COLUMN: Master shipbuilders of Newfoundland and Labrador

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

Master shipbuilders

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

Organizations: The Evans, The Compass

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Bay Roberts, Carbonear Conception Bay Brigus Trinity Bay New Perlican Bonavista Bay Europe Caribbean South America

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