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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  https://www.therooms.ca/thegreatwar/in-depth/military-service-files/database 

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


Saying prayers: not reason enough for desertion.

Archival Moment

July 24, 1882

Photo Credit:  The Rooms Provincial Archives. A 44-41; Grand Bank, headquarters for the prosecution of the Bank fishery.

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives. A 44-41; Grand Bank, headquarters for the prosecution of the Bank fishery.

There was a time in Newfoundland history when most fishermen worked under a contract with the merchant families, a contract that was embedded in legislation known as the “Of Masters and Servants Act.”

Many firms operating from Newfoundland ports such as Allan Goodridge and Sons from Renews on the Southern Shore required bank fishers to sign written contracts guaranteeing to remain with the employer for the duration of the voyage, “from the first of April till the last of October next.” 

Leaving employment prior to the end of the trip constituted desertion – a criminal offence punishable by a jail sentence of thirty to sixty days. John Carew and Andrew Armstrong of Witless Bay opted to desert in July 1882.

The two Witless Bay men were quickly apprehended and brought before Judge James Gervé Conroy, a stipendiary magistrate and judge of the Central District Court., St. John’s.

The defendants, Carew and  Armstrong, were shipped as share men on the ‘J.A. Smith’ a ship owned by Allan Goodridge and Sons to prosecute the bank fishery. Alan Goodridge & Son was one of the most successful firms in Newfoundland. The firm had branches throughout the colony including the home port of Renews. The Registry of Newfoundland Vessels reveals that the Goodridge’s were one of the largest vessel owners in that era, registering 197 vessels between 1834 and 1917.

Carew and Armstrong stood before the good judge on July 24, 1882  and argued that “the Captain was not gentlemanly in his conduct.”  They explained to the judge that the vessel, ‘J.A. Smith’ went into the Harbour of Renews to replenish her stock of bait where they had no choice but to dessert.

As a cause for their leaving, they told the judge that the Captain came aboard one Sunday evening and asked them why they did not go to prayers while they were in Renews.  The furious Captain explained “That they could not expect the voyage to prosper with them unless they went to their duty (prayers and holy mass) when the chance offered.

They argued that they did not go into the town of Renews for prayers because they “were ashamed to be seen on shore on account of the slanderous manner in which the Captain had talked about them to the people there.”

The defendants argued that the Captain had committed a breach of marine etiquette by lecturing to them upon a matter that was not contained in the articles of their agreement, (attending prayers).

The two had enough. They took a dory and rowed towards the shore, bidding farewell to the Captain and the remaining portion of his gallant crew.

They then started for St. John’s and whilst on their way, were overtaken by Constable Daw who proceeded in bringing them before the sanctuary of justice.

Judge Conroy having heard the story was not in the least sympathetic.  He argued that they should have made complaint, if they had any, before the magistrate in Ferryland,  (the community with a court nearest to Renews) instead of endeavoring to come to St. John’s  to escape desertion, and in taking a dory to affect their desertion they had rendered themselves liable six months imprisonment.

Judge Conroy was apparently feeling somewhat lenient; at least he thought so, punishing the two Witless Bay fishermen to thirty days for leaving their service “without good and sufficient cause.”

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 Reading: The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Recommended Reading:  The Newfoundland Bank Fishery: Government Policies and the Struggle to Improve Bank Fishing Crews’ Working, Health and Safety Conditions. Fred Winsor, B.A., MIA.  Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1996.