Posted by: alexhickey | March 15, 2023

The Iron Buoy © Alex Hickey

Imagine yourself at the helm of a fishing schooner whose crew is casting its lines from the wharf. You are departing on a trip to the Grand Banks. Your only source of power is the wind. There is no engine to rely upon. Nor is there a tugboat to render assistance. If lucky, you might catch a breeze right there at the wharf. If not, how will you get the ship away from the wharf and out into the harbour where the sails can catch the wind?

Unlike a dory, you cannot stick a pair of oars over the side and row. A mid-size schooner, such as the Marion, would be approximately 70 tons, about 65 feet long, 20 feet wide and draw about 8 feet of water. Setting such a vessel in motion from a dead still position at the wharf presents a challenge. You have thirteen crew men who have done this before – how is it done?

You could drop your dories into the water with two men in each, daisy-chained together, and have them tow the vessel out into the harbour. That has been done many times. Below is a picture of the Robert Max being towed this way in St. John’s Harbour.

Robert Max. Maritime History Archive Public Photo – Memorial University

Or, you could do it differently.

In St. Jacques harbour, west of Pitman’s Brook, there used to be a large floating object. Secured by an anchor system whose claws were embedded in the ocean floor, the object would rise and fall with the tide, swing with the currents and bob up and down with the waves. Residents were accustomed to hearing the metal clang of the anchor chain against the object all through the day and night, so much so that most of them no longer noticed the sound. It was part of the background music to daily life. Some said they could predict bad weather by the sound.

This was an Iron Buoy – an innovation that makes all of the sense in the world when you know how it worked. Though painted regularly, rusty brown patches continually appeared; none of them serious enough to penetrate the thick hull. It resembled the buoy illustrated below. You can see where the anchor chain was attached.

Round, and oblong with a tapered end, it measured approximately eight feet in length and five feet in diameter. It was made of cast iron, and assembled with rivets. This buoy is variously referred to as ‘nun buoy’ or ‘can buoy’ although a true nun buoy was tapered at both ends. The term ‘nun’ is said to be derived from the name given to an old English spin-top type toy which held a similar shape. Though typically used as a navigational aid to direct vessel traffic through a waterway, this buoy was dedicated to the need to move sailing schooners out into the harbour. At its top was a large hoop designed for attaching ropes. A sailing vessel would attach a rope to this buoy and use its hand-operated windlass or deck winch, to slowly pull itself out into the harbour until it caught the wind.

Time brings about change whether we like it or not and the days of sail powered vessels came to an end leaving many of the schooners to rot by the shore and the skills, tools and devices that shaped them, to fade. The Iron Buoy, however, remained anchored in St. Jacques harbour for many years. Dories would tie to the buoy during evenings when the squid were running, one to the buoy and others to each other in succession. It was useful to local boat owners such as Edgar Dyett who frequently moored the White Knight there or Philip Hynes who also used it to moor his boat as well. Then, there were the occasional visitors such as the seaplane shown below which found it a convenient place to secure anchor while dropping off its passenger, Harry Young, in the 1940’s.

Seaplane being secured to the Iron Buoy 1940’s

One dark night during a storm the Iron Buoy succumbed to rust. Its shackle broke from its chain and anchor, and the buoy drifted out the harbour. It came to rest on the beach in Louis’s Cove. George Hickey approached the captain of the coastal boat, Bar Haven, and asked if he would retrieve the buoy. The captain generously agreed. The buoy was transported to the government wharf and deposited at the eastern side of the wharf where it has been sitting ever since. Several generations have run their hands along its rough side in their walk along that path, oblivious to its importance in the sailing history of the community.

The Iron Buoy at rest near the St. Jacques Harbour Authority Wharf

This wasn’t the only Iron Buoy in St. Jacques Harbour. There was another positioned outside the entrance to Burkes Cove. The demise of that Buoy began on a Halloween night in the 1930’s when several enterprising young dare-devils used the buoy as a base for a bonfire. The heat from the fire either melted or burned the seal at the top of the buoy. Over time the buoy took on more water until it eventually sank. It is probably still attached to its anchor assisting the ghosts of schooners to start their voyage out the Bay.

Gone now are all of the fishermen who used those Iron Buoys to get their schooners away from the dock. Gone too are their schooners and their wharves. We are left to ponder the remnants and remember in the words attributed to Lord Nelson, those ‘wooden ships and iron men.’

Posted by: alexhickey | December 18, 2022

Christmas Cards ©

The image of Santa Claus carrying a sack overflowing with wrapped presents has been on Christmas Cards for generations. He wears a red suit and carries a sack which is almost always green. As a young child in St. Jacques, I did not see a department store Santa or any red-suited character parading around my space. My Santa was the one depicted on a greeting card; a smiling, red-cheeked, white-haired man whose face filled the entire front of the card. Every year in December, as the cards piled higher, there he would be with that engaging smile and twinkling eye.

Strangely enough, he arrived in a sack himself. There was no door-to-door mail delivery in our community. Everyone went to the post office and stood in line to have the postmaster pass them their mail through a wicket. When December rolled around, the volume of mail arriving on the mail boat increased dramatically. Thick, grey, canvas bags with a drawstring at the top, and a padlock for security, bulged in comparison to other months.

Inside those bags were social networking devices – Christmas Cards. It was through them that we maintained yearly contact with relatives and friends. Oh yes, some folks wrote letters back and forth. However, the Christmas card was a collective communication tool. It said so on the outside of the envelope, with two words in the address line “… and family.” That meant everyone in our house. Each card with unfamiliar names, was examined thoroughly and an explanation was given, such as “Oh, that’s your great aunt and uncle on your grandmother’s side. They live on Patrick Street in St. John’s.” Some cards had lengthy, hand-written notes inside the cover informing us of who had died since last December, who was in hospital in July, the names of new babies, where summer vacation was spent or the names of visitors they had hosted during the year. At one level, it seems trivial, yet, it was critical information for it was often the only piece of communication for a whole year. It kept us in contact.

The “list” of those to whom cards were mailed wasn’t a list in itself. It was a combination of memory and whatever cards had survived from the previous year. Thus, cards were somewhat sacred, rarely destroyed or re-purposed until they exceeded a one-year life span. If one wasn’t received from a regular sender, it was noted. Speculation ensued. Was it a case of last year’s card being sent to the wrong address, did their card get lost in the mail, had they decided not to send cards this year, or, most dramatically, did they die? The latter had to be ruled out through inquiries of relatives by correspondence.

The exchange of cards was social networking, entertainment, obligation, family history and genealogical research. I first heard the names of distant cousins and other relatives through these cards, some of whom I would never meet, especially those of my grandparent’s generation. They were impromptu lessons in family history where I learned the names of extended family, where they fit in the family tree, as well as stories of things they’d done and places they’d been, including where they now lived and worked. Many of these names and relationships have stayed with me even though the cards stopped coming from them years ago.

In addition to the Santa Claus image, there were images of decorated Christmas trees, poinsettia leaves, holly berries against green boughs, snowmen, church bell towers, carolers, reindeer, and sometimes a simple, colourful, Seasons Greeting or Happy Holidays. 

Remembering those cards got me curious about the origin of the tradition of exchanging cards at Christmas. The first documented Christmas card was sent through a mail service in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole England introduced a postal service in 1840. Christmas letters, sent by courier, were exchanged before that. That meant hand-writing a response to every letter received. Cole had a card designed and availed of cheap postage rates to send copies to his friends. The practice spread across the world from there.

Select cards from close family members, or those having a striking picture, were given a place nestled among the branches on our tree. Others were placed throughout the living room, perched on the mantelpiece or end tables. Though neighbours occasionally strung cards on a line in their kitchen, this was not a practice in our house.

Residents noted the time on their clocks when the mail boat arrived, calculating how long it would take to have the mail sorted. Minutes before the post office door swung open, the line-up started. More than once, an anxious customer would check the door to see if it had been unlocked and had gone unnoticed.

Postmasters and Postmistresses were blessed with extreme patience. Over the years, there were many who worked in that capacity in St. Jacques. The first was George Snelgrove from 1877 to 1886. His wife, Julia, assumed the role upon his death and held the position until 1899 when she retired. Patrick McEvoy then stepped into the role for two years. He was followed by Bertha Young when Patrick became a Telegraph Operator. Bertha, or ‘Aunt Buppie’, served as postmistress for most of her adult life. When she retired, the role was filled again by Patrick McEvoy. After his death, his daughter, Elizabeth (Lizzie) McEvoy filled the role. She was, in turn, succeeded by Blanche Fiander. Annie Lawrence had the distinction of being the last postmistress in St. Jacques before the postal services were centralized to English Harbour West and the St. Jacques office closed. How many Christmas Cards passed through their hands over the years, and how much joy ensued?

Despite the stereotypes, the hype, and the crass commercialism, Christmas has retained some things that are still magical. One of these is when I pull a card from its envelope, look at its cover, and then open it to read the hand-written name beneath the verse. That sharing of one’s signature speaks volumes.

Posted by: alexhickey | June 5, 2022

Fire in the Sky, 1936 © Alex Hickey, 2022

A few years ago I was wandering along the beach of St. Jacques at low tide.  I was in that part of the harbour known as Burkes Cove, where, for over a hundred and twenty years the Burke family operated a variety of business enterprises.  Therefore it isn’t unusual to find the bottom of a broken wine bottle from Spain, a piece of Chinese porcelain nestled among the pebbles or pieces of green, blue or clear sea glass peering from under a mussel shell. Most metallic debris from their old wharves and schooners has rusted beyond recognition by now so any colour that contrasts with the brownish tones of seaweed is apt to catch one’s eye.  That day, something did.  A black object about three inches square stood out from the brown, beige, grey and burnt orange rocks surrounding it  The falling tide had left it and everything else slick with a sheen of water.  Sunlight reflecting from that one particular object seemed brighter than others.

I bent over to examine what had captured my attention.  At first, I thought it was a piece of coal.  That is, until I picked it up.  I was quite surprised at the weight of such a small object.  That alone told me I was not handling a lump of coal or a beach rock.  I turned it over in my hand to discover the opposite side appeared to have melted.  It looked as though a hot bubbling surface had frozen in time.  The sides of my newly discovered object seemed to have been fractured, broken away from a larger chunk.  I had no idea what I was holding other than it was intensely black and extraordinarily heavy for its size.

Later that evening I was sitting in my living room examining the object and wondering about its origin when I had a flashback to basic high school science on meteors.  After a bit of research and further examination, I felt relatively confident I had stumbled upon a meteorite that survived its entry through the atmosphere and had come to rest in St. Jacques. 

In 1936, telegraph operator Paddy McEvoy sent a message to St. John’s telling of a great  ‘ball of fire’ that had streaked across the sky of St. Jacques and exploded before their eyes!  That got me thinking about some of the people who were living in the town at that time and how they might have witnessed the event.  Here’s what I imagine three of them might have seen:

Joe Penney, lightkeeper on St. Jacques Island, was in the midst of his afternoon rounds when out of the corner of his eye a brilliant light appeared in the sky.   He stopped in his tracks, stared and shouted to his assistant Harry Young.  The urgency of his voice brought the faces of his wife Louise and his Aunt Elizabeth to the kitchen window.  They stared, transfixed by something they’d never seen before.

Mother Alphonsus O’Driscoll pulled her coat tighter across her chest to keep out the October chill.  The Presentation Convent’s front step was one of her favourite places to sit and think.  Winds were light and the crisp blue sky was typical of late fall.  She was remembering her sister Mother Joseph O’Driscoll who had recently passed on.  They had both climbed those same steps for decades, especially during their early years upon arrival from Ireland.   She closed her eyes, raised her face to the sun and smiled at the memories.  Without warning, everything turned yellowish-orange behind her eyelids.  Snapping out of her reveries she was confronted by a flaming ball of fire in the sky.  Her hands flew into action forming the sign of the cross as she blessed herself.

Afternoon lessons were almost complete in the crowded one-room Church of England school house.  Miss Gladys Price, in the second year of her teaching career, had all of her students practicing cursive writing.  She slowly walked between the rows looking over their shoulders, pausing now and then to offer a suggestion.  She was guiding nine-year-old Anne Marie Johnson in the formation of a capital G when she heard Melvin Allen, a senior student, frantically call out, “Miss, Miss! Look out the window!”  Blazing across the sky was a ball of light leaving a dark trail behind it.  “Remain in your seats,” she commanded as she rushed to the window.  Students, oblivious to danger, crowded around her staring out over the harbour.

It was October 19th, 1936. What residents witnessed that day must have felt like a biblical account of the end of the world.  During the middle of the afternoon around 2:30 a brilliant flaming ball, bright enough to be seen in broad daylight, appeared overhead, streaking at startling speed across the sky, appearing to get closer with each passing second. Men, women and children paused in the middle of what they were doing and stared at the sky, waiting, anticipating, not knowing what until it suddenly turned to a ball of dark smoke and a massive explosion vibrated the air around them and shook the ground beneath their feet.  A collective shiver passed through everyone as they watched in awe a column of smoke high in the atmosphere that continued to move forward as it began to lose its shape.  They looked around, at each other, at the sky, the ocean and the hills.   Everything in the harbour seemed to be the same.  Dogs began to bark.  They looked in the eyes of those standing nearby with questions and waited to see if another would appear.  None did. The speculation began.

By the end of the day postal telegraph reports from communities spread between Fortune Bay and Conception Bay spoke of a similar occurrence.   Some places described a fiery object almost twenty feet long falling from the sky and striking the earth.  One such site was Dock Ridge, near Avondale.   In Placentia Bay a witness reported from Merasheen Island that an object in the sky burst into flames and dropped to earth about twenty miles to the northeast of where he was standing.

An observer in New Perlican, Trinity Bay, reported that an object about ten feet long fell into the water about three miles northwest of the town throwing a large column of water into the air.  In Rencontre East, Fortune Bay, surprised residents watched as a ball of fire fell to earth a short distance to the west of their town.  A large scar on Steward’s Head, west of Rencontre is still discernable today. 

At Burnt Island, Placentia Bay, some believed they had seen a large plane flying in a northeasterly direction which was followed by an explosion.  Fishermen at sea reported seeing fiery objects dropping into the ocean sending up plumes of water, steam and smoke.  An unsubstantiated report suggested that at least one boat was hit and burned.

The St. John’s Daily News of October twentieth carried this headline, “Meteorites Fall in This Country: Flaming mass was seen Hurtling Through Sky at Several Places.”  A headline in the New York Times newspaper on the same date read. “Meteor Shower Sets Skies Aflame:  Newfoundland sees Balls of Fire Exploding and Striking Sea – World’s End Feared.” 

We know it wasn’t the end of the world.  It was an unusual daylight meteor shower. These meteorite showers which occur annually during the month of October and are known as the Orionids with the peak occurring around October 20th. Meteors are leftover particles and bits of rock and ice left behind by comets and remnants of asteroids.  When comets travel around our sun they leave in their path a trail of these remnants.  Each year in October the earth moves through the trail of a very well-known space object, Halley’s Comet.   That comet orbits the sun once every seventy-six years.  The last time it did was 1986 and will do so again in 2061. In the meantime there is plenty of debris from the 1986 visit to keep our October skies interesting for many years to come.

When the earth encounters this debris some of it collides with our atmosphere. As it heats up and glows in the sky it become visible to human eyes.  At night they are what we call shooting stars that are seen for brief seconds as they enter the atmosphere.  Others are larger and travel great distances, sometimes making it all the way to the surface of the earth.  When they do, they can appear as balls of fire which pass overhead leaving a trail of smoke behind them as they burn up.  Orionid meteors are usually very bright and fast when they come in contact with the earth.

Had a piece of this object survived the intense heat and fallen to the ground in Burkes Cove?  Had I discovered a piece Halley’s Comet seventy years after its encounter with the Earth? Possibly.  I have not been able to locate any other account of residents witnessing such an event before or since 1936.  It is possible that the object, which I am convinced is a meteorite, may have fallen centuries earlier.  However, the thought of it coming down to earth in 1936 is more to my liking.

Observing a shooting star in the sky at night is magical. It is like seeing back in time to the early days of human life on our planet when such unexplained occurances raised both fear and wonder.  Come October, be on the lookout for a clear night sky, find a spot where there isn’t very much ambient light, make yourself comfortable on a blanket, watch and wait for the Orionids. If you are familiar with the night sky, these seem to oroiginate in the regiopn of Orion, hence their name.  They won’t disappoint you.  Imagine what it must have felt like that afternoon in 1936 when the phenomenon was witnessed in the middle of the day.   There is always a chance the sky might light up as one of these bits of the early Universe gets close to earth before finally burning out with a bang right above your head!

Links to Explore


Orionids Meteor Shower 2022

1935 Census St. Jacques


Posted by: alexhickey | December 23, 2021

Hard Candy Christmas


This afternoon I opened a tin of Old Fashioned Candy Mix. You may know the type. In part, it’s what Dolly Parton sings about in Hard Candy Christmas.  She also includes candy canes and lollipops as hard candy.  The phrase hard candy Christmas refers to times when things were tough and people had little more than hard candy for Christmas. These little sugary lumps remind us that life can be simultaneously hard and sweet.

   Waiting inside the tin were oval-shaped pale green candies with a bubbled surface which look like an unripened raspberry. Around them were red, green and white pinwheels, rectangular amber ones with rounded edges wrapped in a red stripe and tapered at each end. There were blackish coloured ones which suggested licorice but, as everyone who has eaten hard Christmas candy knows, when you eat it your mouth will fill with a most strange flavour that is supposed to be grape.

   The tin contained dime-sized round, tubular candies filled with multi-coloured centres, rainbow ribbon shapes, and dumpy humbugs in a variety of colours. Some were deep purple, moss green, brilliant translucent yellow, pale pink, lime green, ruby red, and white with candy apple red stripes.  If you looked closely you’d see semi-transparent orange ones and an occasional white one with blue stripes.

   During my childhood these were a staple at Christmas, next in importance to Gala apples imported from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. While each of the candies was savoured for taste, texture, and shape, the best part was not what was visible on top of the tin but what was waiting at the bottom.  There, candy dust, sugar, broken bits and slivers had congealed, blended into a taste extraordinaire; a taste equal to none, a blend of flavours that played games with your taste buds as they spelled out Christmas in your mind.  Very few things could compare to rolling chunks of broken candies over your tongue, around the mouth and then hesitating to swallow in order to prolong the sweet sugary nectar experience.

   While these candies are a visual feast, they are never intended to be gazed upon for hours or adored for their colours, textures and memories.  No sir!  They are meant to be eaten, savoured like fine wine.  Prolonged looking brings on nostalgic memories, storytelling and causes severe cases of salivation.  Each one evokes warm, safe, comfortable feelings associated with positive recollections of things past.  Christmas 2021 is a time to seek out those warm feelings and spread them around as much as possible.

   By now I am on my fifth hard candy, letting it melt on my tongue.  Soon, very soon, I will crack it into small bits then move onto number six. It is an indulgence of childhood, of innocent days and nights when snowflakes really did fall aimlessly from the sky and catching them on your tongue was a favourite sport. They provoke the hearing of voices of parents, grandparents, childhood friends, all babbling in the background of one’s mind embodying comfort and belonging, and most of all, warmth.

   So, where does that take us? I know where it takes me. It leads me on a journey to remember, celebrate, and talk about the things that have brought me ‘warmth’ during the Christmas season.  Part nostalgia, part memory, part fantasy, all momentary solace to the events which surround us.  It is a time to draw upon experiences which have given us strength and pleasure, good things and occurrences which have impressed themselves upon our minds and woven themselves into the fabric of how we view our past. It is a time to bring them forward, a time to draw down on that investment; to use the strength we’ve embodied in them to buoy our battered spirits. Whether it is a favourite song, a carol that becomes an ear worm, a story often told this time of year or a fun memory of the season, bring it forth with a smile.  It might be a childhood doll, a particular Christmas tree or a favourite fruit cake that springs to mind.  Whatever it is, lean on it, share it, tell everyone you know who will listen and share a bit of your warmth with them. Most likely, they will share something in return.

   This Christmas, in our smaller than anticipated gatherings, let’s turn to those family members and friends within our bubbles, hold their hands, feel their tremors, their fear and uncertainty then give them a hug.  Share your warmth with each of them.  That hug with its shared body heat and the security of a pair of encircling arms may be all they need to bring their Christmas into focus.  It may become the memory of a lifetime.  Hold someone close and tell them how much you care. Hold hands and watch the snow fall in your neighbourhood, listen to your favourite music, recall familiar stories.  Don’t hesitate to retell a fondly remembered tall tale over again for it’s in the telling that we remember, that we preserve and carry on our culture and identity. 

   Share a drink, a special meal, eat familiar snacks, call an old friend and reminisce, wrap yourself in a warm blanket, stare out the window and think of others. Pick up the phone and call that neighbour you haven’t seen for a while. Call someone who lives alone. Ask them about their favourite candies during Christmas. If they don’t have any, perhaps a door-drop can be arranged. We have so much in our treasure chests that are memorable, things that make us feel warm inside.  Reach in and pull them out.  This is the year to fortify ourselves and those we cherish with our own strength. Reach out to those objects and people that make you feel good. If you have a tin of Old Fashioned Hard Candy to lean on or share, then so much the better.  This may be a hard candy Christmas for many of us!

   Merry Christmas to all and a firm goodbye to 2021!

Posted by: alexhickey | November 9, 2021

A Good St. Jacques Man

Maurice Burke was a special friend. Special for the passion we shared for St. Jacques, special for the respect and admiration he held for ordinary people who in his view did extraordinary things. We spent endless hours in conversation, mainly me asking questions, mining his rich repertoire of memories and experiences related to our hometown. In short, he inspired me to never let go of the threads a small town weaves into one’s life, to keep it’s history and heritage alive, especially for the minds of those who inherit that place.  Maurice didn’t run for elected office or seek publicity; nor did he shun a bit of attention either!  His generosity, hospitality and encouragement was felt by all who knew him.  A trip to St. John’s was not worthwhile without a visit to 35 Craigmillar Avenue.

      The last time I saw Maurice, he was near the end of his life.  He was in a seniors home, having, out of necessity, forfeited his independence.  My father and I sat with him for several hours near a window where the warm afternoon sun cast a glow all around us.  He had his usual questions about people he knew, events since we’d last met, stories of those he remembered and moments of silence when being there was much more important than conversation.  It wasn’t a final goodbye for I fully expected to be visiting him again but the course of events which unfolded after that visit were different from what I imagined.  The last time I was in his presence was at his beloved St. Patrick’s church in down town St. John’s where a large number of family and friends had gathered to collectively say goodbye in a manner he would have thoroughly appreciated.

      Recently, when I happened across an article he’d written back in 1959 for the Atlantic Advocate magazine, I was delighted.  My heart melted as I settled back and listened to the voice of his words.  There was Maurice, telling a story I had not known.  Once again I was sitting beside the window on the street, sipping hot tea and savouring his mother’s (Rita) delectable sweets.  I am sharing that story in it’s entirety as it appeared in the Atlantic Advocate.  After you’ve read it I will come back to the story it tells and share a bit more of this ordinary/extraordinary man.

The Bluenose and the Thebaud Sail Again – Newfoundland Model Builder to Recreate Famous Race

by Maurice J. Burke,

Atlantic Advocate vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959 pp. 107-111.

For the old sea-faring men

Came to me now and then

With their sagas of the seas.

                        – Longfellow

      Have you ever taken a good look at a Canadian ten-cent piece? If you have, you will have seen that it bears the imprint of a fully rigged banking schooner. Her name was the Bluenose and she sailed to racing fame and glory on the storm-tossed waters of the North Atlantic. Perhaps you may have wondered why the Canadian Government decided to mint a coin in her honour. Why? Because from the date of her launching at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, on March 26, 1921, until she was lost off Haiti on January 6, 1946, she was the symbol of the sailing supremacy of the Canadian fishing fleet and she brought world renown to Canada in the five international fishermen’s races in which she competed, for in these races she was undefeated champion. She was a centre of attraction at the World’s Fair held at Chicago in 1933, at the Toronto Centennial in 1934 and in England on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935. She sailed her way into the hearts of all the people who live along the Atlantic seaboard and even today the mere mention of her name will cause old-timers to become misty-eyed as they speak in awe of her achievements, her trim lines and the way she sailed as no fishing vessel ever sailed before or since.

      Captained by that redoubtable fishing skipper, Angus J. Walters, the Bluenose won her first international race against the Elsie off Halifax in 1921, the same year in which she was launched. Thereafter she successfully defended her title in 1922 against the Henry Ford off Gloucester, in 1924 against the Columbia off Halifax and in 1931 and 1938 against the Gertrude L. Thebaud in perhaps her most famous races of all. The Thebaud was skippered by Captain Ben Pine, a Newfoundlander from Belleoram, Fortune Bay.

      The Bluenose and the Thebaud! Ah, what memories the names of these two famous schooners stir in the hearts of all bank fishermen! Memories of graceful, sleek ships in hard- fought races, and at stake the honour and prestige of nations! Today Ben Pine is dead and Angus J. Walters, long since retired from the sea, but still hale and hearty in his seventies, looks after his dairy business in Lunenburg. The motto of the Lunenburg Dairy is: “You can whip our cream but you can’t beat our milk.” When Angus Walters whipped his Bluenose through her paces she was the cream of the crop and you couldn’t beat him then either.

      This summer in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the stage is being set to recreate in miniature the races of these two famous schooners. In the basement of his home at 2 Saunders Place, a retired bank fisherman, Joe Farrell, who has already completed a model of the Bluenose, is building one of her famous challenger the Gertrude L. Thebaud. These are not little models that you can sail in your bathtub, but man-size boats, seven feet long and just as high, made from exact small-scale blueprints of the original shipbuilders’ plans. They are complete down to the last detail and carry every stitch of canvas their namesakes did: jib, jumbo, foresail, mainsail, balloon jib, topsails and staysail.

[Terrence Burke Photo from the Atlantic Advocate, vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959. Creative Commons]

Joe Farrell was born in Bay du Nord, Fortune Bay, a section of Newfoundland that has given the pride of its manhood to the bank fishery. Joe remembers when hundreds of men went each spring to the “banks” and recalls sadly that some of them did not return. Now in his seventy-fifth year, he can look back over a period of some thirty years spent afloat, some of them as mate for Angus Walters before the Bluenose was launched. His old skipper remembers him as “a number one man” and in the language of the sea that is the greatest compliment a captain can pay to any of his crew.

      Joe Farrell earned his living as a bank fisherman from the turn of the century until the end of the Second World War. He sailed out of Lunenburg in such well-known vessels as the Keno, the Independence, Muriel Walters (skippered by Angus and named for his sister) the H. J. Mackintosh, the Artisan (skippered by “Sonny” Walters, brother of Angus), the Madeline Hebb and the Lewis J. Thomas. So when Joe speaks of the bank fishery, he knows whereof he speaks. From his kitchen window he can look out across the harbour of St. John’s and he recalls that things were very different in his day of “wooden ships and iron men.” True the risks are still there (the recent tragic loss on the Grand Banks of the dragger Blue Wave with sixteen men on board is proof of this) but some of the romance has gone out of the bank fishery and the day of the banking schooner is gone for ever.

      As you listen to his yarns of the old days, told with the salty humour so common to the men of his time, the bank fishery seems to come alive again and it is not 1959 any more but 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930. The Grand Banks are teeming with cod and the majestic schooners go gliding by, reaping the silver harvest of the deep. You can picture the men hauling their trawls, their little dories bobbing on the Atlantic swell around their mother ship as they are rowed to her side, laden to the gunwales with the codfish, the real “currency” of the Maritime Provinces. Then the hardy fishermen are singing lustily as they heave up the anchor and hoist the sails for the race back to port is on, to take advantage of the best market price. And then when the fishing season is over, it’s racing time and it’s Bluenose and the Thebaud again. Always the conversation comes back to the Bluenose and the Thebaud. And in imagination you can picture the two of them tacking back and forth over the choppy waters off Halifax or Boston. Ben Pine and Angus Walters, the “Captains Courageous” of the Atlantic, are shouting orders to the crew and men are running to and fro, trimming the sails to catch each favourable breeze as they round the buoys and are off on another tack. And you seem to feel the same thrill as these men feel as they stand proudly on deck and see their vessel heeling to port or starboard, “dragging her cabin” in the water and they will tell you that there is no greater thrill than this . . . seeing your schooner overtaking her rival in a close race. It is something that makes you want to stand up and cheer. And Angus Walters is standing proudly at the wheel, dressed in his oilskins and sou’wester, the salt spray flying in his face as the Bluenose skims swiftly over the waves and races for the finish line . . . the winner again.

      Everyone who grows up in an “outport”* is born with a love of the sea and sailing ships. Joe Farrell is such a man. He is not an author to write wonderful stories of his seafaring days or an artist to paint beautiful landscapes. He is, however, a craftsman and his love of the sea finds its expression, as all true love ultimately must, in the creation of something beautiful to represent that love. Joe Farrell builds his model boats and his work is a masterpiece of perfection right down to the last detail, sails, masts, rigging, windlass and hatches . . . everything is perfect. It takes many painstaking hours of work but Joe Farrell is a patient man and for him it is a labour of love. In the basement of his home he spends hours studying actual blueprints of the vessels and makes his models to an exact scale. His wife stitches the sails and puts up patiently with the endless puttering around his workshop. He sailed his Bluenose last summer on the Quidi Vidi Lake, on the outskirts of St. John’s, and was very pleased with her trial runs. Some time this summer the Thebaud will be ready and then he will realize his dream of racing the two. The clock will be turned back twenty-one years. It will be 1938 once again and the waters of historic Quidi Vidi will take the place of the North Atlantic as the two old rivals race each other again.

      I wish that Angus Walters and Ben Pine could be there to witness the event. What a time they would have with reminiscences about the old days, and theories about just what went right and what went wrong in 1938! But Joe Farrell doesn’t expect an audience and doesn’t need one. It will be sufficient for him that the two models of his own creation will battle each other and for a short time he will relive a little of the past glory that once belonged to their famous namesakes. In a day when the public’s interest in sailing ships is very low, few people will be present, but Joe Farrell will experience a little of the thrill of his sea-going days, and when he watches from the banks of Quidi Vidi, there will be a twinkle in his eye and his step will be lighter as his two ships prove their mettle. I asked him which boat he thought would win but he wouldn’t hazard a guess. I suppose it really doesn’t matter. The main thing is that a dream will come true to gladden the heart of an old bank fisherman and be an occasion for joy among his many friends. In sport they say that it is always best to stick with a champion and I’ll put my money any day on the pride of Lunenburg and of its first citizen, Angus J. Walters . . . the Bluenose. May she rest peacefully in her watery grave under the blue waters of the Caribbean!

            That’s the Maurice I knew, driven to celebrate the accomplishments of others, eager to push someone he knew into the limelight, then step back and smile as the attention shifted away from himself.  Joe Farrell was known for his depth of knowledge of sailing vessels as both a sailor and a builder. His story is quite fascinating; maybe that’s another post for a later date.  Like you, I too wondered if the Bluenose and Thebaud raced against one another on Quidi Vidi Lake as he had planned. They did.  The Bluenose was victorious once again!

[Ern Maunder Photo from The Atlantic Advocate, vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959. Creative Commons]      

            Louise Whiteway published an article in the Fall 1967 edition of the Newfoundland Quarterly titled, “The Bluenose in Newfoundland” which took Joe Farrell’s story to the next step. I have included a link to that magazine below.  Read it to find out about Joe Farrell’s models of these two famous ships and find out where you can go to see one of them on display anytime you are in St. John’s. 

            Maurice Burke published many articles about St. Jacques during his lifetime, primarily in the Monitor newspaper and the Newfoundland Quarterly.  He also published a book titled Memories of Outport Life. Sadly, it is no longer in print.  It shows up occasionally in used book stores.  Before you wander off in pursuit of his other writings, read through the profile of Maurice which was published in his book.  I’ve included it here as it appeared. You’ll get background information that will add greater depth, definition and understanding of who he was.

       Maurice’s  brother John, who resides in Ontario, recently shared on social media a story of a pivotal event in Maurice’s life as a young man. Once you’ve read it, you will gain even greater appreciation for him.

      Maurice was third in line in our family of eleven, a healthy boy, until he contracted tuberculous from having spent a lengthy time visiting and reading to his friend, a victim of that disease. The disease left him paralysed from the  waist down. He went to St. Claire’s Hospital in St. John’s, not to the Sanatorium where most tuberculosis victims were treated. He lay there for some three years and was sent home with the sad reality that there was no cure for his disability.

      For years Momma prayed fervently to St. Anne for a cure for Maurice. But, it was not St. Anne who gave Maurice the miracle he wanted.  It was his brother, Michael!  This was not just an act of  brotherly love that brought about this miracle.  This was years of  blood, sweat and hard, hard, overtime work that Michael needed to do to  raise the money for the operation needed to allow Maurice to walk again.

      Michael had discovered that there was a Doctor in Montreal who did this new type of surgery, who could operate on Maurice, a Doctor Shannon.

      Maurice arrived in Montreal. He was hesitant to go through the operation.  You can well imagine Michael’s disappointment to hear that Maurice was not wanting to go through with the surgery. Apparently, a patient in a nearby bed to Maurice had claimed that it was tried on him and that it did not work.  With Michael’s pleading, explaining the wonderful reputation of Dr. Shannon, and arguing that he should go ahead with the operation, eventually Maurice consented.

      Maurice walked again!!!!  Michael was his ‘saint’  who sacrificed so much for his brother. Both of my brothers passed away some years ago. Michael ‘s act of brotherly love  stands as  an example of true brotherly love, no matter what the cost ! God Bless him!!  I suspect God already has.  (Burke, John. Facebook, October 08, 2020. Used with permission.)

       My earliest memory of Maurice is of a well-dressed man in a dark three piece suit walking along the gravel road during one of his ritual visits.  He would walk from the eastern side of the harbour where the road now ends, the location of his once family home, to the Roman Catholic cemetery and back, chatting with everyone he met along the way.  Every visit to St. Jacques included that walk as though it was a way to remind the hills, trees, rocks and shoreline that he was back.  He visited old friends, made new ones, paid his respects to the deceased and set aside time to pray in Sacred Heart Church.  He always had the appearance of a man who felt at home during that pilgrimage, one whose heart beat to the rhythm of waves, sea breezes and the flapping of seagull wings over the harbour.  As everyone who knew him can attest, he lived in St. John’s but he never left St. Jacques.

“The Bluenose and the Thebaud Sail Again – Newfoundland Model Builder to Recreate Famous Race,” in Atlantic Advocate vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959, pp. 107-111.

“The Bluenose in Newfoundland,” in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 065, no. 4 Fall 1967, pp. 23-24

“On Leaving Home,” Maurice Burke in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 078, no. 4 (Spring 1983) pp. 11–12.

“Memories of Outport Life,” Review by David Bryant in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 082, no. 2, Fall 1986. [Burke, Maurice.  Memories of Outport Life, Creative Publishers, 1985.]

Posted by: alexhickey | May 16, 2021

Friar Rock ©

Listen! Listen to the growling undertow and the rattle of rocks as waves build tension. Watch the foam dissipate and disappear into crevices and shadows of pebbles and boulders as the water flattens and thins in retreat. Watch the next wave rise and urge itself forward, pressing its fluid form against the resistant shoreline.  Stand still, fixed to the bedrock.  Wait in anticipation on the rising tide, each wave reaching slightly farther up the beach, wetting sun bleached stone until it washes around your feet. 

Nothing seems to change but the passing of time, drifting of clouds, and the rise and fall of tides.  Yet if you were to stand there as long as Mr. Friar, many things would change.  Let me introduce you to him.  He’s been standing alone, midway between the high and low water marks in a cove on the eastern side of the mouth of St. Jacques harbour, for thousands  perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.  He is about the height of five humans and much too big to wrap your arms around.  Ten humans holding hands might be able to encircle and embrace him.  Mr. Friar, a sea stack, stands sentinel in a cove which bears his name – Friar Cove.  Sometime, well into the future, he will have company for several adjacent headlands are giving birth to sea caves. If Mr. Friar is able to stand long enough his family will expand by three.

The sea is a formidable force whose gentle lapping of the shoreline on calm days belies its tenacity and ferociousness.  Friar Cove faces southwest, leaving it open to the immense strength of water and wind which frequently crash recklessly in through Fortune Bay.  The cove wasn’t always there.  That portion of the headland which culminates in Eastern Point was once a relatively straight shore characterized by cliffs which dropped precipitously into the ocean.  Over time the ocean exerted its patient and persistent power to erode, shape and modify.  Though a single wave seems relatively ineffectual in moving mountains, several million in succession will bring about change.  When the sea water moves so too does sand, pebbles and, depending on the strength of the waves, boulders.  Over and over they assail the shoreline, grinding away tiny bits that fall into the water to join force with those already lashing the cliffs.   As openings are carved into the rock face, overhangs are created which eventually crumble and fall.  With each successful foray into the landform a space gradually opens, creating a cove.  Instead of moving out with the tide, small rocks remain at the base of the cliffs, rolling and abrading under the waves to create a beach.

Some rocks are harder than others and can withstand the onslaught. Softer ones fall victim to the abrasive forces much more readily.  Over long periods of time the sea conquers them as it widens and deepens its intrusion.  Left are the more resistant formations capable of standing firm as the repetitive waves break and wash around them.  This is what happened in Friar Cove.  This is what gave birth to Mr. Friar.

At the northern end of the cove a sea cave capable of sheltering a small row-boat at low tide has emerged.  When the tide rises the cave fills with water whose mission is to make it bigger, deeper and eventually carve an opening through to the other side of the small headland.  Once it achieves that goal its task becomes focused on enlarging the opening until the cave gets transformed into a land bridge which will eventually collapse leaving a portion of it standing as a sea stack.  But, that’s for someone to witness many generations from now.  At low tide there is enough room to walk upright inside the cave where the earth, out of reach of the sun, feels cool and damp.  Its smooth polished interior is devoid of seaweed or debris.  There is nothing but a surrounding room of dark wet stone at sea level, an opening beneath a cliff that reaches sixty feet towards the sky.  The odour of the ocean, mystery and darkness live in there, clinging to the slippery walls, hanging onto a few visible cracks, beckoning visitors.

Two other smaller formations are emerging a little farther along.  These too will grow large enough for some curious human to venture into and be reminded of the power that lurks beneath the welcoming sea which gently rocks a boat in its arms. 

You might wonder how Mr. Friar got his name. So do I.  Sea stacks on this part of the south coast of Newfoundland are all given the same name – friar.  This name is not prevalent throughout the island.  Could it be that the imposing structure resembles a robed friar in stature?  In some ways it does, however, Mr. Friar stands head and shoulders above all other friars along the coast, a tall statuesque form resembling a sentry more than a friar. He is not visible from the community, tucked away as he is inside the cove.  Nor is the cove accessible from the shoreline due to a series of steep cliffs which drop into the sea.  The only way to pay him a visit is to travel by boat. As you approach and the shoreline looms higher Mr. Friar grows in stature.   By the time you’ve disembarked and stood at his base you feel just how small the space is that you occupy on this planet.  You are also reminded by the Osprey family that has nested atop him for generations that here is a place where the course of daily events are not directed by humans.  You are welcome to visit but not to stay.  Stay long enough though to listen and imagine the tiny chips and grains of rock gradually giving way to the sea.

Posted by: alexhickey | December 19, 2020

Of Cakes, Ales and Mummers 2020 © Alex Hickey 12/19/2020

cakes and Ales Christmas


Ah, there’s big ones and small ones, tall ones and thin,

There’s boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men,

With humps on their backs and mitts on their feet,

My blessed we’ll die with the heat. (Bud Davidge, Any Mummers Allowed In?)

The Christmases of our childhood’s exist somewhere between memory and nostalgia.  Memory is the ability to record information about people, things, places, event, feelings, etc., which we can recall at will later.  Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a yearning for things of the past, a longing for familiar surroundings, people and events; frequently manifested as a longing for home.  Hence the theme of many Christmas songs and stories – there’s no place like home!  That theme has amplified poignancy this Christmas of 2020 as we diligently adapt our lives to an imposed reality of smaller gatherings, restricted or forbidden travel, feelings of isolation and distance, the like of which most of us have never experienced in our lifetimes. The strength of our collective human spirit, fueled by memory and nostalgia, will get us through the Christmas Season and into the hope and promise of a New Year.

Our rituals and traditions are being challenged by 2020. This year we will have to reach to Christmases past and draw from them those endearments and treasures which warm our hearts and bring smiles to our lips, particularly when seeing familiar faces before us and no ability to reach out and stroke a finger across a warm cheek, wipe away a pent-up tear or brush away a stray hair.

In 1859, Charles Dickens, in his opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities set in the late 1700’s, wrote:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

How could he have known about 2020?

Sixteen years earlier Dickens published a story we know as The Christmas Carol.  In that story Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted with three Christmas ghosts – the ghost of Past, Present and Future.  From the ghost of Christmas Past he learned that the simple things in life like love of family, laughter and the support of friends all have value. From the ghost of Christmas Present he learned that no matter how bad things are we can still find joy and reason to celebrate. The ghost of Christmas Future helps him see that our actions have consequences and without good memories of our life lived, nostalgia has no home.

With those things in mind I reflected on where we are this year, where we’ve been and where we are going; something I know I am sharing with many others.  My thoughts, filtered through memory and nostalgia, led me to consider two Christmas memories – the baking and brewing leading up to the twelve days of Christmas and the gender-bending practices integral to the art of Mummering!

In the early days of December, behind the kitchen stove on a bench to elevate if off the cold floor, there would sit a small wooden cask, its staves held together by metal hoops.  A gleaming taut white cotton cloth covered its open top hiding the mixture of water, hops, malt, yeast and sugar.  It did little to keep the pungent odour from escaping and permeating the downstairs section of the house.  However, it did keep our inquisitive cat from poking its whiskers into the brew.  While the concoction brewed, the stove was kept burning all through the night to maintain fermentation.  Those were some of the warmest winter nights I recall in a house without central heating.

Ten days later beer bottles were passed through scalding hot water.  The brew was siphoned and filtered through a dense cheese cloth. That is not to say the liquid which was funneled into bottles was entirely clear for that was never the case.  Each waiting bottle received a measure of granulated white sugar to encourage carbonation then was mechanically capped and stored until Christmas Eve.  By then some of their cloudiness would have disappeared and a presence of bubbles on the sides of a glass showed minimal carbonation.  An overabundance of bubbles was deemed undesirable and fell below the standards of the discriminate afternoon home brew drinker. However, by midnight it was hardly noticed!

Contrasting with the distinct, pervasively bitter, odour of hops was the sweet, mouth-watering scents cast into the air by a combination of molasses, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and candied fruit each time the oven door was gently opened. Dark fruit cakes were perennial favourites.  Light fruit cakes, though equally delicious, rarely sparked the imagination or tempted the taste buds to the same tantalizing degree as the glistening dark ones.  Cherry pound cakes and loaves laden with chopped pecans, walnuts and hints of orange, competed for olfactory attention with partridge berry and blueberry pies.  As they cooled in the open air on the pantry counter the house took on a feeling, an intangible sensation that the world around us was changing, that despite all that might be wrong or despairing in our lives, it was time to take a deep breath. The air that came in through the door each time a visitor crossed the threshold brought with it promise and potential.  You could smell the freshness, the crispy newness of air intermingling with the comforting smells that already filled our noses and hearts.  Neither the ales nor the cakes were touched until Christmas was underway.

Tibbs Eve is widely understood on the south coast of Newfoundland to be the Eve of Christmas Eve. There is no Tibbs Day or St. Tibb thus it is the Eve of a day that will never come.  The next day is Christmas Eve which cannot be displaced or usurped.  Tibb’s Eve is the day to wind down community affairs, daily chores and orient oneself to the holidays. It is also the first evening that adults sit back, breathe deeply and take stock of what Christmas preparations remain to be done.  It was a ritual time to “break-the-ice’, to open the first beverage of the season and drink to house and home.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day stood distinct in their focus on the home with preparation of gifts, trimming the tree and of course a visit from jolly old Saint Nick and the ensuing feasting.  Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day opened the door to community; to friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances, and an occasional under-the-weather visitor, and of course, mummers!

We can reach into the depths of Newfoundland’s history and find references to their presence at Christmastime.  P.K. Devine in writing about Christmas in Newfoundland in the 1860’s, said: “An essential part of the Christmas celebrations was, no doubt, the “Mummers” or “Jannies.” They dressed up in all kinds of fancy costumes and visited the houses of the neighbors, where they were lavishly entertained. Both sexes, in later years, took part in these festivities.”  Reach farther back to some of the places from whence many of our earliest settlers came and you’ll find them there.  The Mummers Play found its way across the ocean from England and found a home in Newfoundland. Then there was William Shakespeare who gave us the comedic play, Twelfth Night, with its gender contortions of men and women.  We will come back to that later.

As dusk crept over the horizon on Boxing Day the approach of night hinted at merriment.  Costumes, prepared days in advance in some houses were donned while in houses of last minute mummers closets were raided seeking fabrics to cover and disguise their bodies and faces.  In some communities re-enactments of the Mummer’s Play with King George, the Turkish Knight and an ominous Hobby Horse made the rounds.  In others, couples bent on socializing set out into the night air. Family groups, neighbourhood groups, friends, young and old, ‘dressed up’.  Patterns of behaviours changed from place to place and over time. Where once it was common to host a dance in one’s home, hosting dances in the parish hall became the norm.

At the heart of disguising oneself as a mummer is the guessing game at each house as hosts attempt to determine the identities of their mysterious visitors.  The challenge when designing a costume largely from old, discarded or borrowed clothing was to confuse identity as much as possible and prolong the guessing.  Height, body shape, clothing style, gait, posture, voice and behaviours were all modified to that effect.  It was most common for men to dress as women and women to dress as men with results becoming more comedic as the night progressed and mummers imbibed in beverages provided by their hosts. Getting a mummer to take a drink would result in a possible glimpse of the neck or lower face as they tipped the glass to their lips. In other instances, women who didn’t usually drink couldn’t refuse for fear of ‘giving away’ their identity.

When such antics failed, body shape, behaviour and posture were explored.  Cushions, pillows, blankets, were all used to either enhance physical proportions or hide body shape.  This frequently engendered ribald commentary and speculation that would never have taken place under normal circumstances.  When mummers were present, many social mores were relaxed in the interest of good-natured fun. Gender bending offered comic relief and loosened taboos when hidden behind a mask or as it was sometimes called, a ‘false face’.  In order to throw their hosts off in their guessing adult couples frequently intermixed thereby prolonging the identity quest and extending the fun and hilarity.

Adult mummers usually ventured forth in the latter part of the evening after children had gone to bed.  If for some reason they weren’t in bed when the mummers knocked they were soon hustled up the stairs, tucked in and admonished not to peek downstairs. Now, if there was even an invitation to disobey, that was it! As the laughter and music swirled throughout the kitchen, so too did it swirl throughout the entire house.  It didn’t take long for stealthy feet to edge towards the stairwell or heat vents in the kitchen ceiling.  Any space which provided the minutest glimpse of the mummers was valuable territory. Mothers usually kept an ear attuned to noise from upstairs and periodically checked the stairwell.  Eventually, all would be ordered back to bed!

Homemade wines and beer flowed generously during such evenings.  In some houses it wasn’t unusual to find a bottle of spirits with its label mottled from aging in a nearby bog well out of sight of the customs officer or police. In others, a hollow sound in the floor betrayed a ‘liquor locker’.  On the south coast of Newfoundland close proximity to the French Islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon was celebrated by residents for generations.  For those who didn’t imbibe in alcohol, sweet drinks and cakes were readily available.

The twelve days leading to Old Christmas Day were primarily about socializing, relaxing, spending time with family and of course observing whatever religious events took place within the community.  Over those twelve days, in a small town like St. Jacques it was possible to visit the majority of residents either during the afternoon in one’s own garb or in the evening dressed as a mummer. It wouldn’t be fair to characterize the twelve days of Christmas as pure decadent revelry for there was still work to be done, animals to feed, wood and water to fetch  along with a multitude of household chores.  The community lived as it normally did but with a heightened awareness of each other to exercise what many believed to be the best of human behaviour.

Old Christmas Night, or the twelfth night, marked the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Epiphany in the Christian church calendar.  In some parts of Newfoundland the twelve days after Old Christmas day was considered the Old Christmas season and was characterized by visits to old friends and neighbours who were missed during the first twelve days.

Mummering changed and evolved over time. Mummers who paraded through the streets of the 1860’s gave way to a focus on house visits where dancing was the core activity.  Social visits by small groups were the norm I knew.  Today we are witnessing a return to the street parade mummers.  At its heart is still the gender-bending dressing up, partying, dancing and singing; and in many cases, ‘acting the fool’. Fool was a common name for ‘mummer’ during the mid-1800s in Newfoundland.

Earlier I mentioned Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  The play, written around 1601 references the twelfth night after Christmas, the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, an early Christian church holiday.  On that day servants dressed up as their masters, women dressed as men and vice versa. That inversion of social roles harkens back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia which also featured drinking, community revelry, and reversal of social orders where masters became slaves and slaves, masters compounded by males and females switching roles.   Twelfth Night is a play that preserves social disorder and merriment as celebration.  Four hundred years ago it celebrated Mummering.  Given that many of our ancestors came from the British Isles there is little wonder at its presence here.

Sir Toby Belch, in Twelfth Night, asks of a steward, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”  Cakes and Ale were commonly associated with church related festivals as well as being a euphemism for having a good time. Again, an invocation of role reversal.  Shakespeare seems to have been poking a bit of fun at the double standards society frequently sees from political and religious leaders, suggesting with a ‘nod and a wink’ that things don’t change a lot regardless of ones position in society. Mummering had a way of levelling that social hierarchy at least for a few evenings in small communities in coastal Newfoundland.

During this 2020 Christmas Season with Covid-19 governing our lives, dictating who we can and cannot see, limiting our travel, and necessarily undermining our social practices we are compelled to think of Dickens and his ‘best of times, worst of times’ for we are learning to address a global challenge as human beings regardless of race, ethnic origin or belief system.  Like the Mummers and their antecedents social order is disrupted. Place in society matters little in the face of this threat.  And, like Sir Tobe Belch in Twelfth Night, there shall still be ‘cakes and ales’ but on a much smaller scale, hopefully in the safety of our own homes and social bubbles.

While Covid restrictions have temporarily taken away our big family gatherings, it has not taken away our memories or nostalgia. We can draw upon them to tell stories, make video and phone calls and reminisce. Perhaps one day we will look back nostalgically at the unusual Christmas of 2020.

Places to Explore

Devine, P.K., Christmas Fifty Years Ago: How the Festive Season Was Spent in the Outports in the 60’s, Christmas Record, 1916, p5.

The Mummers Song (Any Mummers Allowed In) (Simani)

Simani – Wikipedia

A Tale of Two Cities – Wikipedia

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Free Public Domain E-Book

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Free Public Domain E-Book

A Christmas Carol – Wikipedia

Learn About a Christmas Carol

Twelfth Night – Wikipedia

Twelfth Night Holiday – Wikipedia

Twelfth Night BBC Performance (1969)

Twelve Days of Christmas – Wikipedia

Posted by: alexhickey | August 2, 2020

Aunt Mattie’s Roses © Alex Hickey 8/2/2020

Pink Rose as referenced in the Blog post

Aunt Mattie’s Rose, 2020

When a summer afternoon turns languorous and the wispy ocean winds settle on the waves, stillness creeps across the harbour, daintily touching its soft squirrel hair brush to the intense fuchsia petals of Aunt Mattie’s rose bush now growing in my yard.  Delicate hints of its perennial perfume drift through the unruffled air fleetingly tantalizing ones sense of smell; an invitation to stop, savour the scent, marvel at its elegance and  applaud its resilience. A profusion of aromatic petals radiate spicy sweet tinctures which ride invisible currents immersing every soul curious enough to pause and breathe deeply.

Such a moment is timeless and luxuriant, teeming with story, a chronicle traversing time.  An entire century with two decades on top have wafted through its branches and tousled its leaves. July unfailingly finds it catching debut rays as the morning sun eases into the day above the eastern hills of St. Jacques.  Buds, pregnant with promise, rupture at their tips to reveal alluring hints of beauty. Before long the solitary green branches are festooned with blooms adored by poets, exchanged by lovers and treasured between the drying pages of old books who sit and wait on dusty shelves for another generation to crack their covers.

Lewis Thomas, physician, poet and educator, wrote, “The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking. Immediately at the moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertories through the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, for old memories and old connections.”

Aunt Mattie, as she was affectionately known, or Martha Pike Reeves Young as she was more formally known, hailed from St. Lawrence. St. Jacques became her home when she married businessman Samuel Young around 1900. Born in 1874, she had outlived her husband by twenty-one years when at the age of eighty-one she bade a final good-bye to her beloved backyard flower garden cultivated against a backdrop of high bush white, pink and red roses.  For decades following her death, despite her home providing comfort and shelter to several diverse families as the property changed ownership, her roses saw fit to diffuse their bountiful fragrances onto the balmy summer breezes that wafted up the gentle slope from her beloved harbour.  Captivating scents surrounded passersby, slowing their pace, daring them to pause, inhale the memories, and remember. Silent words, swaddled in years of attention and love hung in the air, reminders of a woman generously tending her garden, humming to herself as she moved fertile black soil around plants which returned her investment a thousand times over.

A few years ago an excavator laid waste the roots and soil which nourished the hearts minds and souls of anyone who walked through her garden.  Somewhere along the timeline since her death the garden gradually fell victim to an invasive Japanese knotweed which inexorably marched inch by inch through the cultivated beds, overpowering pansies and marigolds as it exercised dominion over the untended backyard. Yet, each year, the roses would raise their branches higher, bloom, and mock the meddlesome newcomer with an abundant bouquet of colour.

Weeks after the excavator had silenced Aunt Mattie’s oasis I visited the naked exposed bedrock and walked among the remnants and found one small sprig valiantly seeking the blue skies of summer.  Was it white, pink or red? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter.  What mattered was that there was still life, still promise and hope that a new plant might arise and once again cast its beauty to the warm southerly winds that have blown in through St. Jacques harbour since its beginning.  As I concentrated on removing two small slips with roots attached, evading thorns fiercely bent on piercing my fingertips, I imagined them taking up residence in my yard five hundred feet away, delivering yearly to me a hint of the pleasure and satisfaction they must have bestowed on Aunt Mattie.

Last week, as the calendar crept into July, one pink bloom, then another, and another emerged to cover the two healthy bushes which have arisen from those transplanted cuttings. Their scent permeated my garden, effortlessly floated throughout the neighbourhood, delivering to all whose noses noticed, a connection to a lady who dug the soil of St. Jacques well over a hundred years earlier and released a perfume into the future.  Martha was ascribed the title, “Aunt” by the community, a gesture of respect and love afforded residents who worked themselves into the hearts and minds of those who fortuitously shared the experience of living in St. Jacques with her.  I have no memories of her for she died when I was quite young, but I do have some of her roses who spread their petals around my feet each year at this time. Every time I breathe in their presence I smile at the snippets of rhyme, refrain, and allure Aunt Mattie has contributed to the joy of my life in St. Jacques.

In 1844 Newfoundland’s first external inspection of schools took place. John V. Nugent, an Irishman from Waterford, driven by strong convictions and passionate about his causes, was hired by the government to travel around the country and inspect both Catholic and Protestant schools.  He had been a Member of the House of Assembly and was considered one of the foremost orators in the house.  In private life it was said that he was quite friendly and conscientious. Just eight years earlier the Government of Newfoundland had passed legislation creating a non-denominational system of education.  The move was supported by all at the time; however, cracks soon appeared, largely over denominational rights, funding, resources and the composition of school boards. By 1841 new legislation eliminated these boards and there was a return to separate schools.

John V. Nugent, School Inspector, NL, 1844-45

Nugent was fitted out with a ship and embarked to the District of Fortune Bay first.  At that time the Fortune Bay District encompassed most of the south coast between the Burin Peninsula and Port-aux-Basques. He visited forty-four schools overall around the island. Bad weather, school closures, and teacher absences meant he wasn’t able to visit some schools.  When he arrived in Hr. Breton, “He found the members of the Protestant Board scattered and unable to meet, and its few members unaware of his appointment.  On calling at the school, kept on the premises of Newman’s, the local merchant house, he was immediately prevented from entering by the teacher, Mrs. Trude, wife of the storekeeper; she stated she would allow him to enter only by sanction of the Board or the local members thereof, both of whom declined to act. Nugent had no option but to leave the school unexamined” (McCann, 213, Inspectorship Controversy).

Throughout the country, he “found most schools in poor condition; many classes, in fact, were held in tilts, shacks, lofts or rooms in houses. In general, however, the inhabitants of the settlements had built, or were quite willing to build, a schoolhouse.  Teachers were conscientious but often unqualified for the task, and all were underpaid, the annual salaries hovering around the £15-20 range. Most schools taught reading and writing, some added arithmetic.  Attendance was usually about from one-half to two-thirds of enrollment, though in every district there were almost as many children without access to schooling as those on the books” (McCann, 213m, Inspectorship Controversy).

Nugent makes reference to Society schools.  He is referring to schools established by the Newfoundland School Society, an independent missionary styled organization, initially supported by the British government from 1823 to 1832. After that, it was funded by a combination of supporters in Newfoundland and Britain.

The following is an excerpt from Nugent’s report.  I have selected only that portion of his report pertaining to the North side of Fortune Bay.  The report was submitted to the House of Assembly in 1845. You will note there are spellings of some words and names of communities which differ from how we spell them today. Those spellings of community names may be idiosyncratic to Nugent, for other references to those communities around that time spell them more conventionally.  The original text, which can be read here, suffers from unique and convoluted punctuation making it challenging to read.  I have taken the liberty of simplifying sentence structures to make it more legible to the reader. I have made every attempt to remain accurate to the original text.  If my version departs from its intent it is not intentional. After reading thus version feel free to read the original, found  at the end of this page.

On Tuesday, September 3rd, Mr. Burke of St. Jacques kindly obliged me with a good punt, in which we rowed to Belleoram, three miles away.  Where we arrived there at 1. P.M., we found that during the absence of the teacher, Mr. Polding who was then at St. John’s, his school was kept open only in the morning.  This is also one of the Society’s Schools.  The schoolhouse is a commodious building. It, and the adjoining church, was built principally by donations from the residents of Belleoram. Catholics as well as the Protestants contributed towards the erection of the school-house.

We returned in the evening to St. Jacques. The next day, wanting to see the new road connecting the two Harbours, Mr. Burke accompanied me to point out the way. The distance by land is also three miles. The site of this road appears to be judiciously chosen. When completed, it will greatly promote the comfort and improvement of the inhabitants of both places.

The population in the harbours along the shore appear to have increased considerably since the Census was taken in 1836. Belleoram is represented in the 1836 Census as having under 150 residents, whereas it is now little short of that number. In St. Jacques, in like manner, we find an increase. The long line of Coves and Harbours between Belleoram and Harbour Britain are all within about three miles of each other. This includes St. Jacques, English Harbour, Mozambrose, Boxy, Blanchard, Coomb’s Cove, Rock Harbour, Miller’s Passage, and Jerseyman’s Harbour. The entire list covers a land distance of about fifteen miles. The growing number of inhabitants have no possibility of obtaining Medical advice in any emergency, except from Harbour Britain, where two Medical Gentlemen are located.  It is near impossible to make the passage by sea during a great part of the year, even though the distance is only about eight leagues.  If these places were connected by good roads, a messenger could pass from one extremity of the line to the other, in the worst weather, in a day.  While this would provide some medical advantage, at the same time, another important one would be acquired incidentally.  The children of two Harbours could then easily attend a school established at a central Harbour between them. Thus the Educational interests of the entire region would be greatly promoted. I should hope the Legislature will take the subject into consideration.

I reached Belleoram again at Noon. Though the morning was fine, the weather broke, and it rained heavily. The school is two years old. I found everything very orderly. The children were provided with seats and desks, and the school was superintended by Miss Hester Cluett, one of the oldest of Mr. Polding’s pupils. I should think she was no more that sixteen or seventeen years old.

This school had fifty-six children in daily attendance, including seven or eight Catholics. Even in the fishing season twenty-eight boys and as many Girls attend regularly.  I found twenty-five writing, with most of them writing a very fair small hand. Twenty-seven were learning Arithmetic, of whom, thirteen entered their sums in books, and fourteen only worked on slates.  The greater number of Arithmeticians had advanced over the Elementary Rules and were going over the several Compound Rules. The readers showed that much attention was paid them. Upon the whole, although I regretted not having seen Mr. Polding, I was much pleased with the improvement of Children given that they’d only had the advantage of a School for two years.

September 5th was too rough to row to English Harbour, a distance of three miles to the Westward of St. Jacques, therefore I set sail for (from) St. Jacques. The wind was fair, thus reached English Harbour in exactly half an hour. I proceeded to the school, arriving there at half past 1 o’clock PM.

This is one of the schools established by the Board. It is taught by an old fisherman, Robert Max.  The services of this poor man are divided between English Harbour and St. Jacques. In each of them he alternates every two weeks, but in winter he is required to spend two weeks in rotation at Blue Pinion.  It is there several inhabitants of both Harbours retire at that season, for the convenience of fuel. With such interruptions we cannot expect too much from the students.  It is regrettable that better teachers cannot be had for the small salaries available.

This is a new school.  It opened in January of this year. All of the children have begun their letters.  I found only nine students in the school. The oldest of these was only seven years old.  Of these nine, six had come from Mozambrose, a little Cove a mile and a half to the Westward.  Among the six was one, a fine little boy, three years and five months old. I was told he walked the distance barefooted through a miserable wood path every day this summer!  Surely then, when poor creatures like these (parents) are so determined to acquire even the rudest elements of Education for their Children, they merit the encouragement and support of the Legislature.  At least they deserve that the thorns be plucked from the pathway of their little ones, while they tread the mazes of the forest in pursuit of the culture of their infant minds.  Blue Pinion is also but one and a half miles distant from English Harbour. If a road ran from English Harbour to St. Jacques, and from English Harbour to Boxy, a distance altogether of six miles, the Children of St. Jacques, Blue Pinion, Mozambrose and Boxy, could avail themselves of a school at English Harbour. By combining these schools a better Teacher may then be hired.

The School-house here is only temporary. It is the only house on that side of the Harbour, and to attend the school all children are obliged to go around the Harbour. Mr. May told me seven of the Children were learning to write, but at the school on this day, there was only one Boy who wrote in a promising round hand. He was beginning addition as well. He was the only child at school who could read.  There is a foundation of a school-house laid here by the inhabitants at the Western side (the inhabited part), and they intend getting it up this Autumn.  There is but one Catholic family here.

At St. Jacques I found by examining Mr. May’s list that the number of children was twenty-one, including three Catholics. These students appear to be as backward as those of English Harbour.  They are beginning the laying of a foundation for a School-house too, (on the western side) but they are likely to choose a site justly objectionable to the inhabitants of the Eastern side. If it were built somewhere at the bottom of the Harbour, between both sides, it would greatly convenience the people of the Eastern side and not incommode those of the Western side.  It is nearly a mile round this Harbour, measuring from the Southernmost house to the most Southwestern. A good path could be made here for fifty or sixty pounds. That would eliminate the potential for disagreement which I have referenced, and at the same time, be of great assistance and convenience to the Fishery.

All five Teachers under the Board, in this District, received forty pounds Salary. The same amount is reserved for the Teacher at Hermitage Cove, when he can be procured.  Ten pounds is granted to the people of Push-Through to help them furnish their School-house. Furby’s Cove is granted eight pounds for the same purpose. Harbour-Britain receives sixteen pounds and St. Jacques, eight pounds.  The sum of twelve pounds is granted to Belleoram each year to teach the female Children to learn how to sew.

Immediately after the inspection of this school, at 4. P.M. I sailed for Burin. By 6. PM we were compelled to turn back and head for the shelter of St. Jacques due to bad weather. On the next morning I once more set sail and reached St. Peter’s (Ste. Pierre et Miquelon) at 5. P.M.

I would not have carried out my duty towards the poor people of the Fortune Bay District if did I not call the attention of the Legislature to the numerous localities where a considerable number of Children are left abandoned without a possibility of obtaining the rudest elements of Education. In Great Jarvis, where there are twelve children of school age. Other places that the government should consider for the funding of education are listed below. In making this list I have included only those Settlements where the number of Children neglected was not less than twelve.

Place/Number of Children

Harbour Mille/16

Head of Fortune Bay/17

Lady Island/12

Long Island/12

Coomb’s Cove/14

Rack Cove/15

Little Bay/18



Jerseyman’s Harbour/15

Pass Island/15

This list omits those small communities where 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11 Children reside.  Many of these could be provided for by the establishment of Schools by, at least, extending to them occasionally a small portion of the road grant.

Nugent, a Roman Catholic, held this position for only one year.  In the second year a Protestant school Inspector was appointed.


McCann, Phillip. “Class, Gender and Religion in Newfoundland Education: 1836-1901,” Historical Studies in Education 1, no. 2 (Fall 1989): 189-200

McCann, Phillip. “Sir John Harvey, J.V. Nugent and the School Inspectorship Controversy in the 1840s”. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Vol. 11, no. 2, Jan. 1995,

McCann, Phillip. “The No-Popery Crusade and the Newfoundland School System, 1836-1843.” CCHA Historical Studies 58 (1991): 79-97,

Nugent, J.V. Inspection of Schools in the Southern Districts of Newfoundland – District of Fortune Bay.  The Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland 1845. Newfoundland. House of Assembly, St. John’s (N.L.) 1845, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Libraries. Centre for Newfoundland Studies.

Wells, Elizabeth A. “Nugent, John Valentin”.  Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 10, 1972. 



Posted by: alexhickey | December 22, 2019

Silent Santa © Alex Hickey – 2019

St. Jacques, Newfoundland

Christmas Eve is one of the most surreal days on the Advent Calendar. It’s a non-event, in that the only recognition afforded it is the distinction of being simply a day which precedes the internationally recognized December twenty-fifth.  Yet, many businesses close early, government offices empty out well before the usual five o’clock exodus. And, in many homes around the world nervous excitement invades the hearts and bodies of small children, their older siblings and parents. In fact, it is so contagious, near everyone but the occasional Scrooge feels it grow in intensity as the day wanes.

Whether you grew up in a neighborhood of downtown London where Charles Dickens penned the perennial favourite, A Christmas Carol, or in Lycia where the fourth century St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, the poor and prostitutes was born; or in a small sea-side harbour on the south coast of Newfoundland the feeling is much the same.  It’s hard to put your finger on that feeling even though it brings on a smorgasbord of emotion which ranges from euphoria to despair.  The lens of nostalgia, polished and tempered by years, yellows warmly with age and accentuates with fondness most of the memories we retain of that day, even those of a less pleasant nature.

My grandmother often spoke of the barn animals receiving the gift of speech on Christmas Eve which lasted until daylight, Christmas morning. Even as a child skepticism must have shown on my face for she challenged me to visit a barn myself to find out; knowing full well my primary goal on that night was to snuggle beneath the covers with ears attuned to every sound within and outside the house.  I must admit, I did wonder what the hens might say to one another or what thoughts the horses would share there in their stalls. I also imagined their voices; high, clipped and frantic in the hen house while those in the horse barn drawled in low resonating, gravelly tones, each moving their heads accordingly. Molly, the auburn mare would probably tell stories from the pages of the Black Stallion while Trigger, an elderly Newfoundland Pony, paid little attention as he reminisced out loud about his experiences hauling wood from the Horsechops or Joey Francis Pond in winter.  The vast majority of my visits to the barn as a child was to shovel out the stalls in the morning.  If any of them talked the night before the evidence on their floor certainly didn’t suggest lofty philosophical ruminations.

Inside our house there was a flurry of activity.  The firebox of the wood and coal fired Renfrew kitchen stove swelled and radiated, as last minute baking added delight to the late afternoon.  Cinnamon, cloves and allspice hung in the air and competed with wafting hints of light-skinned, simmering raisins. The distinctive mouth-watering scent of gingerbread cookies, cut to resemble hearts, diamonds, bells and Christmas trees escaping the oven, teasing those of us who ventured temporarily into the house to ward off frost bite. As a small child these things were expected and accepted without wondering about the amount of work that lay behind them.  It was much later, astronomical time in the life of a child but so few short years in retrospect, when the façade and veneer of the season began to crack and crumble.  It was then I began to develop a more complex appreciation for Christmas Eve, and see the enormous human effort of my mother on that day.

From early that morning the mothers in our houses labored tirelessly with the usual demands of children accentuated with anticipation and restlessness.  Christmas Eve meant there was no early to bed for them.  Nor would they get much rest when they finally folded their tired bones into the mattress for in the shortest of hours would be heard the creaks of floorboards and the furtive question, “Can we get up now?”

Getting young children to bed on Christmas Eve was a two-edged challenge.  On the one hand, they needed to be in bed before the critical mass of decorating could be done; while on the other, if they retired too early they would be awake long before daylight.  It seems to me that this was the only night of the year children begged to go to bed early!

Once they were tucked in, admonished not to come down stairs and to go to sleep right away, the tree was brought into the house. The chill of winter emanated from it as its branches thawed and chunks of attached ice melted and dripped to the floor. Sometimes it took an hour or more before the incredible smell of the forest began to permeate the room. We took that as a sign to begin the decorating.

Even where there were sufficient older children to assume responsibility for decorating the tree, the process was watched and managed by mom. She would retreat upstairs following each progress review, to the bedroom she shared with dad.  There, she wrapped gifts that had been hidden beneath the bed, in the closet and anyplace else something could be stashed away from our curious and prying eyes.

It was usually well past midnight by the time the last decoration was hung, the last gift placed strategically beneath the tree, the last stocking stuffed, and the tree festooned with a cloak of tinsel draped between the bells, baubles and angels on each limb. A glance at the clock, another at the stove, then a quick appraisal of the Christmas tree, and a few adjustments to gifts and stockings was followed by a collapse into a chair. After catching her breath it was off to bed in hopes of catching a few hours of rest before the chaos of morning erupted in the living room.

She wasn’t superhuman or all that different from other mothers in the community. They all lived with the same expectation of making the magic of Christmas appear on Christmas Eve – the expectation of transforming the spaces of our ordinary lives into exotic colourful wonderlands. By morning, red, green, silver and gold shiny snowflakes and bells danced across the kitchen ceiling to the rhythm of heat from the stove.  Silver tinsel encrusted wreaths hung in windows still covered in layers of frost, its intricate patterns interrupted only where someone had placed a warm hand against the pane or had blown their breath across it to peek at the outside world. Soon, that too would melt away as the stove was fed a steady diet of dried spruce from the well-stocked wood box.

Our lives felt transformed.  We had stepped from the bleakness of cold short snow-blown, winter days into a carnival of brilliant colours reflecting from every branch of the tree, exotic tastes of oranges and grapes from foreign shores, luxurious textures of woolen sweaters and socks, and smells of peppermint and apples that linger still. It was a place of warmth made ever so much warmer because of the silent Santa Claus whose tireless efforts were willingly rendered invisible to create the magic.



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