Posted by: alexhickey | January 25, 2015

Disaster Strikes Early Morning 1885 in St. Jacques©

Winter Garden

Sunday, April 12th, 1885, a week after Easter, was a day that brought about changes in the lives of Patrick Farrell and his family that they would never forget. On the evening of the 11th Patrick’s sister had come for a visit. We can imagine that, like most families, such a visit brought joy and celebration. Next door, though some distance away, lived a brother and his family who undoubtedly joined the gathering at Patrick’s house.

Early April on the south coast of Newfoundland is not the springtime of more temperate climates; it is still winter by all standards. The ground is frozen, snow covers the hillsides and can be seen throughout the community. Patrick’s family members who came to visit would have dressed warmly as they walked along the lane-way that evening, their feet slipping on occasional patches of ice and hardened snow. Valleys and crevices in the landscape without southern exposure were still filled with remnants of winter’s last storms.

The calendar might show that spring had arrived but anyone who lived in Fortune Bay knew differently. Sure, the late morning sun might offer greater warmth through kitchen windows but by evening it had beaten a hasty retreat allowing the cold of night to envelop the visitors who walked to Patrick’s house that evening. They would have seen and smelled the smoke of burning wood and coal spewing forth from chimneys around the harbour as households kept their stoves stoked to ward off the chill. With visitors coming Patrick would have put extra effort into warming the house.

The door to the spare bedroom at the top of the stairs would have been left open all day to allow heat to penetrate the painted sheeting paper on cold walls in a room rarely used. A test of whether the room was warming up would have been how much frost had melted from the single pane window glass. By the time Patrick’s sister pulled down the blind when she went to bed later that night the window would be clear.

Throughout the evening food and stories were shared; laughter echoed up and down the staircase and at the end of the evening a group of people would part company feeling good about each other. Patrick’s wife would tuck the new baby in its crib, his mother would bid her good night to all with a special smile and hug for the visiting daughter. Once all was secured the last things Patrick would do before climbing the stairs was to fill the stove to keep the house warm throughout the night and blow out the kerosene lamp in the kitchen.

That Saturday night the family slept peacefully; the world probably didn’t weigh heavy on any of their shoulders. However, before daylight arrived the next morning their lives were shaken. The rest of this story is best told through a letter to the editor of the St. John’s Evening Telegram newspaper which was published on Tuesday, May 5th, 1885.

Mr. Editor,
A melancholy accident that occurred in St. Jacques, Fortune Bay, urges me to request space in your valuable paper for the following brief description: On Sunday morning of the twelfth instant, the house of Patrick Farrell, a respectable planter of this place, was burnt to the ground in the course of a few hours. As the fire took place at a time when all the neighbours were fast asleep, no alarm was given till it made its way to the upper story of the house, where the family slept.

It appears that the fire originated in the hall, near the stairs that led through the centre of the house towards the back, and that it must have been burning for a long while before it was discovered; and had it not been that Mr. Farrell’s sister, who had come on a visit the previous evening, happened to be awakened at the time by the crackling noise of the fire that had already reached the doors of the sleeping apartments, not one of the whole household could have escaped.

The moment she opened the door the blaze rushed into her face. With a coolness and self-possession not common on such occasions, (especially to females unaccustomed to such a scene of terror), she rushed through the midst of the flames to awaken her brother who, alarmed and confused at the perplexity of his situation, jumped immediately through the window to spread the alarm, that assistance might be rendered in time; but before any help arrived, the flames were burning through every aperture. None were very seriously injured except Mr. Farrell’s wife, mother and sister.

Miss Farrell made several attempts to reach her mother’s room to apprise her of her danger, but with the flames raging round her on all sides, she narrowly escaped by leaping through a window. Mr. Farrell’s wife, holding her infant in one hand, held onto the window sill by the other; but being forced at last to let go her hold, she dropped to the ground and miraculously escaped being injured.

When at last the roaring of the flames and the cries of distress from outside had awoke old Mrs. Farrell, and she became conscious of her situation, she first endeavored to get to her daughter’s room, thinking that the cries came from that quarter, but the moment she opened the door the fire burst in upon her; and scarcely had she time to raise her window before the flames were rushing round on all sides.

Being an old woman, and helpless in such a predicament, on trying to get through the window, it fell and jammed her, and as no help had yet arrived, she remained in that wretched condition for some minutes, the fire blazing round, all the while, burning her in the most horrible manner; but freeing herself at last she fell to the ground, unconscious at the feet of her daughter, who was the sole witness of that heartrending spectacle.

All this was but the work of a few moments. Consider what must have been the anguish of that poor girl’s feelings while seeing her mother in this deplorable condition! Who, having a heart capable of feeling, could not sympathize with her in the soul-rending agony of that moment?

No assistance had yet come; so that she was obliged, almost naked as she was, to drag her mother to a heap of snow at some distance to extinguish her blazing garments. In this wretched condition she lay for some moments, suffering the most excruciating agony, before any help had arrived. This must have been a spectacle to call forth the pity and commiseration of the most hard-hearted and unfeeling. Such a scene of misery and suffering can be more easily imagined than described. Her flesh was burnt in such a manner that she could not even bear to be touched, or even to have clothes put on her.
In this deplorable state she was obliged to walk barefooted and almost naked to the house of another son, at a distance of about 200 yards. For a few days it was expected that her injuries would prove fatal, but, as medical attention was immediately procured, it is thought that she may soon recover.

From the time the fire was first discovered, it was not more than two hours till the house was reduced to ashes; so suddenly did it spread through every part that there was not time to save a single item except a small quantity of provisions. Thus, in a few moments, the results of years of labour and saving were reduced to a heap of smouldering ruins.

The house, being a well-furnished, comfortable dwelling, could not be valued at less than £400. Besides provisions for six months, there were trunks full of clothes, and near two hundred and fifty pounds in money, and also some articles belonging to his craft. All this burnt, one thousand pounds could scarcely compensate the loss.

Thus it may seem that in a few hours these people were rendered destitute, without means of providing for their present wants, not having saved even clothes enough to cover them. I cannot omit to state that the people of St. Jacques showed genuine sympathy, by their ready and liberal contributions, both of money and clothing that is not always found under similar circumstances. The people of Belleoram and English Harbour also gave liberal assistance.

Hoping that I have not trespassed too much upon your space, I remain, Mr. Editor, yours gratefully.

A Sympathizer.
St. Jacques, April, 1885.

If anyone reading this has any information about Patrick Farrell or any other Farrell family who lived in St. Jacques please share that information here through comments or contact me at


  1. Another great piece of work. A very sad account of events. When my dad (Mike McCarthy, St. Jacques) worked at the Gypsum mine in Flat Bay, (where only three families lived), I witnessed a fire next door. There were four children. The 18 month old was in a highchair and neither my mom or the lady who owned the house could get the 18 month old out. The fire started in the kitchen and the little boy was trapped. I will never forget that horrific scene.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: