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.


Monday 15 August 2016

Over the sea for a road trip

We've been away on an adventure, a road trip of about 2000 miles on an island that's a 5 hour flight from London; west and a bit south of the UK; about the size of Gt Britain and Ireland together and with a population about that of Cornwall . . . have you guessed where we went to?

Jelly Bean Houses

The brightly painted houses in the capital, St John's have become one of the iconic features of


I'm told it should be pronounced to rhyme with 'understand'
New-f'nd - Land

 St John's Harbour from Signal Hill

We arrived fully prepared for fog, rain and chilly winds but the weather was hot and humid! We stood on the rocky headland high over the narrow inlet into the harbour that for over 450 years has been strategic to Britain's trade and naval history. Click on the photo to enlarge it and above the two red ships you'll see a white building with a red roof, this is Murray Premises, the hotel we stayed in.

 On the cliff at Horrid Gulch
Pouch Cove, Avalon Peninsula

I think this was the moment I relaxed and thought, 'I like this place', the day before we started our 'road trip' we ventured along the coast just north of St John's and sat on the cliff eating sandwiches and crisps. The Atlantic Ocean stretched out to the far horizon, blue and calm and as we watched we saw a puff of spray, and a Fin Whale gracefully surfaced, briefly showing its dorsal fin as it dived again.

 Heading West on the Trans Canada Highway

Newfoundland is big. Towns are few and far between and off the high way. Much of the next two weeks we'd see this view.
But the places we found along the way were astoundingly beautiful . . .

 The West Coast
Gros Morne National Park

I think this was my favourite walk, the Coastal Trail from Baker's Brook just north of Rocky Harbour to Green Point - if you're into geology look this up! 


Looking at the landscape of Gros Morne you notice a vast lumpy ochre coloured mountain that looks completely different from the forest covered slopes all around. Geologists get very very excited about this place called Tablelands, where the rocks have tipped and folded so that part of the earth's mantle is on the surface. The rock contains very high levels of metals and chemicals, so much that plants can't grow, it supports hardly any living things. And yes, that is snow you can see in the far distance.

 St Anthony
the Great Northern Peninsula

The top west of Newfoundland is a long narrow peninsula, one road snakes along the west coast, the east is only reachable by boat. If you've read 'The Shipping News' by Annie Proulx, this is the setting (the movie was filmed at New Bonavista near Trinity, we went there later on the trip).

 Whales and icebergs

Vast lumps of ice, some are kilometres long! break off the glaciers of Greenland and float south in what is known as 'Iceberg Alley', they take up to 2 years to reach the Newfoundland coast where they break up and melt. This is one of the last icebergs of this summer, we saw it on a whale watching boat trip from St Anthony. On the left edge of the photo you can see a whale blowing.

 The Viking settlement at
L'Anse aux Meadows

When I was about 9 years old, I read 'Vinland the Good' by Henry Treece, but I never dreamt I'd stand on the shore where Vikings landed and set up a camp and ship repair workshops 1000 years ago. The historical novel written in the 1960s was inspired by the most exciting archaeological find at the time - the confirmation that the Norse sagas telling of a land of plenty to the west of Greenland, were based on truth.

 Trinity, Trinity Bay

In the second week of our adventure we stayed for a few days at Trinity, Trinity Bay. This was once the most important harbour in Newfoundland, imagine the slopes around the harbour cover with racks of drying salt cod and dozens of tall masted trading ships at docks around the sheltered 3-armed harbour (hence Trinity).

Heritage buildings at Trinity

Now this is the tourist hot-spot of Newfoundland, many original wooden framed buildings were saved in the nick of time and are now museums in the care of the Trinity Historical Society. In fact the whole town is a 'heritage zone' and all buildings have to be constructed in traditional styles and materials. Trinity is the home of the Rising Tide theatre company and we arrived in time to see a production of their famous Pageant, an open air history of the town performed in locations all around the harbour, the audience walks between locations.

 St Johns harbour

Two whole weeks of almost constant sunshine but on the last day, back in St John's, we had a taster of some real Newfie weather! This is the view from our hotel at the north end of the harbour opposite the narrow opening to the Atlantic Ocean.

Newfie weather at last!

In a lull in the rain we ventured out for a last visit to Signal Hill, I'm holding on to that wall so I don't get blown into the harbour!

I'd love to share more about the beautiful animals and plants, the crafts - knitting and rag rugs, and the reason we chose such an obscure holiday destination ... but I'll save those for another blog post.

Now I have to pack for my stall at FolkEast next weekend, it's the best summer festival (not just my opinion) if you're coming along do call into the Art Marquee and say hello.