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Paul Sparkes: How we looked 175 years ago

“Part of St. John’s Harbour, Newfoundland, from above the Long Bridge at River Head”, published 1842; Lt. A. Thompson, Royal Artillery.
“Part of St. John’s Harbour, Newfoundland, from above the Long Bridge at River Head”, published 1842; Lt. A. Thompson, Royal Artillery. - Contributed

“Never roast a duck which has a saw bill, or, in other words, whose bill is serrated.”

A little culinary advice from one of Newfoundland’s best-known and likely best-loved historians. In the 1840s, Richard Henry Bonnycastle decided that a comprehensive history (and description) of this place was overdue so, he took pen in hand ...

He must surely have snared reader interest when he started by asserting that Newfoundland was “a very pleasant place” for an army officer to be banished (posted) but it was also a place from which a merchant, once he had long toiled to draw riches from the “exhaustless” ocean, could not wait to depart “for the enjoyments and more genial climate of his native soil.”

I couldn’t shake that old phrase, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Sure, there’s plenty of debate about what that actually means, yet although I was back in the 1840s some of Bonnycastle’s comment seemed prophetically modern while more seemed curiously antiquated.

The author goes from the kind of ducks to tell the cook to ignore to that prominent hill in St. John’s occupied not quite 80 years earlier by the troublesome French ... “now called Signal Hill which overlooked Quiddybiddy” ... he then relates how Captain McDonald in the confrontation between French and English in 1762, had climbed to the very crest of  the position when volleys of French musketry killed “this daring and excellent officer in the moment of victory ... along with his lieutenant and four men”.

Bonnycastle he describes Signal Hill by means of a ship approaching St. John’s harbour. “On entering,” he writes, “she has on her right hand, a precipice of sandstone and slate rock nearly perpendicular to the height of three hundred feet, above which, almost as steep frowns the citadel called Signal Hill, five hundred and ten feet above the ocean waters.” That wasn’t far off, in fact. The correct measurement to the top is 160 metres, or very close to 525 feet.   

Under a microscope

Bonnycastle missed little and he complained that Newfoundland-related material available to study in his time gave “very little local information” with opinions coloured by circumstances ... “in periods when no other than party views prevailed, when society was wholly limited to the houses of government officers  ... and when the dictum of a naval governor was the law of the land.”

His writes with intelligence and what seems like uncommon perception. He knows what could be, and should be, even though he is not seeing it here. He points out that “the British reader who has only heard of the fishery of Newfoundland, will be surprised to learn that a country of fog, of ice, of storm, and snow can possess agricultural resources” beyond those of the regions to the extreme north.

We could do more

While the author notes that “cod, mackerel, herring, capelin, cods’ tongues and sounds, salmon, train-oil, seal-oil, seal-skins and some little peltry: (selections of pelts) “constitute the chief items of export” there were some cranberries (“whortleberries”) sent to England, but, “if the population was less engaged in the fisheries and more extended, this might be made profitable, the country abounding with berries which make excellent preserves and keep long without much care or trouble.”

Not bad, but ...

St. John’s seemed to show promise. Bonnycastle reported that it had “long, irregular and in some places very narrow streets, the principal one being called Water-street which has been much improved of late years by the addition of stone houses.” Not everything was bad about town fires which, in those days, were frequent. He saw fires as an opportunity for urban renewal.

Bonnycastle was not impressed with either the location or the look of our Government House (then only about ten years old). It was on an exposed site and should have been located in a more sheltered location. In fact it was in the kind of bleak and stormy spot, he said, “where it will require more nursing to make trees grow than they are worth.”

“The road by Waterford Bridge to the Bay of Bulls and Petty Harbour” charmed him. He appreciated the fact that it was backed by “a lofty chain” called the South Side Hills, and there were to be seen country houses, farms with “thriving cultivations”,  “pretty little villas” and “ornamented cottages”.

Turning to town centre again, St. Thomas’s Church was new but that wasn’t enough to spare it from Bonnycastle’s censorious eye: “a singular wooden edifice with a steeple of most unique construction, being indescribably ugly and out of proportion.” — See Paul O’Neill’s “The Oldest City” (2003), Page 536. The “spire” does look out of proportion with the body of the church but it may be said to have come back into proportion when “wings” were added after the building shifted during a storm.

‘Inconveniently steep’

An old Christmas card scene forms in the mind’s eye when Bonnycastle talks about our downtown side-streets in winter:

“The city stretches along the side of the harbour for nearly two miles and as the ground rises above 120 feet from the sea, towards the ridge on which its upper portion is built, many of the side streets are very inconveniently steep and afford excellent Russian mountains of snow and ice for the boys on their break-neck sledges in winter.”

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

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