The Newfoundland Memoirs of Rev. C. Ernest Smith
The Englishman, Charles Ernest Smith (1855-1939), was the Anglican minister in Heart’s Content in the 1880s. His friends back home were inclined to think of him “in that Newfoundland parish as out of the world.”
To the contrary, Smith assured readers of his autobiography, “they were mistaken. I was very much in it. The news of the whole world passed through the great offices within a stone’s throw of the rectory and, every day in condensed form, it was laid on my study table. Moreover, at any time I could go down to the central office and ask how things were going in Ireland where the cables landed.” Indeed, Heart’s Content was using the telephone long before it was used in Washington, where he later served as rector.
Speaking of phones, what Smith referred to as “a curious incident occurred” because of the telecommunications device. Let him explain.
“ The head of the [Anglo-American Telegraph] company in Newfoundland was a Mr. [Ezra] Weedon [1839-84], a parishioner and communicant, but alas, a confirmed invalid and almost entirely confined to his room, but possessing a marvellously active mind.”
In his masterful book, Connecting the Continents: Heart’s Content and the Atlantic Cable, Ted Rowe wrote: “A tiny man ( he stood only 4 ft. 6 inches tall), Weedon came from the village of Dinton in Buckinghamshire, the illegitimate son of a lacemaker. He was bright, intense and cocky, with an underlying touchiness, but his generous heart and sense of fair play quickly earned him the respect of the staff.”
One day, soon after Smith arrived in Heart’s Content as the rector, Weedon said to him, “I should like to hear your sermons, and if you don’t mind I’ll have a little instrument put up in your pulpit by which I can hear them.”
“I should be only too glad to have you do anything you wish,” Smith responded.
The following Sunday, there was, in the pulpit of the church, a telephone mouthpiece, installed for the benefit of Weedon. This was, Smith added, “precisely 40 years before the radio had captured our imagination.
“But,” Smith continued, “I had never seen or heard anything of the kind before, and to me it was so very weird to think of a man several blocks away listening to my sermon through that curious instrument in front of me that it was exceedingly difficult for me to concentrate my mind on what I was saying. For do what I would, I found my thoughts wandering off to that unseen listener, and not having any written sermon, I was thankful when I naturally came to the end. I had spent an uncomfortable half hour.”
On Monday morning, Smith hurried over to Weedon’s, “to ascertain whether he had been able to hear anything.” To be perfectly frank, Smith admitted late in life, “I was hoping that he had not heard a word!”
To the minister’s dismay, Weedon had never heard better.
“I groaned inwardly and wondered what was going to happen next Sunday. However, it wasn’t quite as disconcerting then, and I suppose had it continued indefinitely I should have become quite used to it.”
To Smith’s relief, however, “after three or four Sundays, Mr. Weedon confided to me that the strain involved in ‘ listening in’ was too great and the mouthpiece was removed.”
To be continued.