Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Who led us to Newfoundland?



You went where? Why?


As you can see in the photos in the previous blogpost, Newfoundland is a beautiful, wild and remote island; but not at the top of most folk's holiday destination list. So what prompted us to go?


About 6 years ago Cliff's aunt became very ill and we had the task of helping her move into a nursing home. Her house was sold and among the things we brought home were keepsakes that had been in Cliff's family for generations – including a writing box with a secret drawer and a print hinting of a naval connection; a Georgian snuff box and a portrait of Joseph (Cliff's GtGtGtGrandfather) painted in 1804.

Then, 2 Christmases ago, a cousin sent us a copy of the front page of a family bible, the names were familiar from what we knew of Cliff's family tree but what caught our eye was where Joseph got married . . . St John's Newfoundland!

St John's harbour

We we intrigued and did some research on the web, the Anglican Cathedral in St John's has records online, we found Joseph's marriage to Ann in August 1803 and he is described as 'Purser on HMS Iris'. So now we knew that Joseph was in the navy and his bride, Ann, was from St John's. 

By now we wanted to see Newfoundland for ourselves, it was a good a reason as any to go there for our holiday. 

Inside The Rooms

In the photo of St John's harbour at the top of this post, you'll see a huge building with pointed gables and red roofs, that is The Rooms. Inside are a theatre, galleries, a museum and exhibitions, as well as The Archives. We had two opportunities to visit while in St John's, on the first and last days of the holiday; so we headed straight to the Archives on our first day in Newfoundland.

We were able to look at facsimile copies of the handwritten marriage records from 1803, and we saw that there was more information than in the transcribed online records. The archivist told us that we could only make notes with a pencil and photographing the documents was not allowed, we copied the words carefully. 

St John's, 1800

As we travelled around we began to put together a picture of what Newfoundland had been like in the early 1800s. While staying in Trinity, which was a major harbour and like St John's, a crucial part of the salt cod industry; we went on an excellent walking tour of the town and also saw The Pageant - a historical play by Rising Tide theatre company which is acted out around the town.

The Trinity Pageant

This gave us some idea of the industrial scale of the salt cod industry and the tough existence of those who worked there. 

Salting Cod on the Flakes - Trinity Pageant

The hillsides around the harbours were covered with fish flakes, wooden shelves on which the salted cod fish was laid out to dry in the sun and wind, before being packed into wooden barrels and transported to Europe or to the Caribbean where the poor quality fish was bought to feed the slave labour in sugar plantations. Newfoundland was part of a triangular trade route crucial to the economy of Britain and Portugal. The French were vying for control of the key harbours, these were tumultuous times.


Fish Flakes at Bonavista Bay

Imagine miles of these wooden structures covered with salted fish and hundreds of people working to keep the fish from spoiling when it rained and packing the fish into barrels. Imagine the stench!



One thing puzzled us, although there was a naval record of HMS Iris, we couldn't find any mention of her sailing to Newfoundland. However, the flagship of the British admiral who was the governor of Newfoundland, was HMS Isis; the more we read the more the facts fitted with Joseph's story - what if the marriage record had said 'Isis' and not 'Iris'?


The Newfoundland Archives

There was one chance to find out, at the end of our holiday we arrived back in St John's an hour before The Archives closed for the weekend. We ran up the steps and up to the archivist's desk, she remembered us and retrieved the marriage records box.

So, was it 'HMS Isis'? It could be, but equally it could say 'HMS Iris', we could see how the transcriber had gone for a name that seemed more plausible. Then I noticed the minister who wrote the records was called 'Harries' and in every record he wrote his own name and the word 'married', both those word have 'ri' in them. He was used to writing 'ri' so if the ship was 'Iris' the letters would look the same ... they didn't! Surely it must be HMS Isis! And proves that you should always go back to the original source of the information.

The Trinity Pageant

Knowing Joseph was on HMS Isis made things fall into place. He had probably been on board the previous year when Admiral Gambier arrived in St John's, having survived a hurricane in the North Atlantic, his flagship Isis with broken masts and tattered sails. As the purser, Joseph would have been responsible for sourcing and paying for the repairs.

St John's in the early 1800s

There were more names of witnesses on the handwritten record than the transcriber had put in the digital records. One was probably Ann's father, we found that he may have owned a butchery and tavern, was this where Joseph got supplies for the ship? Other witnesses were Thomas Skinner and Jane Hester Skinner, most likely this was the surveyor and architect in charge of building the British fort on top of Signal Hill, and his daughter who was the same age as Ann.

The fort that Thomas Skinner designed and built

I wondered if Ann had stood on The Lady's Lookout on Signal Hill, waiting for the Isis to return in Spring 1803, after spending the winter months in England. Had Joseph already proposed to her? Or was she hoping he might?

Waiting for her sailor
- a scene in the Trinity Pageant

In November 1803 Ann sailed with Joseph to her new life as a navel officer's wife, on board HMS Isis leading a convoy of ships including captured French warships.

The view from Signal Hill
looking over the narrow entrance into
St John's harbour

In January 1804 the war against Napolean's France was getting more serious, Joseph had already joined another ship, HMS Scourge, which sailed to the Dutch coast to rescue a captured British merchant ship. Joseph rowed a boat under gunfire to help in the rescue and was commended for his bravery. Was this that prompted him getting his likeness painted in June 1804, was this a gift for Ann in case he didn't survive the next voyage?


Joseph had a long career in the navy as a purser/paymaster, a position that was gaining more respect and importance. He retired in his 60's with a naval pension.

So, raise a glass and toast Joseph and Ann, without whom we would never have thought of going to Newfoundland and having a wonderful adventure.

Celia
xx



33 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I really got drawn in and it would be fascinating to know more about Ann but the trail has gone cold.

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  2. A lovely family history story of great interest Celia.
    Certainly an enjoyable adventure/

    Mary -

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    1. It certainly added a different slant to the holiday.

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  3. Such an interesting story Celia, and what a holiday adventure tracking down the story.!

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    1. It's fascinating to think that Joseph and and Ann knew a place the family thought they had no connection with.

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  4. A lovely story with beautiful photographs. It's amazing where a chance find can take you once you start on a family history detective trail.

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    1. It opens a little window on past lives.

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  5. What a great story and an adventure to match!

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    1. It was a different angle on a holiday, which was fun.

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  6. That is a fascinating story, and so much fun to be able to follow it through. You and Cliff are the 4th set of people we know to go to Newfoundland this summer - but the other 3 sets live in Canada too, and 2 of them are from Newfoundland - so that is a less surprising holiday destination for them :)Did you do any of the big hikes - Gros Morne etc? It is on our list of places to go one day.

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    1. You must go! No we didn't do any of the big hikes but we did a few shorter trails, the Gros Morne coastal trail and the Skerwink Trail near Trinity were my favourites.

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    2. We will one day - we've been to the East Coast a few times and to Prince Edward Island too - such a lovely place! next time we go that way we will take the leap to The Rock for sure!

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  7. Dear Celia, congratulations to you and Cliff for your excellent detective work and perseverance. It must have been so exciting to put the pieces of those long ago lives together.
    You may remember that I once worked as an archivist at The Metropolitan Museum of Art? I loved that job, and still have a fondness for research, and yes, getting back to the original materials is best of all, well worth a trip across the Atlantic. xo

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    1. Joseph and Ann's story has opened up all sorts of interesting snippets of history, and Thomas Skinner's story is fascinating too. Looking through the original marriage records was fascinating, one or two people cropped up often as witnesses - were they church wardens? And there were quite as few military and naval men who married girls from St Johns. We could have happily spent the whole day reading through the records and making up connecting stories! xx

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  8. Absolutely fascinating Celia... And wonderful to have heard it first hand from you!

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    1. Good to see you the other day - thanks for the cake!

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  9. A holiday with a difference for sure and a memorable one. Newfoundland would appeal to me too, nicely off the beaten track!

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    1. You must go! Only a 5 hr flight from Gatwick ;-)

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  10. been trying to find out something about my maternal grandfather - but with only an hour and no appointment, the records at the Imperial War Museum remain, tantalisingly, out of reach.

    Does Cliff look like Joseph?

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    1. How frustrating, one day you'll get there.
      No resemblance between Cliff and Joseph, maybe he resembles one of his other 29 (is that right?) GtGtGtGrandfathers!

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  11. That's such an interesting story - how marvellous that you could uncover more details in person, too. X

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    1. We would never have sorted out the the transcriber's error in the ship's name, without visiting in person. And that error has been repeated in dozens of online digitised records.

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  12. I love it when you find a thread of a story, unravel it and let it develop into an adventure. A wonderful 'read' Celia and the perfect reason to travel across the world to find out more.
    I am particularly taken with the name HMS Scourge! Makes me want to find out how the Admiralty named ships to come up with this one. Long live curiosity and the ancestors who kept such detailed records for us to follow the trail through.

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    1. Scourge seems to have been a popular name for a British navy warship over the years, maybe to put fear into the enemy?
      I'm pleased we also have Joseph's portrait, he seems to have been confident and ambitious chap.
      Next I'll write about the knitting and rag rugs xx

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  13. A very rewarding holiday by the sounds of it! A few years ago I did the picture research for a book on a school based in Bermondsey, the borough that my grandmother was born in. I loved wallowing in the social, church and metropolitan archives and found out so much about the area. Is it worth searching military records for more about Joseph or where they might have lived in England? And the census records might reveal if they had children. I'm now curious to discover more!

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    1. Your research must have been fascinating.
      Yes we already knew quite a lot about Joseph and Ann's son and have a sampler embroidered by the girl he married.

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  14. WOW! loved this, what an adventure and an exciting look into the past. Doesn't hurt that it all took place in a heavenly setting. What a guy Joseph was. xx

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    1. He was quite an adventurer wasn't he! I would love to find out more about Ann, I think she must have been resourceful and self reliant as Joseph would have been away on voyages for months at a time.

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  15. How lovely to have been able to discover more information and to have stood in the same places.

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    1. Thanks Su, it was special to realise Joseph and Ann must have stood on Signal Hill and looked out over the sheltered harbour and the wild North Atlantic Ocean.

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  16. I came over from Frances’s blog and loved reading about your trip to Newfoundland, one of my all time favorite spots. How fascinating to find family history going back that far – you must have been thrilled to visit St. John’s. We went there too because it was the easiest way to get to the last French islands in North America. Hardly anyone knows that France is in North America, at St Pierre et Miquelon. We rented a car and drove through Newfoundland then took a ferry to St Pierre. I had been wishing to visit it since I was a wee child in Paris looking at the islands’ stamps. If you did not make it to St Pierre et Miquelon I have several posts on my blog. I think that once one has visited Newfoundland is stays with you – in a way it reminds me of Alaska – few people, great vista, wildlife, the sea all around. Did you get to eat some Cod Tongues? Actually they are not tongues, but the small muscle from their necks. Were you there when trucks along the road were selling partridge berries? I’d love to go back and really enjoyed your posts.

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    1. Hi and thank you for visiting my blog. We found out about the French islands but didn't visit. Newfoundland is such a big place, isn't it! And yes it is a little like Alaska. We did eat Cod Tongues and lots and lots of Partridge Berries - pies, jams, icecreams... and we saw them for sale on the road sides.
      I think Newfoundland is now one of my all time favourite spots too!

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