Carpentry and handiwork — once essential skills

Paul Sparkes
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Twenty-seven years ago Frank Graham wrote an 80-page biography of Ellen Carbery who was born at Turk’s Cove, Trinity Bay c.1845. Graham showed that this poet and businesswoman was ahead of her time and achieved a remarkable life, all the more notable for having sprung from a fishing community very much isolated from the mainstream, if anything was.

Carbery’s education, for her day and age and gender, was very good. Graham says she attended school under the Presentation Order in Harbour Grace where the curriculum included (in addition to reading, writing, arithmetic and grammar) spinning of both flax and wool, plain and fancy knitting and embroidery.

Handiwork skills were among the essentials for girls at the time as manual training was for boys (in the larger schools).

They were not add-ons. And as Carbery was known for her millinery, we can see that proficiency in handiwork would have been among the lifeskills that propelled her forward.

We happen to have in our bookshelves an 1887 edition of the “Complete Guide to the Worktable,” published in the U.K. by The Young Ladies’ Journal.

We assume this well-worn, weak-spined guide has been supported by Newfoundland books (Pedley, Prowse, William Wilson, William Gosling and others) in the shelves of an assortment of ancestors’ homes for well over a century.

We do not know who actually used it.

Ellen Carbery died in 1915 under tragic circumstances in war-time Europe.You can still find copies of Graham’s book, by the way. For one, you can visit (“Ahead of Her Time — A Biography of Ellen Carbery”).


Father’s workshop

Walter Peddle, in his 1983 book “The Traditional Furniture of Outport Newfoundland” (Harry Cuff Publications), quotes a source in Poole’s Island as providing one example of an influence on the design of local furniture — “every piece was built according to whatever lumber you had to work with.”

Indeed, Peddle shows that furniture could be made from recycled wood, even from a dismantled house.

Furniture was homemade in the absence of ready sources of factory products. But it was clearly a craft in which the rural Newfoundlander’s resourcefulness and sense of design were given rein.

Along this line of thought, I have included here some illustrations (from a very popular book published nearly 55 years ago) of small and large items of furniture, once familiar items from the home workshop.

These pictures may well kickstart the older craftsman’s memories.


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

Organizations: Cuff Publications

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Harbour Grace, U.K.

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page