The Convicts of Newfoundland

Centuries after Newfoundland was settled as a fishery, islands a world away were being settled as European penal colonies. In the late 1700s, the lands of Australia (known first as New Holland, later as New South Wales) and Tasmania (settled as Van Diemen’s Land) went through tumultuous times as penal colonies and “free provinces” were settled - primarily at the hands of the English.

During the height of convict shipment in the 1800s, Newfoundland was already primarily an Irish Catholic population, so it is no wonder there are records of its residents being sent down under to serve time. These residents would have been tried and convicted in Ireland (or even England). Two young brothers in particular, Lawrence and Thomas Baldwin, were convicted of separate thefts and shipped to the colonies on the Java and Hero, in 1833 and 1835 respectively, along with hundreds of other men and women. Other incarcerated Newfoundlanders include John Woods (Southworth, 1822), John Watson (Prince Regent I, 1824), and Edward Shaw (Nautilus, 1840).

Further, the transportation of convicts created larger problems for Newfoundland in July 1789 when a ship of Irish prisoners destined for Botany Bay (Australia) instead landed in Bay Bulls after provisions ran out and a contagious fever was rampant. The prisoners made their way into St. John’s, where most of the males were kept in a makeshift plantation-style prison. After the “jail fever” spread and took the lives of over 200 inhabitants, and after violent incidents such as attempted arson (with the intention of burning down the town), the residents of St. John’s were in fear and looked to authorities for a solution. Though it took months, the majority of remaining prisoners were sent back to England, then finally to Ireland. This event can be considered the beginning of a series of reforms to the judiciary system in Newfoundland, though the powers that be considered the handling of the situation a success.

There exists a database of all Irish convicts who were shipped to New South Wales from 1788 to 1849. For each prisoner, it lists their name and their ship, hometown, date of birth, and their crimes.

For a detailed account of the events of July 1789, see here.

Contributed by Justin Oakey

The Rowing Races of Quidi Vidi

These archival photographs show a crowd of spectators during the 1950s as they gather on the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake to watch the Royal St. John’s Regatta rowing events. This annual boat race is so popular in St. John’s, and has been for so long, that it has warranted a civic holiday: Regatta Day, which falls on the first Wednesday of August each year.

“The Regatta” (as it is known locally) is thought to be the oldest organized sporting event in North America, with a known history of boat races that predates 1800, with the first recorded event nearly two centuries ago in 1816.

This year’s Regatta is happening today, August 6th.

Photographs are from the Rooms archival collections. Spectators (VA 1-5), Boat on Quidi Vidi Lake, 1902 (from MUN’s Digital Archives Initiative), and Boat on Quidi Vidi Lake, 1904 (1.502.044).

Contributed by L. Wilson

The World Is Burning (2013)

After his grandfather is attacked by coyotes, a young man returns home to rural Newfoundland.

In light of the upcoming South Coast Arts Festival in St. Jacques (Fortune Bay), I’d like to present a short film I made last year. This project was only possible after many weeks of fundraising, personal investment, and the assistance of The National Film Board of Canada. The small crew was primarily friends and family, my own grandfather even made his screen debut.

We shot on location in Fortune Bay and the Avalon Peninsula, as well as in Toronto. Since its release at the 2013 Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, it has screened in Canada, Europe, Africa and Oceania.

Contributed by Justin Oakey

King’s Cove, Newfoundland

Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church. This is another tiny Bonavista Peninsula community (pop. 121 in 2006) with a large and beautiful church built by volunteers.

The inscription on the plaque reads: “Father Sinnott in 1815 was the first priest to take charge of the King’s Cove Parish which extended at that time from Fortune Harbour to Heart’s Content - a coastline of 500 miles. He built the first church in 1825. Father Wm Veitch became parish priest in 1875 and established a number of schools and churches in his parish. His first big work in church construction was the present church whose construction began in 1884. The old one built in 1825 had become too small for the increased congregation. The new church was built over the old one and was completed by free labour of the parishioners between Knight’s Cove and Keels inclusive. They traveled every day of the week to King’s Cove in relays of ten whose names were called from the altar each Sunday. The people were cheerfully responsive to these calls and in two years the church was finished. The parish today extends from Tickle Cove to Keels.” (Plaque erected by King’s Cove Historical Society)

Photos and text by John King

Celebrating Caplin

Late spring of each year, residents see caplin (or capelin, to non-Newfoundlanders) rolling onto the shores. Large, dense schools move close to the beaches for spawning (first males, then females), while avoiding the pods of whales migrating down the coast, but are quickly met with people and their nets.

During this season, certain beaches are known to turn silver with the fish as they roll themselves in the waves, right up onto the rocks. They are considered a reliable and important local food source that can be eaten fresh (fried or baked), frozen, or salted and dried for use throughout the year. Freshly pickled fish can be dried lying on a flake, hanging on pins in a board, or hung up like laundry (as seen above). Though less common among younger generations and tourists, the females’ bright orange roe (eggs) can be harvested easily, and is exceptionally delicious directly from the fish, or lightly salted and kept. Further, for some communities the caplin (along with kelp) are traditionally collected and used to enrich soil - as a fertilizer - for homestead gardens.

Similar to smelt, the traditional way to eat the fish is whole as the innards and head become delicious when cooked or dried, and the bones are soft and edible.

The photos in this set were taken in late June, 2014 at Middle Cove beach - a popular location to fill your boots.

Contributed by Lisa Wilson and Justin Oakey

The Streetcars of Old St. John’s

From 1900 to 1948, the citizens of St. John’s enjoyed an efficient, well-loved streetcar system. It was powered entirely by hydroelectricity generated in Petty Harbour, located just 13 kilometres away.1 The line began at the Railway Crossroads on the west end of Water Street, ran eastward to Holloway Street, continued along Duckworth Street, looped past the Newfoundland Hotel and turned onto Military Road, where it eventually descended along Queen’s Road and made its way back to the Railway Crossroads.

Numerous residents were apprehensive about the startling new system. Dire prophecies were made, and many worried about how their horses would take to the machinery. On the first day of operations, hundreds of people rode their horses alongside the trams. Though dozens of horses “reared and bucked and finally bolted like wild things,” it was eventually determined that horses and streetcars could peaceably co-exist. Everyone enjoyed free rides on the first day of operations, and as became customary, the conductors insisted on filling their cars to the brim, “even if it meant getting up from their seats and pushing the customers down the aisles themselves. … By cajoling and good-natured threats, the conductors got them all in. The car would then creak along the street with its springs sagging against its axles.”

Though the streetcars did emit a rather piercing sound, it became a very popular system. On the St. John’s streetcar, you could mingle (in sardine-like quarters) with people you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. Some people ran out to the conductors to ask for favours along the line. They asked the conductors to deliver packages, mail letters, and even pick up a scattered item from the hardware store. By all accounts, the good-natured conductors did exactly this.

Initially, the street car system depended on a snow shovelling crew to keep the line running, but by the 1930s, a snow sweeper car was brought in to clear the line of snow. Reportedly, this marvelous machine “did an excellent job of keeping the lines open during the worst winter storms.”

The streetcar system was dismantled in 1948. Geoff Stirling bought the streetcars themselves, and sold them off as summer cabins and work sheds.


The Street Cars of Old St. John’s: A Photo History (1989) by William Connors

Remarkable Stories of Newfoundland (2009) by Jack Fitzgerald


1. In fact, most of St. John’s was powered by this highly localized source, and shortages of rain could cause power outages. In the summer of 1908, The Evening Herald remarked particularly on the effects this had on downtown operations. Silent film showings were disrupted, the streetcars came to a rest, and shopkeepers contended with the power outage by “locating customer’s desires by candlelight.” When the rains came (it can’t have been long), light was restored once again.

Photos are of a streetcar at Rawlins Cross and a streetcar shelter, both from the Geography Collection on MUN’s DAI.

Contributed by Andrea McGuire

Cemetery Segregation

These two cemeteries are very small—one with just a single gravestone, enclosed by a white picket fence, the other with two graves, also enclosed by a fence. Both sites exemplify the widespread practice of burial segregation based on a community member’s religious affiliation.  The decision to forbid Salvation Army [S. A.] burials was made in 1892 by leaders of the St. Mary’s congregation, who controlled the Anglican Cemetery. Ultimately, this only impacted one person, Charlie Ollerhead, an S. A. pioneer in the region, who died young from tuberculosis in 1896. He was given a personal plot in local barrens, far from the other cemeteries. By the 1930s, the S. A. had permanently left Heart’s Content.

It seems less is known about this Jehovah’s Witness burial site in Dunville. It is thought that the J.W. Church first arrived in Newfoundland in 1917, and despite some spreading, membership remained small. These two women were buried in the forest about 200 meters away from the Anglican cemetery. The inscription is difficult to read on the older, wooden marker, but indicates a 1940s burial. The headstone for Elizabeth Newman, born 1893, states that she died and was buried in 1986.

Reference: Connecting the Continents (2009) by Ted Rowe.

Contributed by Lisa Wilson

Wooden boats on the Gander River

This is Basil Gillingham. And beside him is his Gander Bay Boat - also known as a Gander River Boat - designed and modified by generations of Gander Bay builders to suit the specific conditions of the Gander River.
Born and raised in Gander Bay, Newfoundland, Basil Gillingham has spent a lifetime on the Gander River. He learned how build at a young age from his father Leslie Gilllingham. In Leslie’s day, these boats were double-ended - modelled on canoes - and with no outboard motors they were propelled primarily by a black spruce pole.
“To get Gander you’d have to pole up the river and then get the train from Glenwood,” Basil told me, “and it would take you three days.” Now you can drive from Gander Bay to Gander in less than 45 minutes.

Basil built his first Gander Bay Boat when he was 16 years old and has built over 100 since. He one of few still building with wood, as fiberglass, which requires less maintenance, is increasingly becoming the norm on the Gander River. “There were a lot of boats built here in Gander Bay, and a lot of people built them. Older people now, a lot of them are gone, and there don’t be many built anymore.”

Contributed by Crystal Braye

Whale Tagging: Handstyles on a fresh canvas in Trout River, NL

Before the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) scientists came to cut the beached blue whale into pieces, somebody tried their hand and knife at personal expression. (May 1, 2014)

Contributed by Annie McEwen

Top: An iceberg settles near Quidi Vidi Village during iceberg season (taken on 35mm by A. Barnes)

Bottom: Iceberg and helicopter stunt, mid-1990s near Heart’s Content (taken on 35mm by L. Smith)

Contributed by L. Wilson