We’ve had more than our share of starvation, fire, wind and snow
1817-18: “A frost that sealed up the whole coast commenced early in November and continued almost without intermission through the entire season. On the nights of the 7th and 21st of November 1817, three hundred houses were burnt, rendering two thousand individuals in the depth of that cruel winter, homeless.”
These are the words of historian Daniel Woodley Prowse as in 1895 he describes what is arguably the worst winter season ever recorded in Newfoundland. But it was bad for more reasons than ice and fire. It is also known as The Winter of the Rals … marauding, desperate guys who came out of the woodwork during major reverses to the community.
On the threshold of the glorious Victorian era, St. John’s and eastern Newfoundland saw a combination of business depression, severe winter weather, a huge fire and a food shortage, roughly from 1816 through to the end of winter in 1818. The depredations of desperate men added to the misery.
So persistent and desperate were these “Rals” that vigilante groups sprang up in some Newfoundland communities. Prowse gently calls them “vigilance committees.”
Starvation was not only brought about by a shortage of essentials, and that shortage was caused by poor credit, but by the fact that the coast was locked with ice. Everything moved by water in Newfoundland at that time.
Basing much of his 1959 comment on Prowse, journalist Albert Perlin wrote that “there is no written record of the appalling sufferings from hunger that must have been endured in the isolated settlements, but what happened in St. John’s was all too well documented.”
In a full, descriptive statement drawn up by the grand jury here at the time, a reference was made to conditions in the town over the night of the great fire:
“Several hundred men in the prime of life, without money or the means of being employed, without adequate clothing or food, are at the hour of midnight wandering amidst the smoking ruins to seek warmth from the ashes and food from the refuse of the half-consumed fish.”
The grand jury’s statement was prepared for the governor.
A British naval vessel in St. John’s went on half rations to try to ease the pressure on food stocks. In due course, a ship from Massachusetts, its hold packed with as much food as possible, was able to force its way through the ice. The “gift” had been sent by ex-pat Newfoundlanders in Boston.
There had been another blow from Mother Nature a little more than 40 years earlier. Educator L.E.F. English makes reference to it in his 1930s school text. Perhaps I haven’t yet read enough, but English’s book is the only place where I have come across anything concerning this particular storm which was a hurricane and not a winter storm. Many were drowned:
“The greatest storm known in the history of our country took place in the year 1775. Tradition relates how a long period of calm in late summer was followed by a tremendous hurricane from the south-east.
“The tide rose 20 feet above low-water mark and caused immense damage to fishing property. Hundreds of lives were lost around the coast; the majority of these were fishermen from across the Atlantic. At Northern Bay alone, an open roadstead on the west side of Conception Bay, 200 seamen were drowned.”
In his 1908 “Outlines of the History of Newfoundland,” William Pilot says 300 lives were lost.
In any case, with fatalities in such numbers at that time, we must have lost a staggering percentage of our fishery workforce.
Now to another weather event a bare three months after a great fire which occurred in St. John’s early summer 1846. On Sept. 19, “a dreadful gale … appears to have raged all over the shore and, during part of its course, was accompanied by a heavy fall of rain,” as Charles Pedley (1820-1872, an English clergyman here) wrote 17 years later.
“Many vessels were totally wrecked or dismasted. Great numbers of boats were swamped or driven from their moorings and dashed to pieces against the rocks. Quantities of fishing stages and flakes in the various harbours were entirely swept away and with them, in many instances, the fruit of the owner’s toils during the fishing season …
“Houses were blown from their foundations and torn in fragments. Trees almost in every direction were uprooted from their beds or broken in pieces by the fury of the gale.”
Pedley wrote about a rapid and considerable rise in rivers “which, in some instances, reached fully 10 feet above their ordinary level.”
A couple of sad footnotes attend this report: “If the destruction of property was not very great in St. John’s, the reason was that the fire had not left a great deal to be destroyed,” (Pedley’s words).
A spacious, unfinished building which had been affording shelter to some people put out of their homes by the fire, was flattened by the gale. “This was blown down with an awful crash and by its fall, a brother and sister were killed instantly. Their mother was so severely injured as to leave scarcely any hopes of her recovery.”
This was the same storm which shifted St. Thomas’s Church in St. John’s several inches from its foundations. Pedley refers to it as “the new church of St. Thomas.” It had been built in 1836 primarily to serve personnel of the nearby garrison. When it was repositioned after the storm, it was provided with two stabilizing wings; these lower slanted structures on its sides characterize the old wooden church today.
The next storm was the subject of a column I wrote in early 2012. The suddenness with which a calm winter’s day in early 1892 turned into hell-on-earth says a lot about the trials and tribulations which our environment imposes upon us.
Feb. 28 started as the kind of day designed to lure landsmen out to harvest a few seals, especially as the ice was packed into Trinity Bay. The black dots on its white surface announced “seals!”
For historian Prowse in 1895, this would have been a recent event:
“The morning sun ushered in a lovely dawn, the sky was clear, soft, bright. Balmy air blew from the land over the treacherous sea. It scarcely ruffled its bosom.”
Men and boats were out at first light. The seals were more scattered than expected. But, encouraged by pleasant conditions, the younger and more energetic men went farther and farther afield.
“A few of the older fishermen,” Prowse reported, “especially those from Trinity, more wary and probably less vigorous, noticed the first signs of the storm and before the icy blast came down with full force, they were under the lee of the land and could row in.”
The next day, The Evening Telegram (Monday, Feb. 29, 1892) in part reported:
“Yesterday about noon, 17 men landed from the ice at Heart’s Delight. They would have drifted even farther but that a woman observed them and parties immediately started out to their aid; others were reported visible at some distance off, but apparently frozen or exhausted.
“The rescued men reported that there were about 200 men in the neighbourhood of Trinity on Saturday when the storm burst upon them, jamming the ice and raising so heavy a sea that they found it impossible to make for the shore in their boats. They were compelled to take refuge on the ice, on which they drifted till yesterday. These men had five boats with them and burnt two to keep themselves warm or they would have frozen to death. Saturday night was intensely cold, the thermometer being down to zero, and blowing hard — what these men must have suffered is fearful to contemplate.”
A subsequent wire from Trinity stated that 30 or 40 were missing and that 10 were frozen to death, some having died after reaching the shore.
Prowse wrote that 215 men went out that day and “the majority got safe to land after a tremendous struggle for their lives; the rest of the unfortunate fishermen, in spite of their heroic exertions, were finally overpowered; with strong arms they rowed for their lives but the freezing icy tornado swept down upon them and paralysed their efforts; they had done all that men could do against the blizzard; they fought with the gale whilst instant death appeared on every wave.”
As soon as the death toll of 24 was known, The Evening Telegram editor wrote, “we would suggest that a public meeting be held as soon as possible for the purpose of raising a fund in aid of the families bereft of their bread winners.”
Producing his history three years after this sad event, Prowse could close with this: “Charity flowed in to the widows and orphans; kindness, open-handed liberality, tender human sympathy was called forth for the mourners.”
Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: email@example.com.