Mas­ter ship­builders of New­found­land and Labrador

The Compass - - OPINION - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­tonj@nfld.net

The im­mea­sur­able con­tri­bu­tion of mas­ter ship­builders to New­found­land’s so­ci­ety and econ­omy has been largely ig­nored in his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture.

This is an omis­sion Calvin D. Evans hopes to rec­tify in a two-vol­ume project, the first of which has now been pub­lished.

In “Mas­ter Ship­builders of New­found­land and Labrador,” Evans and his grand­son, Philip, cover ev­ery coast and bay from Cape Spear to Boyd’s Cove in chron­i­cling the tales of some of the is­land’s renowned ship­builders. As part of their project, they sys­tem­at­i­cally list ev­ery builder on record.

The mas­ter ship­builders were, the au­thors con­tend, “more than mere car­pen­ters or ar­ti­sans or crafts­men. They were com­mu­nity builders, skilled shapers of com­mu­ni­ties in the most iso­lated re­gions of the is­land dur­ing early set­tle­ment.”

In­deed, they were “the driv­ing forces be­hind the is­land’s set­tle­ment.” A sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship ex­ists be­tween ship­build­ing and sea har­vest­ing, in which “the strength of one ac­tiv­ity largely pow­ered ... the strength of the other.”

It can be cred­i­bly main­tained that the his­tory of the is­land would have taken a de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent course but for “the ex­plo­rative and in­dus­tri­ous na­tures of our mas­ter builders.”

The Evans’ work ex­tends from the early 1700s to 1992.

In a ju­di­cious in­tro­duc­tion, the duo pro­vide a his­tory of both set­tle­ment and the fish­ery in New­found­land. They also re­flect on ship­build­ing on the is­land, ex­tolling “the con­sid­er­able skills, re­source­ful­ness, and in­ge­nu­ity of the New­found­land wood­worker and ship­builder.”

Two chap­ters in par­tic­u­lar will be of in­ter­est to read­ers of this news­pa­per.

In the sec­ond chap­ter, the au­thors dis­cuss Con­cep­tion Bay, which they de­scribe as “the cra­dle of English col­o­niza­tion in the New World and es­pe­cially of the English mi­gra­tory fish­ery.”

They posit a so-called “gen­er­a­tional re­quire­ment” in their de­pic­tion of ship­build­ing fam­i­lies “which pro­duced two or three gen­er­a­tions of ship­builders.” There­fore, this mas­sive com­pen­dium of in­for­ma­tion will pro­vide ev­ery­thing a per­son wants to know about, for ex­am­ple, the Gosse fam­ily of Spa­niard’s Bay, the Dawe fam­ily of Bay Roberts and the Hor­wood fam­ily of Car­bon­ear.

Solomon Gosse, who was an itin­er­ant ship­builder, con­structed ships in Bri­gus, Spa­niard’s Bay and Bay Roberts. The Dawes main­tained a ship­yard at Bay Roberts from about 1850 to 1909, build­ing 20 schooners be­tween 1864 and 1910 alone. John Hor­wood, who was a mas­ter mariner in the for­eign trade, built at least one ship in his back­yard be­fore tow­ing it through the town of Car­bon­ear to the Crocker’s Cove beach for launch­ing. Where else would one find such tid­bits of in­for­ma­tion in a sin­gle source?

In the third chap­ter, the au­thors dis­cuss Trin­ity Bay, which is no less re­plete with ac­com­plished mas­ter ship­builders. Calvin and Philip Evans write that this bay “is per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing area of New­found­land ship­builders be­cause here we see the emer­gence of ship­build­ing fam­i­lies.” Ex­am­ples abound: the Ne­whook fam­ily of Trin­ity and New Har­bour, the Rowe fam­ily of Heart’s Con­tent, the Pittman fam­ily of New Per­li­can, the Hop­kins fam­ily of Heart’s Con­tent, and the Gul­li­ford fam­ily of Hant’s Har­bour.

I am es­pe­cially in­trigued by the ship­build­ing tra­di­tion in Hant’s Har­bour, my late fa­ther’s home­town.

Joseph Gul­li­ford’s record is very im­pres­sive, as he con­structed, from 1875 to 1889, the Miriam, Gower, Al­ba­tross, Wave, E.C.W., Brill, Ruby, Ju­lia, Ce­cilia, Clara, Ernest, Louise, Trixie H., Emer­ald, Maria, Ivan­hoe, Res­o­lute and Dart.

Other chap­ters deal with mas­ter ship­build­ing in St. John’s and en­vi­rons, Bon­av­ista Bay, and the Straight Shore and “Fogo, Twillingate, More­ton’s Har­bour.” The sec­ond vol­ume of this project will cover the re­main­der of the is­land and coastal Labrador.

Ap­pen­dices to each chap­ter list ship­builders by name, res­i­dence, place(s) ves­sels were built, num­ber of ships and years. The scope is sim­ply breath­tak­ing.

“From at least the early 1600s to the mid-1900s,” the au­thors con­tend, “prac­ti­cally ev­ery cove and har­bour in New­found­land rang in­ces­santly with the sounds of axe and saw and the ham­mer­ing of caulk­ing irons and the noise of a mul­ti­plic­ity of other tools, many of which were fash­ioned by the ship­builder him­self in the pur­suit of con­struct­ing the best pos­si­ble ship for the in­shore and near-shore fish­ery, for the Labrador and the Banks fish­eries, and for trans­porta­tion of the fin­ished prod­uct to mar­kets in Europe, the Caribbean, and South Amer­ica.”

They con­clude: “Our ship­builders were the shapers of new com­mu­ni­ties in an of­ten un­for­giv­ing land, and they con­trib­uted much to the de­vel­op­ment of colony and prov­ince and, by ex­ten­sion, to our cur­rent sense of our­selves.”

“Mas­ter Ship­builders of New­found­land and Labrador” is pub­lished by Break­wa­ter Books in St. John’s.

— Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at bur­tonj@nfld.net

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