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Prolific writer product of Fortune

(April 27, 2000, Gazette)

Erle Rose Spencer

By Bert Riggs

Erle Rose Spencer was born in Fortune, Newfoundland, in July 1897, the son of Thomas E. Spencer and Clara Rose. His father was a local merchant. His mother, who was a wife, mother and homemaker, originally came from Harbour Breton. There were three other children in the Spencer family: sons John Joseph and Clyde and daughter Blanche.

Young Spencer and his siblings attended the Methodist school in Fortune, where they encountered James Haddon, the schoolmaster at Fortune from 1869 to 1915. Haddon may also have tutored Erle at home, as he contracted tuberculosis as a boy and was away from school for long periods of time.

Tuberculosis, or consumption, was a major killer in Newfoundland, particular the rural areas, up until the 1960s. Fortune, in the early decades of the 20th century, did not have a resident doctor or medical clinic. People did receive visits from the doctor living in nearby Grand Bank, but even the small hospital that opened there in the 1890s was not capable of long-term treatment for a patient with tuberculosis.

Erle Spencer’s tuberculosis infected his lymphatic system. In 1911 his father sent him to the Grenfell Hospital at St. Anthony where he underwent surgery for the removal of the infected lymph glands. After several months of recuperation there he returned to Fortune. His health was improved, but he was not cured. He remained weak from the tuberculosis, and the surgery left him with scar tissue on his neck and caused his head to list severely to the right.

Spencer was not one to let his health problems get the better of him. Those who knew him have told how he faced an uncertain future with a humour and outlook that belied his age and condition. He finished his schooling in Fortune and then moved to St. John’s, where he graduated from the Methodist College with an Associate of Arts diploma. Then he travelled to Chatham, Ontario, to attend the Canadian Business College, where he completed courses in office practice. In 1919 he went west to Calgary, perhaps thinking the dry prairie climate might be better for his health. There he worked in clerical-bookkeeping positions, first with a mercantile establishment and later with a manufacturer of machinery. The life of an office clerk was not what he wanted, however, and in 1922, he returned to Fortune.

It is quite possible that his continuing health problems precipitated Spencer’s return to Newfoundland, but his desire to write may also have played a major role in his decision. It appears that he had wanted to be a writer from an early age. Given the state of his health, he was convinced that he would not live beyond 40. He was now 25; it was time to start writing.

Shortly after his return to Fortune, Spencer booked passage on the schooner Ronald M. Douglas, which was en route to Oporto, Portugal, with salted cod for the European market. It is claimed that he began to write his first book on that voyage. After landing in Oporto, he made his way to London where, following a year of hand-to-mouth survival, he obtained employment as a reporter on Lord Beaverbrook’s paper, the Daily Express. Journalism would remain his primary occupation and source of income for the remainder of his life.

London was no more conducive to Spencer’s health than either Fortune or Calgary had been. He began to travel to other parts of Europe in search of a place where he might rest and recuperate for part of the year. He found what he was looking for in Leysin, Switzerland. He reached agreement with the publishers of the Daily Express to work half the year, from May to October. The winters he would spend in a sanatorium in Leysin. It would be fair to say that his work for the Daily Express must have been of the highest quality for the publishers to agree to such an arrangement.

Spencer’s first major work of fiction to be published was the novel Yo-Ho-Ho! in 1924. A tale of smuggling set in and around the French island of St.-Pierre, just southeast of Fortune, off Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, it was directed towards a juvenile readership. It tells the story common in the boys’ adventure genre of a young lad who overhears news of a smuggling plot and is kidnapped and carried off by the smugglers. It is not the familiarity of the story that is most memorable about the book, but the knowledge Spencer imparts about Newfoundland seafaring life in the early years of the 20th century. His portrayal of that life, with its hardships, and promises, often false, of a better existence just around the corner, is what makes the book noteworthy. This, combined with his knowledge of life aboard ship, how the vessel operated, and of the sea, give the book a uniquely Newfoundland voice which could only come from someone with an intimate knowledge of life in a community dependent on the sea.

Spencer published eight other novels: The Young Sea Rover (1925) and Contraband (1926), both for juvenile readers; The Piccadilly Ghost (1929) and Stop Press! (1932), which both concern the newspaper business in London; The Death of Captain Shand (1930), an adventure story set mainly in Oporto; The Four Lost Ships (1931), about a retired naval officer’s search for missing seamen in St.-Pierre; and The King of Spain’s Daughter (1934), a tale of a young Englishman who inherits a large estate in Fortune Bay. Spencer’s last novel, Or Give Me Death! (1936) is set in Greece. All the books were first published in London, and two were also published in the United States.

In addition to these books, Spencer wrote several other pieces of fiction which survive in manuscript form, including the short novels Death of a Millionaire and Martin Wins Through, none of which appear to have been published. It is possible that he also published short stories but none has yet been found. His writing for the Daily Express has not been collected, but that may not be possible if his byline does not appear on his contributions.

It would appear that Spencer’s health took a turn for the worse sometime in during late 1936 or early 1937. He died in London in November 1937, just four months after his 40th birthday. He was buried there at Hendon Cemetery.

After his death, Erle Spencer’s estate went to his brother, John Joseph Spencer, who lived in Georgia, USA. This material remained with him until his death, at which time his daughter, Joan Kissel, of Maitland, Florida, acquired ownership. She sent the materials to Dr. Ronald Rompkey, professor of English Language and Literature at Memorial University in 1998. He deposited it in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, which has since acquired formal transfer of ownership from Joan Kissel.

These papers include the unpublished manuscripts for Death of a Millionaire and Martin Wins Through and for three short stories. There is also his passport from the 1920s, a photograph and several documents concerning his estate. The photograph is especially welcome, as the only previously known photograph of Spencer was a poor reproduction which appeared in newspapers at the time of his death. The manuscripts provides new insights into his writing, while the passport helps to determine his travels in Europe, documenting time he spent in Switzerland, where he often travelled for his health. The collection is a welcome addition to our ongoing documentation of the literary history of Newfoundland.