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(The Evening Telegram, Feb 26, 1979, Offbeat History by Michael Harrington

The Trinity Bay Disaster, 1892

Most of the great sealing disasters in Newfoundland history have involved the crews of the sealing ships that went far offshore in search of the harp seals and whitecoats. But the landsmen had their share of misfortunes and the worst of these occurred 87 years ago - on February 27, 1892. The following account of the tragedy is a summary of a long story that appeared in the paper, the Weekly Record, published in Trinity, March 12, 1892. It was copied from that paper by Mr. Fred Butler, of Long Pond, Manuels, C.B., who brought the story to this columnist recently.

In the week that preceded Saturday, February 27, 1892, seals were plentiful in Trinity Bay and a large number were shot by the landsmen. Saturday dawned very fine and most of the men, from Green Bay (Green's Harbor) on the east side around to Ireland's Eye on the west, were up and out early, to take advantage of the weather.

So anxious were they that they went with very little food, lad, for the sea was smooth, the air was warm and there was little or no wind -- an ideal day. Some of the boats which got a fair distance out shot some seals before the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse.

Around 11 a.m., without warning, the wind chopped to the N.N.E. and blew with terrific force, accompanied by intense cold, and the sea was wild. Most of the boats were well off the land when the first squalls struck and the men realized it would be impossible to row back to the eastern shore in the teeth of the gale.

Some of the boats from Port Rexton, Champneys and English Harbour, which were not too far off the Horse Chops, decided to try to land in that area. Six crews began this desperate task. After five hours of backbreaking work at the oars, with the spray freezing on them as it fell, they reached the shore. Some of them died of exposure before they reached safety; the rest were absolutely exhausted and so benumbed they could not even get out of their boats.

John Butler of Port Rexton had gone to English Harbour on Saturday to attend the funeral of his wife's brother, Joseph Penney. When the storm came on he did not go to the funeral, but went out on the Horse Chops to see if any of the boats were coming in. Halfway out to where the boats landed he met Robert Penny and Robert Ivany, both of English Harbour, who went along with him.

They waited for half an hour but saw no sign of any boats, so they looked for a shelter nook and lit a fire. They sat around it for another half hour and then Butler went out to the edge of the cliff again over Hay Cove. This time he saw Henry George Batson's boat, coming in slowly, the men in her hardly able to row.

Looking over the cliff Butler saw that the crews of several other boats had already landed in the cove and he saw his brother Alexander trying to get William Stockly up the hill. He ran down and took his nephew, James Butler, on his back, and after a long struggle managed to get him up over the hill by the fire. The other men from English Harbour also helped to get some of the exhausted sealers up the hill. All the men who landed were encased in ice and could hardly move. Two died before they landed, and four more died soon after.

Robert Bannister managed to get partly up the hill and John Butler saw him fall to his knees, unable to keep moving. He just muttered "God bless you" and died; his son had died just before him. The three men did all they could to help the survivors; but they saw some men die quite near them whom they could not aid. It was a terrible time for them. Stephen Day of Port Rexton came along about half an hour before dark and was a tower of strength; he even took off some og (of) his clothes to put on the exhausted victims.

Butler and Day carried the former's nephew to William Ivany's home at English Harbour about two miles away. He was unconscious, but after a long time they managed to revive him and he recovered. His left hand and right foot were badly frostbitten. Butler's brother Alex had both hands frostbitten as he had given his mitts to his son.

Six men altogether died among the crowd that landed at Horse Chops, and while these heart-rending scenes were taking place, similar tragedies were occurring farther up the shore, i.e., in the bay. Some of the crews landed at Trouty, Bonaventure's Ireland's Eye, Thoroughfare and Deer Harbour. All were terribly exhausted and covered with ice; many had to be assisted from their boats at each place. Those who landed at Trouty and Bonaventure recovered without any loss of life, though many were frostbitten and worn out. But for the attention of the residents they would undoubtedly have died.

Among those landed at Ireland's Eye was the body of William Barnes of English Harbour, who died in his boat. Another of the same crew was unconscious and had to be taken from the craft. All the others were looked after at the home of Mrs. Thomas Cooper and eventually recovered. The Ireland's Eye men, to their credit, be it said, and who had only barely escaped with their own lives, hearing that many boats were still out in the bay from English Harbour and Champneys, organized a volunteer search party; in spite of the heavy gale of wind and the intense cold, they went out to the adjacent islands in search of the men still believed to be missing.

Although these sad events occurred on Saturday, no one in Trinity was aware there had been such a loss of life until Sunday afternoon, February 28. There was great anxiety Saturday night for the men who were still out in the storm, but because so many had landed safely, it was hoped that most of the others would also survive. However, by Sunday evening reports from the various settlements indicated that of the approximately 200 men who were out in the bay in the storm, eleven were dead, and about forty were still missing. Later it was learned that another crew had managed to get into Old Perlican.

When the telegraph offices opened Monday morning messages were sent and received from all areas of the Island. Early that day a message from Hearts Content stated that about twenty men and boys had landed at neighbouring Hearts Delight and vicinity, a fact that buoyed up sagging hopes. By Monday night the missing men had been reduced to thirteen men and boys and nothing more was heard until Tuesday morning.

The schooner Rossclear, Captain Richard Fowlow, which had been searching the bay for seals returned to port. She had on board sixteen of the sealers who had landed on the south side of the bay, also the bodies of John Nurse and Solomon Penny who were picked up Sunday off Scilly Cove. The number of missing had now dropped to eleven and the toll of the dead had risen to thirteen.

Promptly after hearing the reports of the disaster the government despatched the SS Ingreham to search the bay for missing men. The heavy ice in the bay forced the little steamer to return to St. John's and a more powerful steamer, the sealer Labrador replaced her, with Dr. Pike on board. But after thirty hours trying to force a passage through the ice the Labrador had to turn back.

Search parties were sent out from the head of the bay but no news of the eleven missing men was received and finally it was accepted that they were drowned. This brought the total to twenty-four out of the roughly 200 who had set out that beautiful Saturday morning.

The names of the dead were: Solomon Penny of William, John Nurse of William, both of Green Bay; Martin Batson, Tobias Penny, James Penny, Edward Pottle, William Barnes of English Harbour; John Penny, Charles Day of Champneys West; William Stockly and Isaac Butler of Port Rexton; and Robert and Charles Bannister, also from the last named place.

The names of the missing (and presumed dead) were Isaac John Batson, William Batson, Arthur Batson and Reuben Pottle of English Harbour; Charles Nurse, William Nurse, sons of William Nurse of Champneys East; John Moore, George Moore and Jacob Moore of Trinity South. (All these men were also presumed drowned.)

The country rallied to the aid of the stricken relatives of the victims. A subscription list was opened in St. John's headed by His Excellency Governor Sir Terence O'Brien. The House of Assembly adjourned for several days in sympathy. The country was still reeling from the shock of that dreadful tragedy when it was staggered once again by the great fire in St. John's July 8-9 of the same year.

Transcribed by James Butler, 1997
Revised by Jim Butler, September, 2002



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