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Image of a fishery past

(March 23, 2000, Gazette)

William Charles St. John

By Bert Riggs

Painted portraits of Newfoundlanders dating from the 1800s appear to be extremely rare. Those that were done were probably painted in England and were done for members of wealthy families who could afford such luxuries. There were very few artists living in Newfoundland during that century, and the few who did were often here for only a short time. One of the few was Henrietta, Lady Hamilton (1780?-1857), wife of Sir Charles Hamilton, who was governor of Newfoundland from 1818-1824. Lady Hamilton lived in St. John’s with her husband during his term as governor. She is best known for her miniature portrait entitled Mary March. It is a watercolour on ivory portrait of Demasduit, one of the last of the Beothuk, painted in 1819, which now resides in the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa.

The most successful of the painters who did live in Newfoundland during the first half of the 19th century was William Gosse. Gosse was born in Worcester, England, in 1808 but moved to Carbonear, Newfoundland, in 1822 to work at Pack, Gosse and Fryer, a mercantile establishment in which his uncle, John Gosse, was a partner. William did find some time to paint in Carbonear, but it was not until he moved to St. John’s (probably in the early 1830s) that he set up business as a professional painter. His drawings of various St. John’s locations are the only ones known to exist of downtown St. John’s prior to the 1846 fire. Portrait painting probably occupied a great deal of his time during the years he worked in St. John’s but it appears that very few of these paintings have survived. Gosse left Newfoundland in the 1840s and returned to England. One of Gosse’s works that has survived is a pencil and watercolour portrait of William Charles St. John. It was painted in 1841 and is in excellent condition. Until recently it was framed and there is a dark border around the edges of the painting which were covered by the frame. The painting does not appear to have faded and the colours are still quite vibrant.

This piece provides an example of Gosse’s work as a portrait painter. It also shows what the well-dressed young man from Harbour Grace would have worn in 1841.

William Charles St. John was born in Harbour Grace in 1806, son of Oliver St. John and Charlotte Garland. His education was probably an eclectic mixture of formal schooling and home tutoring. The Church of England mission operated a grammar school in Harbour Grace from 1774 to 1803, and other schools began operating there in the early decades of the 19th century. A Methodist school began operation in Carbonear in 1799 and as the St. John family were Methodists, he may have gone there. As well, his father, as a magistrate, would have been an educated man and would likely have taught his son at home.

His early employment involved a clerkship with Slade, Elson and Co. where he met Philip Tocque and Philip Henry Gosse, both of whom would become noted writers later in the century. St. John married Elizabeth Suzannah Comer at Harbour Grace on June 30, 1829. (She was the sister of William S. Comer, who was proprietor and editor of the Harbour Grace newspaper, The Conception Bay Mercury from 1829 to 1831.) The St. Johns had at least two children, Charles Henry St. John (1830-1925) and Ada St. John Bremner (1832?- 1857), and there may have been others.

William St. John taught school in Harbour Grace for a number of years. It was during this time that he recognized the need for and compiled A Catechism of the History of Newfoundland, from the earliest accounts to the close of the year 1834, for the use of schools (St. John’s: J. M’Coubrey, Printer, 1835). This short volume, dedicated to then Governor Henry Prescott, was the first work of its kind produced for Newfoundland schools and was based upon the writings of such historians as John Reeves and Louis Anspach. It was sanctioned by the government and used in Newfoundland schools for a number of years.

In 1842 St. John relinquished his teaching responsibilities and entered the newspaper business. On Nov. 2 of that year he published the first issue of The Weekly Herald and Conception-Bay General Advertiser. Its content was similar to most newspapers operating in Newfoundland at that time, containing local news, especially reports from the Legislature, shipping news, letters to the editor, and births, deaths and marriages. It also contained foreign news and fiction. It was promoted as a nonsectarian and politically independent newspaper but one in which the editor would not be reticent in exposing injustice and championing causes which benefited the hard-working people of Newfoundland. It was noted in St. John’s obituary notice (The Boston Traveller, March 22, 1873) that “he was very outspoken in his editorial remarks, and occasionally came into collision with the ruling powers of the island (the mercantile community and the Church).”

St. John operated The Weekly Herald for almost 12 years. In the spring of 1854 he announced his intention to sell the paper and emigrate to Boston, where he planned to publish a semi-weekly paper. The Weekly Herald’s last issue appeared on June 28, 1854. In his final editorial St. John expressed his thanks to all his subscribers and supporters; he emphasized that it had been his intention to treat all fairly and to “defend the rights, and promote the interests of the community at large” and he felt he had done this. It was possible that he was under pressure from some powerful group to change his editorial policy, as his obituary also states “not caring to suppress opinions which he believed should be adopted for the prosperity of the country, he sold the good-will of the paper, to the regret of all who knew his worth, and with the members of his large and intelligent family left the island and took up residence in Boston.”

It would appear from the list of property that St. John put up for sale before leaving for Boston that he was a well-to-do if not wealthy man. In addition to the newspaper, he advertised for sale 14 separate lots of free-hold property including: Water-side premises on Noad Street; a large dwelling house formerly occupied by Dr. Dow; a cottage with gardens, out-houses and meadowland; a dwelling house and cooperage on Holbrook Street; shops and dwelling houses on Cochrane and Water Streets; shop and dwelling house opposite St. Paul’s Church; shop and dwelling house leased to Patrick Quinn; land and dwelling house leased to Capt. Michael Fitzgerald; dwelling house and premises leased to Edmond Hunt; shops, gardens and tenements leased to John Kavanagh; dwelling house and garden leased to John Richards; shop, dwelling house and garden leased to John McDonald; dwelling house and garden leased to Richard Power, all in Harbour Grace, and a piece of meadowland on Carbonear Island. This was an extensive amount of property for one person to have owned in Harbour Grace in the 1850s.

Once settled in Boston, St. John soon established a new newspaper, The International Journal, which he operated for a number of years. That same year, 1855, he published a new edition of his Newfoundland catechism. Two years later he founded the newspaper, The Anglo-Saxon Weekly. According to his obituary “Mr. St. John was an honorary member of the Royal Geographical Society of London, which honour was conferred upon him in consequence of a criticism he [made] on a geographical report of Newfoundland. Mr. St. John published a series of articles on the set of the currents around the coast of Newfoundland, accounting for the numerous shipwrecks on Cape Race, St. Shotts, &c., which was considered standard authority.” In his later years he wrote for the newspaper The Sunday Courier. He also wrote poetry: two of his poems appeared in a volume by his son Charles entitled Poems (1859).

St. John died in Boston on February 17, 1873, after a lengthy illness.