Be it ever so humble …

Paul Sparkes
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How we saw our homes, and how others saw them

“As you entered the kitchen you saw a floor covered with sand; this served a dual purpose: to help keep a certain degree of cleanliness and to prevent sparks from the open fireplace from setting the floor afire. At one end of the kitchen was a large chimney built of flat stones, and you saw dogirons, potbar and pothook. Above the low mantlepiece hung the long sealing gun. Perhaps a couple of brass or pewter candlesticks, a lustre jug or two and some pewterware adorned the mantel.”

When Joseph Smallwood and Leo English co-authored a small source book for Newfoundland teachers in the mid-1940s, they included a page on “The Pioneer’s Home.” They were looking back, they said, some 150 years. That would make it a few years before it actually became legal to build homes on the island.

I’m sure that what they described here as “the studded house” was a huge advance over the smoky tilt. But it certainly was not as comfortable and functional as the “frame” house which would, in due course, predominate.

The studded house had walls of flattened posts placed side by side in an upright position; moss was used to fill the seams; the roof was covered with rind or sod. Sounds rather like a stockade.

But on a blowing, damp, bone-chilling day in March, with half snow, half rain, the studded house, in all its rough humility, would have been a most welcome port in the storm.

Smallwood and English seem to have been there, such was the detail they provided:

“At the other end of the kitchen stood ‘the dresser,’ a row of shelves with cupboards underneath. Here you saw old-fashioned cups and saucers and plates, and in the cupboards were to be found butter, tea and other small stores. At one side of the dresser, there was a door leading to a small bedroom where the parents slept. At the other side a door led to a storeroom where flour, beef, pork and molasses were kept.

“Children slept in the attic (loft) to which they climbed by means of a ladder stuck up through a scuttle hole near the chimney end of the kitchen. There were no kerosene lights in those days; the poorer homes had the cod oil lamp … a wretched affair with rags for wicks and it gave out much smoke and an evil odour.”

Not all housing was as bad. Better construction was not an unknown art at the time, as you would expect Smallwood to point out. “The homes of the merchants were out of all comparison to the humble abodes of the ordinary fishermen.”

Things had not improved much when in 1883 historians Hatton and Harvey, looking back 50 years, wrote:

“There were no regularly constructed roads in the country and hardly a house worthy of the name from an English point of view.”

While they were fairly happy with St. John’s as it looked to them in their day, Hatton and Harvey could still anticipate improvement:

“From the waters of the harbour, the city presents a very picturesque appearance, climbing the slope of the hill which is crowned by the Roman Catholic Cathedral, a noble structure which overlooks the whole. There is ample space in every direction for expansion. Already on the summits overlooking the business part of the city, houses of a superior description are erected; and these will, ere long, grow into crescents and squares and form the fashionable quarters.

“In other parts of the city the houses are, for the most, part built of wood and many of them are dingy and commonplace.

“Gradually, the wooden buildings will be replaced by houses built on the best models.”

It would not be so gradual. For St. John’s, its third and most destructive fire was less than a decade in the future.

Talking about “an English point of view” brings me to the mid-1930s and a view of St. John’s which is fascinating for its ignorance and arrogance.

I have commented before on the book “Public School Explorers in Newfoundland.” It was written by one of a party of English students (of high school age) who came here with their leaders to explore the centre of the island one summer. They, of course, landed first at St. John’s. In the book there is a photograph of the lower area of Signal Hill showing part of the Battery with (then) a preponderance of stages, sheds and flakes, and less prominently, some of the homes farther up. The photo is captioned: “The strangest assortment of dwellings.”

In the text, the author gives the population of St. John’s as about 40,000 and then comments, “One wondered where they were all tucked away on this precipitous hillside.” Presumably he was now referring to the north, or main rise of city land.

St. John’s, our visitors concluded, was “a most undignified town. …

It jostles rudely house-on-house, street-on-street, downhill to the waterfront like an ill-mannered football crowd.” (They would have known about that.)

Aboard their train and bound for central Newfoundland, they found Conception Bay, a place where the “villages” were “but settlements of wooden shacks,” and where “evidence indicated that their occupants throve on growing potatoes and breeding chickens.”

In 1986, I was on a train leaving Paddington Station, London, and heading north. You rarely get the best views of a place from behind a railway station, but as the train moved slowly out, I’m afraid this Newfoundlander’s mouth and eyes were wide open in a mixture of horror and amazement. I thought of how Dickens described living conditions in the London of his day.

We passed slowly through a jumble of stacked accommodations. I remember windows, brick walls, lines of washing and iron fire escapes. I could view all this more than 50 years after Newfoundland had been told that we were not doing it right.

British Labour peer Charles Ammon visited Newfoundland during the Second World War as a member of a committee considering our future after Commission of Government. He wrote a report which (in part) noted that “bad housing conditions are responsible for much of the tuberculosis endemic in Newfoundland.”

Ammon added “even in St. John’s there exist some of the worst housing conditions in the Empire, if not in the world,” and he also pointed the finger at Windsor, Corner Brook and Bell Island.

Granted, we had our poverty and our slums. But, “worst in the world”?

Ammon not only declared that the authority to condemn unfit housing should be more vigorously pursued, but that the public conscience needed to be awakened.

Knowing of this censure (and Ammon’s certainly isn’t the only criticism of our housing to be found), it is surprising that Newfoundlanders who love their homes and are so family and community minded could be so ambivalent in this regard.


Outport kitchen

Newfoundland playwright Grace Butt (1909-2005), in setting the scene for “North Harbour,” gives us a picture of an outport kitchen in the 1920s:

“Kitchen of a fisherman’s home in a remote Newfoundland settlement in the late 1920s. At one side of the room an iron cooking stove with a funnel entering the chimney immediately behind it. Short shelves on either side of the funnel hold ‘store’ medicine and pills, liniment, a ball of twine, box of matches, several old letters, a folder of pins, a kerosene oil lamp and Ethel’s knitting. On the stove, a kettle and covered boiler; moved to the back, a brown earthen teapot. On the floor beside stove, a rough wooden box painted dark green containing the split junks of fir used for fuel. Between chimney and corner of rear wall a door leads out to small hall and from there, upstairs. At rear wall a fixed window covered with white scrim curtains. When these curtains are parted and pinned back we see at some distance beyond, a section and profile of headland descending into the sea below our view.”

Butt goes on to place more typical things in the 1920s kitchen: a painted dresser consisting of cupboards below and shelves above; plates resting on their edges, cups hanging from hooks; a door leads to back porch, homemade wooden leather-covered couch with several homemade cushions; a homemade low, square stool covered with the same morocco leather as couch; oilcloth-covered table with several straight chairs; nearer to the stove a painted dark red rocking chair with flat cushion; on canvas-covered floor homemade hooked mats; on one of the walls, a calendar with a picture of a full-rigged vessel; on another wall an unframed picture of King George and Queen Mary; also an iron bracket holding a kerosene oil lamp.


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

Organizations: Smallwood, Public School Explorers, Paddington Station Commission of Government

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, London, Signal Hill Conception Bay Corner Brook Bell Island North Harbour

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