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Historical Information

West Coast Region - Bay St. George District

Sandy Point- Letters from the Coast a Century Ago

The following was originally written by Don Morris, in a column he wrote called Vignettes of the west.

Transcribed by Steve Gillis with permission granted by the Western Star

Letters from the coast a century ago

An over worked medical doctor at Bay St. George penned about his treatment of injured survivors of a ship wreck and a customs collector at the Bay of Islands warned that destitution was just around the corner and appealed for provisions.

In 1881 the West Coast was still without officially elected representation in the Newfoundland house of Assembly. People with problems and or complaints or other business problems had no "member" to whom to state their business for government attention, but either engaged a clergyman, school teacher or one of the few government officials on the shore to do it for them…or they took pen in hand and wrote to the colonial authorities themselves.

The letters of the doctor and the customs man were among the files of Colonial correspondence for the year 1881. Dr. Thomas Malcolm of Sandy Point wrote that he was instructed by the stipendiary magistrate for the west Coast , Capt. Howorth, to professionally attend the survivors of the ill fated vessel, Monantum, which was lost at sea at the Highlands, near Cape Anguille in December of 1880. In submitting his bill to the government and describing his services to the shipwrecked ones, Dr. Malcolm wrote:

" I have done everything in my power to alleviate their pain and suffering, but not withstanding, Pat Dooley of Carbonear died Jan. % 1881. I amputated one of his feet above the ankle with the hope of saving his life, as his foot was in critical condition at that point. The other leg being bad, it was attacked with erysipelas which spread to his body which caused severe attacks of fever which soon put an end to his sufferings which was something awful."

Dr. Malcolm said the other survivor, a man named George Kidger, was doing well, but both of his feet had to amputate. Wrote the doctor:

I have given the men all the medical and surgical attention that lay in my power, but still not to my own satisfaction; they being so far from me. They are down at the Highlands, a distance of 35 miles and at each visit I remain as long with them as I could because I have other patients in other parts of the bay. I had to go each journey on foot, crossing the flooded brooks and getting wet and now I feel almost as exhausted as they. It happened (the shipwreck) at a season of the year that I could go neither by horse nor boat."

Dr. Malcolm said that the three operations performed were done at three different times and he had no help with the surgery. " None myself" he wrote " can imagine the nature of the task I had to perform as all had to be done under Chloroform. I am requested to send in my bill to the colonial government and I trust there will be no delay as I have earned my charges which I think are very moderate under the circumstances."

Lawrence Barron was the government customs collector at Bay of Islands. But his duties apparently included more than collecting fees from vessel owners. His letter of Dec. 1, 1881, addressed to the colonial secretary, started out saying: " I think it will be necessary to provide the Bay of Islands again this winter with 130 barrels of corn meal and two puncheons of molasses."

He reported that while the past season had been an improvement over the former two years, and while he did not expect anything like the destitution experienced then as a result of the past fishery failures, there was still likely to be severe economic distress among some people.

A number of families, he explained, were dependent upon the sawmill, but this operation had been stopped because of the death of the mill's owner, John Tupper. Said Barron: "These families, then, will be very badly off, as will also a few others on the outside of the bay."

An added threat to the economy was the fact that navigation could be late in opening… " And in the event of scarcity of provisions, with the place sealed up, it would incur great expense to provide people with food."

The supply of food provided by the government the previous season was given out to destitute families which had to sign notes that in return for provisions, they would work on roads and bridges at the opportune time. Barron said that a good deal of work had been done and some men were even still employed on the roads, working off the previous season’s provisions account.

There was a thankful note of optimism in Barron’s letter, which stood out in the generally bleak picture he depicted. He wrote: " I believe the necessity for relief in the winter will decrease year after year as the prospects of other resources, besides the fishery, are becoming more and more likely every day. The mining prospects especially are pronounced by competent judges to be really good. I trust we shall be able to get some herring through the ice this winter as there has been a small quantity seen outside (the bay) which is considered a fair sign."

These letters and others from the West Coast reached St. John’s, were noted, and duly considered by the colonial authorities.

© 2001 Stephen Gillis and NL GenWeb