Nfld. & Labrador

Slogging through March this year? Try doing it in 1880

In 19th century N.L. March meant empty root cellars, hunting seals, and waiting for Sheila — OK, not everything has changed.

In 19th century N.L., March meant empty root cellars, hunting seals and waiting for Sheila

You think the winter of 1987 sounded bad for Newfoundland and Labrador? Try dealing with that in the the 1880s. (The National/CBC Archives)

March is a long month, thanks to the lousy weather and the lack of a long weekend. But if you think the closing days of winter are tough now, you might not have made it through until April in the 1800s.

The third month of the year has long been a busy one for news in Newfoundland and Labrador, Larry Dohey says, but the reasons have changed. 

In the late 1800s the big news in St. John's would have been the upcoming arrival of hundreds of sealers into St. John's, ready to leave from the harbour to the sealing grounds for the first time that spring.

"There would be anywhere between 800 to 1,000 men arriving by train into St. John's, looking for accommodation, looking for berth on the sealing vessels that would leave shortly after St. Patrick's Day, after Sheila's Day, March 18," said Dohey, an archivist and the director of programming and public engagement at The Rooms in St. John's.

The money that would come from sealing was particularly important in March, when food was even scarcer than it is today in the produce section at the grocery store when the ferries can't get across.

"By the time March runs around, that cellar is getting pretty low," Dohey said, referring to the root cellars all families had at the time to store produce and preserves for the winter months. Families would have to be careful about food as winter turned to spring as they waited for the dandelions — the first new vegetables of the year — to come up and the money from the seal hunt to roll in.

Sealers weren't usually out by St. Patrick's Day, says Larry Dohey, but once in a while it worked out that they could be.

The latter usually didn't happen before St. Patrick's Day, but it was a bonus if it did, Dohey said. If a vessel left early and came across a herd of seals on the ice before March 17, those seals were referred to as Paddy's Pot or Patrick's Pot because they represented the first chance to get some cash in hand from the hunt.

"Having cash in hand in March month was a great benefit to the family," he said.

Politics and intrique

The seal hunt wasn't the only reason 19th-century reporters were busy in March — but you might not know much about that if you read any newspaper but the Telegram.

The city had four newspapers in the late 1870s and early 1880s: the Morning Chronicle, the Ledger, the Newfoundlander and the Evening Telegram. Only the latter, now simply the Telegram, is still around.

Back in those times, Dohey said, when reporters had their own room in the Colonial Building, political reporters might be focused on the question of whether land should be given to the Reids to build a railway, or discussion of whether Newfoundland should join an upstart new country called Canada.

There were accusations that the reporters were spending their time in their private room drinking, smoking, gambling and playing cards instead of working, but Dohey said he suspects that may have been the gossiping of a "disgruntled observer." Politicians would stop by the reporters' room and try to get in the good graces of particular staffers, he said. 

Those reporters were working for papers in the same city, but their employers all had different political, class and denominational perspectives — some were friendlier to the merchant class, some leaned left or right politically, some were Protestant or Catholic.

Waiting for Sheila

The Telegram was one of the papers with a particular denominational perspective — Catholic, specifically. 

"This week, for instance, if you're reading the Evening Telegram in 1880 you'd see lots of articles about the Benevolent Irish Society and their plans for Irish Week, but you wouldn't see those in the Chronicle or the other papers," Dohey said.

In the late 1800s everyone in Newfoundland had a root cellar, Dohey says, though it was usually looking pretty empty by March. (Julia Cook/CBC)

The Telegram skewed Catholic, and the other papers did not. That was why you'd see coverage of parties at the Benevolent Irish Society and the St. Patrick's Day parade in that paper only.

"They had that much of a bias," Dohey said.

Those St. Patrick's parties would traditionally end with a ritual he said was called "drowning the shamrock." For the last drink of the evening, a shamrock — Dohey isn't sure how people in St. John's in March got their hands on them — would be put in each glass before it was topped up with beer, and the crowd would say cheers before drinking it down.

Then, in a time when George Street was largely still storage sheds, revellers would head home and wake up the next day much as we still do now: waiting to see if Sheila would arrive with one last brush of winter for March before spring arrived.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.