Tag Archives: Bay Roberts

An Act Outlawing Mummering


December 28, 1860


Hobby Horse one of the traditional mummer disguises.

On December 28, 1860, in Bay Roberts, Nfld., Isaac Mercer was strolling home from work with his two brothers-in-law when unexpectedly they became victims of a crew of rowdy masked mummers. The three men were beaten until Isaac Mercer’s body went limp. When the brutes scattered and disappeared into the night, Mercer’s friends, bruised and battered, carried him to help. The next day, Mercer was pronounced dead.

The use of disguises also permitted those of the poorer classes to harass the wealthy merchant classes or often allowed rival religious sects the opportunity to vent their hostility while in masquerade. Newfoundland historian D.W. Prowse observed that “men were often beaten badly for old grievances by the fools.”

The mummers are almost always described as carrying some combination of hatchets, sticks, ropes and whips, all of which clearly have the capacity to serve as aggressive weapons. Court records describe  men and women  armed with “bludgeons & swabs dipped in Blubber” which they rubbed into their victims’ faces and clothing, as well as swords and “loaded guns”, carpet brooms, blown bladders  filled with pebbles,  the weapon of choice was a hobby horse, used to charge individuals.

The tragedy of Mercer’s death combined with other abuses that were inflicted while in masquerade fueled a decision that lead on June 25, 1861, to the passing of an act outlawing mummering.  The Act dictated that:

“any Person who shall be found… without a written License from a Magistrate, dressed as a Mummer, masked, or otherwise disguised, shall be deemed guilty of a Public Nuisance”. Offenders were to pay “a Fine not exceeding Twenty Shillings”, or to serve a maximum of seven days’ imprisonment (Consolidated Acts of Newfoundland, 1861: 10).

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Rooms Provincial Archives:  GN5 /3/B/19 Box 13, File Number 3 and explore GN 2/1-3 and GN 5. Criminal trials involving mummers and mummering.

New Term: blown bladders: inflated animal bladder used as a mock weapon by Christmas mummers … chasing people and striking them with whips at the ends of some of which were attached inflated bladders.

Recommended Reading:  Any Mummers ’Lowed In? Christmas Mummering Traditions in Newfoundland and Labrador. Flanker Press, St. John’s,  NL.  2014.  Folklorist Dale Jarvis traces the history of the custom in Newfoundland and Labrador and charts the mummer’s path through periods of decline and revival. Using archival records, historic photographs, oral histories, and personal interviews with those who have kept the tradition alive, he tells the story of the jannies themselves. 

Recommended Song: Mummer Song:  Original 1987 uncut TV broadcast. Newfoundland Christmas tradition inspired this hit Simani song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8OPy7De3bk



Labrador Schooner with her crew, caught in the great storm.

Archival Moment

Down on the Labrador, David Blackwood

Down on the Labrador, David Blackwood

In November 1915 many of the Newfoundland newspapers were reporting that communities throughout the Island were in mourning or experiencing “great anxiety” over rumors of the loss of friends and family in a storm that battered the northeast coast of Newfoundland.

Communities in Conception Bay were grieving for the rumored loss of sixteen men and women, lost on the schooner, Swallow’ owned by Albert Fradsham, sailing out of Bay Robert’s.

The schooner had been last seen on November 15, 1915 on the northeast coast of Newfoundland in the town of Seldom Come By, Fogo Island. The schooner, it was confirmed had put into Seldom, where three of the crew from the area left her.

The crew had spent the summer and fall prosecuting the fishery on the Labrador.

With the departure of the ‘Swallow’ from Seldom Come By on November 16, 1915, there was silence, no one had seen or heard from the schooner. The general speculation was that the ‘Swallow’ with her crew had been caught in the great storm and driven out to sea.

It was not only the ‘Swallow’ out of Bay Robert’s that was missing, officials in Carbonear reported that the Schooners, ‘Silver Cord’, ‘Morella’, and the ‘L. and S’. were missing. Officials in St. John’s were reporting that the Schooner the ‘Blanche M’. and ‘H. W. Wentzell’ were missing. The Schooner ‘Annie’ out of Fermeuse was also reported missing in the storm.

The Minister of Marine and Fisheries, Mr. Archibald Piccott immediately dispatched the whaler ‘Cabot’, the tugboat ‘D.P. Ingraham’ and other steamers, to begin a search. Piccott had a vested interest in the search he had been educated and operated a shop in Bay Roberts. He would have known many of the 16 men and women on the ’Swallow’.

Fishermen_off_the_Coast_of_LabradorTheir search was to no avail, it was concluded that the ‘Swallow’ “must have been driven out into the ocean.” Many concluded that the ‘Swallow’ was lost with all aboard. The Bay Roberts newspaper The Guardian, on November 29, 1915 identified the crew aboard the Swallow:

“Beatrice Batten, Chas Batten and Henry Batten of Bareneed; Abram Smith and Rebecca Menchions of Bishop’s Cove; John Jones of Upper Island Cove; William Dawe, Frost (girl) and a boy named Snow of Clarke’s Beach,   a boy of South River; Ambrose Fagen of Kelligrews, Samuel Kinsella, William Russell, Arthur Greenland and William Russell Jr of Coley’s Point and Clara King of Country Road.”

John Bowering, was identified as the Master of the Schooner.

On November 30, 1915, there was a glimmer of hope, a report circulated that the schooner ‘Swallow’, now fifteen (15) days overdue from the Labrador coast, had been sighted in Lockers Bay, Flat Island, Bonavista Bay. The Minister of Marine and Fisheries immediately dispatched a motor boat from Greenspond to investigate.

The news was devastating. The battered schooner ‘Swallow’ had been towed into Flat Island, but the crew was missing.

The following day, December 1, 1915, the immense grief of the families and friends of those presumed dead was lifted. The Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Gordon Davidson had  received a telegram at his home in Goverment House, St. John’s from Mr. Bonar Law, Secretary of the Colonies (later Prime Minister of Britain) that read:

“The crew and passengers of The Swallow were saved and landed at Stornoway (Scotland)  by the Norwegian Steamer Hercules. Please circulate information, John Bowering.”

The local newspapers reported upon hearing about the telegram that:

“All will be thankful at the good news of their safety.”

Family and friends were later told that the ‘Swallow’  had been battered by the storm of the night of  November 16.  They were adrift for a number of days before they were spotted by a Norweigian Steamer.   The crew abandoned, the ‘Swallow’  and transferred to the Norwegian Steamer Hercules. The Norwegian vessel landed at Stornoway, a port on Lewis, the North Island of the Hebrides in North West, Scotland.

It is said that the Batten’s and other families had a particularly good Christmas in 1915. On Christmas Eve, the crew of the ‘Swallow’ who had all been presumed dead, landed at Bay Robert’s, they all walked home, back into the lives of their family and friends.

Recommended Exhibit: At the Rooms: Here, We Made a Home: At the eastern edge of the continent, bounded by the sea, the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador’s livyers was tied to the fisheries and the North Atlantic. A rich mix of dialects, ways of life, food traditions, story and song developed here. The Elinor Gill Ratcliffe Gallery – Level 4.

Recommended Archival Collection: The Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, holds 70% of the Crew Agreements from 1863-1938, and 80% of the Agreements from 1951-1976. The crew agreements include particulars of each member of the crew, including name (signature), age, place of birth, previous ship, place and date of signing, capacity and particulars of discharge (end of voyage, desertion, sickness, death, never joined etc). http://www.mun.ca/mha/

Recommended Website: Costal Women in Newfoundland and Labrador prior to Confederation. This virtual exhibit portrays the women who lived and worked in the coastal communities of Newfoundland and Labrador prior to Confederation http://www.mun.ca/mha/cw/index.html