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Month: August 2022

Written in the Walls – Class Divisions in Outport Newfoundland and Labrador

Written in the Walls – Class Divisions in Outport Newfoundland and Labrador

“The idea which underlies all is simply this. The family constitute one community: the servants another.”

Robert Kerr, The Gentleman’s House, Or, How to Plan English Residences,

from the Parsonage to the Palace, 1871

O’Reilly House Museum is to the left of Verran House, now known as Rosedale Manor Bed & Breakfast (Source: O’Reilly House Museum, unknown; Rosedale Manor B&B, Lee Everts).

The O’Reilly House Museum and Rosedale Manor Bed and Breakfast are two well-regarded highlights of the heritage landscape in Placentia, Newfoundland and Labrador. The latter is owned by local artist Christopher Newhook and Lori Pretty, a primary schoolteacher. Meanwhile, the Placentia Area Historical Society own and operate the O’Reilly House Museum.

No one would deny these buildings, both more than a century old, reflect a dignified past. At one time, both buildings were the homes of two well-to-do families in Placentia—the Verran and O’Reilly families. However, once inside these two buildings, we soon realise how there is more to them than meets the eye.

Know Your Place

The ornate wooden features in their parlours and a grand flight of stairs rising to the top floors were not merely the trappings of the sumptuous lives led and enjoyed within these homes. They were the quiet emblems of a past strongly governed by class divisions, ones that prompted the clear separation of employers and their domestic servants. These class divisions were not only confirmed and fortified by the presence of the domestic servants and their expected deferential behaviour, they were effectively written into the walls and rooms.

The behaviour of the domestic servants was intended to diminish their presence, something that was assisted immeasurably by the physical design of the rooms, passageways, and staircases. The domestic servants could easily have gone about their daily chores in the bedrooms upstairs and not even have been noticed by the family or their visitors in the parlour below. That was the idea.

Their invisibility was no accident. It was a central goal, one that was reflected in the ideas of Robert Kerr who had given the servant-keeping world The Gentleman’s House in 1871. As the above quote expresses, the design of homes like the Verran House and the O’Reilly House was based on the doctrine of division and separation and a need to ensure the privacy of the family. It was well-meaning advice to both the so-called “middling sort,” as the middle-class was at one time known, and the upper-classes, and stemmed from a taken-for-granted understanding of a society structured by class.

Class Divisions

The class divisions that governed the upper and middle-classes had been fixed in Britain for centuries. Over this period, the upper classes—the aristocracy and the landed gentry of Britain—had customarily employed domestic servants in order to permit a life of limitless leisure and comfort. Although, by the 19th century, a growing commercial and professional component of Britain, the “middling sort,” were determined to grasp the opportunity to assail the social ladder.

Working-class life in Victorian St Ives, Cornwall, England. (Source: Wikipedia)

Yet, membership within the ranks of the middle class was anything but secure. The idea of a middle class often defied clear definition with the notion of a “lower middle class” and an “upper middle class.”1 Given this ambiguity, families were determined to demonstrate their inclusion in the latter. According to people such as B. Seebohm Rowntree in his Poverty: A Study of Town Life in 1908, one of the primary symbols of the middle class that distinguished it from the “working class” was in fact the keeping of a domestic servant.

Class Divisions in Newfoundland

In Newfoundland,2 keeping a servant to do things like cooking and cleaning was nothing new. Already in the early 1700s, some of the female migrants in Newfoundland had found work as servants.3 Much like in Britain, for some of the less fortunate migrants, working as a domestic servant offered at least a meagre reprieve from the miseries of poverty. The population of Newfoundland was growing and with it, there were an increasing number of people such as the Verran and O’Reilly families who represented the professional class.

Henry Verran was the son of Harry Verran, a mining engineer, and Mary Josephine Verran neé Sweetman who was the only child of Roger F. Sweetman and his wife Honora Sweetman née Sinnott. Sweetman was to be the final owner of a highly successful fishing firm that had survived for four generations and had once spanned the globe. Given their place amongst the more affluent members of the community, the Verrans built their Second Empire home in 1893 along the laneway that skirts the Orcan River, a channel flowing below the heavily treed and rocky outcrops of Mount Pleasant.

Almost a decade later, in 1902, a Queen Anne Victorian style house was built a short distance away along the Orcan River for magistrate William O’Reilly and his family. Like the Verrans, William O’Reilly, the son of the previous magistrate, was securely a member of the middle class. For both families, the organisation and structure of their homes would be designed to mark their position. As expected, a domestic servant, the middle-class badge of honour, was also a part of the arrangements.


Unlike the battery of female and male servants, sometimes numbering over 100, who served in the big houses of the aristocracy and the landed gentry in Britain, many of the middle-class homes only had one female servant. In all likelihood, the domestic servant who worked for the Verrans and the one employed by the O’Reilly family was from the Placentia area. Similar to those in Britain, she would have been a general servant or as the position had come to be known, a ‘maid-of-all-work.’ Unlike the larger houses that employed more than one domestic servant to act, each as a cook, parlour maid, housemaid, and housekeeper, the maid-of-all-work did just as her title suggested—all the work. According to Mrs. Isabella Beeton in The Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, “The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration: her life is a solitary one, and in some places, her work is never done.” It must have been a hard life.

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (By, CC BY 4.0,

In completing the long list of daily chores that defined a typical day for the domestic servants of the Verran House and the O’Reilly House, they would have been governed by principles that established expectations regarding their behaviour. The domestic servants certainly needed to be dutiful and subservient. And if they were ever uncertain of their place, a host of accepted rules and regulations existed to help guide and mould their behaviour.

Several manuals were published to this end. Each shared a few pointers on how to be a good domestic servant. In 1859, Mary Anne Baines, who referred to herself as “A Practical Mistress of a Household” published Domestic Servants, as They Are & As They Ought To Be, A Few Friendly Hints to Employers With Some Revelations of Kitchen Life and Tricks of the Trade. In the same year, The Servants Behaviour Book, or, Hints On Manners and Dress For Maid Servants in Small Households by none other than a ‘Mrs. Motherly’ also came out. It was essential to meet the needs of the burgeoning middle class, a growing market who were searching for an ideal domestic servant.

Mrs. Motherly’s The Servant Behaviour Book.

Mrs. Motherly wasted no time in being kind, yet assertive, in outlining the type of behaviour that would aid domestic servants in their work. The topics were tied to such things as, “Of The Voice and Speaking,” “Titles of Respect” and “Always Move Gently.” For instance, Mrs. Motherly explained, “Never let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the house except when necessary, and then as little a possible.” After all, a raised voice would disturb the privacy of the employing family by declaring the presence of the domestic servant. This was to be avoided. Likewise, Mrs. Motherly felt that, the step of a servant “…should never be heard, either on the stairs or elsewhere.” These words of advice were borne of the understanding that the domestic servants were not valued in the house as living, laughing, and feeling people. They were there to do work and that was their primary and only purpose.

Designed for Division

Given their expected submissive behaviour, the domestic servants underscored the high station of the families. Nonetheless, their behaviour did not act alone. It was the physical quality and design of the doors, rooms, and staircases that told the tale. The domestic servant held an inferior position in a house divided.

The actual design of the homes acted to further diminish the presence of the domestic servant in the family compartments of the house. One of the methods of doing so was straightforward and entailed designing a house with a network of rooms, corridors and staircases intended solely for servants. These were separate from those of the family. Any sense of the domestic servant was to be limited, thus preventing the interaction of the two communities—the family and the servant. In fact, this attitude applied to all the senses.

Not only was the potential sight of a domestic servant working in the family rooms to be minimised as much as possible. As Robert Kerr clarified in The Gentleman’s House, even “the transmission of kitchen smells to the Family Apartments shall be guarded against; not merely by the unavailing interposition of a Passage-door, but by such expedients as an elongated and perhaps circuitous route, an interposed current of outer air, and so on.” Apparently, one of the many roles of the domestic servants was to protect their “superiors from defiling contact with sordid, or disordered parts of life.”4 Clearly, kitchen smells ranked as one of those sordid elements of life.

Verran House

Although the Verran House is now a bed and breakfast, it is still possible to see how the rooms and staircases were built in order to abide by the doctrine of division and separation and the attendant need to not disturb the family. One of the guest bedrooms on the ground floor in the Rosedale Manor Bed and Breakfast is located adjacent to a new kitchen that was built by the previous owners of the Rosedale. This new guest bedroom is in the same room that was once used for the original kitchen. It’s not certain whether the domestic servant lived in the residence. If so, there may have been a portion of the kitchen where she bedded down after an exhausting day. In the Verran House, as well as many other upscale homes, this was the central area for the domestic servant. Still, the bedrooms on the upper floor needed to be cleaned and tidied.

This is the central stairway at the former Verran House. Although it was closed over, the door the maid would use to access the bedrooms was at the top of the stairs (Source: Christopher Newhook).

While the home was graced with a central stairway, it was a portion of the home restricted for the use of the family. Instead, the domestic servant would have used a steep staircase, (this was later removed), that led directly from the kitchen to the upper floor landing thereby removing any need for her to use the main staircase.5 The many tasks of the domestic servant may have fulfilled a vital role in the functioning of the home. Regardless, the work needed to be accomplished in a way that was invisible to the family, all to maintain division and privacy. Despite the fact that the doorway was also removed years ago, one can imagine the servant trudging up the steep stairs, quietly opening the door onto the upper floor and then going about her business of cleaning the bedrooms and changing the bed linens.

About a decade later in 1902 and further along the lane-way from the Verran House, the O’Reilly family had moved into their new home. Much like the Verran House, it was designed to accord with the customs of division and separation, in addition to the expected relationship between the family and their domestic servant. Similar to the Verran House, the O’Reilly House was designed to not only facilitate the work of the domestic servant. Other subtle attributes and features evoked the class divisions that governed much of life at the time.

O’Reilly House

Main staircase at the O’Reilly House Museum (Source: Anita O’Keefe).

While gripping the sturdy rail, we can imagine climbing the elegant staircase from the ground floor of the O’Reilly House and upon reaching the landing on the upper floor, there are three doors, all adorned with a pearl-white doorknob. If we were to enter the one just to the left, the door reveals a narrow passageway with a room immediately to the left. This would have been the room intended for the domestic servant. It was small and separated from the main part of the house. There is a window directly opposite the door to the main house which brightens what would have otherwise been a shadowy corner of this stately home. This is part of the compartment intended for the domestic servant.

Doorknob at the O’Reilly House Museum. The difference is clearly visible, indicating it was considered an unnecessary expenditure for the maid’s quarters (Source: Christopher Newhook).

One of the most intriguing features of the O’Reilly House, one that gives an unmistakable sense of the accepted and taken-for-granted class divisions of the time was more than mundane—a doorknob. After having entered through the door leading into the compartments of the domestic servant, turning around would reveal something quite odd. Perhaps not immediately evident, it would eventually become apparent that the doorknob is not the same.

As opposed to the decorative pearl-white doorknob on the door facing the main landing, it is a plain, dark brown, workaday doorknob. However inconspicuous, this curiously different, seemingly out-of-place doorknob was very much in place. It was meant as a blatant example of the subtle and yet audible messages that buildings such as the O’Reilly House and the Verran House conveyed regarding class and social division. Ironically, two of the other rooms also had similar doorknobs. These were likely intended for the children and much like the domestic servants, it was a symbol of the divisions that existed, in this case, between children and adults during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Narrow staircase leading from the kitchen to the maid’s quarters

at O’Reilly House (Source: Anita O’Keefe).

Adding voice to the unspoken message of division, a narrow staircase with a low ceiling that would challenge even those of average height to not bump their heads led down to the kitchen on the ground floor. The idea behind the design was to allow the domestic servant, who would have spent much of her time in the kitchen, to be able to reach her bedroom without entering the main part of the house which was designated for the family. The rear staircase and door also allowed the domestic servant access to the upper floor bedrooms that required cleaning and tidying. Beyond the distant and faint sound of her footsteps overhead, her presence would have been imperceptible to family members in the parlour or dining room on the ground floor.

Designed to Diminish

The domestic servants working for the Verran and O’Reilly families may very well have been treated with kindness. There is no way to know. Regardless, they were still part of a world in which the structure and design of the houses where they worked symbolised their humble class in comparison to their employers. It was imperative for these class distinctions to be clearly evident to anyone who crossed the threshold of these two homes, not to mention to the domestic servants themselves. All of these elements—the behaviour of the domestic servants and the physical design of the homes—worked in concert to confirm the place of these two families amongst the haloed middle-class.

Every time the domestic servant in the O’Reilly house polished the pearl-white doorknob at the top of the landing, she could not help but be reminded of her place of seeming inferiority. Likewise, whenever the domestic servant at the Verran House opened the door onto the top landing to quietly clean and tidy the bedrooms, she must not have failed to feel the implied slight to her position in the house.

Time For a Change

Nonetheless, times were bound to change and by the 1940s, fewer women would be electing to take up work as a domestic servant. Wartime, despite its attendant horrors, carried some benefits, as United States military bases such as in Argentia would come to offer far better paying and a less excessive workload for women and men alike. No doubt, improvements in education also ensured that those who may have opted for work as a domestic servant could set their sights higher.

Despite these eventual developments, already by 1921, the census showed how there were no servants listed as living with either the O’Reillys or the Verrans. Why this was the case is unknown. Perhaps the domestic servants had decided to no longer be the sought-after mark of prestige for others. It was high time to do so for themselves.


Baines, Mary Anne. Domestic servants, as they are & as they ought to be: a few friendly hints to employers. With some revelations of kitchen life and tricks of trade. North Street, Brighton: Curtis & Son, 1859.

Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management. London: S.O. Beeton, 1866

Botting, Ingrid. “Getting a Grand Falls Job:” Migration, Labour Markets, and Paid Domestic Work in the Pulp and Paper Mill Town of Grand Falls, Newfoundland, 1905-1939” Ph.D. diss. Memorial University, St. John’s, NL, 2000.

Cullum, Linda. “Below Stairs: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century St. John’s” In Creating This Place Women, Family, and Class in St. John’s, 1900-1950, edited by Linda Cullum and Marilyn Porter, 89-113. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

Davidoff, Leonore. Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995.

Delap, Lucy. Knowing Their Place Domestic Service in Twentieth Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dussart, Fae C. “The Master Servant Relationship in 19th Century England & India” Ph.D. diss. University College London, London, England 2005.

Forestell, Nancy M. “Women’s Paid Labour in St. John’s Between the Two World Wars” Master of Arts, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL, 1987.

Handcock, W. Gordon. Soe longe as there comes noe women : origins of English settlement in Newfoundland. Milton, Ont. : Global Heritage Press 2003.

Higgs, Edward. “Domestic Servants and Households in Victorian England.” Social History, 8, no. 2, (1983): 201-210

Horn, Pamela 1995 The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant. (Stroud; Sutton Publishing Limited)

Horn, Pamela. Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2001.

Johnson, Matthew. Housing Culture. London: UCI Press Limited, 1993.

Kealey, Linda. “Outport ‘Girls in Service’: Newfoundland in the 1920s and 1930s.” Acadiensis XLIII, no. 2, (Summer/Autumn 2014): 79-98

Kerr, Robert. The gentleman’s house; or, How to plan English residences, from the parsonage to the palace. London, J. Murray, 1871.

Lethbridge, Lucy. Servants A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Morris, William 1977 “The Role of the Domestic” #77-142

Motherly, Mrs. The servant’s behaviour book, or, Hints on manners and dress for maid servants in small households . London: Bell and Daldy, 1859.

Newfoundland. Colonial Secretary’s Office Census of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1921. St. John’s, N.L.: [s.n.], 1923

Rowntree, B. Seebohm. Poverty: A Study of Town Life. London, Macmillan and Co.; New York, Macmillan Co., 1902.

Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities Domesticity, Literature, and the Victorian Middle Class. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2010.

Credit for servant image — By WPA – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b49400.


1Tange, Andrea Kaston Architectural Identities –Domesticity, Literature, and the Victorian Middle Class, 27

2I’m using this name as it was the name of the territory during this period. We had to wait a few decades before “Labrador” could take up its rightful place.

3Handcock, George Soe Longe As There Comes Noe Women, 92

4Davidoff, Leonore Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995), 24

5Email to Linda Grimm, the former owner of Rosedale Manor Bed & Breakfast. 29 May, 2006.

Thoughts About Climate Change

Thoughts About Climate Change

Image by Rudolf Hein from Pixabay

I’m sure if I asked you to step a mere 1,000 years into the past, you’d likely encounter a vastly different climate. If I we were to go a little further, say 20,000 years, there may very likely have been a few kilometres of ice over your head. Climate does change.

Climate Changing in Recent Years

In recent years, we’ve heard increasingly about the concerns regarding climate change. It’s primarily tied to the role we’ve played in the changing of that climate. The degree to which this is an issue isn’t of too much concern right now. Rather, it’s important to realise, change is an inherent element of climate. In fact, it’s been doing so for millions of years. And it’s not about to stop any time soon.

Our one hurdle is simply because we live amidst certain conditions to which we’ve grown accustomed. If you’re in the northern part of North America, you’d say something like, ‘it always starts to snow around a certain time.’ Or, ‘there’s never any snow at Hallowe’en.’ Maybe, ‘the leaves usually begin to fall at such and such a time.’ So, we’ve snuggled into the world being a certain way. It matches our expectations. Unfortunately, it’s only that way for a relatively short time.

Ice Ages Over the Millennia

Globally, scientists have been able to identify five significant ice ages over a very long period of history. Scientists go by ice ages because, over time, our planet cycles through periods when global temperatures are cold enough to permit continental ice sheets and alpine glaciers to persist on the surface.

Image by tbasien from Pixabay

There have been five major ice ages with the earliest 2 billion years ago. They include the Huronian (2.4-2.1 billion years ago), Cryogenian (850-635 million years ago (mya)), Andean-Saharan (460-430 mya), Karoo (360-260 mya) and Quaternary (2.6 mya-present). The Quaternary is divided into two epochs: the Pleistocene (2.6 mya to 11,000 years Before Present or BP) and the Holocene. That’s the one we’re currently in.

Within an ice age, there are interglacials. Interglacials are just warmer periods within an ice age where there’s maybe only one major ice sheet.This is the interglacial period we’re currently experiencing that began around 11,000 years ago BP.1

Why Ice Ages Develop

Ice ages are often tied to the movement of the continents. That’s ongoing, too. When continental movements shift the plates2 in such a way to obstruct customary ocean or atmospheric circulation patterns, this can trigger an ice age. At the height of the most recent ice age, the ice grew to be more than 3857.6 m (12,000 ft) thick.

Other factors include cyclic changes in Earth’s orbit. This alters the amount of sunlight reaching the surface. This, too, can jumpstart an ice age. It’s worthwhile to remember that both Greenland and Antarctica are not a permanent feature of our planet. They just are now.

Ice core sample taken from drill.

How scientists can tell when an ice age occurred involves knowing where to look. They’ve discovered that examining and analysing ice cores taken from glaciers yields valuable information. For instance, the little air bubbles are like little time capsules for atmospheric conditions, sometimes millennia in the past. They provide a little insight for a few hundreds of thousands of years.3 Meanwhile ocean sediment cores allow scientists to peer millions of years into the past. Simple layers of dust, pollen and other remaining debris can tell scientists a lot about the past.


Burin Peninsula

The ice age peaked about 20,000 years ago and our warm interglacial began about 11,000 years ago. Here, around Placentia Bay, the evidence of the ice age is abundantly clear.

Researchers have told the story of the glaciers by reading the striations left by the glacier. Striations are deep scratches on rocks left by the ice as it ground by overhead. They’d be largely unnoticeable unless you’re aware of what had happened.

On the Burin, striations spoke of how much of the glacial flow was initially flowing south-southeastward. Much of the large-scale landforms resulting from glaciation run parallel to what the striations confer. It moved across the peninsula and further onto offshore islands such as Merasheen.

A second phase of glacial flow trended southwestward in the north and northwestward in the south and the third phase had ice flowing north-northwestward possibly from offshore.

Avalon Peninsula

Striations again feature on the southwest Avalon. Located in Cuslett Cove and Angel’s Cove, striations mark the movement of ice on the Avalon. The shifting of the ice can be understood as occurring in threee phases.

In Phase 1, during the last glaciation, the ice was centred on the southwest Avalon in what was termed the Castle Ridge ice centre. Glacial ice flowed south, parallel and then along the shore of Placentia Bay.

At about this time, the ice further thickened and slowly flowed along what we now know as the Northeast and Southeast Arms in Placentia. Anyone sailing their boat along these waterways nowadays would be shocked to know their origins. But it’s the phenomenal weight of the glaciers that dug through the sediment and rock to create deep glacial valleys.

Beginning with the creation of the St. Mary’s Bay ice centre, during Phase 2, this ice gradually grew in size, eventually covering the southern two-thirds of the Avalon Peninsula.

During the Late Wisconsin glaciation, Placentia Bay was completely covered with ice. The Wisconsin glaciation was one of several that comprised the North American ice sheet complex.

Striations on rock behind Visitor Centre of Castle Hill Historical Site of Canada.

The ice moved in a southwest direction and this is yet again visible in striations gouged into the rocks that had lain there for millennia. If we stop in at the Visitor Centre of Castle Hill Historical Site of Canada, to its rear, it’s possible to find one example of striations left by the glacier.

By Phase 3, deglaciation was well on its way. Rivers were forming within the glacers in the valleys in which the Northeast and Southeast Arms later formed. This would leave eskers or long and winding ridges of sand and gravel.

These were deposited as the stream of melted water flowed within the glacier towards Placentia Bay. The transported sediment would create a large fan delta at the entrance to Placentia Bay.

Over the subsequent 5,000 years, the sea level has gradually risen, flooding the Northeast and Southeast Arms. A gravel pit now extracts the sediment deposited in the delta. There are numerous other indications of the previous ice age, such as erratics spotted across the countryside. These are rocks not native to the location where they’re currently situated, having been transported there by glacial ice.

A Climate Changing

All these changes point to a world that has radically transformed over the past millions of years. Are the changes in our climate due in part to a human impact or are we overstepping our role by saying so? It may be we’re having some impact, but there are a few things we need to bear in mind.

What we know without any question is over the past millions of years, our planet has undergone regular cyclical changes. These are supremely vast. For sea level alone, it’s estimated to have been 120 m lower during the most recent glaciation.

A normal progression will eventually see the end of the ice age in which we have lived our lives. The Antarctic and the Greenland ice sheet will be gone, the sea level will have risen, no doubt metres higher than it is currently.

Composite satellite image of Antarctica (2002).

The parts of our world where snow and ice rule the day will have transformed. In fact, it may return to how it was tens of millions of years ago. After all, in places such as Antarctica, we find petrified wood. They are the remains of trees that formed 40 million years ago, just as Antarctica was cooling down.

As certain as the revolution of our planet around the sun are the ongoing shifts and changes to our climate. They were occurring long before we appeared. We’ve only been in existence during the latter portion of the most recent ice age.

And those changes to the climate will likely continue long after we are gone, perhaps evolved into a different species entirely. A lot can happen in a few million years, which is a long time for us, but not so for the Earth.

We live on a magnificent planet in which we are only minor players, regardless of what some of us may think. Climate change is only one of the many systems that play a role in the intricate and masterly operation of our planet. Our climate changes as a matter of course and as we’ve done since we arrived on the planet, we will continue to adjust to whatever differences it brings. We will evolve.


1Before Present which is considered to be 1950, when radiocarbon dating developed.

2The earth’s crust consists of continental plates that move over the surface. Their interaction is what yields mountains and other surface features.

3The oldest continuous ice core records extend to 130,000 years in Greenland, and 800,000 years in Antarctica.

In Tune With the Fabric of Life

In Tune With the Fabric of Life

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Music is as essential to life as the air we breath. Its magnificent presence is all encompassing, remaining an essential conduit for meaning and emotion. The songs we sing, their words and meanings resonate as part of our very essence. We feel the music as it holds sway over the moods, hormones, and the emotions governing us. In so doing, music is able to enhance our joyful moments at the same time as moderating the more trying ones.

One of the more trying periods involved the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador. But as we shall see, music has played a central role in mitigating the difficulties that have, in part, defined the fishery. Despite the challenges, music has been able to subtly diminish the sharpness of these times, ensuring people are left with an element of hope.

Music and Our Bodies

One of its greatest attributes of music is the ability to bring people together. We are united by the words and sounds, together forging a collective identity. As humans, we’re hardwired for music. Biologically, our bodies contribute, with the power of music releasing oxytocin, a hormone possessed of a calming effect. When we close our eyes and sway to the music, our bodies are biologically responding to what we’re hearing. Thus, it enhances the experience.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The body helps to accomplish union with the release of endorphins accompanying the active performance of music. Endorphins are a hormone linked to pain and stress. The feeling is the neurochemical effect of song and dance is similar to social grooming, a practice associated with community bonding. Song and dance achieve the same. There is more work to be done, but we do know music appears to have an effect.

Listening to the music, holding hands or moving our bodies in unison helps to physically coordinate our actions. And in so doing, it reflects a strong sense of community, something listeners will inevitably link to the music.

Music is all about vibration. It’s believed those vibrations and the energy they emit not only give us sound, they are also capable of affecting our brain waves. Known as “sound healing” and given our bodies are 75% water, a great conductor for sound vibration, music can lower stress, reduce our mood swings, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep.

Meanwhile, other hormones also play a role. Cortisol is our built-in alarm system and functions as our body’s primary stress hormone. While the research is ongoing, scientists have found that music possesses stress-reducing effects. It’s entirely possible the release of cortisol may play a role in sound healing.

The music is then able to dampen stress induced by lament, anger or frustration, sentiments that reined in Newfoundland and Labrador, during the troubling times surrounding the fishery. Equally and beautifully, the music also gave voice to the frustrations, anger and confusion dominating the period. Music provided the critical cohesion needed when individuals and communities, alike, sought to moor their broken and tattered spirits.

Music’s Role in the Fishery

Over the years, fishing has experienced its share of difficulties and challenges. The struggles of fish harvesters stem back to the migratory fishery. It was their hard labour for very little return that defined the arrangement. By the 1950s and 1970s, resettlement disrupted numerous lives. This was a government, top-down initiative to move communities to places considered to be of more economic esteem. A more recent upheaval came with the moratorium of 1992, a debacle in which there were many to share blame. But as always, government can raise its hand and claim a significant portion of that blame.

Throughout the hardship and sorrow, music has played a vital role in bringing to life the heartfelt memories bound to the fishery. It spoke to celebrate the women and men who have given their lives, their heart and soul to the fishery. Music also helped give voice to the politics and foul machinations that shrouded the times. The music evokes images of weary and calloused hands strenuously working on the sea. At other times, the music brings to life a proud people who will never bow. Music is magically able to rally spirits, bind communities, and shore up hope.

Ballads in Newfoundland

In the troubled history of the fishery or during resettlement in Newfoundland, there are no doubt many songs like “Let Me Fish off Cape St. Mary’s” that admirably function in this manner. Like “Pad’s Song,” their gentle poignancy would rarely leave a dry eye. Their lament is for another time, something that is palpable in their lyrics and the roving melody.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

To every listener, these ballads sit against a backdrop defined by a recognition the routines and rituals celebrated in the words and music are slipping away. Both of the tempo and the lilting melody of the ballads add to the deeply felt ache they elicit.

Certain ballads such as “Seagulls Still Follow on Freedom” and “Government Game”strongly appeal to one’s heart. Although, at the same time, they offer a cutting critique of the social and political conditions surrounding the fishery. They’re able to to both calm spirits in resignation, while enrage at the same time.

Image by Daniel Kirsch from Pixabay

In both ballads, the music provides musicians and listeners alike with an opportunity to express certain emotions such as lament, loss and frustration. In doing so, they ironically enhance feelings of betrayal, anger and distress. At the same, the ballads chime with beliefs that are upheld and shared, such as a healthy distrust of the government. Thus, the music can only strengthen the bonds holding people together. People may sing along or listen and nod, looking at one another, knowing every word in the ballads to be sadly true.

The Land God Gave to Cain” turns its attention to the First Nations groups. Yet again, the message is again a recognition of the inequities that have always ordered the world. The words and rhythm utter a lament for what’s been lost. And every repeating stanza is a reflection of the ongoing battle that defines the struggle.

Towards the Sunrise

Finally, “Towards the Sunset” is a rousing shanty that encapsulates all that has been lost. There are fond memories of places and times all who are listening will be able to warmly recall. It hearkens to the past yet, it is all cast in a light beckoning listeners to the future. All is not lost. This is not a ballad to emphasise what is lost. Rather than being towards the sunset, it is more an urging towards the sunrise.

This is the power and potency of music. As we listen, the style, rhythm, and melody are able to raise a laugh or a wry smile, sometimes a look of worry. Not to worry.Throughout our journeys in the world of music, we will always be able to mend both our body and mind.


The Spirit of Waves

The Spirit of Waves

We’re all drawn to the beach. Upon sight of the waves, any stress and anxiety gently flows from our bodies. Most of us have spent time at the beach, mesmerised by the incoming waves either soothingly sloshing or hurtling onshore. Waves can be evocative, touching our innermost core. Yet, we remain in awe of the science behind them, deftly drawing in the powerful forces of the wind, sun and the moon. Bewitching, waves beckon us to gaze more deeply into their internal elements.

Before prodding and pulling at the meanings we glean from the waves that distinguish our shorelines, we can take a moment to better understand, what exactly is a wave.

Types of Waves

When we stand on the beach watching the waves come onshore, what we’re actually watching is not the movement of waves, but something far more simple: energy. That’s all it is. The movement of energy passing through the water. There is no forward movement of water.

There are several types of waves: wind-driven, tidal, and those tied to more severe weather. Waves formed through their dances with the wind are reliant on speed, duration and the area over which it’s blowing, also known as the fetch. As the wind blows, it transfers energy, through friction, to the water. This only occurs at the surface.

In comparison, a tidal wave is entirely bound to the gravitational pull of the Moon and Sun. Through its gravitational pull, while the moon moves, it causes the oceans on either side of the earth to bulge out (see image below). It’s pulling on the water on both sides of the earth, as well, the earth itself is being pulled. On the opposite side, through the centrifugal force resulting from the Moon and Earth orbiting around one another, the water pulls out. There are great speeds involved. Realise the speed at which the moon orbits the earth is 3,683 km/h.

Image of the oceans bulging out on either side of the earth, due to the moon’s gravitational pull.

So, as the earth rotates, tides move in and out. The water isn’t actually moving. We are. It’s the earth that moves through the higher or lower water. We’re just moving in and out of the bulges and the valleys as the planet rotates underneath the water. The sun also has a roll to play in terms of either enhancing or limiting the pull of the moon. A neap tide occurs when the force of the sun and moon cancel out one another and so, they’re on either side of the earth. This is when the moon is at first or third quarter.

Neap Tides

A significant amount of energy is thrust into the water when tectonic plates below the ocean shift, yielding an earthquake. This may result in a tsunami which in Japanese, translates as “harbour wave.” The energy radiates outward in a circular field. Tsunamis also generate stronger waves because the energy is transmitted throughout the depth of the water from the surface undergoing seismic shifting.1 Since it’s being driven by a significant amount of energy, when it slows as a result of the shallow water near shores, the waves will bunch up. The result is a significant wave as one wave runs into the other. They’ve been known to reach heights in excess of 66 ft (20 m). Naturally, the result is too often utter devastation for seaside communities (see the story of Lituya Bay below).

Breaking Waves

The energy is moving in an orbital motion, in both an horizontal and vertical direction. As they begin to feel the bottom, the waves decrease in speed. The top of the wave then overruns it and lurching forward, begin to break.

How a wave breaks varies. There are generally three ways this tends to happen and it’s tied to the seafloor’s surface. With spilling waves, the seafloor gradually gets shallower and the top gently overruns the wave ahead of it. If it’s a plunging wave, the seafloor is more suddenly getting shallower. This results in a more sudden overrun. Finally, the surging wave, it’ll break and then surge onshore rapidly. This will happen when the beach is more steep, essentially a more sudden overrun.

Image of a breaking wave known as a plunging wave, sometimes referred to as a “tube” or a “barrel.”

Refracting Waves

Wave refraction simply refers to why waves invariably crash parallel to the shore. When a wave is approaching the shore at an angle, the part of the wave that reaches shallow water first will begin to slow down. However, the segment still in deeper water is still continuing at its original speed. As a result, it will begin to curve and eventually parallel the shore as it breaks.

Rolling With the Waves

Dangers of Waves

Fish harvesters for centuries have intimately known both the breathtaking beauty of waves, as well as their harsher and more merciless temperaments. For much of the time, the conditions with which most fish harvesters need to contend is relatively tame seas. The winds are calm, generating little more than a ripple.

The problems arise when those seas anger and waves accordingly grow much larger. Often, these waves are generated by the gale force winds accompanying the storms. On the 4th February, 2013, the highest recorded wave recorded by a buoy occurred.

Although this pales in comparison to the highest wave recorded on the Pacific ocean. Waves generated by tsunamis carry vastly greater energy and are henceforth, considerably larger. On the 9th July, 1958, a significant earthquake (7.8 pn the Richter scale) occurred on the Fairweather Fault in the heart of the Gilbert Inlet. This inlet lies in southeast Alaska.

The result was wave of significant size — between 100 and 300 ft (30 m to 90 m). Although, because tsunamis behave as they do, bunching up when they reach shallower water, the wave was gargantuan after travelling the length of Lituya Bay. When it struck the shore, its peak height was at 1,720 feet (524 metres). The result was utter and complete devastation.

Meditative and Mesmerising

As capable waves are to eradicate anything in their path, they are equally able to kindle feelings of peace and sanguinity. Anyone who’s spent a day at the beach watching the surf for even just a few minutes will attest to its meditative quality.

Part of the allure of the waves are the sounds they make. They envelope us. The sounds overwhelm our senses and it’s impossible to decipher any particular tone. They create a broadband sound yielding a multiplicity of frequencies. Some say it’s simply a more natural version of white noise.

The sound of waves are also reminiscent of how we began. In our mother’s womb, we were bathed in a safe and comforting pool of amniotic fluid. The waves touch on our fundmental tie to water. After all, up to 60% of the human adult body is composed of water. So, the fact we are so moved by the waves surging onto the shore is no surprise. In a way, the waves and their repetitive movement is like a journey home.

The waves rushing onshore or lapping placidly at the shore’s edge are a means by which our brains can reduce its input. Peace. Time to relax. And much like in meditation, waves act much like our breathing or some other image or sound, a mantra perhaps. It centres our attention. So, watching the waves is a means by which we can clear our minds of the clutter it usually accumulates. Simply watching the waves will sooth our souls.

Let’s Go Surfing

There is no other pastime bound to the waves on the ocean as surfing. Those who dedicate their time to surfing will no doubt advocate for its inherent therapeutic qualities. Surfing demands our focus. And much like the waves themselves, the process offers an opportunity to de-clutter our minds.

In surfing, one goes into a “flow state.” Other sports will refer to being ‘in the zone,’ which simply means one is totally focussed. As a consequence, there is no space left for feelings of depression, anxiety, being disheartened, or self-doubt.

Surfing therapy intentionally incorporates various therapeutic methods such as group discussions and participants expressing their feelings. For individuals dealing with mental health concerns, surf therapy also critically creates a safe place. These are places where people can feel at ease to discuss issues central to their well-being.

The focus is to improve both their mental and physical health. Surfing functions as a metaphor to help individuals deal with their personal challenges. It builds confidence in surfing that can readily translated into how we deal with the world.

Waves of Wellness Video

Taking It All In

We are both richly engaged and energised by waves. Peacefully, we may be watching the waves quietly lapping on the shore, breaking and spilling an array of foam at its edge. At other times, we are awed by a spectacle of heavy seas releasing vast sprays of water they crash into the shore.

Whether we harness this energy, surfing the waves or by simply gazing at their beauty and odd peculiarities, we derive a sense of peace and calm. Waves give us a mere hint of the immense power of the sun, moon, and the rigorous shifting deep within our earth. And being at the shore to witness this vitality, we realise how we are also a part of this energy.


1This in comparison to wind-driven waves where the energy transfer is restricted to the surface.

We Are a Part of the Universe

We Are a Part of the Universe

Nature’s freedom.

We spend our lives occupied with working, being a part of a family, and in any number of ways, seeking relaxation and recreation. Some of us are drawn by a purpose, others by a wish to be of service to a fellow soul in this universe. In all that we do, as Joseph Campbell writes, “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” Perhaps, in the end, this must be our ultimate goal and if so, everything else will fall into place.

Wheel of Life

Wheel of Life

A young American robin.

Naturally, I was horrified. Anyone would’ve been. A couple of days ago, I witnessed one of the more unpleasant realities of nature. A neighbourhood cat was tormenting a young robin, its breast still an array of raggedy brown, black and tawny spots.

The bird had been weakened by preliminary attacks, I could only imagine were intended to incapacitate. So, it could only open its beak wide, as if awaiting food from its parent. I could only assume, at that age, it was the only way it knew to interact with the world. It was agonising. To my mind, it seemed little more than a silent scream, begging for mercy, pleading, for the love of god, to leave it be. I don’t know. I ran outside, my aim to intervene.

The cat tormenting the bird belongs to a neighbour and often comes to my house during the mid-morning. Appearing at my window, she opens her mouth, a silent meow, requesting and now largely, expecting to be allowed inside. And so I happily do so.

But all cats are the same. Wildness is innate. Their ability to be loving, purring while being stroked sits calmly and casually alongside their ability to be exceptionally proficient hunters.

I hastily ran over to where the little robin was laying. The local cat somehow recognised my intention and then backed off. She actually ran to come inside and so, I let her in. It was almost like she wanted to distance herself from what she was doing, wishing to somehow flee from it’s reality—even though she was the main protagonist. I’m likely imposing some fragment of morality I wanted to see in a cat who was simply obeying her keen instincts.

When I went over to the bird, it could no longer fly or even move. I knelt on the ground and gently rubbed its side. It didn’t seem to resist or to my mind, show any fear. Perhaps there was something in its mind that knew I meant it no harm. We were locked, eye to eye, in a moment of peace and tranquility.

I gathered it into my hands determined to place it out of harm’s way. It did wriggle at that point, naturally in fear of its life. We are all innately bound to even the tendrils of survival. My hope was to somehow leave it on a branch. That way, no creature on the ground, at least, could do anymore damage.

It was a foolish endeavour. As soon as I tried to perch it on the branch, it fell into the broad leaves of the plants down below. I didn’t attempt to retrieve it. I simply hoped it could meet a peaceful end.

It was heartbreaking. There was every chance, this bird had only hatched a mere two weeks previously. Most likely, it hadn’t even built the strength to fly. Yet, here it was, soon to lose its hold on a world it’d only just entered. Questions of fairness are never applicable in nature. Still, there was a wrongness with which I wrestled.

Invariably there’s a feeling of inadequacy and impotence that hovers over one’s shoulders. What else could I have done? Truth be told, what I wanted to do was to somehow prevent the death of this creature. It’d just been born and the journey to death was supposed to be a long one—as long a possible. After all, life’s supposed to be punctuated by those poignant junctures of procreation, nurturing, and simple survival. Here it was cut short abruptly.

The next morning dawned and I looked at the brush under the tree where the little robin lay. I was fairly sure it would’ve died by then. The goal is to find small justifications, trying to emphasise the rightness or at best the acceptance of it.

Later in the day, I was looking out onto the road and there was a small lump. In a moment, I realised it must be the body of the small bird. One of the cats in the neighbourhood must’ve followed the smell and found it, pulling its carcass out of the protection into which I’d placed it the day before.

I was pondering the realities of the situation when a gull suddenly flew in and settled. Now, gulls don’t often land on the street unless there’s an obvious payoff. I’m not saying they’re mercenary. But I do know they follow a more, shall we say, intense path to survival, one that often yields fairly rich kickbacks.

On this particular occasion, that small lump was the focus of the gull’s attention. The gull proceeded to lift the lump from the ground and bash it against the road—again and again. I didn’t realise what it was doing, until it managed to gather up the lump in it’s beak. Method in its madness, the idea was to soften the little lump of bones and feathers. I thought it was going to then fly off. Instead, it threw its head back and into its gullet went the small lump. Gone.

And so there it is. The end of that young robin was really only its first step toward a new beginning. By the time I’d noticed the little lump on the street, the essence, spirit or consciousness—whichever accords with your perceptions and beliefs—of that little bird had already moved on. It had departed, re-joining the energy of the universe. As it is with all of us. At some point, we’ll all see our world again, new and as yet unknown. Likewise, the bird’s biological body, the one it had spent an all too brief time inhabiting, was about to return to the beautiful cycle of life.

Life is an eternal journey interspersed with the cardinal moments of life and many more—sickness, joy, struggle, elation, sadness, surprise, death. No beginning. No end.