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William L. Swansborough:
Man of letters

(February 24, 2000, Gazette)

By Bert Riggs

William L. Swansborough was born in Wellow, Somerset, England, on July 27, 1829, the son of Thomas Swansborough and Sarah Lane. The family lived in Tunley Dunkerton, a few miles distant from Wellow. It can be assumed that William received a good education, as his primary occupation was that of teacher. He came to Newfoundland in 1849, it is claimed, in company with a friend who was a Church of England clergyman.

Mr. Swansborough soon settled on Bell Island where he became a schoolteacher. It was there that he met Elizabeth Cooper, daughter of James Cooper and Julia Hiscock of Lance Cove, a small community on the southeastern end of Bell Island. They were married at Lance Cove on July 26, 1852, by Rev. William Grey, who, in addition to his clerical duties, found time to sketch and paint.

His Sketches of Newfoundland and Labrador, published in 1858, contains a number of reproductions of his drawings and paintings of rural Newfoundland and Labrador communities and landscapes. Grey’s son, born in St. John’s in 1850, became the first native-born Newfoundlander to sit in the House of Lords, when he succeeded his uncle as Earl of Stamford in 1890.

William and Elizabeth Swansborough were the parents of eight children, four of whom died as small children: James Cooper (March 21 – June 30, 1856); William Henry (June 12 – June 22, 1862); William James (June 19, 1872 – Jan. 17, 1880); Mary Isabella (April 23, 1876 – Jan. 22, 1880). The two younger children died within five days of each other, William of whooping cough and Mary of worm fever.

The other four children, three girls and a boy, all lived to adulthood. Julia Emma, the eldest (May 31, 1853 – May 4, 1950), married Richard Hibbs; Sarah Selina (Dec. 3, 1858 – Jan. 30, 1944) married David Tucker; Victoria Alexandra (April 12, 1865 – Dec. 6, 1929) married Joseph Hiscock. Charles Thomas (Nov. 7, 1867 – July 6, 1894) died quite suddenly at age 26. He had been a telegraph operator and had not married.

William and Elizabeth Swansborough moved from Bell Island to New Perlican some time after Julia’s birth in 1853. Their second child, James Cooper, was born in New Perlican, as were Sarah, William Henry and Victoria. After more than 10 years in New Perlican, where William taught school, the family moved to Topsail. Here, too, he was a schoolteacher. The Journal of the House of Assembly for 1871 reports that Swansborough was the teacher at Topsail in the 1870-71 school year at an annual salary of 50 pounds. He taught reading (letters and monosyllables, easy lessons, holy scriptures), writing (on slates, on paper, from dictation), arithmetic, geography and grammar. There were 42 pupils in an all-grade school.

For many years, Swansborough was a lay-reader and tireless worker for St. John the Evangelist Church of England Church at Topsail, and served as a delegate to Synod. He held a number of government appointments, including justice of the peace, deputy surveyor, deputy returning officer and census taker.

Swansborough was also a writer, mainly of verse. One of his poems is dated 1866 and, as others cover subjects of an earlier date, may have been written near the time of the event they commemorate. He published a pamphlet-size poem entitled The Newfoundland Railway Guide in the late-1880s or early-1890s. It contains 21 four-line stanzas, printed in six pages, and is a geography lesson of the communities the railway passed through on its way from St. John’s to Harbour Grace Junction (Whitbourne), and on the branch line to Harbour Grace.

A small booklet of Swansborough’s poems, titled Newfoundland Months, was published in 1896 (Printer: George J. Milligan, Jr., St. John’s). The volume opens with a 12-part poem, one part for each month of the year. Other verses include “The Atlantic Cable Song” written at Carbonear on Aug. 1, 1866, “Visit of the Prince of Wales to St. John’s” [1860], “The Seal Fishery” (2nd. edition) and several pieces of “sacred poetry”. The poem “Description of St. John’s when first seen by the Author in 1849”, which appears in this volume, was a revision of a part of Swansborough’s “Geography in Rhyme for Juvenile Pupils”, a fairly lengthy world geography lesson in verse, which is available only in manuscript form. “The Atlantic Cable Song” is also included in the “Songs and Sagas of Newfoundland” section of Volume II of The Book of Newfoundland. The compiler of that section, Rev. Charles H. Johnson, writing in The Newfoundland Quarterly (33:4), calls the poem “one of the best of his [Swansborough’s] writings.”

Swansborough owned several tracts of land in Topsail and waterfront property at Lance Cove Bell Island. He built a large dwelling house in Topsail, which he named “Palairet Villa”. It is possible that the house was named for Rev. Charles Palairet, who was the Church of England minister at Topsail from the 1840s to the 1860s. He may have been the clergyman friend whom Swansborough accompanied to Newfoundland in 1849.

William Swansborough died at Topsail on Nov. 20, 1916. His wife had predeceased him on Aug. 10, 1901.

There is a small collection of Swansborough’s writings in the archives, including the manuscript for “Geography in rhyme for juvenile pupils” (1869), and “Coronation Ode”, a printed poem on the Coronation of King Edward VII. There is a notebook containing birth, death and marriage information on members of the Swansborough family, c. 1900 – 1939, mostly in William’s handwriting, a printed memorial card commemorating the death of his wife, Elizabeth, and a photocopy of his last will and testament. There are several photographs, including a portrait of William and two pictures of his Topsail house. There is also a copy of the Swansborough- Hibbs-Tucker family tree showing their many descendants.

The items that make up this collection were obtained from two of William Swansborough’s descendants: Douglas Hibbs, a great-grandson of Swansborough’s daughter Julia, donated items that were in the possession members of his family; and Edgar Skanes, a grandson of Swansborough’s daughter Sarah, donated items which had been passed down through his family. It is a small, but valuable, body of material documenting the life of a teacher and writer, who also doubled as church and community leader in rural Newfoundland in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bert Riggs is the archivist for the Centre for Newfoundland Studies.