West Coast Region - Bay St. George District
Winter of Death & Great Want
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
The winter of death and great want
The first couple of months of that New Year – 1883- was a desperate period for many people on the Southwest and West Coast of Newfoundland. There were many deaths from exposure, adject poverty, brutal weather and a heart –sinking failure of the all important winter fishery.
A dispatch from Bay of Islands dated Feb 13, 1883, which was printed in the St. Johns newspapers, reported that the winter had been unusually severe since the beginning of the year. Some of the details given: " There have been several lives lost on this coast from exposure to the weather. One at St. George’s Bay where a woman was found so badly that she survived only a short time. A young man named Benoit left here (Bay of Islands) for Port Au Port on New Years eve. He never arrived and it is certain he must have gone astray and perished. He had gone without snowshoes, which means certain death."
Girl and dog found dead
The dismal dispatch continued: " Another very sad case occurred at Port Au Port. A young girl left a neighboring house at night during a storm to go to her residence only 200 yards distance. She missed the house in the drift and was found the next day out on Port Au Port bay, two miles from her dwelling, dead.
There was a dog with her and the animal was found frozen to death halfway between the girl and the house."
The report said that another girl, who had wandered from her house, was found so badly frozen…"that she will lose both her feet." The report added: "We had a furious gale with snow on Feb 14 which lasted about three hours and for that period it was said to exceed anything of that kind experienced before.
A few months later the Church of England Bishop of Newfoundland received in St Johns a letter from Rev T.P Quintin, in charge of the mission of Channel and Rose Blanche.
The letter contained such alarming news that the Bishop decided to publish parts of it in the capital’s press appealing for donations of clothing and food for the distressed on the western shore. Writing under the date of April 13, 1883, His Lordship, Rt. Rev. Bishop Llewellyn Jones, said: " We are packing some boxes of clothing at the rectory to go by the next steamer, and shall be thankful to take charge of, and forward, any parcels of wearing apparel, new or old. Gifts of bread, flour and molasses will be very acceptable. These may be sent to the wharf of Bowring Brothers for shipment by the S.S. Curlew to Rev. Quintin at Channel".
The Bishop then gave extracts from Quintins letter, which greatly emphasized the need for relief for the people. The Channel-based clergyman said that so much had already been reported in the public press about the distress " on this coast…that I need not go into every detail." But, he exclaimed the full severity had not been reported. He wrote:
"At LaPoile and neighborhood about 30 are receiving able-bodied poor relief, while at Rose Blanche the number has reached 60 and is increasing daily. Here, too, at channel the distress is also very great. I think that I would not be far wrong in saying that at least one half of the people have nothing to live on except dry bread made from flour, which in most cases, is doled out to them (by government welfare officers) in quarter barrels For drink they have nothing but cold water or spruce tea without sugar or molasses to sweeten it."
Quintin wrote to his bishop: "Great are these wants. But there are others whose sufferings are almost as great. Men, women and children are miserably clad and in many cases they have neither bed nor bedding. For these, an old net and a piece of old sail have to be constructed and even then the ancient sail has at times to be cut up to make a dress wherewith to keep out of the cold from some poor shivering woman or girl."
Children in Rags
The clergyman’s letter continued: "Children clad in rags or, as I saw on one occasion, naked and perhaps sick, may be shivering over a few burning sticks, while their parents stand by dressing their own frost bitten limbs"
Today such conditions as described by Quittin would seem too incredible to believe. But coming from a source such as a clergyman of the district, it surely was no fabrication. Quintin wrote "such poverty and destitution I never saw in my whole life before. Indeed, had I not had the occasion to look into some of the cases, I would not have believed it possible that people could not live through such a winter, as this has been, in such a state."
The clergyman added that the people in his mission depend so much on the winter fishery for their needs. But the present season had been a failure…."And it is not to be wondered at that the people are in such need."
He said the fishermen had now given up hope on any winter fishery and would not be able to do much with the industry until the first of April. He concluded: " If such be the case, their position will certainly be worse than even now. We can only pray and trust for a change for the better ere long."
© 2001 Stephen Gillis and NL GenWeb