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Sailing into the thick of things


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


The Randell brothers of Ship Cove, Trinity Bight - now known as Port Rexton - were two of the best known master mariners in Newfoundland during the first half of the 20th century. The eldest, Isaac Robert, was born on Feb. 15, 1871 to Mary Fowler and Capt. John Randell.

Isaac completed his education at Ship Cove and then spent several years with his father in the Labrador fishery, before moving to St. John's to attend the navigation school, where he studied under Francis Doyle.

He was soon seaward bound, where he acquired his mate's ticket in 1892 and his master's ticket three years later. His first command was in 1895 aboard the Plymouth, followed by the Belle of Exe, the Olinda and the Regulus.

He is best known for commanding the S.S. Bellaventure, first in the West Indian-to-New York fruit trade, and for several seasons in Hudson's Bay carrying out Arctic exploration for the Canadian government.

The Newfoundland disaster

It was as captain of the Bellaventure during the 1914 seal hunt that he was responsible for rescuing 35 of the survivors of the S.S. Newfoundland disaster. He also transported the bodies of 77 of the men and boys who had frozen to death on the ice during those harrowing days in March and April.

Randell captained several other ships before he retired as a sea-going captain. In 1916, he delivered the Bellaventure's sister ship, the S.S. Bonaventure, to Archangel, Russia. He commanded the S.S. Sheba in further Canadian Arctic research missions, continued to prosecute the seal hunt, and was involved in the coastal mail service.

In 1920, he joined the employ of A. H. Murray and Co., a St. John's-based mercantile firm with extensive foreign interests. Randell spent 14 months during 1920-1921 as the company's agent in Brazil. After his return to St. John's, he continued to work for the company, eventually becoming a director.

Randell caught the political bug in 1923, winning election to the House of Assembly as a supporter of Sir Richard Squires and the Liberal Reform party in the FPU stronghold of Trinity.

After Squires resigned a few months after the election, Randell supported his successor, William Warren, and remained loyal to him through the machinations of the year that followed.

In the June 2, 1924 election, he was re-elected by the voters of Trinity as a supporter of the new Liberal leader, A.E. Hickman, in a losing cause.

When Squires began his comeback in 1928, Randell was one of the nine Liberals who deserted Hickman and formed a new party with Squires as leader. He was not a candidate in the 1928 general election, but was appointed to the legislative council by Squires in 1931, holding his seat until the dissolution of the legislature on Feb. 16, 1934 with the inauguration of Commission of Government. He died at St. John's on Jan. 15, 1942.

John Thomas Randell was eight years younger than his brother. He was born at Ship Cove on Jan. 1, 1879.

After several years at sea, beginning when he was only 14, he joined the Royal Canadian Field Artillery in November 1899 and was soon in South Africa fighting in the Boer War (1899-1902). At the end of the war, he returned to a life at sea, and qualified for his master's ticket in 1908.

He spent several years freelancing around the world, but with the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted in the British navy. He commanded a number of shore-based vessels patrolling the North Sea, and was awarded the British Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for heroic actions. He was discharged in July 1919 with the rank of lieutenant-commander.

Following the war, Jack Randell found a much more lucrative form of seafaring enterprise. The 1920s was the time of prohibition in the United States, Canada and Newfoundland.

American markets, especially those controlled by organized crime in New England and New York, were eager to obtain alcoholic beverages and the one p lace in North America where there was a ready supply was the French-controlled islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon.

Randell operated a number of ships in the rum-running trade, but the most famous was the schooner I'm Alone, which could carry 6,000 cases of alcohol. He was off the coast of Louisiana with a load of contraband from Belize in the spring of 1929 when he was ordered to heave to by a U.S. coast guard cutter.


Capt. Randell refused, claiming he was outside U.S. territorial waters: the cutter opened fire and the I'm Alone was scuttled. This hostile act resulted in a diplomatic incident between the U.S. and Canadian governments. An official inquiry concluded that the ship had been outside U.S. territorial waters. Randell and his crew were exonerated.

He received $25,000 from the U.S. government for the loss of the ship, and he and the crew received compensation for lost wages.

Randell returned to the legitimate navy with the outbreak of the Second World War, as a member of the merchant marine. Ill health forced his retirement in 1941 and he died three years later on Feb. 20, 1944.

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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