Devon fishermen and boat owners fishing the Grand Banks in Newfoundland
Mary Armitage, Torbay U3A Shared Learning Group with Teignmouth Museum
- How it started – 1500 to 1700
Newfoundland is the largest island on the Atlantic coast of Canada. It is said to have been first discovered by Britons in the 15th century and its chief attraction was the copious amounts of fish on the Grand Banks, an area just off the southern coast of Newfoundland. Ships from Bristol were the first to travel there but Bristol had no history of fishing and did not pursue the development of the fishing industry, preferring to focus on trade and exploration. At that time in Europe populations were growing with their need for food and an improvement in the capability to build ships which could manage cross Atlantic voyages requiring greater navigational skill.
The island itself was barren, rugged and unwelcoming, particularly in the winter. It’s only raw materials were water, fish and wood. Its soil was thin and its growing season was short. So fishing fleets would arrive in Newfoundland in the late spring for fishing and preserving of large amounts of fish. The boats and fishermen would then return home before the severe winters began. One of the earliest products brought back to England was cod oil. Most of the fish was taken direct from Newfoundland to clients in Spain and Portugal.
Until 1575 English fishermen from the West Country had fished mainly in Icelandic waters but they were ousted from Iceland by the Danish and then moved to fish around Newfoundland in greater numbers.
In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert of Compton Castle, Devon, formally claimed Newfoundland on behalf of Elizabeth I with a ceremony in St John’s harbour, St John’s being the Capital of Newfoundland.
By 1600 around 150 vessels fished on the Grand Banks annually and this number continued to increase.
The English system of fishing there at that time was to fish from near shore and process the fish on shore. A harbour or suitable landing place was selected, the ship in which the team had crossed the Atlantic was beached for the summer and the fishing was carried out in smaller boats holding a crew of about 5 men, some of whom fished while others processed the catch. Timber would be cut to build a shore facility for processing, boat repair and construction.
A side benefit from this system of seasonal working was that men were trained in seamanship which could be used later in defence of the country. Downsides which interfered with a successful season included catch fluctuations, market conditions, wars, shipwrecks and piracy. Wars were frequent during the 17th and 18th centuries and piracy was more rife during those wars.
By the mid 17th century a new group, the byeboatkeepers were also fishing. These were men who travelled to Newfoundland as passengers on the fishing boats and then set up their own businesses in Newfoundland operating on a seasonal basis. As some fishermen opted to settle in Newfoundland they became a third group fishing on their own account. The fishery gave poor men a chance to earn, the possibility of adventure and gave miscreants a refuge from the law.
By 1657 80% of the British population living on Newfoundland came from the West Country.
By 1684 it was stated that about half of the fishermen returned to England with the other half remaining on the Island and becoming known as Planters.
Additionally people described as servants would be taken to Newfoundland at the beginning of the season but due to the cost of bringing them home they were often abandoned in Newfoundland and had to make their own arrangements to stay there, travel further into Canada or the USA. Those classed as servants would include carpenters, sail makers, surgeons and those undertaking manual labour in connection with processing the fish. Many moved on to New England leading to shortages of skilled men in some seasons. Destitute children were sent, many of whom opted to stay there.
As servants became scarce so employers began recruiting from southern Ireland. Irish merchants carried to Newfoundland linen, clothing, meat, cheese, butter etc. plus women to become servants. These women often married the Planters and fishermen who remained in Newfoundland.
As styles of fishing changed over the years and as the fishermen and merchants acquired the knowledge and experience necessary to survive the winters in Newfoundland, migration and permanent settlement then became more popular.
The fishery was mainly financed and controlled by West Country merchants who recruited their workforce mainly from Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire.
Buyers from Spain Portugal and Italy wanted a lightly salted fish and this became the main style of cure for imports from Newfoundland. The fish was also popular for sailing ships on their voyages,
- Life in Newfoundland 1700-1850
While English and Irish were settling the south and East of Newfoundland the French were settling the northern shores. The government eventually decided it would have to support English settlements to prevent French takeover of the whole island.
However war with the French 1696-1708 resulted in many Planters being deported from the island. By 1713, through the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain had exclusive sovereignty over the whole of Newfoundland. Many French islanders were then deported to Cape Breton Nova Scotia.
As settler numbers increased and included more families rather than just groups of men, goods had to be imported and came mainly from England, Ireland and New England. Traders then set up business in Newfoundland although Planters also bargained direct with ships arriving each spring.
During the 1700s the volume of fish caught increased rapidly. During the American War of Independence privateers patrolled the seas and fishermen stopped crossing the Atlantic for nearly 10 years. Newfoundland experienced a near famine and settlers were press-ganged into the army and navy.
In the 1780s record fish production glutted the market and forced prices down and many merchants, ship-owners and boatmen were forced into bankruptcy. The Napoleonic Wars led to difficulty in byeboatfishermen getting to and from Newfoundland and this style of fishing never recovered. Some bye boatmen stayed in Newfoundland and became Planters. After 1805 the inhabitants produced more than 90% of cod caught and the population grew to deliver these amounts.
During the 18th century salmon and seal industries were set up as well as fur trapping and ship building. Herring were also found to add to the fish caught. This encouraged an increase in year round habitation of Newfoundland and some settlers who live on the coast during the fishing season moved inland in the winter for fur trapping and hunting. The introduction of new crops such as potatoes also enabled winter subsistence. However imported food was still vital for survival, coming initially from England and later from Ireland and from other parts of North America.
Profits from the fishery mostly returned to England and were not invested in Newfoundland which slowed the growth of a local economy and a system of government. Early settlers relied on “Fishing Admirals” who were those first arrived in each port who assumed responsibility for settling disputes between sailors. Chief Justices were appointed from the late 18th century.
Planters would however, often retire back to England even if they left children and grandchildren in Newfoundland. This led to distinct branches of families living on opposite sides of the Atlantic even if they visited each other from time to time. Other planters might return to England and lease their home and business to new arrivals. Merchants found it preferable to have their own family acting as their agents and employers in Newfoundland rather than risk having unreliable people to protect their interests.
In the early 1800s Governor William Waldegrave described St John’s, the Island’s capital, as a shantytown and noted the wretchedness and misery of the inhabitants. Major fires in 1816 and 1817 reduced many of the occupants to penury.
However as income from sealing was established, more wealthy families raised the appearance of the town with new churches and homes.
In 1823 Merchant Samuel Codner, noting the lack of educational opportunities for children set up the Newfoundland School Society, the first school being in St John’s. These schools taught basic skills to all children regardless of nationality or religious denomination.
In 1825 Newfoundland was given official status as a colony. By this time its settler population was 36000.
The seasonal fishery began to close down around 1820. Those wishing to migrate to the New World went to areas where land was readily available and the climate was less inhospitable apart from a pre-famine increase of people from Ireland in 1835/6.
Around this time independent newspapers were circulating encouraging debate. Schools were opened. Medical Services became more widespread, playhouses opened on the island, libraries opened, sporting events expanded and the island’s interior was explored
- Teignmouth and Shaldon in the Newfoundland fishery.
Between 1570 and 1670 Teignmouth was one of the most active areas to send boats to fish on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Many of the fishermen or sailors came from villages in the area inland as far as Newton Abbot.
Average annual numbers from Teignmouth were 244, 6% of all men involved. Teignmouth was one of the ports with a deep estuary and, as ships were built larger, was one of the ports which could cope with the larger ships
A census of byeboatkeepers for St John’s in 1680 showed that of 440 servants 50% were employed by masters from Teignmouth with many others coming from other nearby towns in Devon.
During the Napoleonic wars it became difficult for byeboatfishermen to get across the Atlantic and many of those from Teignmouth retired or invested in the larger ships
Until the development of the china clay industry in the mid 1700s the Newfoundland Fishery had been Teignmouth’s principal maritime trade and dominated the local economy until the development of the town as a seaside resort in the 1800s. Teignmouth had a poor and underdeveloped hinterland and produced no outstanding articles of trade or manufacture to encourage an export trade which fishery merchants from Dartmouth and Poole did. However Teignmouth maintained a strong interest in the bank fishery until the mid 19th century.
Teignmouth merchants were therefore among the small or middle sized businesses in Newfoundland in the 1800s apart from their roles in emigration from South Devon and Ireland.
Of the owners who registered ships in Teignmouth 1786-1837 177 resided in Teignmouth and 111 in Shaldon.
Names of families participating consistently in the Newfoundland Fishing Trade were, from Teignmouth, Bartlett, Bibberns. Brine, Butler, Hayman. Clapp, Goss, Penson and Warren. From Shaldon the families were Bulley, Boden, Fox, Harvey, Mortimer, Row, Squarey and Stigings. The two most important families from Combeinteignhead were the Bulleys and the Jobs.
In 1788 the owners of a 115 ton brig Sally were named as John Job, Samuel Bulley, Elias Rendell and John Stephens. John Job was the grandson of Robert Poole (cod oil importer 1748-9) and married a daughter of Samuel Bulley in 1790
In 1793 the owners of a 70 ton brig Nymph were named as John Job, Samuel Bulley and Elias Rendell.
Between 1796 and 1906 Samuel Bulley and John Job were registered as “Merchant of West Teignmouth” in the registries of 8 further ships.
The winter census of St John’s Newfoundland in 1794/5 listed John Job as owner occupier of a waterfront property on the south side of the harbour among ten other Teign estuary merchants – Abraham Hingston, Stephen Harvey, William Whiteway, George Squarey, William Codner, and Jos. Baker of Shaldon as well as Thomas Gotham, John Duniam and George Bulley of Teignmouth.
John Job, William Underhay, Abraham Hingstone, Stephen Harvey, Robert Boden, John Codner and Elias Rowe were all appointed to a Grand Jury in St John’s Newfoundland in 1794. John Job was also 1 of 12 St John’s merchants petitioning for convoy protection for ships in 1800. Job and Bulley are listed as Merchant Ship-owners in Teignmouth and later in Liverpool.
In the 19th century Bulley and Job became one of St John’s Newfoundland’s leading mercantile houses and their successor Job Brothers and Co were still in business well into the 20th century,
The village of Shaldon was created to support the Newfoundland fishing industry during the 18th century with names such as Baker, Bowden, Card, Champion, Collins, Drew, Fox, Howard, Mardon, Row, Rug and Stigings. In 1801 100 mariners on Teign estuary ships claimed to be residents of Shaldon – which had a total population of 585 although only 38 had been baptised there. Of 30 master mariners were included names such as Bulley, Harvey, Fox, Mortimer and Squarey
Ship-owners who had been married at St Nicholas Shaldon include Blackallers, Bodens, Dunleys, Ashford, Bennett, Codner, Clapp and Drew. The larger merchants/ship owners were Bulley, Codner, Harvey and Rowe.
These families intermarried and couples moved to Newfoundland and had families there although they often returned later to Teignmouth and Shaldon
Teignmouth and Shaldon ship-owners were also involved in the speculative emigration of irish men and women. A general practice by ship-owners was to take security on relatives or property in Ireland against the cost of passenger fares from Ireland. If passengers did not pay their fares then agents in Ireland would be instructed to enforce payment from the securities obtained. Firms operating this system included John and Robert Brine, Thomas Row, Thomas Bulley and co, Samuel Codner and co and Stephen Harvey and Co. 3450 people were shipped on these terms to St John’s between 1810 and 1812.
The Newfoundland trade began to decline during the Napoleonic Wars and the fishery by bye boatmen generally declined from that time. Many servants remained in Newfoundland throughout the war rather than face the risks of the journey home. Some of these individuals became leading social, political and commercial leaders in St John’s
From time to time a particular demand led to further emigration such as when St John’s suffered a disastrous fire in 1847 and craftsmen from Devon went out to help rebuild the town.
Nowadays the fishing industry on the Grand Banks no longer exists after being over fished for years. But many of the Teignmouth Shaldon and districts names remain in the population of Newfoundland.