s College, St. John’s known locally as (St. Bon’s) was designed by James Purcell and built by Patrick Keough. It is considered one of the most recognized educational facilities in the province.

In 1855 there was a public auction to sell more than 30,000 building stones from Waterford, Ireland, which had been imported to build the local penitentiary. The Catholic Bishop of the day, Right Rev. John Thomas Mullock, took advantage of plans to build a smaller penal institution and purchased sufficient surplus stones to construct a monastery.

On April 27, 1857 the bishop laid the cornerstone of the building, a year later, in March 1858, the new facilities opened. Dormitories were installed upstairs as the institution operated as a seminary.

Seven years later in 1865 the college began to admit secular students and, in 1889, the Irish Christian Brothers assumed administrative responsibilities for the school.

The building is now known as the Old College or the Skinner Building and is located directly across the street from The Rooms.

Recommended Reading
: Noble to the View:  J. B. Darcy, Creative Publishers, St. John’s, 2007



Newfoundlanders with “The Diggers”


April 25, 1915

Newfoundlanders fought side by side with the men of Australia and New Zealand.

Newfoundlanders fought side by side with the men of Australia and New Zealand.

ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day is Australia and New Zealand’s most important national day of commemoration.  The day marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces on 25 April, 1915 in Gallipoli, Turkey.

The Australians and New Zealander’s stayed together and fought the Turks for eight months. They took part in battles that are forever etched in the military consciousness of their countries. In one battle alone at a place called Lone Pine, the Australians lost close to 2,200 men.

They won the ground and seven Victoria Crosses were earned in the process.

Six months after the ANZAC forces had landed 1,076 Newfoundlanders came ashore along the shores of the Dardanelles Strait on September 20, 1915. The Newfoundlanders spent the first months digging trenches and keeping long night watches, spending time on the front line learning trench warfare techniques from the ANZAC forces (they had been dubbed with the nickname diggers).

The number of Australian and New Zealand casualties ran high, New Zealand: 2721 and Australia approximately 8700.

The lack of a military breakthrough convinced the Allies it was time to withdraw from Gallipoli. It was decided the Newfoundland Regiment would help in the difficult task of covering the evacuation of Allied troops onto waiting ships. This rearguard operation went well and the Newfoundlanders were among the last Allied soldiers to leave Turkey in January 1916.

During the almost four months the Newfoundland Regiment fought at Gallipoli, approximately 30 men died in action and 10 more died of disease.

Gallipoli was the first of many battles that would earn the Newfoundland Regiment an impressive reputation during the First World War. The Newfoundland Regiment would go on to fight with distinction in Belgium and France throughout the rest of the conflict. The regiment even earned the title “Royal” in 1917 in recognition of its exceptional service and sacrifice—the only regiment to be honoured this way by the British during the war.

The “Trail of the Caribou” designed to trace the path of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment  through its engagements in the First World War, consists of six large caribou statues cast in bronze.  Each caribou, the symbol of the regiment and the province (then-dominion), stands facing the enemy line with its head thrown back in defiance, a symbol of Newfoundlanders’ bravery and fortitude in battle.

A replica  of the six  caribou  are at Beaumont -Hamel,Gueudecourt, Monchy-le-Preux, Masnieres and Courtrai, all sites where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought for king and empire. A replica also stands in Bowring Park in St. John’s.There is no Caribou at  Gallipoli.

So it’s over the mountain and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight the Hun at Flanders and at Gallipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

Recommended Archival Collection: The Rooms Provincial Archives VA 36  This collection consists of photographs related to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War. The collection consists of two photograph albums which have been dismantled, as well as individual items. One album was apparently compiled in 1915-1916 in recognition of the services of Newfoundland Regiment soldiers during the Gallipoli campaign. (Note: Originals are restricted for conservation reasons. Digital scans available.)

Recommended Exhibit: The First World War had a profound impact on Newfoundland and Labrador. It involved thousands of our people in world-changing events overseas and dramatically altered life at home. Our “Great War” happened in the trenches and on the ocean, in the legislature and in the shops, by firesides and bedsides. This exhibition shares the thoughts, hopes, fears, and sacrifices of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who experienced those tumultuous years – through their treasured mementoes, their writings and their memories.

Recommended Activity: On April 25th visit the War Memorial in your town and remember the men of Newfoundland and Labrador who stood with ‘the diggers’ at Gallipoli, Turkey.

Recommended Web site:

Recommended Song: Great Big Sea: Recruiting Sergeant:

Is this holiday about St. George or William Shakespeare?

Archival Moment

April 23

Since 1936 their have been voices in Newfoundland suggesting that St. George's Day be called Shakespear's Day.

Since 1936 their have been voices in Newfoundland suggesting that St. George’s Day be called Shakespear’s Day.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, April 23, is St. George’s Day  celebrating our ‘English ancestry’.

St. George’s Day has long been acknowledged as a significant date in Newfoundland and Labrador but it was not celebrated as a holiday until April 23, 1921.

Traditionally it was a day filled with pageantry and parading. Typically all of the English Protestant organizations including the Newfoundland British Society, Loyal Orange Association, Society of United Fishermen, Independent Order of Oddfellows and the Sons of England Benefit Society, lined up in honor of St. George parading through the streets of St. John’s.

Throughout the town on St. George’s Day all of the men would be sporting a red rose in their lapel, the national emblem and flower for England

April 23 is however not only about St. George it is also all about William Shakespeare.

In Newfoundland there have always been enthusiasts for William Shakespeare and on April 16, 1936, George W. Ayre, a lawyer from St. John’s writing from his home at 24 Circular Road wrote to the local newspapers:

“Now, I should like to call your attention to the fact that the 23rd of April is far more important than its being St. George’s Day and that is that it is also the day on which Shakespeare was born and died, his birthday and deathday, and Shakespeare is as far above St. George as the intellect is above the physique or something mental is above something physical.

St. George is more or less confined to Englishmen or the person of British Empire, as their Patron Saint but Shakespeare is the intellectual ocean into which the little tributaries of intellect flow. He is the myriad minded man, the greatest, mind, possibly, that ever was on earth, and as Englishmen, for he was an Englishman, as Britishers, for he was a Britisher, as men of intellect, as his was the greatest intellect, we should honour his birthday and deathday.

He is not only all these but he is the outstanding genius of the world, whose works are studied by schoolchildren, scholars, actors, and others, of all countries.

We could easily afford to drop the 23rd of April as just, St. George’s Day.

We cannot afford to drop it as Shakespeare’s Day.

Let us therefore honour Shakespeare on that day, (April 23) let there be Shakespearean recitals and performances; let there be dances, concerts, etc. all in honour of the greatest mind that was ever in the world.”

There were those in St. John’s who were not amused with the letter; in fact they were quite baffled. Mr. Ayre (the gentleman penning the letter) was the first President of the St. George’s Society in St. John’s.  Ayre’s loyalties were clearly suspect. One of his first acts as the president of the St. George’s Society (founded on April 23, 1921) was to encourage theatrical groups in St. John’s to present Shakespearean plays on April 23.

Many thought it was really a bit much for the President of St. George’s Society, which was to advocate for their great patron St. George to write that:

“We could easily afford to drop the 23rd of April as just, St. George’s Day.”

Who was St. George?  According to legend, St. George, a soldier of the Imperial Army, rescues a town in what is now Libya from the tyranny of a dragon. St. George overpowered the beast and then offered to kill it if the townspeople would convert to Christianity and be baptized. The story is that there were 15,000 conversions on the spot. Openly espousing Christianity was dangerous and eventually the authorities of Emperor Diocletian arrested George. He was martyred about 303 AD.

Many of us associate St. George with his flag. The standard, the Cross of St. George was flown in 1497 by John Cabot on his voyage to discover Newfoundland. In 1620 it was the flag that was flown on the foremast of the Mayflower (with the early Union Flag combining St. George’s Cross of England with St. Andrew’s Saltire of Scotland on the mainmast) when the Pilgrim arrived in Renews, Newfoundland  to replenish their supplies before they went on their way to Plymouth, Massachusetts.

St George is the patron saint of England. He is the patron of soldiers and archers, cavalry and chivalry, of farmers and field workers, Boy Scouts and butchers, of horses, riders and saddlers.

He is also the patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Genoa, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Istanbul, Lithuania, Moscow, Palestine, and Portugal. But only in Newfoundland and Labrador have we declared this day a holiday!

Recommended Action: Wear a Red Rose in your lapel on April 23 just to remind people that you know why you have the day off. If you want to celebrate the birth and death of Shakespeare impress your friends by reciting a few lines from the bard.

St. George’s Day


April 23, 2018

St. George’s Day

St. George's Feast Day is April 23 but the holiday is on Monday, April 22.

St. George’s Feast Day is April 23 but the holiday is on Monday, April 20.

St. George’s Day is provincial holiday in Newfoundland and Labrador, observed on the Monday nearest April 23rd.

In Newfoundland and Labrador the holiday was born out of our sectarian history. The Roman Catholic’s of this place laid claim to St. Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland and the Protestants laid claim to St. George, Patron of England.

As a saint, or even a historical person, St. George and his exploits are of doubtful authenticity, the most popular of the legends that have grown up around him relates to his encounter with the dragon. A pagan town in Libya was victimized by a dragon (representing the devil), which the inhabitants first attempted to calm down by offerings of sheep, and then by the sacrifice of various members of their community. The daughter of the king (representing the Church) was chosen by lot and was taken out to await the coming of the monster, but George arrived, killed the dragon, and converted the community to Christianity.

Saint George has been adopted world wide as the saint fighting the evil and defending the good, in the end slaying the dragon (representing the evil).

King Richard I of England placed his crusading army under St. George’s protection, and in 1222 his feast was proclaimed a holiday. As the patron of England – it was only a matter of time that his patronage would also cover the  New found land with the arrival of our  English ancestors.

In Newfoundland and Labrador the tradition of St. George is not only confined to his feast day (April 23) but he also presents as one of the characters in the old mummering plays, historically performed over the Christmas season.  In the mummering play he fights hand-to-hand with a Turkish Knight emerging as the hero.

In 1497, during the reign of Henry VII, the pennant of the Cross of St. George was flown by John Cabot when he sailed to Newfoundland.  It was also traditional to wear a red rose on the lapel on St. George’s Day.

Interesting that St. George is the Patron of England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Gozo, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, and Portugal but only Newfoundland and Labrador honour the day with a holiday.

A great place to live!

The most widely recognized St George’s Day symbol is St George’s cross. This is a red cross on a white background, which is often displayed as a flag. It is used as England’s national flag, forming part of the Union Flag, the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Recommended Website:   St George’s  the website offering information on all things English, that celebrates English Heritage and actively promotes St George’s Day on the 23rd April.