Top News

PAUL SPARKES: Necrology of the briny deep

Illustration from The Royal Readers No. V., 1917, accompanying Byron’s poem, “The Shipwreck.” — Submitted image
Illustration from The Royal Readers No. V., 1917, accompanying Byron’s poem, “The Shipwreck.” — Submitted image

When you look back in the old records and put together only some of the statistics, you realize very quickly what an awful price we paid to settle and work this island. As the saying has it, “the sea was our highway.” When it came to day-by-day work or even the necessity of travel, we had no choice but to be upon the salt water.


The high price hit me a few months ago when I first began to flip through the many pages of an old typewritten compendium of events that searched back to when “the record” was “dim with the mist of years.” The concluding date, of course, was most definite, closing off at 1922. Here is just one of many, many tragic inserts:

“Schooner Amazon, James Noble, Master, lost three men as they attempted to land from the  craft at Cat Harbour, Fogo District, during the storm of September 15, 1891.”

The sealing steamer Walrus first arrived in Newfoundland in mid-February 1870. In March of 1894 when the vessel was at Pool’s Island, there was an explosion of dynamite aboard. Boatswain Brett and George Thomas were killed. Fourteen years later, the ship was lost at the seal hunt. 

The Annie Roberts, a schooner out of Lamaline, sank at Sydney in October 1913 and five men drowned.

Major catastrophes like the wreck of the Anglo-Saxon in late April 1863 near Cape Race are also part of our story, even when those lost were not our people. Our share of such events would often be in the strenuous efforts made to effect a rescue. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon out of Quebec, some 250 were drowned from the total of 444 aboard. Many of those saved were hoisted up a cliff face by means of a derrick hastily constructed on level ground above. Again, a loss of 60 naval men from Great Britain occurred here in early November 1813 when the sloop of war, HMS Tweed was lost near Shoal Bay in the vicinity of Bay Bulls.

Tallying all the numbers of those “lost” through the years due to shipwrecks, swampings and sinkings would result in an astounding list, especially in view of our small population.

The brigantine William was en route from Poole, England, to Trinity in early February 1842 when she was lost at Small Point, Cape St. Francis. Eight men drowned.

A skiff with eight men aboard, heading to St. John’s from Witless Bay, was lost in late May 1857.

Don’t name your vessel Wolf. Two steamers by that name were lost one year apart — the first came to Newfoundland in 1863 and was lost in 1871; the second came to Newfoundland in 1872 and was lost in early March of 1896. There were drownings but the numbers were not given.

Two young men drowned at Woody Island in September 1921 when their dory capsized. They were Warren Lockyer, age 21, and John Howlett, age 19.

The schooner Wasp, with Master Coffin, was lost at Petty Harbour in November 1850, with the loss of five men. They were sailing from Prince Edward Island to St. John’s.

Twenty-one men, most from Bay Roberts, died aboard the sealing steamer Tigress (Captain I. Bartlett) at the icefields in early April 1875, when the vessel’s boilers blew. She had been brought here two years before by Harvey & Company.

It was not always nature that drove vessels to their doom.

The packet boat Victoria, plying the Conception Bay route between Harbour Grace and Portugal Cove was lost with her crew of four men on Sept. 9, 1850.

The 133-ton schooner Sunbeam, with Capt. T. Lester and crew of seven, left Harbour Grace on Sept. 17, 1884 bound for Houlton, Labrador, and was never heard from again.

The Susan collided with an iceberg off the Narrows on March 26, 1887 and three men drowned.

The Six Brothers, a schooner, left Lower Island Cove headed for Trinity Bay to secure firewood with 13 people aboard (May 1884) and was never heard from again.

Village Belle, with Capt. J. Antle of Brigus and a crew of 18 men, sailed for the seal hunt in 1872 and was never heard from again.

When it comes to this sort of record, the seal hunt is something else. In the old sheets I’ve been scanning, no fewer than 15 disasters are listed from 1830 up to the cutoff date of 1922. I have no doubt this is not a complete list. But that period covers our very worst — that of the Greenland, 48 men; the Newfoundland, 78 men; and the Southern Cross, 173 men. Running close to those totals, there are some lesser-known names, such as the Huntsman, 1872, 44 men.

It was not always nature that drove vessels to their doom. Sometimes it was hubris; the Anglo-Saxon was thought to have been driven through fog at full tilt to secure the honour of being among the first to convey news from one continent to another. The Newfoundland and Southern Cross disasters, to a large extent, can be blamed on greed and ambition as demonstrated by loading vessels beyond the danger point with valuable pelts, carcasses and fat.

Some wrecks on our coasts occurred from intent. The Samuel Buddington was lost at Lawn in late March 1862 and charges of wrecking were made against people of the vicinity. I can find no note of lives lost, but the governor of Newfoundland issued a proclamation ordering the surrender of articles taken from the ship.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email

Recent Stories