Rockwell Kent — "The Brigus Spy"

Published on January 18, 2012
Ed Roberts

Editor's note: this is Part 1 of a two-part series. Look for the conclusion in the Jan. 31 edition of The Compass

Rockwell Kent, a man seldom if ever at a loss for words, never in his remotest dreams expected to receive a letter like the one from Newfoundland's premier that he opened one morning in the winter of 1967.

"What (to me) a strangely warm and friendly letter it turned out to be!" was the way he described it a year or so later.

Kent was no stranger to Newfoundland. He had made an extended visit here in 1910, during which he had a friendly encounter with Sir Edward Morris, Newfoundland's prime minister. Early in 1914 he returned with his family and lived in Brigus until July 1915. He hadn't come near the island in the half-century since then.

Joe Smallwood, Kent recounted, came quickly to the point, in his own inimitable fashion:

"I certainly would not blame you if you felt nothing but revulsion at the thought of Newfoundland," Smallwood said, "and yet from all I have ever read of yours, and heard about you from mutual friends, I would truly be surprised if you had not taken it all with good humour ... How can Newfoundland show her regard for you? ...Would you come back here? Would you be this government's guest on a visit back to Newfoundland, including Brigus? ... Please forgive us for past injuries, and please be magnanimous enough to be our guest some time at your convenience ..."

At government expense

Most Newfoundlanders had long since ceased to be surprised by Smallwood's impulsive and sometimes quixotic gestures. So what was this all about? What led him to invite Kent to return to Newfoundland, at the government's expense, after more than 50 years?

Kent accepted Smallwood's invitation, and, accompanied by his wife, came to Newfoundland in July 1968. They were the guests of honour at a State luncheon and stayed with the premier at his home, near Brigus, for several nights. He later sent Smallwood a large oil painting of a Newfoundland harbour scene. The painting hung in Smallwood's living room for the rest of his life.

He saw old friends in Brigus, and again visited the house in which he had lived - "a deeply moving experience," in his words.

Brigus was a thriving, prosperous community of 1,000 people in early 1914, on the eve of the Great War. Kent, his wife Kathleen and their three children were looking for a place to live and to paint. He soon found an old house in the area of Brigus called The Battery, that offered him what he wanted; it was "isolated from the village, [and] so promising of the quietness that we liked that was necessary for my work."

The house, known today as the Kent Cottage at Landfall, still stands, overlooking Brigus Bay.

Allegations of assault

Kent was a man of strong opinions, and he was not afraid to voice them. He quickly became involved in the life of the community. He was a man of some musical gifts, and "folks invited us to play and sing."

He went to church socials, and acted in a play. He volunteered to help members of the Brigus Tennis Club to build a proper court. And, before long, he became embroiled in a row with one of the community's leading citizens, a druggist.

The quarrel led to hard words, and to an allegation that Rockwell had assaulted the druggist. The American was summoned to appear before J.B. Thompson, the local magistrate, to answer to "the said complaint and to be further dealt with according to law."

The trial was held in July 1914. The only description that has survived is by Kent himself, and must be viewed as being one-sided. Kent testified, and made great sport with the druggist.

He described the outcome:

The plaintiff,' said the judge, 'has stated that you threatened to kill him. Did you?

And suddenly, a tense quiet fell upon the courtroom as people, leaning forward, strained to miss no syllable of my reply.

"Yes, your Honor," I said. "I did. I threatened to kill him." and, I added, "to eat him."

And in the roar of laughter that ensued, Niagara's would have been a whisper. Even the judge had trouble keeping dignified.

Guilty, of course, I was. Of what? 'The whole affair,' said the judge addressing me, preliminary to passing sentence, 'appears to have been in the nature of a practical joke. But, he added impressively, 'owing to the fact that the complainant is one of His Majesty's Justices of the Peace the matter assumes a more serious complexion. Mr. Kent, I shall have to sentence you to thirty days in jail or' — and he paused significantly — 'the payment of five dollars' fine.'

"Does he get any of the money?" I asked his Honour.

"Not a cent of it."

"Then," I said, "I'll pay the fine.

And so ended the great "Case of the Assaulted Apothecary."

Singing in German

The First World War broke out on Aug. 4. Kent, having already offended some of the leading citizens of Brigus, went out of his way to irritate others. He strolled about the community singing folk songs — in German.

He purchased eight tons of coal, as his winter's supply. He kept the door to his studio locked, and put up a sign on it that read "CHART ROOM — WIRELESS STATION — BOMB SHOP."

And then he painted a German eagle underneath the sign.

Not surprisingly, rumours began to circulate throughout the community. The coal, it was said, was fuel for a German submarine, lurking off Newfoundland's shores. The workshop to which no callers were admitted at the house at the far end of Brigus — these, too, spoke of espionage and underhanded deeds. Soon rumour magnified into "facts."

Kent was a German spy.

Ordered to leave

Word went to St. John's, and in due course a detective came from the city to question Kent. A further interview followed, with the Inspector General of Police.

The final blow came in mid-July, 1915. The Brigus Constabulary officer, accompanied by a plain-clothes policeman from St. John's, knocked on Kent's door. Their message was simple: "you and your entire family are ordered to leave Newfoundland at once." They were shown the orders to do so, Kent recalled in his 1952 autobiography, " It's Me, O Lord."

He and his family left St. John's a few days later.

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.