Saturday, January 10, 2009

My grandfather, a Newfoundland fisherman

As mentioned in my last post, I never met my grandfather, Captain John Bishop Smith. I thought of him on Thursday as I watched boats from the Lions Gate Bridge in high winds. He took his boat up the Labrador coast for several months each year, with six crew members (three were his sons) and a cook. My mother, his youngest child, worked her first summer as cook when she was 13. She never said a lot about the actual job as cook, but I do know she resented being taken out of school early each year, and missing the first few weeks of each new term.

Shown below is my grandfather's boat, The Nelson. It was named after his hero, Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805), and was lost in 1939 in a storm. My grandfather, then in his 70th year, also lost a son, Cecil, and another crew member, Tommy Bussey (I'm not sure if he was a nephew), in that storm. Their bodies were never recovered, nor was the schooner. Their season's catch was of course lost, and the family was left in very poor circumstance. He did not go back to his life on the ocean, and died four years later, in 1943. All that I know of him comes from my mother's stories, from an account of one of his crew members, Clarence Bartlett, who worked on his boat for three summers from 1929-1931 and who stayed in touch with my mother, and from a letter written to my mother by his oldest son, Will, dated October 31st, 1939, describing the details of that final voyage. My mother had emigrated to Canada (Montreal) by that time, and received the sad news first over the radio, and finally in her brother's letter.

As I begin to delve a little more deeply into the story, I realize learning about my grandfather could become a very long project. For now, just a few quotes and tidbits:

From my mother:
1. He loved kids and could tell a great story.
2. He was strict, and she was permitted one pair of boots per year. She had to shed tears for a week to have low shoes (like the other kids in her class) for her confirmation in the Anglican church.
3. He insisted on correct grammar and they had to pronounce their "ing"s.
4. He didn't suffer fools gladly. Yet, she never heard him swear, ever.
5. He once sold a horse, I think because of poor times. He had been very fond of this particular horse, and felt so upset over it, that he went to town and bought the horse back. They had no pets, just goats for milk, chickens for eggs and I think the horse for transportation.
6. He was an excellent sailor, having travelled many parts of the world. (This is one of my questions. I have no idea which parts of the world he saw and even with a map drawn by Clarence Bartlett, am hazy about the route he took on his Labrador trips.)
7. My grandfather visited his two daughters in Montreal at some point. I'm not sure if it was before or after the disaster. He got up every morning and walked from the East end to downtown and back again, a distance of perhaps ten miles. He would be gone most of the day. I think I'm remembering correctly that he hated Montreal.

From his crew member, Clarence Bartlett:
1."Your father was some skipper-man. He told me that one time when he was foreign going, they made in off St. John's with a load of salt and they were driven off twice. And it was that bad with so much water coming over her that they got tired taking off their boots to empty them, that they cut the toes off them so when they filled with water it would run out."
2."We had made the back of the island and the harbor was on the other side - not bad in a 200 mile run in the fog and only be off course about two miles and not really off course."
3. "That done, we started to wash some fish and put it ashore to dry. Well the weather was rotten, not a day fit to dry fish. I would say we had about half of it ashore and not one dry enough after three weeks. The only day the sun shone enough to dry it was on Sunday, and you know your father he wasn't going to spread it then. Well, two Sundays passed and he said if it was fine the next one we were going to spread it. We had everything covered over with fish when it started to cloud over from the North West - black as tar. Well the only thing that didn't come out of the sky was thunder bolts. There were hail stones, rain, and wind and what the rain didn't wet the other blew off the rocks and into pools of water between the rocks. Well that finished trying to dry the fish at Indian Hr. It was get it aboard and head for home."
4. "Your father noticed that the rudder post had opened up. He called out to me - one of the boys had the wheel. He cut off five or six fathoms of 1/2 inch rope - that would be about thirty feet. He put it in the oven of the stove in the cabin and got it good and hot. He came up and we started to put it around the post he used to put it around and I drove the nails to keep it in place. Then he got a bucket of water and threw it over the hot rope and you see how it set the tack together. (Some man, your father.) The rope was there when I left the Nelson two years after."
5. "Boy, the patience that man had and I must say as I finish, I never heard that man say a curse word in my time with him."

The letter from Will to my mother:
1."Can you imagine a cliff about 200 feet high. Straight, and if anything over hanging, a crow couldn't pitch anywhere, with the sea running about 30 feet up, and the water like a tub of soap suds and blinding snow before dawning (not sure of that last word), water boiling into the vessel not a nice experience, but nobody flinched. She drifted away from that island (the little Sacred Island) and then we saw another right ahead. Anyhow we had our motor on the starboard side and couldn't hoist her out so we decided to get in the boat and when the vessel sank float off and that's what we did, cut the rigging and let the boat float and the Nelson sank under us. Anyhow, we drifted clear on another island and we were all pitched in the water when the boat struck the breakers. Everyone jumped and swam and poor Cecil and Tommy Bussey didn't reach the rock where we landed. Father held onto the boat and she drifted in and he was saved and poor Jack was with us and he jumped and paddled and swam ashore and then it looked hopeless, everyone wet, snowing and blowing. And in the evening *they saw us from the land and came out at a risk of their lives and took us to their houses. They saved our lives. I don't think we would have lived that night. It veered and froze that night. We were well treated, but with two gone we didn't feel too good. We couldn't make any preparations whatever everything came too quick and if you were saved well if not well also, it came near being a mystery of the sea. We all came within a fraction of death and now we are home destitute saved nothing and no insurance except on the vessel. Jack and I haven't got a stitch. All the boys find it hard but they are single. I'm just beginning to realize my case now. Just the same as if I was dropped from the moon, cap, shoes, bedclothes, nothing whatever saved and not a cent to replace it."
*Later, they learned the family name, Herbert Elliot.
2. "Father is as well as can be expected, hard and all on it is you got to try and keep your chin up. The hard part was we couldn't get the bodies, but the people are trying to get them."
3. *Poor Jack saved the mouth organ you sent him. He put it in his pocket when I told him she was going to strike."
*Newfoundlanders seem to use the word "poor" to preface the name of anyone who has died before their time. Jack didn't die in that storm, but I think he was lame after having had Polio as a child. Perhaps that was the reason the word "poor" was used.

Here is The Nelson. As far as I know, this is the only photo that was ever taken of it.
And here is my grandfather. I don't know if it was taken before or after the disaster. He is with his grandson, Cecil, the son of his oldest daughter, Blanche, who was, I believe, 18 years older than my mother.


  1. A fascinating glimpse at history. And amazing to think that people ever emigrated from Newfoundland to Canada.

  2. I so wish history had been taught through personal stories like this instead of boring textbooks on old dead guys at war. History comes alive when told through narrative -I could almost feel the sea spray on my face and smell the fish. Thanks!

  3. This true glimpse into the lives of your ancestors during critical times as they braved hardship is a window into the past we rarely get. The descriptive letter is touchingly honest. Details such as the cutting of boots so water could flow out are fascinating. Despite their unbearable losses, people overcame and brought future generations forward. Their resilience is honored through your writings and when they are discovered by your readers.

  4. Hi, I was wondering if you possibly had an electronic copy of the full letter from will?