Tag Archives: Shebeen

Where is the city planning?


September 10, 1894

Photo Credit: Quidi Vidi, sketch by William Grey, Sketches of Newfoundland, 1858

On September 10, 1894 the local St. John’s  newspaper, The Daily News, published a letter to The Editor commenting on development near Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s.  The writer was not amused that expansion was taking place near the lake without any definite plan.

The anonymous writer, identified as ‘A Passerby,’ wrote:

“Is there not a law about uniformity in house building.”

The writer was particularly infuriated that shebeens were being constructed and worse tolerated.

Following the Great Fire of 1892 in St. John’s there was in the city a spurt of development that saw a road “pushed rapidly ahead” toward Quidi Vidi. With this new road came development.

The initial structures established appear to have been shebeen’s, the letter to the editor reads:

“Owing to one shebeen, trouble has already ensued; it is rumoured that another is being erected in the opposite direction.”

If  sheebeen’s were to be tolerated  the letter  went on to speculate that next you would see

“ a semi-stable, semi-slaughter-house (being) erected on the banks of the lake.”

The author of the letter  would not be happy to find, almost 100 years after he wrote his letter,  that a chicken slaughter house  was erected near the banks of his beloved lake!!

Newfoundland Term: shebeen n also sheebeen, sheveen: Unlicensed place where illicit liquor is sold. [Dictionary of Newfoundland English]

Recommended Archival Collection: The Rooms: Sports Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador photograph collection consists of a series of 212 b&w photographs predominantly of the Royal St. John’s Regatta races and crews, The photographs include team portraits, races underway, presentation of awards and views of the people along the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake.

Recommended Publication: A Gift of Heritage: Historic Architecture of St. John’s, Newfoundland , 2nd ed. , Newfoundland Historic Trust , This publication of the Newfoundland  Historic Trust focuses on architecture  in St. John’s.

“Coffee taverns” and “fast food” full blast in the East End of St. John’s

Archival Moment

September 1879

Typical advertisement for a 'Coffee Tavern'

Typical advertisement for a ‘Coffee Tavern’

Most people think that the notion of going to a “coffee house’ or “coffee bar” is a relatively new experience in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Most people would argue that ‘the concept’ of a “Coffee house” arrived in the province with the first Tim Horton’s on Kenmount Road in the late 1970’s.  Not so!!  Coffee houses or as they were then called “Coffee Taverns” were established in St. John’s as early as 1879.

In September 1879, Samuel Collier took out an advertisement in the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram explaining that he had opened a “first class coffee house”  that was “in full blast in the East End.”  Location being everything in business and wanting to be in a high traffic area, Collier explained in his advertisement that he was located “immediately opposite the mercantile premises of Messrs. L. O’Brien and Company.”

Mr. Collier was not limiting his clientele to a good cup of coffee, he also boasted that his “delicious meals are served with almost lightning rapidity.” The claim by the St. John’s businessman puts him among the first to propose the notion of a ‘fast food’ restaurant.

If that was not enough to lure coffee drinkers and diners off the streets into his premises he had a number of distractions that would amuse his guests.  His advertisement read:

“Visitors who are fond of amusements can pleasantly pass the time with Billiards, Chess, or Chequers, while those of a literary turn of mind are furnished with more interesting newspapers, fresh from the press.”

It might have been that Mr. Collier had another motive for opening his “East End Coffee Tavern” and the clue is in the name that he gave his business.  Mr. Collier like many of his ‘temperance minded friends’ in the 1880’s were trying to establish “Coffee Taverns” to serve as an alternative to shebeens and other drinking establishments that served alcohol.

The Temperance Movement was at the height of its influence and membership in the 1880s. This was a society that condemned alcohol as the root of the problems of poverty and destitution. They bought up restaurants and music halls, trying to recreate the atmosphere of the coffee houses of the 16th century. Working men were encouraged to visit establishments like the East End Coffee Tavern, to eat nourishing but cheap food, and to drink coffee or tea instead of alcohol.

Hard to believe but some of our ancestors preferred a drink in the local tavern instead of going home. Collier and others reasoned with amusements like Billiards, Chess, or Chequers, a reading room providing daily and weekly newspapers and a good cup of coffee that they could entice a few away from the booze into having a good cup of coffee.

I will have a double, double, please!

Recommended Archival Collection:   At the Rooms Provincial Archives explore: MG 1009: Sons of Temperance, St. John‘s Division No. 3: Minutes of the Sons of Temperance for 1865-1867 beginning with the inaugural meeting. Minutes include lists of officers including ages and occupations of members, resolutions, finances, quarterly reports, membership fees, expenditures, etc.

Recommended Song: Murphy Broke the Pledge (Irish Descendants) based on the Johnny Burke Ballad, Murphy Broke the Pledge   [1851-1930] of St. John’s, NL (1894). This variant arranged by the Irish Descendants (Rollin Home, 1998)    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAUzJmUkC7A

“Making raids on the shebeens”


January, 1888

19th-century-liquor-bottles-levin-rodriguezTraveling about Newfoundland in the 1800’s would likely have been more of an adventure then it is nowadays, you would (if you were a drinker) have an occasion to visit a SHEBEEN operated by some very colorful characters.

A “shebeen” is an unlicensed place where illicit liquor is sold; in St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland, the term used was “sheveen.”

In the 1880’s you would have been welcomed to Twenty Mile Pond (now Windsor Lake, St. John’s) by the astute Peggy Rose the proprietor of a “snug shebeen.”  Peggy was not known for giving credit, your attention would be brought to the existence of her premises with a sign that declared “I’ve trusted many to my sorrow. / Pay to-day and trust tomorrow.’

Shebeens in the 1880’s had become so numerous on the Island that the government authorities of the day decided that they had be eradicated.  In Harbour Grace and Carbonear a special effort was being made. The local newspapers of the day reported:

“The guardians of the public peace here have been busily employed lately in making raids on the shebeens.”

In just one week in January 1888 at Harbour Grace, the newspaper correspondent wrote:

I was informed that last week, £70 was collected in fines. (In today’s dollars that would be about $8400.00)   So strictly is the law carried out that persons entering any of the suspected shops are arrested and put on oath as to the purpose for which said shops were visited.”

There was also a brisk trade in illicit alcohol in Carbonear.  The newspaper correspondent reported.

“At Carbonear also, energetic measures are being taken to stamp out the evil. One woman, who refuses to pay the fine very properly imposed, has had a barrel of sugar and chest of tea seized, which might be sold by auction.”

The courts in the process of trying to prosecute the public who frequented these illicit parlors and their proprietors had to listen to listen to a number of amusing stories.

The correspondent for the Twillingate Sun reported on January 5, 1888:

“A policeman entered a shebeen and found a number of persons drinking. A panic ensued, and there was a general stampede.   The transgressor of the law, on being brought before the magistrate, pleaded that he was merely entertaining a few friends. The Judge duly remarked he thought it a strange way to entertain friends, when the said friends tried to hide themselves and their drinking utensils away, on the approach of a constable.”

It is needless to say such a flimsy excuse was proved inadmissible.

Newfoundland Term: shebeen n also sheebeen, sheveen: Unlicensed place where illicit liquor is sold. [Dictionary of Newfoundland English]

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Rooms Provincial Archives explore the extensive newspaper collection. Read the “Letters to the Editor” to see what were the issues of the day.