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St. John’s: A City With History

St. John’s is my home and it’s a city with tremendous history. I can write Posts everyday for years and probably touch only a portion of the wonderful enigma that is St. John’s. Describing this city is difficult because it is elusive–it’s difficult to catch and it can be difficult to comprehend on times. However, it exudes such a welcoming energy that it penetrates the soul and swallows you up whole. It’s a place that exemplifies inclusion, security, and kindness. It’s also a city that wins you over with its seductive old-world charms and its constant celebratory heartbeat. In a way, St. John’s is the archetypical home. It has a true sense of place.

It’s also a dramatic city because it’s hard to accurately capture the elements–the crushing winters, the brief summers, the lack of Spring, the beautiful autumns, the bracing smells of the North Atlantic, the deep bone-chilling Nor’easters. Our horizontal rain! Without doubt, it is a city that needs to be experienced.

Snowmageddon: Downtown Street. St. John’s Winter 2020. 76.2cm (30 inches) of snow fell on St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, and packed wind gusts as high as 130km/h (81mph). 

With that said, I’m going to try my best to capture the essence of St. John’s in this Blog. Our city most definitely has a flavour and colour all its own. It’s unlike any Canadian city I seen and I’ve been to every capital city in Canada–yes even Iqaluit, Yellowknife and White Horse! St. John’s is unique and it’s uniqueness can be attributed to its tremendously turbulent and often times vicious past. Our five hundred year history is full of war and domination, of religious struggle and strife, of social resistance and change and, as noted, we are subjected to horrific weather, which, believe it or not, has shaped our conversations and ability to live on this island. We are a maritime people–ocean people. We are an island people. We are a people of the elements. And, we have been blessed with eccentric, famous and often brilliant people who have left their mark on the Canadian landscape. Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh, Andy Jones, Tommy Sexton, Ray Guy, Rex Murphy, E.J. Pratt, Shanawdithit, Ted Russell, Colin Greening, Wayne Johnston, Gerald Squires, Georgina Stirling, Craig Dobbin, John Crosby, Cluny MacPherson, and Seamus O’Regan come to mind (there are so many more). And it is often said we are a breed unto ourselves.

With a population near 114, 000 (we’re not that big), St. John’s is a cozy, pretty city with lots of foliage and character. It has one city that boarders its edges: Mount Pearl. If we include the Avalon Peninsula, which has many bays, coves, inlets, and towns, the population spikes to 262, 411. The overall population of Newfoundland is only 521, 542. Apparently we have more moose on the island (120,00) than we have people in St. John’s! Makes for careful driving.

We are also a hardy, pragmatic, witty, creative, musical, friendly; and, on times a stubborn people who are most definitely generous. It’s said we would give you the shirt off our backs if you were in need. I don’t think this is just folksy talk, either. I sincerely believe our heartfelt moral compass and evident ethical nature is the result of necessity. Such values have been shaped by our dependence on one another for hundreds of years–a dependence that has allowed us to survive our incredibility harsh environment. I also honestly believe these values have not diminished through space or time. I believe our goodness is etched on our genetic code and we have passed it successfully along from generation to generation–to our betterment. We have welcomed those from away with gusto for hundreds of years. Like any isolated island people, those who come from away were the bearers of the latest news and were our conduit to the outside world. Even today, our inquisitiveness exists. We tend to ask questions such as, where’re ya from? are you related to (insert name here)? do you know (insert name here)? We want to know–plain and simple.

Strangers have always been welcomed and are treated like gold, however, very few outsiders ever truly penetrate the inner circle of Newfoundland living. A friend, who emigrated from the Scotland nearly fifty years ago, told me not long ago, he still feels like an outsider because he wasn’t born here. Even today, when he attends house parties, he’s introduced as being from Scotland and that he is referred to as an honorary Newfoundlander. He finds it amusing. I find it apt. My grandmother use to say, an outsider will know they have been truly accepted as a Newfoundlander when the gossip and resentment starts to fly. She’s probably right.

As a result of our history, I think our generosity and curiosity is innate. We still love to gobble up news and engage ideas. We love to debate and learn. We are a political people. We are good people. And, I can only hope to do my hometown justice with my writing.

So let’s begin with a brief history.

St. John’s is certainly the oldest city in Canada. The British Parliament passed the British North America Act in 1867 and The Dominion of Canada was officially born on July 1 of that year. However, Newfoundland didn’t join confederation until 1949. Newfoundland, a colony of the British Empire, voted against joining Canada in 1869 and became an Independent Dominion in the early 20th century. We only had a brief stint as an independent country because of the Great Depression (1930’s). As with nearly every country in the world, the economic down turn forced Newfoundland into bankruptcy. As a result, we once again became a British Colony until our merger with Canada.

Of course, the city of St. John’s was old by that time. The city was officially established in 1888 but appeared on maps as early as 1519. The province of Newfoundland (405, 212km squared–yes we are massive) was discovered officially by England. At it’s height (late 1800’s to early 1900’s), they say the sun never set on the British Empire. And Newfoundland was one of its conquests. In 1497 Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) an Italian navigator sailing under the commission of Henry VII was supposedly the first European to step foot on North American soil (it’s debatable–read on!). Newfoundland was therefore claimed by England. We know now that the Vikings had settled and lived in Newfoundland around a 1000AD; and, the Basque fishermen were known to have fished the waters off Newfoundland for cod as far back as the 9th century; and, you just know they came ashore to salt their fish (they brought the salt with them. The Basque were very lucky to have ample salt mines.) They may have even docked their ships in the deep, protected waters of St. John’s harbour at some point–probably not, but you never know!

Regardless, St. John’s was a thriving metropolis when New York was just cow path–at least that’s what my Grandfather used to say. He was born in 1887 and wasn’t prone to exaggeration. Of course he lived through the Great Fire of 1892 that destroyed most of the city. The city also burned in 1819 and 1846 but the most horrific was the fire of 1892. Most wooden structures (which was 90% of downtown St. John’s) were lost. That is why St. John’s, although very old, doesn’t have many wooden structures dating before 1892.

We were pretty cosmopolitan for an island as well. Of course, ships came from all over the world to fish The Grand Banks for cod and with them came innovation, trends, products, and fashion. If you had money, and a lot of Merchants (they’re like entrepreneurs of yonder years) did, you had access to the best money could buy. Women, for example, had the latest European fashions, wallpaper, furniture, and jewels. The lower class weren’t so lucky, but the newly emerging middle class in the late 1800’s to mid-1900’s did okay. Of course everything was imported (much like today) including food (we are called The Rock because we literally have very little soil). As well, there were centuries of war that led to English domination. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, provided with letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I, landed in St John’s in August 1583, and formally took possession of the island. From 1616, English Proprietary Governors were also appointed, to establish colonial settlements on the island.

For hundreds of years, countries fought over the fertile waters off Newfoundland; and, the English who settled St. John’s were constantly at war with the French, Spanish, Dutch, Basque and Portuguese in order to hold on to the city. St. John’s throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the major commercial and service center for the Newfoundland fishery. The port’s importance was a major part of the cod fishery, which made it a prime military target for any nation wishing to gain control over this important food supply. The Queen Anne’s War broke out in 1702 and French raids during King William’s War in the 1690s had completely destroyed English settlements, including the principal port of St. John’s. The earliest of battles dates back to 1555 when the Basques travelled overland to capture St. John’s from the French. Over 100 years later, in June 1665, the great Dutch naval strategist Admiral De Ruyter captured St. John’s from the British. Commencing in the late seventeenth century and running throughout most of the eighteenth century, the English and French engaged in a series of wars which saw St. John’s used frequently as a battle ground.  The last of these great battles occurred in 1762 when the British recaptured St. John’s from the French after a brief fight. After that the British dug in.

Signal Hill was the primary British military garrison that defended St. John’s harbour defences from the 17th century to the Second World War and it is the site where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901 (more on that later–it gets its very own Post). It is also the site of The Signal Hill Tattoo that reenacts the strength of British forces during this time. Fort William was also built in 1698 to protect English interests in St. John’s primarily against French opposition. A second fort, known as Fort George was situated at the east end of the harbour connected by a subterranean passage with Fort William. On the south side of the Narrows, there was a third fortification called the Castle. Garrison headquarters were later moved to Fort Townshend which was built between 1775-1779. So, a lot of bloodshed went into the development of our great city! Of course, the English won out and today most of your ancestry is of either English, Scottish or Irish descent (most have a mixture).

So, it goes without saying, St. John’s is a city with history. Of course, I can’t end this Post without exploring our city’s name. So, where did the name St. John’s come from? A popular theory is that John Cabot named St. John’s as a result of visiting the port on St. Jean the Baptist Day – June 24th. But given the notion that Cabot supposedly made his landfall in Bonavista on that day, it seems a bit unlikely.

The most likely one is credited to Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real, who first visited Newfoundland in 1500. There is some validity in that the earliest record of the place name appears on a Portuguese map by Rienel, 1519, as Rio de San Johem. Corte-Real, or one of his contemporaries, paid a brief visit to the harbour, saw the distant Waterford River, and named it St. John’s River. Hence the ‘s in the name.

Furthermore, the name of St. John’s varied considerably during the sixteenth century. Some of the names which followed Rienel’s Rio de San Johem are: Haven of St. John (Rut, 1527); Sam Johem (Freire, 1546); Sainct Johan (Le Testu, 1555); St. John’s (Parkhurst, 1578; also Hayes, 1583); S. Jones (Velasco, 1610); Saint Johns (Mason, 1620); St. John’s (Whitbourne, 1588-1622); St. Ieans Harbour (Visscher, c. 1680); St. John’s Harbour (Thornton, 1689). It appears that Parkhurst was the first person to record the common spelling. He was an English Merchant who made four voyages to Newfoundland in the 1570’s.

There is also the possibility that the place was given its name by one of the early English mariners. Not far from where Cabot sailed from in England, is the Church of St. John the Baptist, known as St. John’s- on- the-Wall. It was built in 1174 and rebuilt in 1400 and was the last survivor of five churches that were in or on the old quay from the Church to Froom Gate, the dock used by Cabot and others who sailed to Newfoundland around 1500. Many of the sailors on those early vessels must have come from the British parish of St. John’s. The church was known to all of them. In some manner they may have named the popular port for their home parish.

Another theory comes from Judge G.R.F. Prowse, a noted historian. Prowse says that we know that Cabot called his landfall the Isle of St. John’s in commemoration of the feast day on which it was discovered. Based on his study, he concluded that the name St. John’s Isle became associated with an indefinite part of the east coast of Newfoundland. He says the name could have been short lived but also could have become associated with the harbour by sailors who used the harbour as their first and last port of call. Prowse maintains that it would have been known as the “harbour of St. John’s Island” which could account for the possessive form, St. John’s, instead of St. John.

That’s it. I hoped you enjoyed this Post.


Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.

O’Neill, Paul. (1975). The Oldest City, The Story of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Erin, Ontario: Press Porcepic. 

Heritage Newfoundland:

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