Discussions, clippings and a feel for the year 1950

Paul Sparkes
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Today we are going back to 1950, the halfway mark in the 20th century. If you were born in that year, then congratulations — you are not far away from the government handout familiarly called “the OAP.”

Beaumont Street, Bennett Avenue area, St. John’s, 1950. There is a wintery chill to the photograph as wind and snow have the freedom of open spaces which today are completely built in. The houses here would have been fairly new, having been built since 1946. — City of St. John’s Archives

In 1950 the war had been over five years and most people would still remember the Depression years and how the war had kick-started industry everywhere, diluting depression and legitimizing the old line, “it’s an ill wind that blows no good.”

Let’s have a quick look-see at 1950 through a few items I was able to glean in one wintery evening of book and magazine hunting.

The Basques as discoverers

In 1950, one of Newfoundland’s significant writer/teachers, Leo Edward Francis English, published an article on discoveries across the Atlantic before Cabot. This introduces us to the ancient Basques, the fishing, whaling people. Theirs is that region between France and Spain, on the Atlantic coast, and on the western foot of the Pyrenees.

Their spot of geography alone would suggest that they were tough, healthy and fearless; and, I suspect, a people with which to contend. In his article, L.E.F. quoted author S.E. Dawson, who in a 1905 book had written this:

“There is a romantic mystery enshrouding this inscrutable people in which all things become possible. In a collection of documents relating to the history of Canada published by the government of Quebec, among the earliest under the heading ‘Basque in the Gulf of St. Lawrence’ is one to the effect that although there are no records of the first voyages of the French, there are ample proofs that they made several voyages of great extent prior to the discoveries of the Portuguese and Spaniards. The Basques and Bretons were for several centuries the only people who followed the whale and cod fisheries.… (T)he Basques had, one hundred years before Columbus, not only discovered Newfoundland and its fishing banks, but Canada as well. Moreover a Basque sailor, familiar with the Newfoundland coasts, had imparted the information to Columbus.”

Your first reaction might be that Columbus either entirely ignored his Basque friend or his navigational skills were sorely lacking. He is said to have touched the New World at a tiny island northeast of Cuba (or it may have been Grand Turk, a little farther southeast). In any case, he can hardly have used our coastline as a guide.

That aside, it is also recorded that a Basque sailor came upon the banks and the Newfoundland coast toward the close of the 14th century.  Now, you realize that would be a century before John Cabot. The Jesuit Pere Lallemant (1578–1635) wrote in 1626 that the Indians of the Acadia region of Quebec were not comfortable trading with the French unless they detected the Basque language. If that is so, then the Basques had been there long before and had made a good impression.

Since that Basque sailor who discovered us is said to have been Juan de Echaide, I cannot imagine our celebrating “Echaide 500 or 600.” It surely doesn’t have the cachet of Cabot 500.

I think it is time we realized that Cabot and Columbus have received far more credit than they’re due. We would acknowledge the Norse/

Vikings as “our parents” if it had only dawned on them that they had found the New World and had “bruited it to heaven” as it were.

Lying in state

On Sept. 23 of the year 1950, Edward Patrick Roche died in

St. John’s. Archbishop of the See of St. John’s, he had been born in

Placentia in 1874. Here is an extract from a published notice of his death and funeral:

“Fitting tribute to the Archbishop was his lying in state on Saturday and Sunday in the new Chapel of St. Clare’s. Who can forget the solemn stillness of Sunday evening as in the dim twilight of autumn, 10,000 faithful people watched the dead Archbishop being borne into the Cathedral for his last and permanent abode therein? On Thursday, September 28th., the Solemn Pontifical Mass of Requiem was celebrated by His Excellency Archbishop Antoniutti, Apostolic Delegate, who had journeyed by air from Ottawa for the occasion. Present also were Their Excellencies Bishop Skinner, the Vicar Capitular of the Archdiocese, MacDonald of Antigonish, N.S., Leverman of Halifax, O’Neill of Harbour Grace and O’Reilly of St. George’s.”

 Reference to air travel in that notice (and a hint of novelty in it) brought to mind the long association of Harvey & Company with travel here. I found an advertisement of theirs from this particular year which says they have both travel and freight agencies and represent: British Overseas Airways Corporation, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Pan-American World Airways, Trans Canada Air Lines, Trans-World Airline and Scandinavian Airlines. Over the years (as many of you will recognize) most of these have gone out of business, rebranded or merged. Another of Harvey's advertisements, also published in 1950, recommends “Fly there. Have more time there.”

How to build your highway

John Parker was a British MP who published a book about Newfoundland in 1950. Brian Cahill, associate editor of the popular little magazine Atlantic Guardian, printed an excerpt from Parker’s book in the Guardian’s October 1950 issue. Here is how Cahill introduced the item:

“With the trans-island highway now on the way to become an accomplished fact the importance of building not merely ‘a’ road but a ‘good road’ cannot be overemphasized. … (W)e had a book to review some time back by an English MP named John Parker. It was called ‘Newfoundland’ and it told all about that little-known island and included many helpful hints as to how its cultural and economic status could be improved. We found Mr. Parker an opinionated character with (despite the fact that he is a socialist and should therefore be presumed to be less inclined to snobbery than Colonel Blimp) an irritating attitude of seeming to be looking down his nose at the poor colonials. However, he does point out one or two things which, while by no means new, may have added force because they are pointed out  by an ‘outsider’ rather than by any one of a dozen devoted ‘natives’ who have been labouring them for years. In a chapter on the tourist possibilities of Newfoundland, Parker says:

“‘It should be one of the urgent jobs … to press for completion of the trans-insular road as soon as possible. In building the road … there is need continually to have in mind its future use by tourists.  Not only should it be well laid out to take tourist traffic but rigid rules need to be laid down and enforced to control development along its borders.

“‘No houses should be allowed to be constructed along this road without permission.  It will be tragic if a line of shacks is allowed to grow up, hoping to serve tourists but in fact spoiling the scenery.  Plans for gas stations and places of refreshment ought to be approved (by a government tourist agency) before being allowed to be carried out.  

“‘Would-be squatters should be made to settle in villages and to build decent houses.  

“‘Ugly wayside advertisements … are already very prominent in a number of Newfoundland outports. If the tourist is to be encouraged to come so far north he must find better scenery than an advertisement-bound main road. …

“‘The Government should en­courage individuals and Town Councils to plant fruit trees where they will grow, flowering shrubs like lilac and decorative trees such as poplars, birches and dogwood (mountain ash). Along the trans-insular road, particularly in cuttings and embankments, groups of trees should be planted. … If this were done as the trans-insular road were built they would become established before the arrival of any very large numbers of tourists.’”

Interesting that Cahill could say in 1950 that the TCH was “on the way” to becoming an accomplished fact. I suspect Smallwood was talking a lot about it at the time. But as we know, it would not be laid down and officially opened  for another 15 years. The British MP-turned-author (there are lots of those) John Parker was born in 1906 and lived to be 81. He was very long-serving, in terms of seat-holders at Whitehall. You can still buy copies of his book. Visit AbeBooks’ official site and click on rare books, then input book and author name.

 Note: Colonel Blimp was a comic character created by the leading cartoonist David Low for a British newspaper in the 1930s. Blimp was noted for his pompous, irascible and jingoistic nature. Wikipedia says Blimp was “stereotypically British.”

Also note: with Ewart Young and Arthur Scammell, Brian Cahill was a founder of The Atlantic Guardian (in Montreal in 1945). It was in print until 1957.

Organizations: Harvey Company, British Overseas Airways, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Pan-American World Airways Trans Canada Air Lines English MP Whitehall

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Columbus, Canada Quebec Atlantic France Spain Cuba Grand Turk Acadia Ottawa Antigonish Montreal

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