Shat­ter­ing myths about the ‘good old days’

The Compass - - OPINION -

I thought Bur­ton Janes’ ap­proach in his col­umn ( My Shangri-La is only a short drive from home) which ap­peared on this page in your May 26 is­sue was ex­cel­lent. Well writ­ten! Every­one needs a Shangri-La — a place where one can feel at peace and ease and can re­flect, dream, or sim­ply be at peace with them­selves.

Iron­i­cally, Bay Roberts East was that place for my wife and I. Dur­ing our ten­ure there over the years it was most en­joy­able.

Of course, it was not only the lo­ca­tion but the peo­ple as well. It was quiet, some­times eerily so, and some­times never without the sound of the gulls on the is­land as they made noise around the clock al­though it was a sooth­ing noise.

Hav­ing said that I must hur­riedly say that we were there only dur­ing the best weather of the year, so we did not ex­pe­ri­ence the days of no sun, the bit­ter damp cold driven by the ever-present (nor east­erly) wind, etc.

We do miss it and are sorry that cir­cum­stances be­yond our con­trol pre­vent us from con­tin­u­ing our much looked for­ward to an­nual vis­its.

Sur­vival on the is­land (of New­found­land) was al­ways a chal­lenge over the gen­er­a­tions. I sus­pect it is the best ex­am­ple of Cau­casians in North Amer­ica fit­ting what one would nor­mally re­fer to in the an­i­mal world as “sur­vival of the fittest” and in some cases the luck­i­est.

Hav­ing to make one’s liv­ing from the sea, which was un­for­giv­ing, posed risks for ev­ery fam­ily and few did not have mem­bers taken by it. Tragedies (loss of life), rather than be­ing the ex­cep­tion in New­found­land fam­i­lies, frankly were very com­mon. The level of risk of loss of life was much higher among th­ese fam­i­lies than else­where and ac­cepted as a way of life there. (Even to­day the high­est risk of loss of life in all oc­cu­pa­tions hap­pens to be fish­er­men and those are U.S. pop­u­la­tion fig­ures.)

In looking at writ­ten his­tory (most of what I have read does not re­ally go into this as­pect), di­aries, and oral his­to­ries I did over the years, do not por­tray an easy life at all ex­cept­ing for a priv­i­leged few who un­for­tu­nately for the most part took ad­van­tage of those less for­tu­nate. For ex­am­ple, what I call a “class sys­tem” whether it be the mer­chants ver­sus the work­ing class, “town­ies” ver­sus “bay­men” or those even in Bay Roberts proper putting down those liv­ing in the “East End.” Even one of my kin, and she was a teacher, read­ily ad­mit­ted to mov­ing from the East End to get up a notch in the “class sys­tem”. Thus, this put a lid, so to speak, on the op­por­tu­nity avail­able to many, un­less they were lucky enough to some­how get away from it.

This shows clearly in what was achieved by many of the “lower” class of folks who out mi­grated from 1885-1915 or so, and were very suc­cess­ful else­where.

In my early days, when I heard sto­ries of de­pri­va­tion, star­va­tion, tragedies, what I con­sid­ered sub­tle “class war­fare,” etc., I had some trou­ble be­liev­ing them. But when it is vir­tu­ally con­sis­tent then it re­ally does not present a pretty pic­ture of liv­ing con­di­tions for most in the past.

Even in my own fam­ily my great-grand­mother died and left seven chil­dren, some of whom were teenagers and al­ready work­ing. My great-grand­fa­ther mar­ried a widow who had five chil­dren. That meant there were over 10 peo­ple liv­ing in a three­bed­room house on the front road in the East End. This type of close liv­ing meant that when­ever there was a dis­ease or sickness such as TB, Small­pox, or flu it would be ram­pant.

Wid­ow­ers had to have a wife to cook, gar­den and take care of the stock while men tried to eke out a liv­ing from the sea.

Like­wise, wid­ows had to have a man to pro­vide for them and their chil­dren. I re­call an en­try in a priest’s di­ary about a fel­low dy­ing and leav­ing a widow with six small chil­dren and not­ing he felt sorry for them as win­ter was there. It was clear they prob­a­bly would prob­a­bly face star­va­tion without a male provider. Or the story of the fam­ily on the Labrador who faced star­va­tion and the man took his three chil- dren out to the shed one by one and killed them be­fore he killed his wife and then him­self be­cause he did not want to watch them starve.

There was even star­va­tion in the East End dur­ing the Dirty Thir­ties.

Who knows what hap­pened dur­ing the pe­ri­ods where there were vir­tu­ally no fish for some years or dur­ing the years of 181617 when they had the year of no sum­mer.

So from my per­spec­tive, it has never been an easy or idyl­lic life there. Sim­ply put, there were no “good old days!”

Now for the bright side of all this. Given the liv­ing on the edge, or “sur­vival of the fittest,” I sus­pect it may well in some ways have strength­ened the gene pool in many fam­i­lies.

In my re­search I’ve found that it was not rare to see folks live into their nineties or even over 100 and still have mem­o­ries as clear as a bell so to speak. And in some cases, they were still phys­i­cally ac­tive and cared for them­selves.

Phillip Bab­cock has spent time in Bay Roberts dur­ing a pe­riod of 15 years and has ex­ten­sively re­searched the his­tory of the East End. He is in the process of putting his re­search on pa­per.

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