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The Rendells of Cochrane Street


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



Job Brothers and Company, the St. John's-based mercantile operation, brought a number of young men to Newfoundland during the 19th century. They were often indentured to the company for a number of years, learning various facets of the business. After their indenture was complete, many decided to remain in Newfoundland, some in the employ of Job Brothers. Others, such as George Thomas Rendell, struck out on their own.

Rendell was born in Ringmore, Devon, in 1826. At age 16, in 1843, he migrated to Newfoundland where he entered into service with Job Brothers. In 1861, he and his brother, William, established their own business, as general and commission merchants. They were also property and insurance agents.

The business flourished and George soon found time to become involved in local politics.

He was a supporter of Robert Thorburn's Reform Party, which won the general election held on Oct. 31, 1885. Thorburn appointed Rendell to the Legislative Council in 1888, where he would serve for 21 years. He was noted as a distinguished debater, whose opinion was sought by colleagues and friends from both government and business circles.

Rendell built a new house in 1879. Located on the northeast corner of Cochrane Street at Military Road, it was in the direct path of the fire that swept through the eastern part of St. John's on the night of July 8, 1892.

Spread of fire halted

Quick action on the part of firefighters, afraid that if Rendell's house caught, the fire would easily cross the street to the grounds of Government House, pulled down a nearby house before the blaze could ignite Rendell's, thereby saving not only the Rendell house, which still stands at 82 Cochrane St., but also preventing the fire from advancing along the eastern portion of Military Road.

Rendell's Water Street properties were not so fortunate; everything was destroyed, at great financial loss to the partners. Yet, Rendell agreed to serve on the relief committee established to assist the many thousands who were left homeless.

Rendell married Mary Wix Wood, eldest daughter of Mary Finch and Rev. Thomas M. Wood, rector of St. Thomas's Church of England Church, on July 6, 1858. They were the parents of several children, only two of whom survived childhood. Rendell died at St. John's on July 4, 1909.

Margaret Alexandra Rendell, the only daughter of George Rendell and Mary Wood to survive to adulthood, was born in St. John's in 1863.

Accomplished woman

As the daughter of a merchant family, she would have received the best education available in St. John's. She entered adulthood as an accomplished and talented young woman. She was quite proficient on the piano, which she probably learned from Adelaide Nutting, a teacher at Bishop Spencer College, in St. John's. In all likelihood, she would have played a major role in the social and cultural life of St. John's.

This lifestyle was not enough, however. She wanted to be of service. In 1895, with her parents' support and blessing, she enrolled in the nurses' training program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland. She may have selected this school because it was under the direction of Nutting, her former music teacher, who had trained under Dr. William Osler after she had left St. John's.

The program lasted two years, and in 1897 Margaret Rendell graduated as the first Newfoundland-born professionally trained nurse. After a short apprenticeship in the United States, she returned to St. John's, where on May 1, 1898, she was appointed matron of the General Hospital. Her salary was $480 per year.

Shortly after her return to St. John's, Margaret established a friendship with George Shea, a businessman she had probably known before leaving to attend Johns Hopkins. A widower, at 47, he was 12 years older than she was. Their relationship would certainly have put the tongues of upper-class circles into overdrive. They married in 1901.

It was still a time when women of Margaret Rendell's class did not work after marriage. She was forced to relinquish her position at the hospital, and did not work again.

Her life was far from empty. In 1902, her husband was elected to a four-year term as first mayor of St. John's. He was also an MHA (1904-1913) and a cabinet minister (1904-1909; 1919-1924). Success in those offices would have required the encouragement and participation of his wife.

Late birth

And just when the such an event seemed an impossibility, on March 24, 1908, at age 45, Margaret gave birth to a son, named Ambrose after his father's uncle, Sir Ambrose Shea.

Margaret Rendell Shea lived most of her life at 82 Cochrane St. After her father died, George Shea bought the property. Margaret lived there until 1935, when she moved into the Newfoundland Hotel, where she was in residence until her death.

In addition to being Newfoundland's first professionally trained nurse, Margaret Rendell Shea was one of the first, if not the first, women in Newfoundland to obtain a driver's licence.

She was notorious for the speed at which she manoeuvred her automobile through narrow St. John's streets, sending adults, children and animals scurrying for cover.

She died at St. John's on May 18, 1949, her accomplishments unrecognized by either of the city's newspapers, a forgotten pioneer of Newfoundland nursing.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...


This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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