The indomitable Bartlett women

As the world helps Brigus celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bob Bartlett's Arctic adventure, writer Maura Hanrahan notes the captain's female relatives made their own mark

Published on March 11, 2009
Sisters Eleanor (left) and Emma Bartlett ran Hawthorne Cottage, and the Benville Tearooms, found across Iristown Road from Hawthorne and the preferred dining room for St. John's elite. - Photos courtesy Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

When Capt. Bob Bartlett gave his cousin Louisa an account of her family, he spoke only of the men - captains Isaac, Abram, William, and John - and their numerous adventures and accomplishments.

It was as if the lauded skippers of Brigus sprang only from each other. In this, Bartlett was a man of his time. But if he had been asked, he would have given much credit to his mother, Mary Jemima Leamon Bartlett.

When Capt. Bob Bartlett gave his cousin Louisa an account of her family, he spoke only of the men - captains Isaac, Abram, William, and John - and their numerous adventures and accomplishments.

It was as if the lauded skippers of Brigus sprang only from each other. In this, Bartlett was a man of his time. But if he had been asked, he would have given much credit to his mother, Mary Jemima Leamon Bartlett.

A lifelong bachelor, Bartlett's mother was always "his best girl." Returning from the United States in the Effie Morrissey every fall, Bartlett brought her elaborate gifts like a pedigreed Jersey cow. His mother was a central influence in his life, and their relationship, though not without complications, was one of mutual lifelong devotion.

Mary Leamon was born in 1852 into what was the Brigus aristocracy in all but name. Her father was Robert John Cozens Leamon, listed in the 1871 Lovell Directory as "general importer and dealer in British and foreign goods and provisions."

His wife, also Mary, was known for keeping a fine horse and gig, the leatherwork spotless and the brass bell polished. She had, they said, "a stately sort of air." This imposing woman was Capt. Bob's grandmother. She was immortalized by the explorer in "The Log of Bob Bartlett" when he compared himself as a child to Little Lord Fauntleroy, listening to Grandmother Leamon read him stories on Sunday afternoons. She was "great in literature as well as in music."

Grandmother Leamon was highly successful in cultivating a love of high art in the boy who would become the celebrated captain. As the Karluk sank many years after those memorable Sunday afternoons, Bartlett sat in his cabin, playing Chopin's "Funeral March" on the Victrola. This was a remarkable scene that even Grandmother Leamon probably hadn't envisioned.

Rough and refined

Bartlett was rough and ready to be sure, never hesitating to throw out a curse word in front of a clergyman when others would have kept silent, but he was extremely well-read. He adored Earl Grey's lectures and George Eliot's fiction. And he thought a great deal about men of letters, once writing to a friend: "Bobbie Burns would have been an even greater poet than Wordsworth but he lacked the willpower."

Like her mother, Mary Leamon Bartlett was steeped in formality. A great-nephew remembered being admonished by her as a child for trying to butter thin, hard-to-manage bread in his hand.

"Put that down," Mary scolded. "That's not the way you behave at table."

Mary was always well-groomed with a curly hairdo described as "magnificent." She always wore long black dresses in the fashion of the day, and hats, sometimes with small purple flowers in them. She expected her young granddaughters to show up for afternoon tea every day at 4 - and they did.

Mary passed on her strict version of etiquette to her young relatives but, like all who seemed to have come in contact with her, they were very fond of her. Mary's brand of noblesse oblige had a sensitive edge - when she sent baskets of bread and jam to the needy, she did so through messengers under cover of darkness. This generosity was a trait she passed on to her children, including her most famous son.

Like most grandmothers, she could be indulgent. She baked cookies and cakes every Friday morning without fail. Her granddaughter, Ruperta Angel Murphy, recalled Mary reaching into her deep apron pockets, fishing for one of her many keys, and then opening a cupboard filled with "treats and goodies" for the children to enjoy.

There doesn't seem to be a lazy bone in a Leamon or Bartlett body, and Mary epitomized this. The family lived in Hawthorne Cottage, which her grandfather had transported from Cottage Pond, near Goulds Road outside Brigus (the recitation, "Squire Leamon's Housewarming," appeared in the Harbour Grace Standard in 1834, that same year). Mary eventually inherited the house and it was slated to go to Bob, as long as - mysteriously - he didn't marry one of the Butlers of Brigus.

Hawthorne was a going concern and Mary ruled it, making it thrive. A large barn housed cows, a horse, hens and chickens. In the dairy, Mary stored raw cream and scalded cream in brown earthenware basins. She always had plenty of fresh butter on hand and she made ice cream with a hand mixer for special occasions.

She kept a flower garden featuring columbines, tiger lilies, rockets and yellow loosestrife growing as high as the fence. She maintained sirenga bushes on either side of the front door with white waxberry lining the path up to the steps. In her kitchen garden were raspberries as well as the usual root crops. The hay that grew in the front garden fed the cattle. There was another family farm a mile away which Mary travelled to via horse and carriage.


As the wife of the wildly successful sealing captain, William Bartlett, Mary had help, including maids, and she gave her children and grandchildren, "her companions and helpers," chores galore, as was the order of the day. Even more than most, Mary Leamon Bartlett knew how to produce independent and self-sufficient children. She had 11: sons Bob, Stuart, William, Lewis and Rupert and daughters, Beatrice, Hilda, Emma, Elizabeth, Eleanor and Winifred.

She lost children, including two who died in childhood as well as Hilda, who did not survive childbirth. Mary lived in a world dominated by masculine bravado and derring-do, so perhaps her greatest loss was the death of her youngest son, Rupert.

Young Capt. Bartlett, who had won several medals, was only 26 when he was killed in Cambrai, France in 1917 in that most senseless of wars. In an indication of the depth of his loss, two of Rupert's siblings named their children after him.

Pride in and love of family were characteristics that came from Mary as well as from the Bartlett side. Deeply religious like her own mother, Mary longed for Bob to become a clergyman. Bob loved his mother and attended the Methodist College in St. John's, but he was a Bartlett and the sea called him. Mary gallantly reconciled herself to her son's career choice.

She even became his biggest fan. The Arctic Room in Hawthorne Cottage was her idea and was so named by her. The wallpaper could hardly be seen behind the photos of Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Peary and other worthies with whom her son had come in contact. She put Bob's medals and many, many other expedition items on display, recognizing early on the significance of her eldest child's life and work. She made sure the room was dusted every day and she welcomed more and more visitors every year.

Mary was nothing if not practical. After all, this was the woman who designed an overhead tunnel in her house, connecting two chimneys to maximize heat retention.

Emma Gertrude Bartlett inherited her mother's drive. A skilled musician, the never-married Emma played the church organ in Brigus for over 50 years. Energetic like Mary, Emma also had the confidence of a woman from society's upper crust. With her younger sister, Eleanor, who had qualified as a nurse in New York, she operated a tea room on a site where their Grandfather Abram Bartlett's house had burned down.

But the words "tea room" don't do the establishment justice. It was, John Leamon recalled, "a very high-class operation catering to the elite (like) the governor's parties and the consul generals who lived in the city and often phoned ahead for different meals to be prepared."

Emma recruited her nieces as waitresses and it was nothing for them to prepare a three-course meal for 40 people. When not waiting on tables, the girls were sent to John Kennedy in nearby Frog Marsh to get chickens - such was business at the so-called tea room that Kennedy raised them only for Emma and Eleanor.

Everyone called Emma "the Boss" and she was certainly in charge. But Emma and Eleanor spent every spare minute caring for the sick and needy of Brigus. Despite being a nurse, Eleanor never charged for her services. The Bartlett sisters may well have been the kindest people in Brigus. In their constant concern for their neighbours, they carried on a tradition that Mary had institutionalized and that Capt. Bob, too, would honour till the last of his days.

Maura Hanrahan is writing a literary biography of Capt. Robert Bartlett. Bartlett and his father, William, figure largely in her book, "Domino: The Eskimo Coast Disaster."