Three 18th Century Newfoundland Towns:
Trepassey, Trinity and St. John's
Newfoundland's status as a fishery, as opposed to a colony, hampered the
development of any veritable towns on the island until the 18th century.
At that time, economic, social and administrative changes would finally allow
towns to evolve in Newfoundland. Trepassey, Trinity and St. John's are three
towns that emerged in the wake of these changes.
French and English fishermen and planters occupied Trepassey throughout much of
the 17th century because of its proximity to important fishing grounds.
However, both would abandon when the Anglo-French wars began in the 1690s.
By 1708, there were no inhabitants living there.
|Trepassey, ca. 1770
A plan of the harbour of Trepassey with Mutton and Biscay Bays. Surveyed
by James Cook in 1767 and published in 1770.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
The French would never return. South Devonshire fishermen, not North Devonshire
fishermen as before, came to Trepassey when the bank fishery began to replace
the migratory ship fishery. The former was primarily controlled by firms based
in Topsham, Exeter, and brought a new class to Trepassey: the
“merchant-planters”. Although the merchant-planters were not permanent settlers
at Trepassey, they did exercise a great deal of authority over judicial and
administrative matters. Aside from the odd “interloper” or “principal
inhabitant” (clergymen, main planters, professionals, tradesmen), their power
The population at Trepassey would normally expand in the summer with the
arrival of bankers from England and Ireland, and shrink once more in the
winter. But by the 1770s, permanent residents profiting from the recent
growth in the bank fishery began to outnumber the temporary residents.
Despite the mix of Irish and English settlers, most of the division in
Trepassey society at this time stemmed from class differences. The
merchant-planters and principal inhabitants were the most socially important
class, followed by the planters, boat-keepers, migratory fishermen and
The South Devonshire firms' association with Trepassey would come to an end
in the late 18th century. The fishery had been unable to dispose of
the record catch of 1788 and had been weakened by a period of unrest beginning
in 1793. At the same time, the risk of trans-Atlantic crossings had greatened.
The movement of goods and men came to a stop, and St. John's replaced Topsham
as the overseer of business in Trepassey.
Eventually, the lack of economic diversity forced many English inhabitants to
leave. A new wave of Irish Catholics arrived and the remaining English
residents were religiously assimilated within a couple of generations.
Further north, English fishermen had been visiting Trinity since the 16th
century, but even as late as the 1740s its importance was certainly no greater
than that of ports like Bonavista or Old Perlican. The population expanded
in the summer to over two hundred but would fall to less than a dozen in the
fall. Trinity was home to some early planters, but the duration of their
settlement did not extend beyond one generation.
||Trinity, ca. 1840
A view of the north-west arm.
From P. Tocque, Wandering Thoughts (London, 1846).
However, by the end of the 17th century, an increasing number of
merchants were leaving their gear, and even fish, behind in Trinity Bay
for the winter. Trinity's easily defendable harbour encouraged some,
including the White family, to relocate. The presence of this merchant
family may have stimulated settlement at Trinity, as the Whites' involvement
in the migratory and salmon fisheries, the seal hunt, the supply trade,
shipping and shipbuilding required extensive manpower. Poole supplied much
of this manpower, although after 1720 a significant number of Irish servants
were living at Trinity. So substantial was the population that by the 1720s
local magistrates were appointed and by 1730 a church had been built.
It must be remembered, however, that the settlement was still a largely
seasonal one; among those who did not return to England in the fall, many
retreated to the interior to hunt, trap and cut wood. However, toward the
end of the first half of the 18th century Trinity developed into the
main trading and distribution centre for the northeast coast of Newfoundland.
This is due largely to the success of Joseph White's company, which in turn
drew many other firms to the Trinity area in the 1740s.
The population grew and Trinity even profited from the bank fishery's growth of
the 1760s and 1770s, despite being further removed from the banks than
Trepassey. Unlike this last, Trinity was able to rely on other economic
activities to see it through the difficult times in the fishery at the
end of the 18th century. When the local boat fishery failed in 1767,
the more prominent merchants bought out, and even hired on, those who had
gone bankrupt. When the bank and migratory fisheries were threatened by
the wars after 1775, these same merchants were able to sustain the loss
by reverting back to the inshore fishery and by concentrating on shipbuilding
or general trade.
Trinity's social structure was similar to that of Trepassey: social class was
more important than the Anglo-Irish split. The main differences, then, lie in
the way each community dealt with the blows to the bank and migratory fisheries
and the glut of 1788. As firms reduced their involvement in the fishery or
withdrew altogether, Trepassey went into an economic rut. In Trinity on the
other hand, independent traders and merchants emerged and saved the community
by taking over the place of the great merchants. Trinity remained the
economic heart of the region, and, as a result, would not come to rely on
St. John's, as Trepassey had done, for quite some time.
Before the 18th century St. John's was really no different from other
communities on the island in terms of its number of inhabitants. St. John's
harbour had been a meeting place for ships of various nationalities since the
16th century. Those seeking information on the fishery therefore considered
it the ideal place. Sack ships appreciated its location and easy landfall.
|St. John's, Newfoundland, about 1750.
Picture is toward the southwest. In the foreground are
fishers spreading cod on a fish flake.
Unknown artist. Courtesy of the CNS Archives (Col - 137, 3.01.008), Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
Yet, some criticized the harbour for being too sheltered. An unfavourable
wind could prevent a ship from getting through the harbour's narrow entrance
for days. Furthermore, the surrounding land was poorly suited for hunting
or farming. Like Trepassey and Trinity, St. John's' future was determined
by the events of the end of the 18th century.
St. John's became the centre of the bank fishery that had developed early in
the 18th century. Ships heading for the banks first unloaded passengers
eager for employment in the bye boat fishery at St. John's. Servants looking
for a ride back to England, on the other hand, had to pass through St. John's
to find a boat. Still, the resident population was quite low, as the
prosperity of the migratory and bye bank fisheries pushed the local fishery
into obscurity. Wars, too, played a role: settlement was precarious as
long as the threat of attack remained.
In the end, however, the collapse of the inshore fishery actually led to
increased settlement at St. John's. Some fishermen became tradesmen or
dock hands while others opened shops, taverns and warehouses. When the
English fishery expanded west of Placentia Bay and north of Bonavista,
St. John's increasingly became a trade centre, as well as a meeting place
for merchants. By the 1770s, St. John's was distributing food and supplies
to other settlements.
||Placentia, ca. 1780.
View looking southwest toward Placentia.
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Drawing by J.S.Meres. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (NAC/C 2521).
with more information (32 kb)
This new trend continued as the town developed into an administrative centre.
When naval officers, who had used the port for years as a base for their
operations, began to perform the duties of governor, there was no need to
relocate. Customs offices and courts came soon after. Fortifications were
improved and garrisons were reinforced after 1770; the security attracted
to St. John's many businessmen, as well as tradesmen and artisans, such as
tailors, bakers and barbers, who had nothing to do with the fishery.
St. John's, like Trepassey, relied considerably on the migratory fishery;
but, like Trinity, the town was able to prosper in the face of adversity.
Competition between businessmen in St. John's attracted planters from other
communities looking for lower prices. Female domestics were brought over
by civil and military leaders. These women were soon working, marrying and
settling in St. John's. The cultivation of land, the keeping of animals and
the construction of homes, some elegant and luxurious, soon ensued.
The population climbed steadily in the latter half of the 18th century,
and thousands of Irish immigrants arrived early in the 19th, either
moving on to other centres or remaining in St. John's. Before long, the
town had newspapers, health care facilities and libraries. It was becoming
clear that St. John's would one day be capital of Newfoundland.
|Royal Gazette, 1828.
An early St. John's newspaper.
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, NL.
1998, Jeff Butt
The preceding article is based on Chapter VIII of Olaf Janzen's The History of Newfoundland to 1815, an unpublished study guide for students in History 3110 at Memorial University of Newfoundland.