International influences Themes Uncategorized

England’s links to Newfoundland

Author: Brian J Galpin


All parts of the south west peninsula of England and northern coast of France sent boats to the Cod fishing grounds in Newfoundland for 350 years after its discovery. The ship owners became wealthy, and employed many people. Reliant upon the wind to sail each way, for many it was a summer job, not a migration.

In 1583 it became England’s first colony with the arrival of Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

Initially, “Ship fishermen” acquired knowledge of the sea and of the land, until gradually overwintering took place. Separately from fishing crews were “Byboat keeper’s” who were migratory and who were either paying or working passengers across the “pond”. “Planters”, or settlers who owned fishing premises and boats were a third class to emerge in the C17th. Settlers often stayed just a few years before returning home.

In 1684 Capt Wheeler reported that “even in normal times at least half the resident population returned to England for any one winter.

Census data of the 1670’s shows a relatively large proportion were “masters” without wives and families.

A constant supply of young men from England was transported by supply ships, for most of what was needed was shipped out. Servants were the most important body of migrants numerically, the most used and the most abused. Many were encouraged to overwinter, being a burden on the master without work to do on the return journey to England each year. Many were abandoned, causing them to want to move onto New England and a better life. Servants were sailors, shore men, boat masters, carpenters, sailmakers, surgeons or plain labourers.

The New England connection pushed migration onto the mainland of the America’s. Up to 1,000 a year did not return home and were “helped” to move on. The loss of manpower had a strong effect upon turnover rate by early 1700’s.

The Irish also emigrated to Newfoundland especially women. In 1681 it was reported “the ships bringing over many women passengers whom they sell for servants. A little after their coming they marry among the fishermen that live with the Planters.”

By 1720 “here are brought over every year by the Bristol, Bideford and Bastable (Barnstaple) ships great numbers of Irish Roman Catholic servants, who all settle to the southward in our plantations.”


The first documented evidence of female migration to Newfoundland occurs during the early 1600’s in association with the Bristol colonising venture. They worked as cooks and salters (workers who spread salt on deboned codfish).

Nicholas Guy of Bristol migrated 1610 and his wife gave birth on 27th March 1613 to the first English child born in Newfoundland. The Guy’s settled in Carbonear.

Other early attempts at settlement failed with the unfavourable weather conditions blamed for Calvert’s unsuccessful attempt between 1618 and 1628.

It should be remembered that the English Settlement Certificate system was operable in Newfoundland, and that Removal Orders were equally binding, thus Servants were supposed to go where they were told to go.

In 1675, Sir John Berry, Commander of the English convoy arrived in St. Johns bearing an Order in Council that all Planters voluntarily remove themselves either home or to any other English plantations in the West Indies and New England. In the act of issuing the Order, a detailed census was taken of the Planters names with an account of all their concerns (PRO Patent Roll 8 James 1 part 8 Charter of Bristol and London Co.)

Representations were made on behalf of the Newfoundland inhabitants, and sufferance won; “to inhabit and fish” as they had done previously. The Removal Order was rescinded.

The English could stay and keep an eye on the French who fished at Placentia Bay (a part founded by the Portuguese) and to ensure that they did not take over. The French had 350 people there including 204 domestics.

In 1692, the English settlement consisted of 377 men excluding sailors on numerous fishing vessels. Newfoundland was regarded as a convenient fishing station and ideal training base for English seamen in time of war, to serve in the Navy. (note that arrival off Old Harry Rocks on way home, it was a favourite place for the Press Gang to operate and acquire hardened seamen.)

Add to the natural discomforts of life, and the uncertain right to inhabit the island during the late 17th century, was the extreme vulnerability to attack and repeatedly from 1696 to 1708 when French forces virtually erased the inhabitant population.

Deportation by the French from St.Johns in 1696 of men, women and children, meant that the settlement had to start all over again. By 1698 the official count was “British 2640 of which 284 men, 176 women, 286 children, and servants including sailors both male and female 1894”.

English origins

Much is said about where early ships came from as far as South West England is concerned:

1675 to 1681

North Devon          17.5%

South Devon          62.1%

Dorset                   15.1%

Southern England     5.3%

Merchants and ship owners attracted migrants to the ports for employment. Parish officers, Overseers of the poor, and Trustees of charities made frequent use of the Newfoundland traders to apprentice or indenture their poor. The migration basins extended beyond the ports, taking in market towns and farming villages, hamlets and homesteads.


Examples are found of poor apprentices in parishes such as Poole, Weymouth, Lyme Regis, Bothenhampton, Bridport, Dorchester, Powerstock. Charmouth, Allington. Blandford, Corfe Castle and Portland.

Private charities established by benefactors for the relief of the poor often apprenticed children in Beaminster, Sturminster Newton, Shaftesbury and Weymouth. The conditions of the charity specified that boys be placed at sea or apprenticed as “mariners”.

In 1682 Francis Tucker of Beaminster left a farm, the revenue of which was willed to place “3 or 4 boys yearly, 1 whereof if not 2, to be sent to sea.”

There were a large number of “open” trade endowments (charities in which the trustees could elect the trade or occupation of the apprentice) from which merchants and ship owners could get cheap labour and often a cash bonus from Bere Regis to Symondsbury.


Leonard George of the parish of Sturminster Marshall doth put himself Apprentice to Richard Netlam Tory of Wimborne, Dorset, Merchant or their assigns, in Newfoundland during the said Term in the sum of Two Pounds the said Apprentice in the Art of the Newfoundland Fishery which they useth by the best means that they can, shall teach and instruct. 

9th May in the 22nd year of the reign of George 3 1782″.


Captain Arthur Holdsworth of Dartmouth who took out 236 passengers from South Devon in 1701 “in the beginning of the year made it his business to ride from one market town to another in the West of England on purpose to get passengers.


The market towns supplied fishing ships with food, clothing, specialised fishing gear and equipment, particularly leather goods, ropes, nets, twines and sail cloths. Provisioners were often leading Parish Officers thus providing contact for the employer who needed labour, and for the manufacturers and suppliers to seek and recommend for employment “men and boys” from the local region.

Poole acquired its supplies thus from the hinterland of Dorset and Hampshire:-

  • Salt from Lymington
  • Woollen garments and stockings from Wimborne
  • Nets, twine and cordage from Bridport
  • Groceries, sea biscuits and clothing from Christchurch
  • Clothing from Shaftesbury
  • Swanskin from Sturminster Newton,
  • in Blandford you had “serge-makers, linen-weavers, and felt-makers”; and
  •  in many towns in the Blackmore Vale “glovers”.

Boots and Shoes were especially sought as it was difficult to keep your footing on ice and rock.


With the cessation of conflict between the English and French (1696 to 1713) there was a consolidation of English on the Island of Newfoundland.

The Treaty of Utrecht 1713 ceded Newfoundland to Britain, and changed things somewhat, with expansion northwards. First to Notre Dame Bay (to Fogo and to Twillingate) and after 1763 including the coast of Labrador, and south to Placentia. The Spurriers went to Burin and settled there.


Newfoundland had a population of around 3000 in 1700, but by 1800 it was nearly 20,000. Over the next 20 years it more than doubled as a result of immigration. In 1814, 11,000 settlers from Ireland set the scene for a steady flow.

In 1832, with a population of over 60,000, Newfoundland was granted colonial status which meant Representative Government. Its own census was in 1836 and showed a population of 75,094.

Over the next 55 years the census was taken at irregular intervals. In 1891 a 10 year census was instituted until 1921. The 1931 census was cancelled following the breakdown in Government after the 1929 Depression.

Under commissions of government, 2 more were done in 1935 and 1945, the last before Confederation with Canada. In 1949, the population had reached 347,000 and by 1966 it had reached 505,000. It peaked in 1963 and has been in decline ever since.

It has been claimed that the Newfoundlander is the most prolific of all Canadians, and the hardiest, with less than 10 % living away from the coast.

1900 saw a shift to Canada with the promise of high wages. In 1941 the census of Canada listed 25,837 residents as Newfoundland born whilst the US census of 1940 showed 21,361 as native Newfoundlanders.                                     

Researched by Brian J. Galpin, with acknowledgements to “Soe Longe as their comes no Women” by Gordon Handcock – June 2018

Leave a Reply