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Life at the Front The Seal Hunt in the 40s

Allan P. Clarke (1916-1998)
As told to Frank E. Clarke. April 1998

"After I came out of the Lumber woods I had nothing to do. Some men around Victoria told me that getting a berth out to the ice was easy so I inquired about it. I got my first berth to the ice from my brother George. He was a policeman in St. John's and he arranged it through Percy Crosbie, John Crosbie's uncle. George knew Mr. Crosbie and often went to his house visiting. He knew that I needed work so he got the berth for me. Mr. Crosbie gave him the ticket for me and I went to St. John's on the train and picked it up. I took a box and a bag with me. We were told what to bring. I made the box 3' x 2' and filled it with old clothes and things I might need out to the ice. When I got ready to go out to the ice I didn't know what to take to keep warm but I packed up all that I had. I had a pair of rubber boots, a couple of pairs of pants and some sweaters. I also had a couple of pairs of long johns. I didn't have any rubber clothes but most of the experienced men did.

When I got to St. John's to ship out on the Terra Nova I went down to New Gower Street and bought a pork barrel for 50 cents and a knife at Neil Soper's for 50 cents. When you were going out to the ice you were allowed to take up to $12.00 in "crop." You never had to pay this back it was deducted from your share. This was usually in the form of oilskins, a knife or anything you wanted. It was taken out of your wages. I was told that we were allowed to bring home a barrel full of flippers and seal meat. I carried my barrel from New Gower street all the way down the south side of the harbor to the Bowring premises on my back. I carried it up on the barrack head and tied it up. I at 12:00 met Captain Stan Barbour around 12:00 and looked for a place to sleep. There must have been 150 men on the ship. I got to know a man from Trinity named Bob Woodridge. We bunked next to each other that spring. Describing the bunk is hard. It was found between decks and was about two feet square and about six feet deep. We had the sides sheeted up to separate us from the other men and to stop us from falling out when the weather got rough. We had a brin-bag rigged up to stop the coal dust and seal pelts from coming into the bunk with us. The day we left there were crowds of people on the wharf who had come to see us off. There were so many that I thought that those in the front were going to be pushed off the wharf into the water. The blessing of the fleet was very important. All of the churches were represented and each of them said prayers for our safety and prayed for a bountiful trip. When this was over all of the sealing ships in the harbor were led out into the harbor by a small pilot boat. When we were going out through the harbor we stood at the rail and could hear the crowd cheering and guns firing. St. John's looked different from the water. The ship was very crowded and when we got out into the bay there was much activity. The men tried to settle down and make themselves comfortable. There wasn't much for us to do; just wait and try to make our space liveable. I was not used to being on a ship as I had never been out to the seal hunt before. The ship was dirty and the smell was awful. I was seasick from the beginning. Those who knew each other talked, told stories and played cards. I went around the ship to see what was going on. I soon discovered that we were roughly divided into groups. Usually the older hands took care of those of us who hadn't been out before. After a few days I got to know some of the men. Among them were fathers and sons, brothers, uncles and cousins. It seemed as though the sealers looked out for each other and got a berth for their own relatives.

We sailed out for three or four days before we saw the edge of the ice fields. One day we got stuck in the ice and had to go over the side and pull the ship through with a big rope. The ship would back up and the captain would yell, "all hands ahead on the rope" and about 100 of us would start running and haul on the rope and move her ahead. Another day she got stuck and we had to use dynamite to blast her out. The dynamite charges were stored in tins about the size of a gallon paint can. We attached these to a stick and pushed them under the ice, lit the fuse and ran back to the shelter of the ship. We only had to blast once and she was able to back out and free herself. We kept this up until she reached the edge of the ice and we all got on board and ran from one side of the ship to the other so that she would roll and get herself free. I had no experience with seals. When we got to the front I saw the first live seal that I had ever seen in my life. I didn't go over the side with the first group. I watched from the rail to see what the men were doing. Everyone had a gaff and they were killing the seals and pelting them very fast. I noticed that there were open places in the ice and the men jumped from one pan to another. It looked very dangerous. When the men had cleared the patch they would drag the pelts to a big pile and mark them with kerosene pots and tall flags. When the captain yelled "get ready" the second time I went over the side. There was an old man there from St. John's named Jakie Barrett and he said, "come along young feller, I'll show you what to do." I jumped over after him. He asked me if I knew what to do and I told him no. He said, "give me your knife. I'll sharpen it for you and then show you how to "sculp" them. He showed me how to kill the seals and I got four or five and brought them over where he was. He showed me how to sculp two. After this I did one myself. That day I sculped fifty. The next day I went with Jakie again and I sculped ninety-five. At the end of each day we had to keep a tally so that we would know when the ship was full. It didn't take long to fill the quota. The ship had to go along at the end of the day and pick up these piles. Most of the carcasses were left on the ice. Edwin Batten was one of my buddies from Bareneed. The first time he stepped over the side he stepped in a hole and fell into the water. I pulled him out. He ran around to try to get warm and fell in another hole. After that he returned to the comfort of the ship. The captain would not let him off any more but he still got his full share. There was also a man called Mr. Locke from Trinity. He had not been out to the ice before and when he saw what was happening he got vein hearted and wouldn't go out any more. He was afraid of the blood and he stayed on the boat doing other work all spring. The captain also gave him his full share. I was surprised when I sculped my first seal. I didn't know that it was so heavy and hard to handle. I'm sure that I would have worn myself out if someone had not shown me how to lace up the pelts and drag them over the ice to the ship pelt down.

When the first pelts were loaded on the boat the coal had to be shifted to make room for them. It was moved to bunkers near the engine room. This, along with sweeping up and throwing out the ashes made life in the bunks at night unbearable. Noise, the smell of fat, and the shoveling of coal made our bunks almost impossible to live in. There was no way to stay clean. Our bunks were right by the hatches. During the night they would open the hatches and haul the coal up to the next deck. This created an awful mess and made the place very dirty. When we got out of our bunk in the morning we could hardly stand up on the floor because it was so slippery. We usually ate at the end of our shift. We had to go up to the galley and get our food and bring it back down. We did not have a separate mess room on our ship. We just ate where we found a spot. However, the larger ships had a mess. None of the small boats did. We would sit on our boxes and eat our meals and what was left we scraped onto the deck. This was done very quickly. Mostly we had seal meat and potatoes. Other times we had salt beef cooked as well. We were given all the hard bread that we wanted. Some men collected hard bread and carried home a big bag-full when they got ashore. You could have all the hard bread that you wanted. Before I left home an old man told me to bring him some home to him. You could have a pan full of hard bread every day. You could also have a loaf of home made bread every three days. My mother had given me a white sugar bag. I filled it with hard bread and put it in my box. I put all of my old clothes in a bag. I thought I had enough hard bread for the summer. When I arrived in Carbonear I walked home and got cleaned up. I forgot about the hard bread. I remembered it a few days later and when I opened my box the stench was awful. It was then that I realized how bad it must have been at the ice. I broke up the hard bread and gave it to my ducks. We were never hungry. When we went for meals I took my mug and a little white pan that my mother gave me. We were likely to have beans for breakfast most mornings. Sometimes we had salt fish. At dinner time I used the same pan. There was no facility to wash it out. Supper was the same. I didn't wash my pan for the whole spring. I was gone five weeks and didn't get a chance to wash my pan or my mug from the time I left until I came back.

We had to continually build up our water supply. This was done by putting blocks of ice on board. We formed a chain and passed the broken ice from one to the other. The ice was placed in a bin and steam was put on it to melt it. It tasted terrible. Usually it was mixed with salt and coal dust. We could not afford to use it to wash; as a matter of fact there was no place to wash. There were many lice on board. You can imagine what it was like living the way that we did. I remember we used to cut each other's hair and shave to try to get rid of the lice. It was easy to catch lice because we lived in such close quarters and slept so closely together. After we ate our supper we crawled into our bunks. The experienced men fell asleep immediately. For those of use who had not been there before you can't imagine what it was like. The bunk was covered with coal dust, the floors were slippery with seal fat and our clothes were covered with blood. Usually three shifts worked while the other tried to sleep. The ship was busy all the time. While we were trying to sleep the men hauled coal up through hatches that were only a foot from our bunks. It was cold damp and dirty. If that wasn't bad enough, the seal pelts were dropped down the hatch along by our bunks. The first few nights I was at the front I did not sleep at all. The noise, smell, and dust were unbearable. Quite often I stayed awake for days on end. I usually stayed in my bunk and wondered how men could stand this work. All around me men lay trying to sleep or smoked cigarettes or pipes, hardly saying a word. At dawn the cycle started again. As long as there were seals in sight we kept working. Sometimes we worked into the night with the help of lanterns or burning seal fat. We never stopped on my first trip out. There were endless hours of hunting, eating and sleeping. It is hard to imagine that we filled the ship in just a few weeks. I suppose with more than 150 men continually killing from dawn to dark it is easy to understand how. When the captain roared "over the side," no man faltered, we took our gaff and went. We didn't have time to think of our safety. We just did what we had to do and came in and started all over again.

It was the custom for the captain to drop off crews and keep sailing a short distance. After we finished a patch the captain sailed on and picked us up on the way back. One day we had our breakfast before dawn and by daybreak we reached the main herd. The captain yelled, "all hands overboard" and we all went over the side. When everyone was off the captain returned to where we had hunted the day before and collected the pelts. We hunted all that day. We didn't think about the ship because we were too busy. Suddenly it was dark. The storm sort of crept up on us. We had our heads down working and didn't notice. There was a slight wind and enough snow fell so that we couldn't see the ship though we could hear her horn. The experienced sealers called us together and we got in a circle. Some of the men set some fat afire and we ran around and around to keep warm. At 2:00 a.m. she picked us up. We had been on the ice 20 hours. We were tired and uncomfortable but we were safe. The men said that this happened often. Some days were not too bad. One day toward the end of the voyage, we were steaming along and the captain said to me and a man named Hiscock from Trinity, "get over the side and get those few seals." There was a big swell on and the ice was heaving. We went and killed three seals. When we were coming back I was ahead when I looked back he was in the water. I ran back and hauled him in. As soon as he was out the ice came together, another few seconds and he would have been killed. . My buddie Bob Woodridge was wheel man and he got me to help him. This was a good job because we didn't have to shovel the coal and remove ashes like most of the men. I got to the wheel along with three other men. It was a big wheel located aft. It was as big as a cart wheel. We had to hold on tight because when she struck the ice the wheel would sometimes spin right out of your hands. If the going were easy we tied the wheel with a piece of rope to stead her. We took turns throughout the day. When I was taking my turn for lunch the medic called me in and took down a big gallon bottle and poured out a drink and said,"that will warm you up." Apparently he gave this drink to all of the men whom he felt needed it. I still do not know what it was. I found out that he was Oscar Howell from Carbonear.

Some men had good reputations. Sam Manuel said he was the fastest sculper on the boat. Some men felt that Bob Woolridge was better so the captain said,"we will settle this now." He had one of the men get two seals and had a contest. The seal had to be sculped and the flipper had to be cut out Bob took more than two minutes. Sam did it in less than two minutes and was given a drink of rum. After we had finished our load and filled our barrels to take home, the engineer checked our tally to see that we were not overloaded. She was loaded to the "gunnels" and pelts were also scattered around the deck. All of the hatches were full. When the captain was sure that we were going to make it safely he ordered us to throw away the excess coal to make room for more seals. When she was full we put three or four eight-inch boards on the pelts to sleep on. We kept our boxes there and we used them to eat on. My first trip out to the ice I earned $110.00 and I sold $20.00 worth of "flippers " for $1.00 per dozen. We were the first ship in the first spring I was out. We had 33,000 white coats that year. That year I felt like a rich man. That was a lot of money to earn in five weeks. I left home on March 1 and I got back on the about April 10. For being the first ship to arrive in port we were given a pipe and two sticks of Jumbo tobacco that I gave to uncle Sam Antle when I got home. We were given this as we were being paid at Bowring's Wharf. They had their office on the North side. We unloaded the seals on the south side. The Imogen had about 70,000 that year. It was a very good year. The Ungava had 60,000. There were also the Eagle, the Ranger and the Beothuck who went out when we did. There were also many smaller boats. The first time I was out I brought home a barrel of seal meat and flippers. We used to preserve our seal meat with pot liquor and salt. When the barrel was full we would head it up. When I got into St. John's I arranged for my barrel, box and bag of hard bread to be sent home on the train.

My brother George, was stationed in Clarke's Beach then and he had asked me to bring him home a bottle of rum when I came in from the ice if I made any money. I went into the controllers in the West End and asked for a bottle of rum. He said you cannot get any rum unless you have a book. I went over and asked a man for a book. He gave it to me and asked me how old I was. I said I would be 20 my birthday. He said you can't buy rum until you are 21. He asked me where I came from and I told him I was out to the ice. He asked me how much I had made and I said "$130.00 sir." He said,"if you were out to the ice you can buy a bottle of rum." He asked me what kind I wanted and I said I didn't know. I pointed one out and he brought it over to me and said,"that will be $1.70." I also bought a flask for 70 cents. My brother met me at the train and I gave him the rum. The rum was much stronger than what you get now. It used to stain the cup. When I got home in the morning I called my mother upstairs and gave her the money. She didn't speak. She looked at me and started to cry. I know that this was the most money that she had ever seen in her life. After that I opened my barrel in the yard. I gave my mother three flippers and she put them on to cook, she also took a half dozen more for later. After dinner we went to the funeral of a neighbor, Bill Murray, who had died just before I got home. The procession passed by our house on Swansea Road and everyone going by saw the barrel. On their way home they came in and mom gave them some seal. When I came back uncle Eli Curnew came and wanted to buy 20 cents worth. I asked how many were in his family and he told me. I took out a large piece of seal and gave it to him. At four o'clock I threw the empty barrel over the fence. I had given it all away free. After that uncle Sammy White came and mother gave him two of the flippers she was keeping to cook later. Out of the whole barrel we had seven flippers for ourselves. I was days trying to get used to sleeping in a bed again. I dreamed continually of what happened on the hunt; of the seals I killed, the noise, the smell, and the faces of the men that I had lived with at such close quarters for five weeks. There is no way to tell you what it was really like.

I spent two years more springs at the ice one on the Terra Nova and the other on the Neptune. The second spring I went up into the Gulf. Something happened to the Ranger on her way to the Gulf so they sent us there instead. We went up and got a few scattered seals and then got stuck in heavy ice for nine days. They were hard days. We walked around a lot. One Sunday we walked about four or five miles on the smooth ice. There were about 120 of us. The ship had to burn coal. The ice packed in around the ship and rafted up so high that it was level with the decks. We went through a lot of food and coal. We also had to throw out the ashes. It was very messy by the time that we got out. Eventually the wind changed and the ice moved out around the Magdalen Islands. The ice loosened up and we managed to get enough movement so that we could use the dynamite to blast her out. We sailed around for a few days but didn't see any seals so the captain decided to come back to port. We only harvested 1,600 seals, mostly big ones, and at the end of the trip I did not earn one cent. When we arrived at St. John's the agent at Bowrings said he would give us tickets to get home on the bus or on the train or a truck. When we got to the train station there was a man there with a big truck who offered to take us out around the bay. We boarded the truck and threw our boxes on board. There were men from all around the bay; Brigus, Clarke's Beach, Avondale, Harbor Grace, Bristol's Hope, Carbonear and other places. When we were coming down Foley's Hill in South River the truck sunk into the mud to the axles. She would not go ahead nor back. The road was soft for about 500 feet. He couldn't go any further and the driver offered to take us back to St. John's to come home on the train. There was a man there from Spout Cove and a man from Hr. Grace. We decided to go down to Brigus to spend the night and walk home in the morning. The truck driver's name was Mr. Harding and he gave us 75 cents each in exchange for our train ticket. He would then take our tickets back to Bowring's to get his money back. When we got in Brigus we asked Sargent Trickett to put us in jail for the night. He obliged because my brother George was a policeman and he knew him. He gave us something to eat and he also gave us our breakfast in the morning.

After breakfast I saw Garland's truck coming down the hill. I stopped it and asked the driver if he would take us down. He said, "throw your old box aboard and get in." We did this and got up in the back of the truck. When we arrived in Carbonear we were hungry so we went into the restaurant. I had 75 cents that the man had given us to come home on the train from Clarke's Beach. I went into Jack Butt's and bought my dinner. It cost me 70 cents. I had five cents left and I went up to Aunt Jane Kieley's store to buy some "lassie knobs" for my mother The next spring George got me a berth but it was a bit late so he got me one on the Neptune. We went out to the front. The tubes burst and there was no steam on her and she started to drift. We got out to the Funk Islands and the captain called out,"make your souls boys you won't see home or loved ones again." He told us to us to get our clothes and get out on deck. We were stuck in the ice and the wind and tide was driving us on shore. We went up to within 200 feet of the shore when the tide turned and we missed the island. We got out into the rough water and the waves used to wash over us and come right into our bunks. When it calmed down we pumped her out and the engineer fixed up the engine and we bore for home. We sailed around until we found a patch of seals. We harvested a few old ones. We had a poor trip. When we were crossing Trinity every steam tube in both boilers on her blew up again and we lost all power. Some minor repairs were carried out and we headed into Grates Cove on a Sunday morning. Some of us went ashore. I went to a man's house and he gave me dinner. When we were there a man asked me for a lamp to put on his stage. The lamps were kerosene pots, there were two torches on them that we used to mark our seal skins on the ice we also put flags on the piles of skins. We had lots of them so when I returned to the boat he came alongside and I gave him a few. The engineer worked all day and managed to patch her up enough to get her into St. John's Monday morning. I earned $19.99 that spring. That was the last spring I went out. I threw all of my gear over board when we were coming in through the narrows. I got married that year. I found the skippers to be good. Captain Barber was a good man, so was Captain Dominic. Once the Captain Dominic asked two men to go out and get a few seals. They killed six and laced them up to make them easy to pull. One asked the other to help him. He said he didn't know how, He put them on his back and carried them back to the ship. The captain was upset that the first man didn't help the other by showing him how to lace up his seals.

Captain Barber was a good shot. He used to shoot dog hoods from the deck. Once a big dog hood came up on the ice about 1000 pounds. There was no way to kill it with a gaff. It used to blow up his hood. Eventually we managed to kill him. A man Kinsella from Torbay managed to do it. The older men had to sculp him. When I was on the Terra Nova we arrived in St. John's Sunday morning. They put the water on her. We got some hot water and got a wash. I had a beard about an inch long and very long hair. We put our dungarees on and I put on a clean shirt and my wind breaker and went over to the Salvation Army. When I got up Monday morning the other crew was unloading. We all couldn't work at the once there were too many of us. We went up west just above Woolworths, there were a number of houses there. I went into Murphy's barber shop and asked him to clean me from the neck up. He cut and washed my hair, gave me a face massage and a shave. I paid him $1.50. The last spring I was out I took my clippers, scissors and comb. I believe it was on the Terra Nova. I started cutting hair down in Baccalieu Tickle and I never stopped until I got to St. John's. I cut almost every man's hair; I think I cut about fifty that day. I did not charge them anything. Some people say that the seal hunt is cruel. They don't understand. The seals were dispatched with one blow and that it died instantly."


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