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A Walk Through the Woods Family


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



One of the most prominent Methodist families in 19th century St. John's was that of John and Anne Woods. John Woods was born in St. John's on May 5, 1808. It was then a much smaller town than it is today, both in physical size and in population. John Woods watched it grow and played a major role in its economic development.

A life-long Methodist, he remembered, as a boy of seven, seeing the first Methodist chapel being built in St. John's in 1815. The chapel was destroyed by fire in 1816, to be replaced later that year by a new church building was constructed at the junction of Gower Street and Church Hill.

That building was replaced by a larger structure in 1856, which eventually became known as Gower Street Methodist Church. John Woods was a loyal supporter of this church, through his financial contributions, his willingness to participate in its lay offices and his efforts to promote its message through personal witness.

He was present when that building, like so much of downtown St. John's, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892. And he lived to see construction begin on the new church building, one that still stands as a beacon of Methodism, under the name Gower Street United Church.

In business, Woods was a involved in the import trade, mainly coal. He operated his own ships, many of which he built at his own shipyard, located at his waterfront premises. To facilitate his shipbuilding venture, he operated his own lumber yard nearby.

Woods also established and operated the forerunner to the St. John's drydock. In all likelihood, recognizing the need for such an enterprise, he travelled throughout the eastern seaboard of the United States, purchasing the equipment needed to construct and operate a docking facility for vessels up to 200 tons.

John Woods married Anne Lang in 1832. They were parents to 14 children, although three died in infancy, one on his first birthday and another at age seven.

Several of the others became prominent in their fields, in St. John's and in the United States. The oldest son was Frederick (1833-1914), who studied for the Methodist ministry at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., and later attended Genesee College in New York and Wesleyan University in Middleton, Conn.

In 1859, he entered the New England Methodist conference, where he served for almost 50 years. He was acclaimed as the greatest preacher in the conference, and a volume of his sermons was published in book form. He was a strong advocate of temperance and prohibition, living what he preached and expecting others to follow suit.

The fifth son, Alfred (1847-1943), also entered the Methodist ministry, and like his brother, served the church in Massachusetts for more than 50 years.

The third son, William (1844-1877), also migrated to the United States, where he served in the navy during the Civil War as an engineer.

A fourth brother, Edwin (1849-1913), followed his brothers to the United States, where he studied law and set up a practice in New York. He was appointed Commissioner of Immigration by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

The other sons remained in St. John's.

Henry (1842-1916) joined his father's business shortly after graduation from the General Protestant academy, becoming a partner in 1880. He assumed management of the business in 1892.

Like his father and brothers, Henry was a staunch Methodist. He was Sunday School superintendent of Cochrane Street Methodist Church from 1882 to 1916. For 37 years (1879-1916), he was secretary of the board of governors of the Methodist College.

In 1889, Henry was elected to the House of Assembly as a Liberal representing Bay de Verde, and was invited by Prime Minister William Whiteway to serve in cabinet as surveyor general.

In that position, he had responsibility for the rebuilding of St. John's following the Great Fire of 1892.

Re-elected in the Nov. 6, 1893 election, he in March 1894 was the first of 15 Liberals who would have their elections overturned and be barred from running for re-election under the Corrupted Practices Act, a Conservative manoeuvre to wrest power from the Liberals by judicial means after they had been defeated at the polls.

The Liberals regained power on Dec. 13, 1894. Legislation was passed allowing those unseated to offer themselves as candidates and Woods returned in a byelection. He remained in cabinet as surveyor general until he was defeated in the 1897 election.

Woods returned to the house in 1900. Prime Minister Robert Bond appointed him to cabinet as a minister without portfolio. In 1902, he was became postmaster general of Newfoundland, a civil service position that he held until his death.

Henry Woods married Hannie Bemister of Carbonear in 1870. They were the parents of seven daughters, one of whom, Mabel, was mother of Harry Mews, mayor of St. John's from 1950 to 1965.

Henry's brother, Sidney (1852-1927), operated a large hardware business on Water Street for many years. He, too, entered politics, succeeding Henry as MHA for Bay de Verde in 1894. He served as a minister without portfolio in the caretaker administration of Prime Minister Daniel Joseph Greene (December 1894-February 1985), but then resigned his seat to allow Henry to return to the House of Assembly.

Each member of the Woods family has made unique contributions to their native or their adopted homeland. Indeed, their descendants continue their legacy throughout North America.

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



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

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