Shattering myths about the ‘good old days’
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.