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JOAN SULLIVAN: Brigus: Past Glory, Present Splendour,’ offers unique, deeply personal look back on history of the Newfoundland community

“Brigus: Past Glory, Present Splendour,” By John Northway Leamon, with a Foreword by Edward Roberts; Flanker Press; $24.95; 438 pages. — Contributed
“Brigus: Past Glory, Present Splendour,” By John Northway Leamon, with a Foreword by Edward Roberts; Flanker Press; $24.95; 438 pages. — Contributed - Contributed

“John Leamon, the fifth generation of his family to live in Brigus, wrote a wonderful history of his hometown,” Edward Roberts informs us, introducing the text. It “is idiosyncratic, but it is a joy to read, a treasure house of both the history and the lore of the town he loved and an equally fine account of several centuries of Newfoundland’s past.”

Echoed by the subtitle, Brigus is a place John Northway Leamon has a certain fondness for. And as the Foreword suggested, this is a distinctive book.

It’s actually a second edition, with the first published in 1996, and incorporating an index (it’s also posthumous).

But it entirely preserves the thorough, eccentric personality of the author’s inquiry and tone. That’s not a criticism – this isn’t an odd book (well, it is in its way) — but a singular one.

According to the back cover, “The author’s preferred style of recounting the town of Brigus’s history is that of a grandfather telling it to his grandchild.”

In his introduction Leamon explains this is “a method deliberately employed with the hope that it will heighten interest and thus serve to help eliminate the dryness which is so much a part of a book of mere historical facts.”

This intriguingly wedges the book, divided into two sections of 26 chapters, somewhere in-between primary and secondary sources.

It starts off with the community’s name.

“Extensive research into the name Brigus has uncovered a number of interesting, rare, and sometimes baffling versions and opinions as to its origin”; that it was originally Brig Harbour, or an English nod toward “Brickhouse,” or evolved, somehow, from the French “Brigue.”

There are ten chapters headed “A Walk With Harry,” sub-headed with incredible specificity, for example, “Start: Jackson’s Quay/Route: To Ox Cove via Grave Hill; Rattley Row; Battery Road to the Battery and beyond; return to Rattley Row (upper portion) to Chalker’s Road.”

“Harry,” Leamon explains, “is a bright, intelligent boy, of course. He is my grandson.”

The idea is the author is walking through Brigus while the clever lad at his side asks pertinent questions: “What’s a shebeen?” or “Does anybody have any idea about how old these cellars might be?”

And the author/grandfather replies: “A shebeen is an unlicensed place where illegal liquor is sold. Billy Cole was a dispenser of alcoholic beverages, which he kept in a cellar under the kitchen floor of his house, in bottles suspended on strings by means of which he retrieved the cool liquid as required … James Fry, an elderly Brigus resident from whom information was sought regarding Billy Cole, spoke as follows: ‘Being a mere boy at the time, I didn’t know exactly what went on at Billy Cole’s, but I do know that he had an awful lot of visitors.’”

Or, “They were no doubt built at a time so remote that there is no longer a tradition of their origin.”

Talk about doing your groundwork! It’s an incredible, immersive, 360-degree tour, with no detail too small to delve into. Even structures no longer standing, sometimes documented and other times ephemeral, are described and explored: “Although nobody quite remembers, I feel on the basis of my research that at least part of that once open space running north of the old Washer property was earlier occupied by a family, or perhaps several families, named Roberts, since tombstones that until recently existed on a rise at the upper end of this property are known to have been in memory of people whose surname was Roberts.”

That’s about two-thirds of the book. The back third runs through “The Jubliee Club”; the history of a Hillside house; a look at the Methodist, United, Anglican, Reformed Episcopal, and Roman Catholic Churches and various associated schools, presbyteries, and music; and “The Orange Society.”

“A Cockoo Clock and Valentines, Oatmeal Cookies and Milk,” which anyone would of course be drawn to read anyway, concerns Leamon’s visits to Hawthorne Cottage, home of renowned sea captain Bob Bartlett. “The Empire of Charles Cozens” is a chronicling of that person’s endeavours and fortunes. It closes with “The Brigus Historical and Conservation Society,” a group which Leamon founded in 1983 and who volunteered their time and expertise to re-publish this remarkable work.

There are charts, lists, census, stories and doggerel. Each chapter has endnotes and there is a nice selection of attractive, often unique, black and white and colour photographs.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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