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THE BOOK OF NEWFOUNDLAND

The Epic Tragedy of Bell Island

By PETER NEARY

 

Bell Island is situated in Conception Bay, with its long axis running in a northeast to southwest direction.  It is the largest of many islands in the Bay; in length its extremities are approximately six miles apart; its greatest breadth is approximately two and one-half miles.  It is separated from the surrounding mainland to the north and west by the great expanse of Conception Bay.  South and southwest of it lie two smaller islands - Little Bell Island and Kelly’s Island; the latter is believed in local lore to be named after a seventeenth century pirate.[1]  In an easterly direction the Island is separated from the adjoining coast by a ‘tickle’ approximately three miles wide.  Across this capricious body of water lie the two mainland centres which have been its principal transportation links - Portugal Cove and St. Phillips or, to use its older name, Broad Cove.

The side of the Island facing the tickle is known as “the front” (probably because it faces towards St. John’s); as might be expected, the opposite side of the Island is known as “the back.”  St. John’s is approximately nine miles from Portugal Cove and the road joining the two was one of the first highways built in Newfoundland and certainly one of the first to be paved.

Geologically, Bell Island presents a striking contrast to the surrounding coast.  Its appearance is that of a huge rock raised suddenly and cleanly from the deep.  Except in a very few places its massive cliffs drop precipitously into the sea.  At some point these awesome cliffs slope dangerously and deceptively inward from top to bottom.  The surface of the Island is furrowed; the soil is surprisingly fertile and generous for Newfoundland.  At almost every point on the Island there is a commanding view of the surrounding mainland.  From the seaward half of the Island the entrance to Conception Bay is, on most days, clearly visible, guarded on one side by the grand promontory of Cape St. Francis and on the other by the great sweep of the North Shore and by Baccalieu Island.  The climate of the Island, like that of Newfoundland generally, is one of violent contrasts.  Seen on a pristine summer day from, say, Beachy Cove Hill, near Portugal Cove, the Island has a dreamy, ethereal appearance.  But when in autumn the wind begins to blow ever more savagely from the northeast, its essential northern character is clearly revealed.  Once grasped, the setting is not soon forgotten.

The Island enters the stream of Canadian history at an early date.  It was probably frequented by visiting European fishermen of many nationalities during the sixteenth century.  Its strategic position in the Bay, its proximity to rich fishing grounds, the cosmopolitan character of the place-names on the surrounding coast, and indeed the very name Conception Bay itself, give strength to this assumption.  Certainly it was being visited by Europeans and later by their Newfoundland-born descendants from the early sixteenth century onwards, as Conception Bay gradually acquired a resident population and began the rise which for long made it the rival of St. John’s for ascendancy in Newfoundland life.  There are many references to the Island in the documents relating to the history of the settlement established by the London and Bristol Company at Cuper’s Cove (Cupids), Conception Bay, in 1610 under the leadership of John Guy.  It was in this plantation, on the “uncouth shores”[2] of Conception Bay that Robert Hayman, Canada’s first published poet, wrote his Quodlibets “Composed and done at Harbour-Grace,”[3] an offshoot of the original settlement.  This volume, written as George Wither noted “among unpeopled woods, and hills,”[4] was issued in London in 1628.  By then Bell Island was already associated with the product which would one day make it famous - iron ore.  John Guy himself sent samples of rock taken from the Island by a visiting fisherman to England to be analysed.[5]  But the best known publicist for the Island in the Guy colony was Henry Crout.  Concerning it Crout reported to Sir Percival Willoughby, one of the backers of the venture, that “the like land is not in Newfoundland for good earth and great hope of Irone stone.”[6]  Confident of the mineral potential of the Island Willoughby attempted unsuccessfully over many years to have it included in the lot he obtained out of the original grant to the London and Bristol Company.[7]  His confidence was not misplaced, but the mining boom he hoped for did not materialize for nearly three hundred years.  In the meantime Bell Island remained an integral part of the fishing economy of Conception Bay and the unique outport way of life which that economy fostered.

Thomas Osborne’s Collection of Voyages and Travels contains an interesting eighteenth century reference to the Island.  One of the items in this collection is an account of a disaster at sea which left a number of the crew of the vessel bound from Plymouth to Newfoundland adrift on some loose ice with only a small boat at their command.  Among others cast adrift on the ice was Allen Geare, to whom the account in Osborne’s book is attributed.  After many harrowing experiences Geare and some of his companions were able to make their way to Portugal Cove.  From there they were transported to Bell Island where they “were received very courteously,” being “carried ashore on Men’s shoulders.”[8]  “When we landed,” the account concludes, “we were so disfigured ... that we appeared as monsters rather than men, of which nothing but the shape was left; yet, in all this extremity, God miraculously preserved nine of ninety-six that were in the ship.”[9]


In May, 1839 the English scientist Joseph Jukes (1811-1869) visited Bell Island at the start of his great geological survey of Newfoundland, the first ever undertaken.  He circumnavigated the Island and observed “several houses and inhabitants” at the two coves on the tickle side - “the beach” and “Lants Cove.”[10]  Despite the buffeting he received from “a headwind and swell and thick driving fog” Jukes, an astute observer of nature and an appreciative student of Newfoundland life, was greatly impressed by what he saw.[11]  “There was,” he wrote later, “a fine scene, to one unaccustomed to the sight, in the dim looming through the fog of each precipitous headland as they successively appeared, frowning nakedly above us as we passed beneath their feet, and then seeming to wrap themselves in cloud again as we laboured slowly onwards.”[12]  Jukes enjoyed his excursion but like many others who have ventured onto the waters of Conception Bay before and since, he was “heartily glad” to land again at Portugal Cove.[13]

By Jukes’s time the economy of Conception Bay had reached an advanced stage of development; indeed, the people of the Bay were now entering upon their greatest period of maritime activity.  The vitality of their ocean-based economy “was clearly evident in the demography of Newfoundland.  According to the 1827-28 census, the population of St. John’s district was 15,165, while that of Conception Bay, the most populous district on the island, was 17,859.[14]  According to the 1857 census St. John’s East had a population of 17,352, St. John’s West 13,124 and the five sub-divisions of Conception Bay - Harbour Main, Port-De-Grave, Harbour Grace, Carbonear and Bay-de-Verde - 33,396.  In the latter census three Conception Bay centres - Bell Island, Bauline and Portugal Cove - were included in St. John’s East, while Broad Cove was included in St. John’s West.  Touching the Bay but separated from St. John’s by only a few miles, these communities felt the pull of the two contending commercial and social systems.  In effect they formed a frontier region between the Bay and the capital.  In 1869 the combined population of the St. John’s districts, including these four centres, had declined to 28,850; Conception Bay now boasted a population of 39,485.  The equivalent figures for 1891 are 36,027 and 46,529.  But during the next twenty years the centre of population in the region shifted dramatically towards St. John’s.  In 1911 the population of St. John’s districts numbered 45,685; Conception Bay’s population now stood at 43,709.  By 1921 the population of Conception Bay had declined to 42,756, while that of the St. John’s districts had risen to 52,158.  Table 1 shows the evolution of the population of the region in greater detail.


         

Table 1

 

POPULATION OF ST. JOHN’S DISTRICTS AND CONCEPTION BAY DISTRICTS 1857-1921*

Year

St. John’s East

St. John’s West

St. John’s Total

Harbour Main

Port De Grave

Harbour Grace

Carbonear

Bay De Verde

Conception Bay - Total

1857

17,352

13,124

30,476

5, 386

6,489

10,067

5,233

6,221

33,396

1869

17,204

11,646

28,850

6,542

7,513

12,740

5,633

7,057

39,485

1874

17,811

12,763

30,574

7,174

7,919

13,055

5,488

7,434

41,070

1884

22,183

15,962

38,145

8,935

8,698

14,727

6,206

10,099

48,665

1891

20,776

15,251

36,027

9,189

7,986

13,881

5,765

9,708

46,529

1901

21,512

18,483

39,995

9,500

7,445

12,671

5,024

9,827

44,467

1911

25,135

20,550

45,685

9,471

6,986

11,925

5,114

10,213

43,709

1921

28,419

23,739

52,158

9,262

6,545

11,453

4,830

10,666

42,756

*Source: Newfoundland census returns


      

TABLE II

 

POPULATION OF BELL ISLAND, 1845-1971*

1845

338

1857

428

1869

504

1874

576

1884

651

1891

709

1901

1,320

1911

3,084

1921

4,357

1935

6,157

1945

8,171

1951

10,291

1956

11,724

1961

12,281

1966

9,090

1971

6,079

*source: Newfoundland census returns; Census of Canada.

As Table II shows, Bell Island’s demographic history mirrored that of the region generally.  The great change that occurred between 1891 and 1911 corresponds to the beginning of large scale mineral production on the Island in 1895.  Clearly, in this period events on Bell Island were not only reflecting but significantly influencing the shift in the economic balance of power between St. John’s and Conception Bay in favour of the former.


But before the subject of Bell Island the mining centre can be sensibly discussed it is necessary to explore further the nature of the maritime economy of Conception Bay, which was so evidently in decline when Bell Island’s industrial economy was ascending at the turn of the century.  This exploration is important for many reasons, not least because a large part of the industrial labour force for Bell Island was drawn from the Conception Bay towns.  In its mid-nineteenth century maritime greatness Conception Bay enjoyed a diverse and sophisticated commerce.  In his Narrative of a Journey Across the Island of Newfoundland in 1822 William Cormack described Conception Bay as “the most populous and important district in Newfoundland.”[15]  His description was apt, for in addition to the inshore fishery in and near the Bay itself, the people of this area enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century the fruits of two other great harvests of the sea.  The first of these was to be found in the seal fishery, which was pursued with a vengeance from the Conception Bay ports every spring.  In 1833 Conception Bay sent 205 ships to the ice as compared with 110 from St. John’s and 359 from the island as a whole.[16]  The Conception Bay ships were manned by 4,526 men as compared to 2,536 on the ships sailing from St. John’s.[17]  In 1848 the Conception Bay ports of Brigus, Carbonear and Harbour Grace sent 171 ships to the ice out of a Newfoundland total of 341.[18]  The other great maritime enterprise of the Bay was the fishery carried on each summer on the north shore of Newfoundland and, more importantly, on the coast of Labrador.  This enterprise carried the people of the Bay even farther afield than did the seal fishery.  Between their homes and the rich fishing grounds of the north lay hundreds of miles of treacherous sea.  But their resourcefulness and seamanship was such that for generations they were the winners in an endeavour that Norman Duncan (1871-1916) once described as “a great lottery of hope and fortune.”[19]  It has been estimated that between 1812 and 1933 vessels from Conception Bay outnumbered vessels from St. John’s two or three to one in this trade, with Harbour Grace leading the way.[20]  By 1847 nearly 2000 people in this community alone were involved in the Labrador trade.[21]  From an early date in their history, therefore, the people of Conception Bay were wanderers, willing to travel great distances and to endure great hardship and risk to augment the income that could be obtained from their immediate surroundings.

When the young Irish immigrant Thomas Talbot arrived in Conception Bay in 1837 what struck him as remarkable about Harbour Grace was the notable absence of so many people from the town:


“I often passed along the whole line of the chief street or path, which was about a mile in length, without meeting a dozen persons, and these chiefly very old and very young persons.  This was owing to the fact of the fishing population, that is, the planters and the fishermen, with most of the members of their families, being absent at the Labrador in the prosecution of the cod, salmon, and herring fisheries.  This was, and still is, the case with respect to most parts of the country; but especially so as regards Conception Bay.

“They leave generally towards the end of May, and return at the middle or end of September.  During that time the towns and villages of this bay, as well as most of the other bays, are partially deserted, and look as if they were stricken by a plague.  One gets used to this, however, after a short time, and becomes easily reconciled to it.  When the fishing population returns in the autumn the scene becomes changed, and a universal buzz of animation and excitement pervades town and farm.  The cargoes of fish and oil brought from the Labrador are deposited in the merchant’s stores, wages are paid, the shops are crowded, the streets full of bustle, and every one is filled with a renewed life.  The fields are also filled with busy and noisy groups of labourers gathering in the harvest, and nothing seems wanted to the satisfied air of plenty and enjoyment reigning around.”[22]

The whole maritime enterprise of Conception Bay was based on an elaborate line of credit extended by the mercantile houses of the principal towns.  The best known of these were located at Harbour Grace and Carbonear.  The biography of Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) by his son Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) affords an interesting glimpse into the daily life of one such firm.[23]  The subject of this biography worked from 1827 to 1835 as a clerk in the Carbonear office of the Poole firm of Harrison, Slade and Company.  His manuscript notes and the letters he wrote while apprenticed to this firm are quoted extensively in the biography and offer a unique insight into the state of Conception Bay society in this period.  Interposed between the mercantile houses and mass of the people were the planters.  These were the foremen of old Newfoundland, the organizers of the world of work.  Edmund Gosse gives the following account of them:

“What society Carbonear possessed was mainly to be met with in the houses of the planters, several of whom were wealthy and hospitable.  The name ‘planter’ ... had no connection with the cultivation of the soil, although doubtless inherited from colonies where it had that meaning.  In Newfoundland the word designated a man who owned a schooner, in which he prosecuted one or both of the two fisheries of the colony, that for seals in spring and that for cod in winter.  In Carbonear, a town of some two thousand five hundred inhabitants in 1828, there were about seventy planters, whose dealings were distributed amongst the mercantile houses of the place.  Of these, about twenty-five were fitted out by the firm in which my father was a clerk, that of Messrs. Slade, Elson, and Co.


“In general, business was carried on upon the following terms.  The mercantile firm, having a house in England as well as one in Newfoundland, imported into the island, from various ports of Europe and America, all supplies needful for local consumption and for the prosecution of the fisheries, the colony itself producing no provisions except fish, fresh meat, oats, and a few vegetables.  The planter was supplied by his merchant, and always on credit, with everything requisite, the whole produce of his voyage being bound to be delivered to the house.  The planter shipped a crew, averaging about eighteen hands to each schooner, who (in the seal-fishery) claimed one-half of the gross produce to be divided among them; the other half going to the owner, who in most instances commanded his own vessel.  The names of the crew having been registered at the counting-house, each man was allowed to take up goods on the credit of the voyage, to a certain amount, perhaps one-third, or even one-half, of his probable earnings.  The clerks were the judges of the amount.  For these goods both planter and crew applied at the office, in order, and received tickets, or notes, for the several articles.”[24] 

In Harbour Grace (and therefore in the whole Bay area) the largest and most influential of the nineteenth century mercantile houses was that built by John Munn.  Munn was born in Scotland and came to Newfoundland in 1825, where he worked for eight years for the firm of Baine Johnson and Company.[25]  He moved to Harbour Grace in 1833 and opened a business in partnership with William Punton, another Scot, operating first under the name of Punton and Munn and, after 1872, under the name of John Munn and Company.  Munn built the business into “the colony’s largest general supplying and mercantile business outside St. John’s.”[26]  In addition to its involvement in the Labrador and seal fisheries, the Munn firm built ships.  It also owned the Harbour Grace Standard and Munn was one of the founders of the Union Banks of St. John’s.  That Harbour Grace was often referred to as “Munnsborough” is a measure of his importance in the life of Conception Bay.[27]

Between the mercantile houses and the people there existed a patron-client relationship.  In general the way of life which the economic system of the bay fostered focussed on the extended family, which was equipped to provide most of the basic necessities of life for itself.  Organized to extract from land and sea all that could be got, the family also provided an elaborate if somewhat primitive system of social security.  Children were absorbed into the system through example and work and the old retained a place of honour and usefulness in the home.  The prevailing ethos of the Bay was familial and (the document ends abruptly here.)



[1]E. R. Seary, Place Names of the Avalon Peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland (Toronto, 1971), 64-65

[2]Robert Hayman, Quodlibets (London, 1628)

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Gillian T. Cell, English Enterprise in Newfoundland, 1577-1660 (Toronto, 1969), 63

[6]Ibid., 72

[7]Ibid., 66, 72

[8]Allen Geare, “Ebenezer or a Monument of Thankfulness” in Thomas Osborne, Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1745), 792

[9]Ibid.

[10]J. B. Jukes, Excursions in and about Newfoundland during the years 1839 and 1840 (London, 1842), Vol. 1, 31

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Journal of the House of Assembly, 1833, Appendix, 64

[15]W. E. Cormack, Narrative of a Journey Across the Island of Newfoundland in 1822, F. A. Bruton ed. (London, 1928), 8.

[16]Shannon Ryan, “The Newfoundland Cod Fishery in the Nineteenth Century,” unpublished M. W. thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1971, 8

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Norman Duncan, Dr. Grenfell’s Parish (New York, 1905), 13-14

[20]Ryan, 48-49

[21]Ibid., 49

[22]Thomas Talbot, Newfoundland: or, a letter addressed to a friend in Ireland in relation to the condition and circumstances of the island of Newfoundland (London, 1882), 13-14

[23]Edmond Gosse, The Life of Philip Henry Gosse (London, 1890)

[24]Ibid., 47-48

[25]Elizabeth A. Wells in Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto, 1972), vol. X, 538

[26]Ibid.

[27]Ibid.

 

Page Contributed by: Barbara McGrath
Page transcribed by: Ivy Benoit (May 2001)
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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