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John Rorke & Sons Limited fonds, 1879-1933

2.5 metres of textual material

Administrative history

John Rorke (d. 1896) came to Newfoundland from Athlone, Ireland in 1824 to work as a clerk at the newly established fishery supply and general trade firm of Bennett and Ridley, probably at Harbour Grace. By 1830, he had married Mary Toque, and had established his own fishery supply business at Adam's Cove, just north of Carbonear. In 1837, Rorke, along with co-owner Ann Toque, registered the Elizabeth, a 109 ton schooner. Two years later, Rorke purchased and set up business at the Slade and Elson premises in Carbonear. At the new location, the firm expanded rapidly. Rorke soon moved beyond the typical outport fishery operation, and became involved in the annual spring seal hunt, supplying three vessels in 1846 and six in the following year.

The firm opened two Labrador branches, St. Francis Harbour and Venison Island, to participate in the Labrador "stationer" fishery, which was prosecuted by many Conception Bay residents who migrated to the Labrador Coast each year. To successfully participate in the Labrador trade, Rorke needed several vessels. Between 1839 and 1920, the firm registered forty-eight vessels in Newfoundland, ranging from 50 to 150 tons.

From 1863, John Rorke Sr. was active in the politics of the country and was elected six times for the district of Carbonear between 1863 and 1878. He was part of F.B.T. Carter's confederate slate in 1869, and went on to become part of William Whiteway's government in 1878. Whiteway appointed him to Executive Council in 1879, where he remained until his death in 1896.

John Rorke's sons, John and James, who had joined the firm in 1880, took over the business upon their father's death. C.T. Bennett of Bristol, John Senior's old employer, maintained the connection with the Rorke's as their agent, handling John Rorke & Sons Limited's import and export business in Britain. James died in 1918 at about the same time the firm began to change direction - perhaps due, in part, to a couple of coincidental occurrences. In 1919, Bennett's business closed and two of the firm's foreign-going vessels, the Callidora and the Olinda, were wrecked. John Rorke & Sons Limited largely withdrew from the export and import business about this time, opting instead to sell fish to and buy goods from St. John's firms, especially A.S. Randell. This change may have been anticipated for some time because, from 1896 to 1920, the Rorkes acquired only two vessels, one in 1902 and one in 1917, both under James' name.

By 1920, James Rorke's sons, John and James, had joined their uncle John in the firm. Sometime after James' death, the Rorkes established a separate operation known as the Rorke Fish & Coal Company Limited, which specialized in the sale of coal as well as Labrador cured codfish, and fresh and pickled salmon. Following the death of the second John Rorke in 1929, John and James Jr. incorporated John Rorke & Sons Limited. The incorporation documents clearly stipulate that the assets of the Rorke Fish & Coal Company Limited were to be excluded from John Rorke & Sons Limited. John Rorke & Sons Limited continued to operate the store at Water Street, Carbonear until 1980. The firm liquidated its assets in 1981.

Sources: Rorke Name File, Keith Matthews Name Files, Maritime History Archive; Reid, Arthur, Carbonear Merchants, Student Research Paper, Maritime History Archive, 103-D-05-04; Newfoundland Directories, 1890, 1936; Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990; Ships and Seafarers of Atlantic Canada, CD ROM, Maritime History Archive, 1998.

Scope and content

This fonds contains correspondence and shipping papers for the company operations from 1879 to 1933. The bulk of the firm's records, from 1862-1951, including the ledgers and most of the bound volumes are held at the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL) in private papers collections no. P7/A/11. Material of particular interest in this collection is the correspondence and accounts of C.T. Bennett of Bristol, which sheds light on the complexities of the marketing structure and the economic factors which affected the saltfish industry as well as giving insight into the day to day operations of the business. Also included are vessel expenditures and charter parties. Of particular interest is the architect's specifications for the building of the Stonehouse, on Water Street, Carbonear, which is in the correspondence for 1907.

Much of the material was in its original folders, such that it was possible to discern an existing order, although an attempt had been made at re-arrangement at some period during its custodial history. The correspondence from 1918-1930, in particular, still more or less conformed to its original arrangement. The remaining correspondence was loose for the most part. Schooner disbursements were either in packages or envelopes, and most of the Account of Sales sheets were in envelopes. The order that was imposed on the collection through this arrangement follows as closely as possible the form and function of the material itself. The correspondence divided naturally into two series, 1880-1918 and 1919-1933, coinciding with changes and restructuring within the firm. All the other material is grouped according to form and arranged chronologically. The fonds is organized in four series: Correspondence, 1880-1933; Financial records, 1879-1920; Shipping records, 1881-1923; Miscellaneous bound volumes, 1892-1920.

Custodial history

This collection of material from the Carbonear firm of John Rorke & Sons Limited was donated to the Maritime History Archive in 1990, by Alan Cass, officer of the Carbonear Historical Society. The 8 boxes of material had been found in the Rorke's warehouses when the buildings were taken over by the town, after the firm's closure in 1980. The material was donated to the Historical Society to dispose of as they wished, and after obtaining permission from members of the Rorke family, they agreed to donate the collection to the Maritime History Archive.


Supplied title based on the contents of the fonds.

Copyright is held by the creator or his/her heirs.

Maritime History Archive finding aid 96.

Related material can be found in Rorke, John & Co., Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, MG 465; Rorke Family Collection, 1908-1911. Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, MF-247.

Accession number 1990001

Location Bank 49 and 50

Series 1. Correspondence, 1880-1933

1.01 Correspondence, 1880-1917

1.02 Correspondence, 1918-1933

Series 2. Financial records, 1879-1920

2.01 Account of Sales, C.T. Bennett 1879-1917

2.02 Statements on Account, C.T. Bennett 1879-1920

2.03 Half-yearly Accounts, C.T. Bennett 1912-1915

2.04 Account of Sales, various firms, 1879-1917

2.05 Statements on Account, 1879-1920

Series 3. Shipping records, 1881-1923

3.01 Schooner Disbursements 1881-1913

3.02 Shipping Papers 1905-1923

Series 4. Miscellaneous bound volumes, 1892-1920

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