The north wind doth blow

Paul Sparkes
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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:

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Massachusetts, Boston Atlantic St. Thomas Northern Bay Conception Bay Trinity Bay

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Recent comments

  • Don II
    August 07, 2013 - 12:06

    I enjoy reading Paul Sparkes articles regarding Newfoundland and Labrador history in The Telegram. In this article, Mr. Sparkes inadvertently raised an issue that I have noted concerning the author Daniel Woodley Prowse and his propensity to distort the facts of Newfoundland history. A case in point is Mr. Sparkes reference to Prowse "gently" referring to the "Rals" as "vigilance committees" instead of desperate, lawless and marauding "vigilante groups". During my research, I discovered that Prowse was very instrumental and persuasive in his spinning of the tale and in creating the myth that Cupids is the site of the Cupers Cove Plantation that was founded by John Guy at Cupers Cove in1610. In his book, Prowse dismissed the assertion of Bishop Howley which held that Lord Baltimore,(George Calvert) the founder of the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland, had purchased the Cupers Cove Plantation in 1621. It appears that Prowse attempted to cover up or ignore documentary evidence of the purchase and acquisition of the Cupers Cove Plantation by Lord Baltimore. In his book entitled "A History of Newfoundland" which was published in 1895, Prowse reprinted a letter dated August 17, 1622 written by Edward Wynne to Lord Baltimore. In the reprint of the Wynne letter, Prowse omits several paragraphs including a very informative paragraph in which Wynne stated: "..whereof the large breed of cattle to our northern plantation have lately given proofs sufficient, though since, they have been most shamefully destroyed." Edward Wynne was a Governor of the Colony of Avalon in the employ of Lord Baltimore and was clearly referring to the property owned by Lord Baltimore when he referred to "Our" northern plantation. The northern plantation to which Wynne referred in 1622 could only have been the Cupers Cove Plantation that was purchased in 1621 because it was situated to the north of the Colony of Avalon and was located within the boundaries of the Colony of Avalon which were confirmed in 1623 by a Royal Charter Land Grant. It appears that Prowse, had intentionally omitted the reference by Wynne in his letter to "our northern plantation"in an effort to undermine Bishop Howley's position that Lord Baltimore had purchased the Cupers Cove Plantation. The historic record of Newfoundland contains Royal Charter Land Grants, early maps and letters including a letter from John Guy dated October 6, 1610 which clearly show that the Cupers Cove Plantation was located near to Salmon Cove and that Salmon Cove was also a boundary of the Colony of Avalon. When Edward Wynne of the Colony of Avalon wrote about "our northern plantation" he could only have been referring to the Cupers Cove Plantation which early maps show was located near to Salmon Cove in an area which is now known as Avondale. It is clear that Bishop Howley was correct in his assertion that Lord Baltimore (George Calvert) had purchased the Cupers Cove Plantation in 1621. It is clear from the historical record that the Cupers Cove Plantation was located near Avondale and after the purchase by Lord Baltimore in 1621 had been encompassed inside the boundaries of the Colony of Avalon. The Colony of Avalon included the mid part of the Avalon Peninsula and extended from Ferryland to Petty Harbor to Avondale to Placentia and back to Ferryland but did not extend to Cupids! It should be clear, that any claim that Cupids is Cupers Cove is not supported by the historical record including the Royal Charter Land Grant boundaries of the Colony of Avalon, early maps and the letters of John Guy in 1610 and Edward Wynne in 1622. The early maps of the Avalon Peninsula show that the Salmon Cove referred to by John Guy and referred to in the description of the boundaries of the Colony of Avalon was situated near Avondale not near Cupids!