Life in an ice-shrouded seaport 130 years ago

Paul Sparkes
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Saturday, March 18, 1882 — “Between 6:00 and 7:00 o’clock this morning we enjoyed the luxury of a walk to the summit of Signal Hill. The weather was fine and clear with keen frost and a light northeast breeze. Early as the hour appeared to us, others were ‘up there’ some time earlier.”

A day-by-day collection of beautifully preserved newspapers from the early months of 1882 — copies of The Evening Telegram — has come to my attention and it provided an opportunity to go way back to the time of sail, wind and wave.

Day-by-consecutive day you can follow the shipping activity, take note of the evening entertainments, the fining and jailing of rowdies, the brutal politics and the business of the town.

It is early spring and icefields are packed tightly to the coast. The extent and integrity of the ice is always news because of the likelihood of it impacting the flow of freight and people.

The period makes you feel that there is no land to our backs; our eyes are turned eastwards. Between the shores of England and our coast, there were nearly 2,000 miles, and here, in these years, communication died — unless word of your progress might reach home by some faster vessel passing you by at sea.

Elsewhere in the world, John A. Macdonald was into his second term as prime minister of Canada; in Washington, Chester A. Arthur had not long taken over from assassinated President James Garfield.

The unnamed Signal Hill walker resumes his report:

“At any rate, we met Mr. Syme with two or three of his friends, a little above the brewery, driving back to town. Nothing else worthy of note attracted our attention as we plodded along save the ‘signal of disease’ fluttering from the Small Pox Hospital and a timid rabbit bounding over the snow near the ice-covered edge of St. George’s Pond. On reaching the Block House, ‘the view that broke upon us’ was what Mr. Oscar Wilde would call ‘awfully sublime.’ Below lay the city just awakening from a night’s repose.

“‘Spires of smoke’ darted heavenward from a thousand chimneys and mingled with the dense cloud that hung over the harbour, through which indications of returning activity were dimly discernible. Seaward an illimitable stretch of ice met the eyes with nothing to break the monotony beyond a massive berg here and there glittering in the sunlight, and a few ‘imprisoned’ ships.

“Just above the horizon, about forty miles (northeast), we could see with the aid of a glass placed in our hands by Mr. Routledge, the outlines of a two-masted steamer believe to be the Merlin. This vessel seemed to be working to the eastward and, from her movements, Mr. Routledge thought it probable she was picking up seals. Some three miles S.AS.E. of The Narrows lay the S.S. Resolute. She had steam up and all her fore-and-aft sails set; but the ice appeared to be too heavy to admit of her making any progress whatever. On the rocks near Cape Spear could be seem the stranded brigantine ‘Feodore,’ and about a quarter of a mile inside of Black Head we observed the ‘Amanda’ firmly locked in the ice, but in no immediate danger. That’s all!”

March 18, 1882 — The hull and materials of the brigantine Feodore — now lying on the rocks near Cape Spear — were sold at the Commercial Rooms today. Mr. Aylward, brother of the late owner, purchased the wrecked property for 120 Pounds. A large portion of the cargo — something like 3,000 quintals of fish — has already been saved.

Arrival of the Barquentine ‘Beltrees’

Tuesday, April 25, 1882 — “The barquentine ‘Beltrees,’ Capt. Kilgallen, arrived in St. John’s yesterday afternoon with general cargo to Messrs. Walter Grieve & Co. She left Lamlash (on the Isle of Arran, Firth of Clyde, Scotland) on the 15th of March and experienced strong westerly gales nearly all through the passage. Nothing else worthy of note transpired until the 8th instant when a large body of ice was encountered and Capt. Kilgallen found it necessary to heave off.

“On the 14th instant he communicated with a French brig in latitude 46.30 N., longitude 47.5 W., bound to Port au Port; and on the 15th he spoke a barque of the same nationality, steering for St. Pierre, Miq. Next day he saw a Norwegian barque, the name of which he failed to ascertain, bound from Liverpool to Halifax and thirty-four days out. The ‘Beltrees’ made Cape Ballard (Southern Shore) at 5 o’clock yesterday morning.”

One of the longest passages on record

“The Brigantine ‘Sylvia,’ Capt. Isaac, arrived to Messrs. Bowring Brothers yesterday afternoon (Monday, April 24th, 1882) in a damaged condition and very short of provisions. This vessel sailed from Falmouth (south coast of Cornwall) on the 26th of September and had one of the longest and most stormy passages on record — over 200 days having been occupied in ‘fighting’ her way to this port.

“Capt. Isaac states that he had to contend with terrible westerly gales from the very commencement of the voyage. During some of these, the ship suffered severely, losing her main-rail, some of her bulwarks and much canvas. About eighty days ago she succeeded in getting within sight of Signal Hill, but was driven off and wheeled away to the southward in the ice. Since then she experienced many ‘hard knocks’ as her battered hull amply testifies. In fifty-six hours she drifted 110 miles, lost her rudder and had her bow cut through to the wooden ends.

“Although well supplied with provisions when she left port, yet her stock began to fail some days ago and the possibility of being put on short allowance added to the unpleasantness of the situation on board; and only that Messrs. Bowring Brothers are most liberal in supplying their vessels, Capt. Isaac and his crew must have had a hungry time of it during the past two or three months.

“The ‘Sylvia’ got clear of the ice at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning and, fortunately, had a pretty good run from Cape Race to The Narrows, where one of the tug-boats picked her up.”

One of the best passages of the season

Tuesday, April 25th, 1882 — “This has been an unusually hard season on our ‘jolly mariners,’ and it is quite refreshing to get anything like a favourable report from them. Today, however, we are in a position to record at least one pretty good run across from the Old Country.

“The barque, ‘Constance,’ Capt. Kemp, arrived to Messrs. Baine, Johnston & Co., last evening after a passage of little more than 20 days. This fine old ship sailed from Greenock (not far out the mouth of the Clyde, Scotland) on the 1st of April, and notwithstanding the heavy gales and rough weather she experienced, got well out on the coast in nine or ten days. On the 12th instant, she ‘struck’ the ice, but managed to work clear without sustaining any damage whatever. Captain Kemp then shaped his course north as far as 49; but, failing to find an opening through which it would be safe for him to try and get in, he tacked ship and stood back to 41. Here, his chances of success seemed better, and, sailing around the western end of the pack, he managed to find a clear ‘inside passage’ down the shore.”

Accident onboard the S.S. Canima

“An accident occurred on board the S.S. Canima last night involving serious injury to one of the crew. It seems that while the work of discharging cargo was going on, a man named Sloane, who happened to be employed near the donkey winch used in ‘hoisting out,’ stumbled, and in trying to save himself from falling, caught hold of the revolving wheel of the winch and had two of his fingers completely severed from the hand. He was immediately taken to the surgery of Drs. Crowdy, Simms and Harvey, where, we need hardly say, his injuries were promptly and carefully attended to.”

Shipping intelligence

“CONSTANCE, Kemp, 21 days, Greenock: Baine Johnston & Co., 138 tons coal, 211 pkgs. tea, 50 tons iron, 30 casks sugar, general cargo.

“CANIMA (ss), Davies, Halifax, 3 dys. Harvey & Co., 2,459 brls flour, 50 brls beef, 201 boxes soap, 54 tcs beef, (a tierce was 35 Imperial gallons; this was probably salted beef in its pickle), 1,975 tubs butter, 25 brls barley, 130 brls apples, 64 bales hay, 100 brls meal, general cargo.

“BELTREES, Kilgallen, Greenock, 40 days, W. Grieve & Co., 70 tons coal, 25 bags rice, 36 bags coffee, 250 pkgs tea, 90 brls and 50 half brls tar, 226 boxes soap, 15 casks sugar, 30 brls porter, 20 csks 10 qtr-casks whiskey, 25 cases 20 qtr-cases spirits general.

“The brigantine ‘Oban’ arrived from the sealfishery around noon to-day, poorly fished.”

Saturday, April 22, 1882 — “The Allan steamer Newfoundland arrived here from St. John’s yesterday. She passed through sixty miles of loose ice on her way up.”

Like the hodge-podge of cargo aboard these ships, so the news was all jumbled together in our newspapers at the time. The next small item followed immediately after the above note on the steamship Newfoundland:

“Political massacres have recommenced in Burmah. Theebaw has executed fifty-five persons, including his wife, two half-sisters, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:

Organizations: Small Pox Hospital, Block House, Johnston Co. Harvey Co. W. Grieve Co.

Geographic location: Signal Hill, England, Canada Washington Scotland Lamlash Isle of Arran Port au Port Liverpool Newfoundland and Labrador Falmouth Cornwall Cape Race Burmah

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Recent comments

  • Laura Miller
    July 10, 2013 - 10:24

    I just loved reading the above article such hardships in the past, would like to see these in Newspaper Format i would buy them each week. thank you