I can’t quite remember when I first crossed paths with him. All I do know is when I did, I took an immediate liking to Harry. If anything, I liked his grit, for lack of a better word. Maybe it was a kind of chemistry, the kind that spans the decades, penetrating time itself.
You see, Harry was born almost two centuries ago. Now, the only remains left of his life, any hint of the strong and lamenting heart that guided this vibrant man, are a couple of tattered old diaries and several letters secured in an The Rooms archive in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
His name was actually Thomas Henry Verran, but most knew him as just Harry. And the more I learned about him—the things he did and what he expressed—the more I came to respect and admire him. There, amidst his words was an honesty that gained passage through a deep set of values and principles. It’s always the same old things that seem to draw us magnetically to another life.
That is the odd thing about history and lives from the past, those whose paths we just happen to cross. We meet people in the pages of a book, journal, or diary. While we read about them or pour over the words these individuals scrolled or scribbled onto a page countless years ago, in some cases, they rise from the page and come to life for us. And that’s how it was for me and Harry.
When I was first introduced to Harry, I learned he was a miner—to his very marrow. He came from Cornwall, England which rests at the core of mining country. Gifted geologically millions of years ago, the region around Cornwall is dotted with an assortment of copper and tin mines. As everyone knows, mining is no walk in the park. It is almost always hard, not to mention dangerous work. Still, for the people of Cornwall, mining was a part of their very souls.
So, growing up in Cornwall, Harry unsurprisingly went into mining and it was here where his life took a very different and unexpected turn. This is where he had met a man by the name of Major Ripley who was part of a company known as Ripley and Company of New York. Harry would be thrust headlong into a new world.
Beginning a New Life
Major Ripley was involved in a mine in La Manche, located at the head of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador. The La Manche mine was owned by the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company that had been incorporated by the wealthy American businessman Cyrus Field.
Cyrus Field (Source: Wikipedia).
Cyrus Field had become involved in the telegraph that countries such as Newfoundland,1 much like the United States, were stringing across the land. The first landing of the telegraph was intended to be in Placentia Bay and while doing work on the telegraph at La Manche, Field’s workers had encountered evidence of lead.
Not one to ignore an unexpected stroke of luck, Field took measures to exploit the mineral treasure. He enlisted the assistance of his brother Matthew Field, Major Ripley, and a man by the name of Mr. Crockett to manage the mine. After Crockett failed to yield any promising results following an excavation at the site, the feeling was they required more professional assistance. This is when Major Ripley decided to take a trip to the middle of mining country in England where he found help in the name of Harry Verran.
When Harry came to Newfoundland, the young country was undergoing considerable change. It was at a time in the nineteenth century when, fresh after being granted responsible government in 1855 by Britain, Newfoundland was stretching its wings. The idea had been for Newfoundland to further exploit its rich mineral resources in its interior. The leaders of the day felt that such an enterprise would work well with the fishery, which had hit on some hard times. So, there was a real push to develop industries like mining in order to help diversify and boost the burgeoning economy.
A Life in Words and Letters
My search to learn more about Harry would eventually take me to the provincial archive at The Rooms in St. John’s. On a peaceful sunny day in the archive, I found myself paging through Harry’s diary. Along with a collection of letters and other documents, his diary was really one of the only testaments to his life. Leafing through his letters and his well-thumbed diary, his strong spirit wove through each of his words periodically transporting me to the places about which he wrote. His thoughts were vibrant and intense in his various entries, the lively touch of humanity was only just barely contained in the swirls and scrolls of his writing.
Diaries are precious and often poignant keys to another time and place, often opening a doorway, however incomplete, to the heartbeat of a period. For me, it offered a much more valuable alternative perspective to what is sometimes delivered to us as a simple collection of encyclopaedic facts, observations, and critiques. But reading Harry’s old letters and diary was different.
I was able to catch a glimpse of his life. To be sure, it was a life predominantly filled with the various everyday events that punctuated his daily routine. But every now and then, I was touched by the intimacy of the comments captured in his diary—the passions, frustrations, the sheer anger and vehemence, as well as the delight of this man. Here were the private thoughts of a man whose words were intended for his eyes alone. Still, even after all these years, it was possible to feel the emotions springing forth from the page.
Coming to Newfoundland
After travelling to Newfoundland, Harry had made his journey to the Placentia area, writing about his experiences in his diary. On Thursday, the 24th of September, 1857, “… at 5 PM arrived at the South East 5 miles from Placentia — had tea, then left on foot with my Guide for Placentia arrived ½ p 7 PM. We could not take the waggon [sic] owing to the state of the Road.” Having made it to Placentia, Harry must have met with Mr. Ripley and others from the mine. After doing so, he likely began to make assessments and plans regarding the approach he wanted to take with the mine.
Harry opted to use a method of mining known as room and pillar mining, an approach in use for over two thousand years. It was a mining strategy that had worked for various other minerals—coal, potash, and lead. The mineral would be taken out, leaving pillars to support the overburden. It made sense. Everything seemed to be progressing well enough. But eventually, things began to change. There was a push for more. And by 1858, I could tell in his writings Harry must have been feeling pressure from his employers.
Making a Stand
In his diary, Harry shared the circumstances that surrounded the mining effort at La Manche. There was no mistaking his emphatic and emotional words— “From the 7th of June, it will be clearly shown that they were still not satisfied by their own extravagant way on the surface that he Ripley began interfering with the underground work. The cry lead. What, to assist to pay their infernal extravagance and foolery.” His words almost burst from the page. Impressed by what struck me as the thoughts of a man of principles, he seemed guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. There was a proper way to proceed, especially in terms of mining. To Harry, there were lines that could not be crossed.
His diary was full of his exasperation and discontent with the state of the mine and its management. He seemed to continually run counter to the wishes of Major Ripley: “July 9th—1858—told Ripley in presence of Mr. Bouton my intention of leaving the mines unless his partner, the Celebrated Civil Engineer did, for I would manage all or none—for seeing such infernal rascally extravagance and curse of money. I would not . I am fully determined to do one or the other.” (Verran’s emphasis) I had no idea who the “Celebrated Civil Engineer” happened to be. Given the sarcasm dripping from his words, it must have been one of his employers.
The more I read Harry’s diary, the more I appreciated his perspective and the predicament in which he had found himself. It always felt like, in his eyes, mining had been more of a calling, the pursuit of the minerals almost being akin to a sacred quest. Such a sentiment could not be sullied by the blatant and raw pursuit of profit.
Unfortunately, the spectre of money at any cost was never far from the operation with decisions being entertained that would force Harry to finally make a stand. Apparently, Ripley had hired a train in July 1858 he needed to be filled for a shipment to New York. What they had mined was insufficient and so, he requested Harry remove some of the “pillars” in order to obtain more of the ore. To sweeten the deal, Ripley had even offered Harry a letter that would absolve him of any blame, should there have been a cave in.
But they asked too much of him. Above all, Harry was a miner and was unwilling to betray what was almost a code amongst miners to not only be true to their quest for the mineral they sought. They must also never fail to respect the risks every man who goes underground undertakes as part of that pursuit—never. I was not surprised by his response — “… they wanted to discharge the miners and put Newfoundlanders underground. I told Ripley I did not come to Newfoundland to make graves for them, for working them underground. I would not.” Elated, I felt his words were filled with a fervour as he steadfastly refused their requests. His words ensured the growing respect I had for this man, for his determination to hold true to his morals. He did so despite being told he need not worry about taking personal responsibility for the consequences of his actions. It would have been so easy to do as Ripley had suggested.
As far as Harry was concerned, the mine, which was an “exceedingly good mineral property” was being horribly mismanaged. I felt a sympathy for him, as he seemed trapped by the misguided intentions of the mine owners. Part of a letter he had written to a Forrest Shepherd, a scientist from the United States captured the sentiment — “For never was there any mine in the world, ‘money’ so extravagantly recklessly and squandered away which was the sole reason for my leaving the mine. [T]hey should have made, at least while at work, £12,000 profits. Excuse me it is too much to tell you all, for if I began writing, it would take 6 months.”
Feelings of Resignation
Reading these diary entries, at times both private and intimate, I felt privy to feelings Harry could not share with others and only with himself. Throughout his diary, he had consistently expressed dissatisfaction with the entire endeavour at La Manche. And he was quite correct when he wrote, “The fact of the matter in this, the abominable manner which this property was conducted by these men. It would never prosper.” It would prove to be impossible for him to continue and he “ … left on the 11th July 1858 in disgust — A happy happy release. Oh yes I thought — the next day I was in another world on my way to St. John’s.” I read those words and I was overjoyed. While this man lived and died decades before I was born, I felt a sense of pride he had made this stand.
Harry actually went on to work at another mine in the Placentia area. However, he again began to run afoul of the same behaviour. It was no doubt for the same reason, the mine owner having expectations Harry was unprepared to meet.
Close to when he first arrived in Placentia on the 26th September, 1857, Harry had actually met the woman whom he would go on to marry. He wrote how he was “introduced by my guide to a M Sweetman. Invited to dine. Accepted. Spent the day very comfortable.” This had been Mary Josephine Sweetman, the only child of Robert F. Sweetman. Sweetman was the fourth and final generation to operate the fishery firm that had been started in the previous century. For a time, Harry apparently also worked for his father in-law. After marrying, he and his wife went on to have three children. Life must have settled into a pleasant hum of work and family life.
But by 1866, Harry had to leave Newfoundland in search of work. He eventually travelled to various countries in Africa and to Spain where he worked for an English mining company. Not long afterwards, he chose to travel, not back to Newfoundland, but to Cornwall—back home.
The likely reason is simply because he knew he was dying. Having been a part of mining for his entire life, I’m sure he would’ve recognised the invariable cough he had developed. It was the bane of any miner’s life at the time—silicosis. It may very well have already started when he was still in Newfoundland. He must have known what was happening to him and how he hadn’t much time left.
Farewell to a Good Man
The words were chillingly brief and matter-of-fact—No. 728. When buried, 6th June, 1869; Name, Thomas Henry Verran; Abode, Royal Hotel in Market Street, Town of Falmouth; Description, Engineer; In which portion of the Burial Ground Buried, Unconsecrated; Age, 42 years. This was all that was left. Reading the burial record, it seemed so unjust for man of Harry’s principles and strong character to die at such a young age and so alone, none of his family by his side. It sheered against this vigorous and spirited man whom I had met in the pages of his diary. Even though he had died long ago, almost two centuries later, there was a lingering feeling of regret and sadness.
I remember thinking how one day, I’m going to travel to Falmouth, England and try to find the place where he was buried. Maybe in my small way, I can offer some sort of recognition of this man, a belated remembrance of an all too brief life.
Throughout our lives we cross paths with countless people who make an impression on us, sealing themselves into our memories. Like Harry, some may be long gone. Still, their words conjure their spirits and for a moment, they seem to come to life. That is how it was for me and Harry Verran. He will forever have my respect and I can only offer these words as an honour to a man who it was a true pleasure to meet. Rest in peace, my friend.
MG Harry Verran The Rooms Provincial Archive
MG Randal Verran The Rooms Provincial Archive
Martin, Wendy 1999 Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Once Upon a Mine: Story of Pre-Confederation Mines on the Island of Newfoundland
1At this time, Newfoundland was its own country and it was not yet connected to Labrador.