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History of King's Cove





There is no subject of greater interest than the study of how the early settlers managed to build their houses and fit them with chimneys, windows, glass, locks and other furniture so difficult of acquisition in those days. The pioneers, however, appear to have laughed at difficulties; for none of them thought it a matter worth recording. Their trials, struggles and disappointments have been buried in oblivion. There is no record of their heroism.

It was to be expected that immigrants coming from a country where stone was the chief building material, should have built clumsily and defectively with wood. The first houses were draughty, cold and uncomfortable. No sheathing paper or matched board was used in the early days, and as a result, the high winter winds forced themselves through the chinks and made the houses ice boxes. The early settlers did not seem to realise the great amount of cold that can enter a house from beneath the floor. None of them seem to have adopted the modern system of excluding draughts from underneath the floors. Beneath the floors the goats rested from the mid-day sun in summer and the homeless dogs found there some shelter in winter nights. The continuous rush of cold air beneath the floor drew away the heat from the rooms above. The open fireplaces and wide chimneys also allowed the heat to escape. Floors were single. The single uncanvassed floor was another factor in allowing heat to escape. Storm sashes were unknown. One guard against cold they adopted; they screened their beds with canopies. In building, there was no attempt to place the posts on bedrock. The result was that the houses were continually heaving with the winter frosts. Often, at night, the occupants were aroused suddenly from their sleep by the noise of nails bending or breaking in boards forced from their usual places by the heaving of the house. This alternate heaving and falling of the house had the effect of rendering it more draughty from year to year.

It was fortunate that plenty of wood could be procured; for with open fire places enormous quantities of wood were consumed in heating and cooking. Cod-oil and candles were the illuminants till the introduction of the kerosene lamp in the year 1870. Stoves, floor-canvas and lucifer matches came into use about the same time. The comfort and conveniences introduced by these three domestic improvements were marvellous The old wide chimneys were closed up, the back of the chimney whitewashed, and the large irregular flags of the hearth replaced by bricks which were reddened every Saturday afternoon with powdered brick and water. The sand was swept off the floor and the gayly-flowered canvas put down. The evil-smelling cod-oil lamp was thrown on the garbage heap and the glass kerosene lamp with its bit of red flame in the bottom to add colour, was hung by the wall. The tinder box followed the cod-oil lamp.

Friendly intercourse from house to house was more common than it is to-day. Winter brought with it certain brief periods of leisure during which the men assembled in knots and discussed the events of the day. Visiting neighbours was a relief from the monotony of outport life. No one thought of knocking before entering; you simply lifted the latch and went in. If you were not welcome you soon found this out; the silent greeting warned you that your presence was not desirable. The election year was always an inexhaustible source of discussion and the prospective weddings a delightful theme for the women and girls at the quilting and matting parties.

Besides the frequent dances there were raffles for some poor widow or other charitable object. There was a great variety of indoor games to fill in the long nights such as, Forfeits, Hide the-button, Hunt-the-slipper, Ride-the-gray-Mare, Start-the-cask-out-of-the-Cargo, and My-man-John.

Christmastide was anticipated keenly by young and old. It was mummering time. Long before Christmas, considerable time was spent on designing costumes and fantastic rigs. Christmas Eve ushered in the mummering period, and for a whole fortnight, the night air was tortured by the inarticulate cries peculiar to "jannies". The mummers went around in groups of various numbers touring the village from one end to the other. There was a heroic folk-play brought by the Irish immigrants from the "Old Country" that used to be performed by the young men during the Christmas holidays. The actors personated of the great heroes of history, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander, Doctors Faustus, Sir Isaac Newton, St. George, St. Patrick. But times have changed. To-day, the tidy housewife will not admit nine or ten roughly shod boys on her red-and-white chequered canvas. In the olden days, the sanded floor could stand consid goat-skin head. The cymbals were two pot covers. The triangle was a pair of tongs, and the tambourine was a tinpan or a metal tray. One Christmas Eve night, Stephen Ryan of Broad Cove played the tambourine. The night being chilly, and his hands exposed, they lost their sensitiveness, and when the parade was over, his knuckles were a mass of mangled flesh and blood. The incident is trivial; but it shows the hilarious fervor of the amusements of the olden days.

This violin band made itself prominent on other occasions. When Bishop Carfagnini of Harbour Grace made his first episcopal visit to King Cove in May 1873 the violin band greeted him on his approach from Trinity. The band accompanied by the whole populace, went out three miles on the Trinity road expecting to meet His Lordship at that point; but there was a delay and they proceeded two miles further. At the signal of the Bishop's arrival, there was a deafening salvo from dozens of sealing guns, and when the report died away, the Violin band sent forth the lively strains of "The White Cockade" and the "Rakes of Mallow." The latter air was hardly appropriate to greet two dignitaries of the church; but it must be remembered that in these early days the band's repertoire of music suitable for triumphal processions was undoubtedly limited. Tradition has remembered only four of the musicians who took part in that demonstration, namely: P. Murphy, R Lawton, M. Lawton and Jim Costello. It formed the orchestra at the theatrical performances and some of its members accompanied the Choir at Benediction at Sunday evening Service.

The chief dances of the old days were the cotillion, eight-handed red, single step and kissing dance. After the cotillion was finished, it was an unwritten law that each couple should dance a single step. The reel was an intricate and laborious dance and necessitated some preliminary practice in order to master its involutions. It was long and sweat producing and the male performers uniformly sought the outside air after each performance, while the female performers fanned themselves in a cool corner. The generation now passing were youngsters then; but they can recall the glamour which the dances at the "Big House" (as Big Allie's house was called) used to throw around them on a fine summer night when the gay dancers came out on the long front gallery to cool off, and we saw them through the trees saunter back and forth across the lighted windows. Looking back one is reminded of Byron's lines on the festivities at Belgium's capital. For Mrs. Murphy was indeed a chieftain, and the end of all the gay dancing in the "Big House" was as tragic as the end of Bunswicks's fated chieftain.

If the habitues of the modern dance halls were compelled to go through a cotillion or a reel of the olden days, they would be prostrated for weeks thereafter. The dancers disdained ballroom etiquette when choosing a partner for a dance. They simply walked over to the damsel and without speaking, took her hand She, silently acquiesced and took her place on the floor. When the dance was finished, her partner dropped her like a hot potato, without a word of thanks or any other ceremony, and left her to find a seat as best she could.

The cotillion was less laborous than the reel; and also less interesting. It was an inartistic dance. Its chief characteristics were an alternate time-beating by the men and their partner in the centre of the ring, followed by a violent swinging and a grand chain. This was repeated ad infinitum or as long as the participants could hold out. In the single-step dancing every dancer danced to his own favorite air; and the fiddler was expected to respond to the individual demands made upon his musical repertoire. The most frequent calls were for "The Wind That Shaked the Barley", and "The Rakes of Kildare."

Dancing was followed by singing. Those who could sing had to sing; no excuses were admissible. The songs were mostly of the sentimental type, and depicted the woes of the rejected lover.

There was usually some incident to add spice and variety to a ball of the olden days. As the ceilings were low,-not much over six feet-and the second floor beams were exposed, a tall man had to do most of his dancing between the beams, and had to maintain a stooping position during the "grand chain." As one of the rules of the cotillion was that the final beat of the last bar of the music should be accompanied by the dancers bringing down both feet together with as loud a "whelt" as possible, it was not unusual for one or more dancers to break through the single floor. An incident of this kind compelled the suspension of the dance till a new piece of board was procured; but instead of being considered an annoyance, it enhanced the terpsichorean notoriety of the dancer. Occasionally, those who were not invited to the dance, vented their displeasure by throwing one or more dead cats down the open chimney.

Occasionally, too, a good-looking girl was the source of an amorous jealousy which in the early hours of the morning disrupted the whole proceedings, and sent the jealous wooers out in the road to argue or fight the matter out. The most spectacular of these love comedies happened in the winter of 1872 at a dance held by the dramatic troupe in Pat Dwyer's old house. A certain young lady who was openly catering to the dalliances of an amorous swain, declined the offer of a dance from another ardent admirer. This aroused a violent jealousy in the latter. Sparks began to fly and as the adversaries glared at each other, the worst was feared. There was an ominous rush towards the door; for notwithstanding the comparative primitiveness of these days, there was an instinctive respect for the sanctity of their patron's house. Moreover it was considered that the open air was the proper place for the settlement of disputes of this kind. So there in front of Tom Brown's old house. in shirt sleeves and bare heads in the raw humid dawning of a March Sunday morning, the two adversaries argued till the onlookers, standing around on the snowBankss became bored and wearied by the incessant repetition of childish recrimination, quitted the scene to go home to breakfast. The drizzly atmosphere had a cooling effect on the protagonists who soon sought their homes also.

In McBraire's time horse-racing in winter on the harbor-ice was a favourite sport. The course was from Western Point to Sampson's Rock. Mr. Hartery, McBraire's, book-keeper was usually the winner. He was the champion so often that he was nicknamed "Chiffeney"-from the famous English jockey of that period.

There were times when provisions ran short, and the spectre of starvation was staring people in the face. The winter following the failure of Munn & Carroll was a gloomy one. Munn's vessels had taken away the summer's catch and no provisions had come back in return. No flour was obtainable in King's Cove that winter and one was lucky to get Indian meal. In our own day of plenty one looks back with sadness to these old days when five or six men had to tramp eighteen miles to Trinity for a barrel of yellow corn meal, and haul it through snow-Bankss with ropes over their shoulders. It was a pioneer's life,-stern, hard and reletent less. It is presumed that there was some good flour in these days, but we in the outports saw none of it. The most of the flour was yellow and bitter; accidentally one may happen to get a barrd that was palatable. The necessity of testing the flour before buying was acknowledged by the manufacturers; for they provided a small wooden stopper or "tester" about an inch and a half in diameter in the head of every barrel. It was an interesting sight to see crowds of fishermen getting their winter's supply of flour, each smoothing out a spoonful of flour on the palm of his hand with his pocket knife and testing it frequently. If the flour did not satisfy the intending purchaser, he replaced the "trier" and began to test another barrel.

On one occasion the ice remained in late in the Spring and provisions ran short especially in Broad Cove. The Broad Cove men heard there were some provisions in Catalina. They marched to Catalina in a body,-a distance of twenty-five miles-and asked the owner to give them some provisions till they would catch fish to repay him. He refused. The men then took a large boom and broke in the door. Every man took a half bag of hard bread on his back and walked back to Broad Cove, covering a distance of fifty miles in the one day. The Government later compensated the storekeeper for the goods taken.

Broad Cove-three miles from King's Cove-was in the early days inhabited solely by Irishmen. It was a picturesque sight to see them riding on horseback to Mass at King's Cove on Sunday mornings. Arriving at King's Cove, they threw their bridles over the chapel fence palings and greeted the King's Cove Irishmen with many a "Cead Mille Failtha"-a hundred thousand welcomes. The Wexford men spoke in English; but the Cork and Kerry men used Irish

Whilst the fisheries were good, times were prosperous. But towards the "sixties" symptoms of widespread depression began to show themselves. The old-time seal fishery had gone out and the cod fishery was gradually failing. Population was increasing, and the economic resources of the country were not developing proportionally. Bad times were looming ahead; something had to be done. In the Legislative Session of 1860 Governor Bannerman urged the Government "that no pains be spared to give encouragement to the development of Agriculture in order to prevent as far as possible the labouring classes resorting to pauper relief."

From this time on, the people were exhorted to go in for land cultivation and take in arable land wherever available. The slogan in King's Cove and other near-by settlements was "You can't starve on potatoes and herring."

Meanwhile, the Government, fearful of the continuation of these lean years of meal and molasses, sent a delegation to Ottawa to discuss with the Canadian Government the question of confederating with the Dominion. The Newfoundland people however, rejected the idea in the 1869 election as noted elsewhere.

The effect of the depressed times was that the young men were getting restless. One by one they were leaving for Boston and British Columbia where better opportunities awaited them. The young women began to follow their example and the once thriving village of King's Cove became only a shadow of its former self. The old King's Cove is gone; the best we can do is to give a picture of it in its balmy days.

Like most other settlements in Newfoundland. King's Cove has had its tragedies. The earliest recorded was the loss of the sealing schooner "John" with all hands,-a crew of forty-two. She was never heard from; how and where she went down remains a mystery.

An event which cast a gloom for many years over King's Cove was the loss of the schooner "Edward" in 1876. She was owned by Michael Murphy and Sons and had the following crew: Michael McGrath (father of the late Bernard McGrath); his son Jim; Jimmy Flynn (father of the late M. T. Flynn of Marystown); his son Dan; William Doyle (father of the late Capt. Tom Doyle) and a boy named Skeffington. The schooner left St. John's on the afternoon of December 16th, 1876 with a load of provisions for King's Cove and has never been heard from since.

In April 1869 John and Richard Kennifick and John Sullivan of Broad Cove were drowned at St. Croix near Keels, and the following day Larry Walsh was drowned at Knight's Cove Point. All of them were on the ice seal-hunting and went down through the broken ice.

An event which cast a gloom over the village was the drowning of Richard Handcock of Knight's Cove on the 15th of August (Lady Day) 1877. It is customary for parishioners to donate their catch of fish on the 15th of August (the Feast of the Assumption) to the Church. Handcock and Billy Ricketts were in the same boat and were returning with a good catch when a sudden squall overturned the boat and Handcock was drowned; Ricketts kept himself afloat till he was rescued by his brother who was not far off at the time of the accident. Father Veitch felt the tragedy keenly and on the following Sunday referred to it in regretful terms.

In the Fall of 1829 the "Agnes" was chartered at St. John's to load fish at King's Cove for a foreign market. Thomas McGrath who was at St. John's at the time, was engaged as pilot to take her to King's Cove. Between Western Point and Southern Head something gave out aloft and the mainsail had to be lowered. It was near nightfall and before repairs could be effected, night came on bringing with it a blinding snow storm and a north-west hurricane which lasted several days. The vessel never reached King's Cove. During the winter a vessel reached Trinity and reported having encountered the "Agnes" in mid-ocean with her spars cut away and no crew on board. There was no further news of her till the following May when Thomas McGrath arrived in King's Cove. He then told the story of his adventure. As they were nearing King's Cove, the north-west gale drove them outside the Grand Bankss. The ballast shifted and the "Agnes" was thrown on her beam ends. The spars were cut away and she righted. The ballast was replaced but she began to leak badly, and for 17 days they laboured night and day to keep her free. At the end of that time they sighted a vessel from Miramichi lumber-laden and bound for Liverpool, England. The shipwrecked crew were taken on board this vessel and landed at Liverpool. McGrath went to Waterford, Ireland in which port he was fortunate in finding a vessel ready to sail for King's Cove.

The following year-1830-Thomas McGrath commanded the sealer "John" at the icefields and a crew of nineteen. The "John" never returned. It is presumed that she went down in the heavy storm which occurred on April 15th of that Spring. Her loss was a terrible tragedy for a small hamlet like King's Cove. Long into the sunny days of May and even June the anxious eyes of distraught wives scanned the horizon from Western Point for a glimpse of the overdue sealer; but in vain. No doubt some of them hoped that a passing ship may have picked up the missing crew; but even that hope died out when with the superstitious credulity of these early days they listened to old Mrs. Barrett of 'Longshore' tell how she saw the crew of the "John" one night walk down the harbor in single file and disappear in the sea below her house. And Thomas McGrath who had left the green hills of Clonmel to fight the battle of Life, found his resting place in the turbulent waters of the North Atlantic.

Another marine tragedy connected with the history of King's Cove was the loss of the "King's Cove" in the early part of the 19th century. She left King's Cove with a cargo of fish in drums for Brazil. She never reached her destination. It was reported at one time that she had been captured by pirates and the crew murdered; but there was never any confirmation of this report.

An event which brought sorrow to the Murphy family was the tragic death of Bernard Murphy on a beautiful January Sunday morning in 1872. There was no priest in King's Cove at this time, and the chapel bell was ringing for the reciting of the Rosary by the school teacher, when the news spread that Bernard Murphy's house was on fire. A large crowd soon collected and buckets of water rushed along; but the building soon became a mass of flame. An attempt was made to pull down the house by putting a rope around it; but this proved ineffectual. Meanwhile anxiety as to the safety of the owner became general; for he was nowhere to be seen. It was known that he had gone on the attic with a bucket of water but whether he came down seemed to be uncertain. This uncertainty was however allayed for a time by a rumour that he had been seen running up the harbor in his shirt sleeves shortly after the alarm of fire was given. All doubt was set at rest a few hours later when his charred body was found in the burning debris. He was a brother of Pat Murphy for many years postmaster at King's Cove.

Tragedy seemed to dog the steps of Bernard Murphy's widow. She was Miss Elizabeth Gould, daughter of Michael Gould of Carbonear. She had been married previously to Arthur Thomey of Harbour Grace. Her first sorrow came to her when after a few brief months of married life, she had to hear the news of her husband's death by drowning at the ice-fields. The following summer, she happened to become acquainted with Mrs. Murphy-"Big Allie"-who invited her to spend the summer at King's Cove. There she met and married Bernard. After the latter's death she removed to Harbor Grace. Her daughter, Alice, died of consumption and her two grandchildren, Ron and Tom McGrath met untimely deaths-the former being killed in the Great War and the latter, who was a marine engineer, fell in the hold of his ship and was killed. Her third husband, John Thomey of the Harbor Grace Customs died suddenly on the Custom House steps not withstanding all her troubles she lived to the good round age of eighty-three years.

Her name deserves to be recorded in the annals of King's Cove. She was the leader of the first Catholic choir established by Father Veitch. In these early days, hymn books had not yet reached King's Cove, and the choir leader found it difficult to obtain music for the few hymns that were found necessary for the church services. The difficulty was surmounted by adopting well-known airs such as the "Meeting of the Waters", "Tara's Hall" and others to the hymns.

There are certain spots in and around King's Cove that will always fill a part of the King Covian exiles' dreams. Though nothing big or momentous happened at these spots, the thoughts and feelings that centered around them in boyhood will hallow them for ever in their memories. What King's Covian will ever forget Sampson's Rock? It was the village "Swimmin' Hole". To the young King's Covian in his untravelled days it seemed of immense breadth and depth. Today there seems to be scarcely enough of water in it to wash one's feet. But we can recall with what a thrill of pleasure and even heroism we ventured for the first time to dive off the "Rock" and swim across to the opposite Banks, a distance of seven or eight feet.

And who will forget "Gully Pond"? During the summer holidays we went there at least once a day. It was a mile or so outside the village. Those who had mastered the difficulties of Sampson's Rock had to be initiated into the hazards of Gully Pond. There was a small boulder about thirty feet from the shore. You passed your second degree in swimming when you could swim to that rock without faltering. You were given your third degree when you showed courage enough to dive off the lower rail of a stage head. You received your unwritten diploma when with a swaggering nonchalance you stepped on the top rail and buried yourself in the sparkling water below.

The "Oak Gulch" held a mystery for the boys of King's Cove into a cleft in the cliff at the water's edge had been driven a piece of oak scantling twenty-five or thirty feet long. It fitted the cleft so snugly that it was inconceivable how it had been driven there It had evidently been there for generations and a few superstitious tales grew up around it. Recently Austin Lawton braved the superstitious fears connected with the stick, crawled into the cleft and with chisel and saw removed the piece of scantling bit by bit.

The Pond-a small lake separating the north side of King's Cove from the south side-at times, especially at night-adds to the picturesqueness of the village by its various changes of mood. These changes are described by the local poetess-Miss Bertille Tobin in another chapter.

Sarah Brien's Hill will always be the landmark for which the homecomer will eagerly scan the horizon. It is an irregular plateau overlooking the village and sheltering it from the south-west gales. Before the fire of 1892 it was a beautiful hill thickly clothed to the summit with spruce, birch and fir. To-day, its granitic sides are bare of vegetation.

But still the exiled Kingscovian's pulses beat fast when he catches the first glimpse of Sarah Brien's Hill which looms up as the harbor is approached. For it has sheltered King's Cove from the south-west storms during the ages. And no wonder some sympathetic local poet has adapted the following lines to its memory:

      "Oh Sarah Brien, loved Sarah Brien, how oft I dream of thee;
      And of the days when by your side I wondered young and free;
      Full many a land I've seen since then
      Through Pleasure's flowery maze;
      But never could find the bliss again
      I felt in those sweet days."

An interesting event was the annual haul of wood for the priest and parson. On the appointed days, gangs of men started off to the woods-some with axes and others with dog-slides. All day long the woods resounded with the jingle of axes, the barking of dogs and the shouting of youngsters who had seized the opportunity to make a gala day of it. Several loads were brought out during the day. This hard days work of tramping and hauling through the woods was done in no niggardly or bargaining manner; for the day was to end up in an outburst of music and jubilation, as befitted the occasion. Was not the clergy man the light of the village-not only spiritually, but to many, a helper in their mundane affairs.

As the last loads came out, the slides were decorated with flags, and all the available violinists were ordered to take their places on the tops of the loads. As the long stream of dogs and horses passed in to the clergyman's backyard, he stood at the gate and greeted with radiant smiles the bustling haulers with oft repeated "Well done my brave fellows, well done."

There are only two religious denominations in King's Cove- the Church of England and the Roman Catholic. From the earliest history of the place, the greatest harmony and co-operation have existed between these two denominations. Both parties have contributed mutually to the erection of their school and church buildings. An example of this liberality of spirit was evidenced when the late Bishop Carfagnini made his first episcopal visit to King's Cove in 1873. Mr. J. C. Sheares-a prominent Church of England business man of the town, erected an arch at his own expense opposite his place of business.

An earlier instance of this friendly feeling is evident from the bantering way in which old William Brown (whose business career we have already noted) and Father Scanlan-the parish priest accosted each other. Here is a sample of their frequent encounter:

William Brown: Ha, you got your pockets full of dues now, I suppose, from the poor people."

Father Scanlan: "Ha, you old rascal, you never sent me the punt you promised me to paint the church."

    "Well then" agreed William. "by the livin'man, you'll have it fo-morrow."

    "By the livin'man" was his familiar expletive.

Within recent history, King's Cove was threatened by fire three times. On June 16th, 1828, a forest fire broke out on Plate Cove Road-west of the settlement-and fanned by a smart breeze. soon swept down towards "Steady Water" valley about half a mile west of the harbor. As night set in, immense volumes of smoke and fire shrouded the sky, and as the night advanced, a wall of fire illuminated the village. Nobody went to bed that night. All household goods and fishing gear were removed to the water's edge. But about half past one o'clock that night, the wind veered to the South-west, carrying the fire away from Steady Water on to Broad Cove-three miles to the north of King's Cove The houses on the north side of King's Cove barely escaped. The change of wind was so sudden that King's Cove escape seemed miraculous.

The fire struck the houses at Broad Cove and destroyed all of them except one-that of Thomas Carew. By 8 p.m. that evening, everything was in ashes stores, stages and flakes. John Skeffington lost a store full of Bummer fishery supplies. A heavy rain followed the fire next day and the residents were enabled to begin again the rebuilding of their homes.

How the Broad Cove people managed to survive this tragedy, with all their belongings reduced to ashes at the commencement of the fishing season, no one seems to have left a record. But such misfortunes were the constant lot of the early settlers, and we must come to the conclusion that our forefathers were men of grit and indomitable courage.

Since that time, King's Cove has had two narrow escapes from destruction by forest fires. In 1869, a huge fire swept down towards the village from the south-west; but fortunately only reached the outskirts. In 1892-the year of the St John's fire- the village was threatened again. Sarah Brien's hill which had from time immemorial been covered from its summit to its base with spruce and fir, became a prey to the devouring monster, which blackened its granitic sides and it has never since fully recovered its pristine beauty.

Previous to 1871 no photographer had visited King's Cove and there are no extant photographs of the residents who died before that date. In that year a photographer named Campbell spent several months in the village. He had his "dark room" in a corner of the "oilstore" of Michael Murphy & Sons. All his photos were of the "tintype" process. Mr. Campbell afterwards became a clerk in the General Post Office, St. John's. A few years later a Mr. Chisholm from Nova Scotia came to King's Cove and spent some time photographing. His work was of the modern "dryplate" type.


Page transcribed by: Bill Crant May, 2000
Page revised: Sept 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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