Journal brings 19th-century Ferryland to life

Published on December 28, 2013
A Ferryland Merchant-Magistrate:
The Journal and Cases of Robert Carter, Esq. J.P. 1832-1840
Eds. Gerald Barnable, Christopher Curran
and Melvin Baker

A Ferryland Merchant-Magistrate:
The Journal and Cases of Robert Carter, Esq. J.P. 1832-1840
Eds. Gerald Barnable, Christopher Curran
and Melvin Baker
The Law society of Newfoundland and Labrador
$25; 429 pages

The publications of the SS Daisy Legal History Committee are not as well known as they deserve to be, but “A Ferryland Merchant-Magistrate,” the committee’s most ambitious work to date, may change that.

Half the families on the Avalon could doubtless find their ancestors in the pages of this substantial book, and those who don’t will probably be able to track the movements of the ships they built and worked on from Carter’s account.

Reading a daily journal is like panning for gold — there’s a lot of useless stuff to sift through, but every now and again, a fleck of something precious appears. If you gather enough of these fleck you have something of real value. Carter’s journal has more gold than usual.

Many readers might feel that Carter’s report of the daily weather, including wind direction, is a bit tedious and of little interest, but it quickly becomes obvious that in 1830s Newfoundland, weather was a dominant factor. Weather controlled everything — travel, planting, fishing, visiting, life and death. As Carter noted, “How happy are those persons or rather how happy ought they to be whose lot it is to live in a more congenial climate.”

Carter’s vocabulary for weather is more extensive than that of today. Frost is “smart,” thaws are “free,” snow “blinks,” winds are “light airs,” fog is “flying” and rain is “mizzling.” When the magistrate planted his peas (“imperial blue, set dry”) on the 17th of May, he was likely counting on some spring heat, but instead got three days of snow.

His daily entry might list that he laid up his ship, the Angerona, watched Halley’s comet through a glass, commenced to digging his potatoes and had a fire in the parlour towards evening. All these activities are weather related and weather dependent, so it’s understandable why he gave the weather such close attention.

The ships that passed in and out of the harbour at Ferryland were just as carefully recorded, including their masters and their cargoes. If Carter didn’t know the name of a ship that sailed past the harbour, he still recorded any information he could, whether it is a barque or a brigantine, what flag or burgee it flies, if it’s heavy loaded or high in the water. Given the number of ships that disappeared between one port and another in those days, this information was probably of some help in tracking vessels.

All the small but ultimately important events of his time are noted — a pig being slaughtered, a dog killing a sheep, poultry gone missing, a gift of turnips. On Sunday, Oct. 7, the old Judge, his uncle William Carter, “asked all the family into his garden to eat fruit, first time since Mrs. Carter came out.” Mrs. Carter had come out from England 20 years earlier.

All these small bits of apparently trivial information add up to a broad and enlightening picture of life in the colony in the early 19th century.

The family names are almost all familiar to anyone from the southern Avalon: Gatherall, Morry, Bryan, Yetman, Goodridge, Aylward, and many more. I had to constantly remind myself that the Mr. Morry who dined with the magistrate is not the one my father used to dine with, but is probably his great-grandfather. Two of my own great-great-grandfathers get mentioned in this journal — one for not paying his doctor’s bill, the other for having built Carter’s 100-ton brig.

A few of the families seem to have died out or moved on. I wondered if the James Bulger who turns up in the court records is ancestor to James (Whitey) Bulger, “North American’s Most Wanted Man.”

Not surprisingly, fish takes pride of place in Carter’s journal. Although he was a customs officer, magistrate, school trustee, churchman, gardener and family man, Carter was above all a fish merchant. His diary is jammed with descriptions of what the fishing is like, how much has been caught, and what species are available.

“Bait but no fish” or “Fish but no salt” seems to be a constant lament. Sometimes, when there is bait, fish and salt, there are no workers because they are all drunk or have run off. On the seemingly rare occasion there is fish, bait, salt and workers, the weather turns and ruins what has been caught. Carter’s frustration sometimes fairly jumps off the page.

Of great significance, of course, are the cases referred to in the title. Carter generally makes only passing mention of the people he saw in court in his journal, but by going back to the records, the editors are able to flesh out the stories behind Carter’s cryptic notes and use the material to explain the history of the development of the judicial system in a developing country.

The judicial troubles of the mysterious Mountain family reads like a script for “Edge of Night” or ”Coronation Street,”  with denunciations from the pulpit, premature babies and a complex web of assaults involving both men and women.

Often the suits are for wages or rents, and it seems that any purchase of wood or fish or coal involved a shortfall of the promised product. It was a constant struggle to get men to pay for having their clothes washed.

The book contains a voters’ list for 1840 Ferryland, a glossary of terms, biographical profiles, and a bibliography. Sadly, it does not contain an index, though apparently Jean Carter Stirling made an index of names and ships which is available at both The Rooms and the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial. The lack of an index may be a blessing, for it will force many readers to work through all 489 pages of the publication, and consequently come away with a much rounder picture of our history from that period.

One added benefit of this book is the insertion of 10 colour reproductions of Gerry Squires paintings of the Ferryland Downs, one of which is also on the cover. The inclusion of Squires’ work is not really a demand of history, but it certainly enhances our appreciation of the landscape Carter grew to love.

“A Ferryland Merchant-Magistrate” is only the first of three volumes planned to take advantage of the Carter papers. I look forward to the next two volumes with eager anticipation.


Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.”  

Her column returns Jan. 25.