Colcannon Night: A Lost Newfoundland Tradition


October 31, 1896

250px-Colcannon_recipe_on_bag_of_potatoes_(cropped)Long before Trick or Treating or Halloween got established in Newfoundland, in many communities the night of October 31 was referred to as Colcannon (also Cauld Cannon) Night.

On what is now All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween  – friends would be invited to a dinner of colcannon, a  mixture of hash of various vegetables, and sometimes meat.   The surprise of the dinner was that there were four objects hidden in the large dish of colcannon, a ring, a coin, an old maid’s thimble, and a bachelor’s button.  Each object had great symbolic significance. Whoever found the ring would marry soon. To the coin-holder, riches would accrue, while celibacy awaited both the thimble-getter and button- holder.

A Colcannon Party was to be an evening of fun but for young ladies finding the button, it was most distressing,  it doomed them to be spinsters or for the young men to irrevocable bachelorhood.

One of the early references to ‘colecannon’ was observed in Ferryland in 1844. In his entry for October 31, 1844 Robert Carter wrote in his journal as part of his entry for that day, “Young men at my brother’s (James Howe Carter) to eat colecannon.”

The St. John’s newspaper, The Daily News in 1896 reported about such a party:

“ a Cauld Cannon party given by Miss O’NEIL of the West End (of St. John’s)   was a most enjoyable affair – over 20 couples sat down to the repast. A young lady in a Water Street book and stationary store, found the ring. Though nobody acknowledged finding the button, it is affirmed that a certain young lady, not a mile from Queen’s Street, got it but would not own it.”

Imagine the teasing that young lady had to endure.

Previous to the 1930’s Colcannon parties were as big as St. Patrick’s Day parties are today. Every fraternal organization hosted Colcannon Party that tended to be followed by a dance.

The St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram reported on November 1, 1902:

“ The town was lively last night with cauld cannon parties.  The young folks were entertained with snap apple, while older ones enjoyed themselves at the altar of Terpsichore, the clear cold air resounding to the musical strains till early morning.”

Just in case you are naive enough to think that George Street closes late – the newspapers report with great frequency that patrons of the Colcannon or Cauld Cannon Parties were often seen staggering home as late as 4:00 a.m.

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online database at The Rooms  for descriptions of our archival records and to view thousands of digital photographs.

Recommended Reading (on Halloween): Santino, Jack  ed. Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. [Philip Hiscock, “Halloween Guys Come to Newfoundland,” The Folklore Round Table 9 (Fall 1989): 28-36]

Recommended Halloween Traditions:  Particular to Ireland and Newfoundland:

Recommended Song:   “Colcannon” comes from the album entitled “The Black Family” which was released in 1995. Mary Black sings this in such a playful manner. A true delight of a song! Enjoy!

Were Newfoundlanders at the Battle of Trafalgar?

Archival Moment

October 21, 1805

The Battle of Trafalgar (The Death of Nelson), by the Irish artist John Edward Carew. His work is also in the Basilica in St. John's.

The Battle of Trafalgar (The Death of Nelson), by the Irish artist John Edward Carew. His work is also in the Basilica in St. John’s.

For the men of the navy one of the most significant dates on the calendar is Trafalgar Day, celebrated on October 21.

The day is the celebration of the victory won by the Royal Navy, commanded by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

The victory at Trafalgar was to be of great importance, it was the triumph that ensured Great Britain’s domination of the sea for the next 100 years. The day was widely commemorated by parades, dinners and other events throughout much of the British Empire in the 19th century and early 20th century. It is still widely celebrated in navies of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Trafalgar Day was celebrated with great fanfare and continued until the First World War, after which it became less prominent due to the heavy losses incurred during that conflict.

The last time Trafalgar Day was celebrated in St John’s, Newfoundland was on October 21, 1914. In the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram an editorial was devoted to the significance of the event with a full page extract from the issue of the London Times containing the original report on the Death of Nelson and the Victory of Trafalgar.

At the Battle of Trafalgar over 18,000 sailors and marines fought on the British side. Their names have now been collated into a database at The National Archives of the United Kingdom. Apart from English, Welsh and Scottish, the Irish were by far the largest contingent with over 3573 men indicating that Ireland was their place of birth.  From Canada, particularity Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, 31 men.

Keith Mercer, Ph.D., Research Associate at Gorsebrook Research Institute, Saint Mary’s University has in his research identified five mariners who acknowledged Newfoundland as their home or birthplace.

John Brown was a 28-year-old able seaman in HMS Naiad. A “volunteer” entered at sea, he was probably pressed from a merchant vessel earlier that year.

Joseph Harrison was a 22-year-old ordinary seaman in HMS Agamemnon, a ship in which he served for at least four years after Trafalgar.

John Welch was a 20-year-old landsman in HMS Minotaur. His birthplace is listed as “St. John,” which likely means St. John’s. He had company in that ship. Robert White, a 20-year-old able seaman from Newfoundland, also served aboard the Minotaur.

Finally, J.B.J. Allis (Allio) is listed as from St. Peter’s, Newfoundland, which could be the French island of St. Pierre off the island’s south coast.  An ordinary seaman, he was turned over from HMS Gladiator to HMS Ajax in 1804, in which ship he served for more than two years, including at Trafalgar. He then deserted, or ran away, from the Ajax at Gibraltar in 1806. If “Allis” was from St. Pierre, he was likely a Frenchman who was forced to fight against his own country. Surprisingly, dozens of Frenchmen served in British ships at Trafalgar, just as there were many Americans in the Royal Navy. Many of these foreigners were pressed or forcibly conscripted into service.

Newfoundland has another connection. To celebrate the great victory, Nelson’s monument in Trafalgar Square in London was commissioned.  This first and most famous panel, in this monument is The Battle of Trafalgar (sometimes called The Death of Nelson), it was put in place in December 1849 executed by the Irish artist John Edward Carew.  The others followed, between 1850 and 1852.

It is said that the Roman Catholic bishop of St. John’s, John Thomas Mullock who was in the process of building the Cathedral in St. John’s (now the Basilica) was so impressed with Carew’s work ‘The Death of Nelson’, that he commissioned Carew to execute two bas reliefs that would hang in the Cathedral and two statues, for the courtyard.  Carew’s work is our connection to Trafalgar Square!

Again the loud toned trump of fame
Proclaims Britannia rules the main
While sorrow whispers Nelson’s name,
All mourns the gallant victor slain.

In Canada, Niobe Day is celebrated by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) on the 21st day of October each year. Niobe Day marks the arrival of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Niobe in Halifax on October 21, 1910, the first Canadian warship to enter Canada’s territorial waters and a landmark event in the beginnings of the Naval Service of Canada.

Niobe Day gives RCN personnel a chance to reflect on their collective accomplishments since 1910, what it means to be members of the profession of arms, and what is required of them to ensure the RCN’s continued excellence, both at sea and ashore, in the years to come.

Recommended Reading: Parsons, W. David, and Ean Parsons. The Best Small-Boat Seamen in the Navy: The Newfoundland Division, Royal Naval Reserve, 1900-1922. St. John’s, NL: DRC Publishing, 2009.  By 1914, more than 1,400 Newfoundland seamen had trained and were ready to serve on ships of the Royal Navy in case of war. During the First World War (1914-1918), and up until 1919, a total of 1,994 officers and men of the Newfoundland Division of the Royal Naval Reserved served on ships of the Royal Navy – 192 lost their lives. It was during the war that these Newfoundlanders earned the title of “the best small-boat seamen in the Navy.”

Recommended Archival Collection: “Distinguished Service: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War”, this on line exhibition documents the lives and experiences of the province’s soldiers and aims to encourage interest in research on the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The service records of the First 500 and others are available at the Provincial Archives at The Rooms. Many of the service records (but not all ) are on line at 

Recommended Blog posting:  Keith Mercer’s, Trafalgar Veterans from Atlantic Canada.


“A friend of the lunatics”

October 18, 1900

Archival Moment

The Waterford Hospital was once known as the Lunatic Asylum

The Waterford Hospital was once known as the Lunatic Asylum

Walking past the “Lunatic Asylum” (now known as the Waterford Hospital) citizens were gladdened that officials were “endeavoring to get a water supply to the building’  but upon closer inspection they were  not so happy to discover that it was the “poor unfortunate inmates” of the hospital that were doing the work!!

The lot of the ‘lunatics” in the early 19th century was not a happy one. They were often confined to basements, attics and jails under the most wretched conditions and it was only with the founding of the St. John‘s public hospital in 1813 that a separate ward was established for them.

With the opening of the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ on Waterford Bridge Road, St. John’s in 1854 as the Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases it was thought that the lot of the lunatics would improve. “A friend of the Lunatics” in October 1900 was not so confident that advances had been made.   In a letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram he wrote that he was walking past the hospital and “was troubled to find that its poor unfortunate inmates, are compelled to dig from early morning till late at night, endeavoring to get a water supply to the building.”

He was so appalled at the situation that he demanded “that the Board of Works institute an enquiry into the management of the Lunatic Asylum.”

He wrote “Is it fair to the inmates of that institution to have them wading in water, digging over half a mile for this supply.  I say it is not, and the person in charge ought to be brought to account for his conduct.”

The initiatives that were coming under criticism were likely instituted by Dr. Lawrence Keegan who believed that having the patients working was a positive and effective form of occupational therapy, he felt that some patients did benefit from working especially the able-bodied.  Keegan who had been on tour of asylums in Great Britain, England, Scotland and Ireland in 1899 and had consulted with British experts that saw value in physical work.

The ‘friend of the Lunatics’ concluded his letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram:

“We have an engineer who is competent to improve the method of said water supply.  Why should the doctor (Lawrence Keegan) be consulted, he is not there for that purpose. Let him attend to the strawberry beds and try to help the revenue in that way, but leave the water supply to Mr. (Hubert C.) Burchell, (Newfoundland Government Engineer from 1884 to 1905) who I am certain, who is not in favor of employing lunatics to take the bread from the mouths of taxpayers.”

The practice was soon discontinued, the new administrator of the Asylum, Dr. James Sinclair Tait believed that this type of occupational therapy was ineffective and fiscally unsound and had such new initiatives cancelled.

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online data base – use key words – lunatic and Waterford.

Recommended Reading: Out of Mind, Out of Sight by Patricia O’Brien: A History of the Waterford Hospital. St. John’s: Breakwater Books; 1989.

Old Word: Middle English: from Old French lunatique, from late Latin lunaticus, from Latin luna ‘moon’ (from the belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity)

Harrington Harbour, featured in new photograph album at The Rooms

Harrington Harbour

Martha H. Dickson (later Cameron) was a nurse employed by the International Grenfell Association (IGA)  in the community of Harrington Harbour, Quebec, from 1911 to 1914.   She was born in Sonora, Nova Scotia on 23 September 1885.  She graduated nursing from the Jeffrey Hale Hospital in Quebec.

After leaving Harrington Harbour she married John MacKenzie Cameron (1875-1954) and they had five children. Cameron was a widower and they also raised four children from his previous marriage. For the last 36 years of her life Martha Dickson Cameron was completely blind, she died 9 October 1967.

The album created by Martha H. Dickson is a fascinating pictorial record of the community of Harrington Harbour and some of the livyers.   It was created by  Nurse Dickson as she worked  with Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, founder of the famous medical mission in the region. Grenfell built a hospital on the island, earning the village its nickname of Hospital Island.

Harrington Hospital

Harrington Harbour Hospital served the Lower North Shore area of Quebec from Harrington Harbour to Blanc Sablon and Natashquan.The album was created prior to the settlement of the Labrador Boundary Dispute (1927). Some images were described as “Labrador”, referencing the common identification of the region at the time as the Canadian Labrador. The region is now recognized as the Lower North Shore of Quebec.

Harrington Harbour was named after Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington.

Local tradition claims that this is the island on which 16th century French noblewoman Marguerite de La Rocque was marooned by her relative Jean-François Roberval as punishment for an affair. “Marguerite’s Cave” is one of the attractions on the island.

Another attraction is the Jacques Cartier Monument, commemorating the French explorer and surveyor of the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Harrington Harbour is a small village on average 300 residents, originally settled by Newfoundland families in search of fish stocks in the second half of the 19th century.

Some of the people identified in the album were her colleagues and neighbors.  Dr. Tullo, Rev. C. Stevens, Deacon Robert Bobbitt, Reverend J.F. and Mrs. MacDonald, Marion V. Brewster, R.N., Dr. John Grieve and Dr. Henry Mather Hare.

Please click on the link below  to see the photograph album of Martha H. Dickson Cameron



World War II came home to Newfoundland.


October 14, 1942

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: C 2-48; Remember the SS Caribou and Her Gallant Crew

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: C 2-48; Remember the SS Caribou and Her Gallant Crew

In the early morning hours of October 14, 1942 a lone German torpedo from the German submarine U69 hit the  SS Caribou,  the Sydney to Port aux Basques ferry on  route to Newfoundland, under Captain Benjamin Tavernor.  World War II came home to Newfoundland.

Immediately following the hit chaos ensued as passengers, thrown from their bunks by the explosion rushed topside to the lifeboat stations.

Of the 237 people aboard the Caribou when she left North Sydney, 136 had perished. Fifty-seven were military personnel and 49 were civilians. Of the 46-man crew, mostly Newfoundlanders, only 15 remained. Five families suffered particularly heavy losses: the Tappers (5 dead), the Toppers (4), the Allens (3), the Tavernors (the captain and his two sons), and the Skinners (3). The local press reported:

 “Many Families [were] Wiped Out.”

News of the sinking sparked much outrage as victims,  friends and families, and the populace at large, condemned the Nazis for targeting a passenger ferry. An editorialist with The Royalist newspaper in St. John’s wrote that the sinking:

“was such a useless crime from the point of view of warfare. It will have no effect upon the course of the war except to steel our resolve that the Nazi blot on humanity must be eliminated from our world.”

The Channel/Port aux Basques area was the worst hit as many crew members of the Caribou were local men. A funeral on October 18 for six victims was attended by hundreds of mourners, and a procession that followed the bodies to the grave sites reportedly measured two kilometres long.

Recommended Archival Collection:  Search the Rooms Archives on line:

At The Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to read  VA  40- 16:  A page from The Evening Telegram, St. John’s, NL. with several newspaper articles about the sinking of the SS Caribou, including names of those lost ; death of assistant matron, Agnes Wilkie, General Hospital.

Recommended Reading: Thornhill, H. It Happened in October : The Tragic Sinking of the S.S. Caribou. Newfoundland: H. Thornhill, 1945.

Recommended Song:  The Caribou; Lyrics can be found at:

St. John’s man tells the court he was carried away by the fairies.

Archival Moment

October 1, 1880

Residents and tourists are reminded at the beginning of the D'Iberville Trail near New Perlican, Trinity Bay to prepare for fairies. (Photo Credit: Stephanie Tucker, 2017)

Residents and tourists are reminded at the beginning of the D’Iberville Trail near New Perlican, Trinity Bay to prepare for fairies. (Photo Credit: Stephanie Tucker, 2017)

Judges have to deliberate on the evidence that is brought before them, evidence that at times might be challenging to believe. On October 1, 1880 the distinguished Newfoundland jurist Judge James Gerve Conroy had to consider the evidence – he had to consider the existence of fairies.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a rich fairy folklore tradition that is full of stories about fairies (also known as the Good People or the Little People) these fairies are often troublemakers and it was these trouble making fairies that landed (John Ebbs) before the courts.

Ebbs appeared before the Central District Court in St. John’s determined to recover the amount of his summer’s wages from his employer. The employer, Mr. J. Hickey refused to pay his salary arguing that “he (Ebbs) was absent from his work place, without leave, for about thirteen days.”

Ebbs argued that he had done all that he could to get to work, he told the count:

“he left his home two hours before dawn for the purpose of going to work and that all he remembered was seeing a funeral, when he lost his senses and was carried away by the fairies.”

 A witness was called to support his story, the witness under oath told the court “that he discovered the plaintiff, (Ebbs) three days afterwards, lying speechless on the ground.

 Hickey was not amused, the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram reported:

 The defendant (Hickey) did not deny the allegation concerning the interference of the fairies, but submitted that the lost time should be made up.

Judge Conroy found the story of Mr. Ebbs “losing his senses and being carried away by the fairies” as being convincing and in his judgment ordered that the amount that Mr. Ebbs was suing for  “with the exception of some cash”   be paid by  Mr. Hickey.

The Irish born Judge Conroy did not challenge the veracity of the story about being carried away by the fairies, the defendant Mr. Hickey did not deny the allegation concerning the interference of the fairies, Mr. Parsons the lawyer for the plaintiff and the lawyer for the defendant Mr. Greene all remained silent.

It would appear that the courts in St. John’s did believe in fairies.

If you should have an encounter with fairies traditional precautions should be taken, bread carried in the pocket is always a good idea when venturing out into the woods. It might be used as an offering, to allow the human to escape. The other sure way to escape the fairies is to turn an article of clothing inside out.

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the Archives: Type:  Central District Court or GN 170.

Recommended Reading: Rieti, Barbara.  Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland. St. John’s, ISER Books, 1991.   “The fairies” of Newfoundland oral tradition are variously envisioned, encountered and interpreted, and this study presents some of these concepts and experiences.

The Spanish Flu in Newfoundland and Labrador


September 30, 1918  (100th Anniversary) 

Photo Credit: Volunteer nurses, 1918
These volunteer nurses worked at the King George V Seamen’s Institute during the Spanish influenza pandemic. Located in downtown St. John’s, the institute served as a temporary 32-bed hospital to help treat influenza victims.
Photo by J.C. Parsons. Reproduced from The Newfoundland Quarterly 18.4 (1918), 21.

On September 30,1918 the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram reported three seamen from a steamer out of Burin were admitted to hospital with the flu.

The next day, the Daily News reported that two cases from the schooner Ariceen of Twillingate were taken to hospital.

The Spanish Lady or Spanish Flu was in Newfoundland.

The Allies of World War I came to call it the Spanish flu, primarily because the pandemic received greater press attention after it moved from France to Spain in November 1918. Spain was not involved in the war and had not imposed wartime censorship.

Within two weeks, of the first identified cases in  Newfoundland  the local newspapers  were reporting that several hundred people were infected in St. John’s.

By mid-October, Medical Officer of Health N.S. Fraser had closed the city’s schools, theatres, concert halls, and other public buildings to help prevent the virus from spreading.

In the last week of November 1918, 1,586 cases of influenza and 44 deaths were reported in 28 communities across the island. The highest incidences occurred in St. Mary’s Bay which reported 628 cases.

By February 1919, the epidemic had largely ended on the island, although traces of it remained until the summer.

Before it disappeared, the disease killed 170 people in outport Newfoundland. 62 deaths were reported in St. John’s.

The effects were most devastating in Labrador where the disease killed close to one third of the Inuit population and forced some communities out of existence. Death rates were particularly high in the Inuit villages of Okak and Hebron.

The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide, making it one of the largest and most destructive outbreaks of infectious disease in recorded history.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Room Provincial Archives Division  explore Death Records 1918-1919. Reels 32 and 33 and GN 2/5. Special  File 352-A, Colonial Secretary’s Department. “Correspondence Re: Outbreak of Epidemic Spanish Influenza in Newfoundland.” November 1918-June 1919.

Recommended Publication: Boats, Trains, and Immunity: The Spread of the Spanish Flu on the Island of Newfoundland Craig T. Palmer, Lisa Sattenspiel, Chris Cassidy: Newfoundland and Labrador Studies: Vol. 22 – Number 2 (2007)