Tapping into the source

Jun 13th, 2013

Janet Harron

Tapping into the source

Folklorists Dr. Philip Hiscock and Dale Jarvis have teamed up for a perfect summer research project.

They will be tapping into traditional knowledge around wells, springs and natural water sources within the St. John’s area with help from the Harris Centre’s RBC Drinking Water Research and Outreach Fund.

According to Dale Jarvis, who works as the intangible cultural heritage development officer for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, wells are often the oldest pieces of human heritage in a community still in use.

“That’s probably why there are so many place names here related to water – there are innumerable Freshwaters, Riverheads, and Springwells across the province,” he pointed out. “When people were arriving via boats, the first place they would have looked for was a safe spot for drinking water.”

In many cases, water sources found 400 – or even 3,000 – years ago is often still in use today. 

Dr. Philip Hiscock explains that there are several types of water sources known as wells in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some are “true “ wells -- holes dug in the ground and walled with rocks, often covered with well houses. Some are pools in brooks and rivers, kept open by generations of users and vigorously protected. Others are barrels sunk into boggy ground or springs where water runs out of the ground. In some communities, “wells” consist of long hoses and plastic piping used to collect water from far afield and delivered to individual houses and gardens.

With funding in place, the two investigators will hire a summer student to go out and identify disused, used, current and former wells, spring and other water sources.

“Anything that was a natural water source is something we want to collect information about,” said Dr. Hiscock.

The pair already know of 12 such sources in the St. John’s area.

“We haven’t even officially started to look but they are popping up,” said Mr. Jarvis. Several such examples are at the Mercy Centre for Ecology and Justice on Mt. Scio Road.


The centre is on land that once belonged to the Macdonald family. The property is home to an old well that Sister Mary Tee, the centre’s co-ordinator, hopes to possibly restore and use as part of their ongoing garden projects. In addition to the traditional covered well, there is a third modern artesian well on the site and one in the cellar.

“It was typical to find hidden wells indoors in people’s homes which were used as storage for butter or cheese if they weren’t being used for water,” Dr. Hiscock said.

Mr. Jarvis points out that people are very attached to their water sources and have very complex ideas about water.

“Some water is considered better for washing, some water is only fit for your toilet. Some people will only make tea from certain water as they maintain it affects the taste,” he explained. “By identifying these micro sources, it tells us about how people think about and retain knowledge of their environment.”

He offers the example of the archaeological dig at Ferryland. Local legend has it that, in the 1700s, a child drowned in a well on the site and was subsequently filled in and essentially disappeared. When the archaeologists first went looking for the well in the early 1990s, they were instructed by an elderly resident as to where to start digging. And of course he was right.

“Apparently he told Jim Tuck (the head of the dig at the time), ‘I guess I just paid attention when I was young,’” laughed Dr. Hiscock.

Dr. Hiscock himself is another who paid attention when he was young. His grandfather once owned a property with a well on what is now Kenmount Road.

“A few years ago I decided to try and locate the well – and after some trial and error, I did. I only knew approximately where the old spring well was, just off a certain path, and so on. It took a couple of years of searching but eventually I found it. I dug it out and it has run clear ever since."

 The two encourage anyone with a familiarity with wells in the St. John’s area to email ich@heritagefoundation.ca or call Mr. Jarvis at 1-888-739-1892, ext 2.





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