Entering a small Newfoundland outport in the middle of the 19th century, a visitor
would have been struck by a number of features of the cultural landscape - features which are
now gone or altered, except in very few communities. The visitor would arrive by sea, since there
were few roads, and at the water's edge would have seen numerous wharves extending out from
the shore. At the head of most of these wharves would have been a stage, a single-storey shed for
the splitting and the making of the fish. At the landward end of the wharf might have been a
series of other sheds for various types of storage and fishery-related work.
|Stages at a fishing village, n.d.
A stage is a single-storey shed used for splitting and making the fish.
Photo by Holloway. From J.A. Cochrane, The Story
of Newfoundland, (Montreal: Ginn and Company, 1938) 102.
Farther back from the shoreline but facing the sea would have been the houses. While the earlier
houses or those of less-prosperous fishers would have been small, single-storey, gable-roofed
structures, by the 1850s most outport houses would have had two or and two-and-a-half storeys
with a centre-hall plan. The larger ones would have had four rooms on the main floor, the smaller
two rooms with a lean-to (or linhay) at the back. Surrounding these houses and, indeed, all
properties and gardens, would have been fencing of various types to protect trees and vegetable
gardens from goats or other wandering livestock. Nowadays, few communities have more than a
scattering of these gable-roofed houses. Even their successors, houses with mansard roofs or
low-pitched roofs, have been replaced by the various forms of the post-confederation bungalow.
Dependant upon the size of the outport, there might be a local merchant whose premises would
also stand at the water's edge. The premises would have included a retail store which likely
contained the office, sheds for the storage of salt fish, twine lofts, perhaps a cooperage and a
smithy. The roof form of these buildings varied. They could be gable, as were most of the
buildings of the community, but they could also be gambrel, a form in which the roof has two
pitches, instead of just one, in each slope. The upper pitch (nearest the peak of the roof) is
comparatively slight, the lower pitch (nearer the eaves) is much steeper. Such a roof allows for
greater headroom in the top story and is consequently more efficient for storage.
Spread throughout the community would be acres of flakes: flat platforms made of limbed trees
set on poles, on which the split cod were laid out to dry. The flakes were everywhere: on the
shore, by and between houses. Frequently the local paths ran beneath them. The flake is probably
the strongest feature of the built environment that distinguishes Newfoundland from any other
place in the world.
||A flake for drying fish, n.d.
From J.A. Cochrane, The Story
of Newfoundland, (Montreal: Ginn and Company, 1938) 99.
Often set somewhat at a remove from these domestic and commercial structures was the church.
Initially a small and simple building, by the mid-19th century it had, if Anglican, taken on
the style of the Gothic Revival. That meant a steeply-pitched roof and a number of gothic details,
notably the pointed arch used in door and window openings. Most had towers although not all
were built in the initial stage of the church's construction. If the clergyman of the day had a
sophisticated sense of the gothic, the tower might be set to one side of the gable. Catholic
churches were built in both the Gothic and Classical styles, with the Classical predominating as
the century progressed. Dissenter churches (Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian) were
quite eclectic in design but by mid-century tended to use the fashionable Gothic Revival style.
On the Labrador coast, the Moravians built in their own distinctive form.
Near the church might be found the halls of the fraternal lodges which the community supported:
most commonly the Orange Order and Society of United Fishermen (S.U.F.) lodges. These
would have been large buildings on the pattern of the merchant's stores with, like them, either
gable or gambrel roofs. The S.U.F. lodges are immediately distinguishable by their triangular
symbol, a shape they sometimes carried into the windows.
In St. John's and in the major harbours, the range of buildings would have been
greater than in the outports. In response to the higher levels of population and of trade, more
varied commercial and institutional structures were built, including banks, courthouses, schools
and parish halls. Later in the century, a sort of multi-function government building was
constructed in the major towns, housing the telegraph office, post office, and court. The most
important centres (St. John's, Harbour Grace, Carbonear), were distinguished not only by the
variety of types of building, but also by the materials used. In these centres a number of
buildings were constructed of brick or stone, frequently because the numerous and costly fires
made it an insurance requirement.
© 1998, Shane O'Dea
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