New Chelsea — Lloyd Belbin is clearly the curious type. While some people might find an old tool for cutting wood and be amazed at how old it is, the New Chelsea native prefers to dig deeper.
That natural curiosity has served him well. The 84-year-old, who appropriately enough lives on Belbin Road East in the small community on the shores of Trinity South, has accumulated oodles of old documents, pictures and antiques spanning four centuries of history.
His interest in historical matters was kick started when Belbin was a boy growing up in New Chelsea, where his father fished and operated a sawmill on the south side.
“My father, (Lemuel Belbin), had no education, but he was a smart man to run a sawmill and fish,” he says.
“Just as a boy, up in a drawer there were some old papers there. I wasn’t looking for anything, but I looked through it. This will was there, and it was made by (my great-grandfather William Belbin). The will was made out in 1864, and it was readable too, so I started reading it.”
From then on, his interest in old documents and memorabilia from New Chelsea became a passion for Belbin, who had a varied work career, spanning involvement in the fishery, carpentry and marine transport. Discovering the will encouraged him to ask his grandmother about it, and she gave him a rundown of the family’s history.
“In general, I have a good knowledge of New Chelsea and the families that settled here,” he says.
His collection includes documents pertaining to family histories, newspaper clippings, marriage certificates and contracts, including one — known as an indenture — from 1790.
“The father brought (the son) out for apprentice with another skipper man. The boy had to serve 10 years, and at the end of 10 years, he’d receive a new suit of clothes, and (the son) would have a trade in the fishery business.”
Belbin also owns a variety of antique woodworking tools, irons and guns. They are itemized in three binders, with information provided on the item’s purpose, date of origin, and history of ownership within New Chelsea. It lists almost 120 objects.
“If I died, nobody would know anything about it — what it is and where it came from,” he says.
“I’m getting older, and if I didn’t do something, the young people would see these things and not know what they are.”
The catalogues were made with help from his son-in-law, who took pictures of the items and combined them with Belbin’s text to create a sturdy document that details his passion for history.
“I’ve spent many years, especially during the winter months, compiling research …” the preamble reads.
“It includes different families, religions and organizations. I love to read and have spent many hours reading books about Newfoundland or by Newfoundland authors. I do not know what it is to be lonely or bored. Through the years I’ve been able to provide information to many young people doing research papers for school.”
His research has also been of value to provincial institutions. He’s made copies of many of his documents and made the originals available to the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador. He has also donated antiques to The Rooms in St. John’s.
New Chelsea was first known as Seal Cove — a name that created obvious confusion, since several communities with the same name already existed in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Sometimes, the postmasters had to open the mail and read it to see where it was supposed to go to,” says Belbin.
With so much mail failing to reach its proper destination, a decision was made in May 1911 to change the name of the community to New Chelsea. Why that name was chosen depends on who you talk to, says Belbin.
“That’s quite debatable. If you look at the records in the Provincial Archives in St. John’s, you’ll see it’s called New Chelsea after Chelsea in Massachusetts, and they claim (there were) so many from Chelsea there doing carpentry work that they decided to call it New Chelsea.”
However, the local authority on all things New Chelsea has his own theory, which is rooted in the thoughts of older people he once knew.
“Chelsea in England is where the early settlers came from,” he says, citing evidence from John Milley Harris, a welfare officer in the community.
“He had a call from the (post office) committee giving the OK to change the name to New Chelsea because of Chelsea, England, where the Harrises came from.”
It was settlers from the Northern Bay area who spearheaded the settlement that later became known as New Chelsea.
According to Belbin, the sons of families living in the area were finding it difficult to find space to establish a stage and cultivate farmland in the early 1700s. It was a nine-mile journey to reach the New Chelsea area, and that was an option young men began to take on for fishing in the summer.
By about 1790, there were settlers making New Chelsea their home year-round. Belbin’s family history in the area dates back to 1818, when William Belbin left Mosquito Cove — midway between Harbour Grace and Carbonear, in what’s now known as Bristol’s Hope — to settle there.
The land was fertile enough for farming, and the water was filled with fish. For many years, seals were known to have a presence in the harbour.
Belbin said in the lead-up to the Second World War, there were few jobs because of the Great Depression, forcing families to stay together in the community. At the time, the population was approximately 500.
Today, there are fewer than 100 permanent residents, with almost no young people, and only two fishing boats left in the harbour. Retirees are snapping up homes that once housed families.
Wesley United Church has seen its congregation dwindle to single-digit numbers in recent years, which led to it becoming deconsecrated last year. A private owner has since purchased the church, the foundation of which was laid in 1865.
In 50 years, Belbin will likely be long gone from this Earth, but he imagines New Chelsea will live on as a tourist destination.
“You can see people from other countries, provinces and parts have settled here. It’s a nice place — no town council taxes or anything like that — but all that will change.
“I feel sure this place will continue on, because it’s a nice place, and there’s room to expand with land. It’s a pleasant community, with nice scenery around, and you’re not too far from St. John’s, so we’re not isolated.”