— Sir Robert Bond Collection; Archives and Special Collections; Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University
It’s difficult to conceive of a wild creature acting ridiculous. Birds, fish, animals are, essentially, programmed to act the way they do. For them, I gather, it is a simple process — when faced with that, do this.
But there are exceptions. Nature throws us the occasional and unintended bit of humour. I will illustrate my point with a little anecdote from — oh perhaps it’s 85 years ago. This comes to me in a small piece of text written by a gentleman who figured in this column last Monday; Scotland-born Gordon Elliott.
A clergyman, Elliott met and befriended the English professor Dr. Francis Bruton who visited Newfoundland in the 1920s to coach the teaching of nature study. Rev. Mr. Elliott was stationed in Whitbourne at that time. And he loved the place. He loved the natural features of the region and the plants and creatures that populated it. Here is one of Elliott’s little observations:
“One day we saw a most curious and amusing sight. We were standing at my window and, outside in the garden, on a rather bare patch, stood a bittern. Now, the natural habitat of this bird is wet ground where tall grasses and reeds give it protection. If alarmed or suspicious, it will erect its neck, extending its long beak in the air and slowly sway neck and beak from side to side, simulating a reed swaying in the wind. In this position it is most difficult to see, because its colour is a perfect camouflage. This fellow had obviously been alarmed by some passerby and there he stood, on dry ground, with not a blade of grass more than three inches high, solemnly pretending to be a reed, but looking most obvious and ridiculous.”
Whitbourne’s most prominent resident in that period was Sir Robert Bond (1857-1927), a prime minister of Newfoundland and a well-to-do bachelor who built a retreat at Whitbourne. It was no country cabin. The Grange was a substantial house and its grounds held beautiful imported trees and shrubs — and beds of flowers. His residence in St. John’s exists — it is No. 2 Circular Rd. If you were in an upstairs window you could look to your left a bit and see the former stadium which is now a supermarket. No small house, that.
In “A Gift of Heritage” (1975), the Newfoundland Historic Trust notes that the St. John’s house, built probably just before 1886, was deeded to Bond’s mother in that year. But in 1900 he sold the house, so it would seem that his mother had by then died and had left the house to Bond.
Although he was Prime Minister until 1908, he preferred The Grange in Whitbourne and when he was obliged to stay in the capital because of government responsibilities, he stayed at the Balsam Hotel on Barnes Road. As Whitbourne was an important stop for the trains (the Bonavista branch met the main line here) Bond would have had no trouble getting home when he wished.
It would seem logical that Elliott and Bond would get to know each other. And they did.
In a 1970 memory piece, Elliott wrote:
“It was in those years at Whitbourne that I knew Sir Robert Bond. A perfect gentleman, he was courteous to all and he loved Whitbourne. He had built his lovely house, The Grange, by the side of a lake and had carved out of the wilderness, pleasant and delightful grounds. He had laid out the garden with walks and beds of flowers and decorated the whole with ornamental trees from abroad.
“On one of our walks one day, he took me to a little marsh at the rear of his house. He had something to show me, he said. I little dreamt of what I should see. There before me lay a flourishing colony of heather in full bloom. I was astonished because heather is not indigenous to Newfoundland.”
Sir Robert then proceeded to explain (and Elliott recounted):
“Some years earlier he had received from Scotland some trees whose roots had been packed in sphagnum moss and heather. He had his gardener throw the moss and heather on the little marsh and it was from that packing rubbish that the patch of heather had grown. When I last saw it, it had spread in several directions, right down to the tracks and could be seen from the train.
“There is a place on the south coast where heather may be found but it came under similar, though tragic circumstances. In the days of sailing ships, a troop ship was taking a Scottish regiment from England to the garrison at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Near Cape St. Mary’s the ship was lost, with much loss of life. Among the flotsam of the wreck were the heather-stuffed mattresses of the soldiers. Once thrown upon the shore, the wind and the birds did the rest and now, I have been told, quite a field of heather may be found there.”
The fact that refuse should become a beautiful ground cover was fortuitous. Efforts to develop and improve the place were not always rewarded at the Grange, however. Elliott’s story continues.
“Sir Robert was a very keen bird man. At one time he got the idea of bringing in some black game or Capercailze (or Capercaillie — the wood grouse) to see if they would thrive here. At some considerable expense he imported six pairs from Scotland and turned them loose, not too far from Whitbourne.
“In the course of very few weeks, 11 of them came back to him — brought back by hunters for identification! He was greatly upset but felt he had only himself to blame for not having warned the local gunsmen of the experiment. He had always encouraged them to bring to him any strange bird they took.”
We would like to think that if Bond had been told the bittern story and had laughed at it, then it would be justice for the bittern to know of the outcome of Bond’s experiment with black game.
Bond imposed yet another trick upon himself as Elliott goes on to relate:
“Sir Robert thought it would add to the amenities of his place if he had a colony of beaver in the lake near his house, so he had three or four pairs picked up and invited to live in his pond. In very short time the beavers decided that they liked the place and took up residence in earnest. All went well for a week or two between landlord and tenant. Then one morning, walking in his garden, Sir Robert discovered that in the night the beavers had made a raid on it and had cut down all his ornamental trees. That put “paid” to the beaver experiment and they were evicted at once.
Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.