Dr. Bruton, exiled beavers and lunaria

Paul Sparkes
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In January, 1930, death suddenly cut short what must have been one of the most selfless projects ever undertaken by a teacher on behalf of his students.

Twig of our common birch — an extremely fine illustration from Bruton’s 1932 book.

Francis Archibald Bruton, at one time Second Master at the highly-regarded Manchester Grammar School in England, had visited Newfoundland four summers in the late 1920s. He was invited here to instruct teachers in delivering nature study in their elementary schools.

Bruton’s knowledge of his subject was fuelled by his enthusiastic love of nature — the intricacies of plants, the habits of animals and the shapes and depths (and occupants) of ponds, lakes and rivers. The barachois fascinated him. Kettle-hole ponds fascinated him.  

He agreed with his friend, Dr. J.L. Paton (president of Memorial University College) during one of those visits that he should write a natural history text for young Newfoundlanders. And Bruton insisted that he would not be paid for the work (one can imagine his teacher’s salary in the United Kingdom in those days of depression).

Our students in the 1930s and perhaps (I am not sure) up to the 1950s were fortunate to have been on the receiving end of Bruton’s work. Page after page of the “Bruton Memorial Book of Nature Study” bears easy descriptions and gentle prods to stimulate interest. The text is supported beautifully by some of the finest line drawings you will see anywhere. I believe Bruton did most of the drawings as there is no reference to the artist and that would be in character for him. A few pictures in a style unlike most, are initialled, but they are not Bruton’s initials.

At home in England, he had launched into the task of writing his textbook.

The introduction was written by William Walker Blackall (born in England, headmaster of Bishop Feild College here and subsequently superintendent of education for the Church of England in Newfoundland until 1933). Here is what he wrote in part:

“He (Bruton) had completed eight chapters before the final summons came, and there can be little doubt that he crossed the bar with his mind set on this object.”

And Blackall remembered:

“With income moderate, he gave freely of his means and talent — he would accept no remuneration for his services in Newfoundland, seldom would he permit the authorities to pay his actual travelling expenses; he gave scholarships; on occasions he played the host to his classes in Bowring Park. And much besides. For the preparation of the Nature Study book no payment was to be made to him. Almost his last words were: ‘this work of mine is to be a gift to the children of Newfoundland.’”

Newfoundland’s Board of Education had been looking forward to completion of the book. But when the sad news of Bruton’s death was received from England, the work was abruptly in suspension. It could not let it be abandoned. Again, Blackall explains in his 1932 foreword, “the summer of 1931 brought to our shores Norman M. Johnson … to us, Mr. Johnson was of the same genus as our dear friend, Dr. Bruton.” Johnson, a headmaster from Scotland, remained here that summer, “joined in our work … explored parts of the country … and returned home to finish the book.”


An introduction

The foregoing is intended to introduce Bruton so that you will appreciate a little story associated with him and Gordon Elliott, a Glasgow-born Anglican priest (1888-1984) who spent most of his life in Newfoundland.

In 1970 Elliott wrote and published in The Daily News here, an account of  meeting Bruton on one of his visits in the late 1920s. They were to become very good friends. Elliott at the time was stationed in Whitbourne — “although it was a railway centre, the junction of the Heart’s Content branch with the main line, it was a lovely place. It was set in surroundings of woods and ponds which were a pure delight to anyone who loved the out-of-doors.”


A chance meeting on the train

“It was because of the profusion and variety of the wild flowers there,” Elliott continued, in reference to Whitbourne, “that I met one who was to become one of my closest and dearest friends.  Dr. Francis Bruton came from Kensington Gardens in London to conduct courses in Nature Study for Teachers at the Newfoundland Summer School.  My first meeting with him was rather curious.

“I boarded the train at St. John’s one day and he was on, going to Holyrood to see for his first time that wonderful sight — so familiar to us — the caplin running on the beach.  

“Dr. Blackall introduced me and we began to talk of sundry and various wonders in the world of Nature. I told him a curious thing that trappers had told me about the beaver; that if one of the colony, because of broken teeth, final illness or sheer laziness could no longer contribute his share to the economy, he was banished.  More than that, they would set a mark upon him for all time by taking a bite out of his tail at its base.

“Dr. Bruton listened to me most politely, but I could see by the twinkle in his eye that he thought I was trying to pull his leg.  He made no comment — I think he did say ‘Amazing!’ but we had reached Holyrood and he got off the train and I thought no more about it.

“A week or so later I had a letter from him.  ‘Dear Mr. Elliott’ he said.  ‘I feel I owe you an apology. Candidly, I really thought your beaver story was a leg-pull.’ He went on to say  that after leaving the train he went to a beach and almost at once came across the body of a beaver.  ‘Lo and behold, a bite had been taken out of its tail at the base.’

“I suppose one might perhaps go to a beach every day for a hundred years and never again find the body of a beaver banished or not, washed up, upon the shore.”


Fast friendship

“Well, that started our friendship. He came to visit me and I took him to see a beaver colony in full working order. I shall never forget it. We crawled softly, right to the edge of the pond and there they were, hard at work. Dr. Bruton stood up and solemnly taking off his hat said, ‘One of life’s ambitions realized.’”

In his reminiscence Elliott next turned to plants.

“There is a very small, inconspicuous fern called Moonwort (Lunarius) so very rare in England that Dr. Bruton had never seen one in the wild. In one small part of Whitbourne there was a patch of perhaps four hundred of them, but I did not tell him so directly.  Instead, as we walked in their direction one day we talked about Moonwort and I asked him if he would like to pick a specimen.  

He said, ‘Oh no. They are far too precious to pluck.’

“I said ‘If I show you 10, will you take one?’


“If I show you fifty?”

“He looked at me and, hesitatingly said ‘Yes.’

“Move your left foot.” I said.  ‘You are standing on one.’

“He jumped as if he had been shot.  When I showed him the whole patch, the greediest man on Earth could not have been more excited at finding a whole sackful of diamonds!”


Gems or money

The plant is commonly  known as “Honesty” and it bears a flat seed pod which, when peeled and dried, makes an everlasting decoration known as Silver Dollars.

This attractive little ‘life after death’ has long been known. A book published in 1913 with the ambitious title “Twentieth Century Gardening,” and authored by a person with the appropriate name of John Weathers, noted this under Hardy Biennials: “Honesty (Lunaria biennis), 2 to 3 feet, purple, white; valued for the silvery spectacle-like pods in winter decorations.”


Note — In September 2010 I wrote a column about Francis A. Bruton and some of his near-poetic descriptions of our flora and fauna. Of our island itself, he wrote this: “A land built up of some of the very oldest rocks in the world, fringed by a noble coastline, with steep cliffs, beetling crags, lovely fiords and broad lagoons lurking behind banks of rounded pebbles.”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.co

Organizations: University College, Bishop Feild College, Manchester Grammar School Church of England Board of Education Daily News

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, England, United Kingdom Whitbourne Bowring Park Holyrood Scotland Glasgow Kensington Gardens London

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