Episode 44: The Fires of St. John’s

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In the 1810s, St. John’s, Newfoundland was possibly the most remote and inaccessible corner of British America. Located on an island that was often icebound in the winter months, St. John’s was far from self-sufficient, depending on the Royal Navy for its food, building materials and governance. In February 1816, during the midst of an already dangerous winter made lean by economic depression, fire broke out on the city’s waterfront. It was only the beginning of a cycle of destruction that would char the streets of St. John’s four more times in just a few years, igniting class, ethnic and religious tensions as well as having political repercussions. This is the story of how St. John’s dealt with—or failed to deal with—numerous challenges to its very existence.

In this episode, historian Sean Munger not only recounts the story of the fires themselves, but also examines the complicated social and political backdrop against which they occurred. You’ll meet the hapless and bronchial Royal Navy governor of Newfoundland, Francis Pickmore; you’ll learn why war meant feast and peace meant famine in St. John’s; and you’ll rub shoulders with the destitute Irish-born fishery workers who were reduced to picking through smoldering ruins for scraps of food. This is a story, not just of a series of disasters, but a community living on the edge whose ultimate survival was nothing less than miraculous.

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[Above] St. John’s as it appeared in the early 19th century. The town grew from an establishment of seasonal fishing camps, a tradition stretching back perhaps even farther than the alleged “discovery” by John Cabot in 1547. Nearly all of its economic activity even in the Second Decade was focused on fishing and sealing. The fires broke out at the epicenter of fish processing activity: in the February 1816 fire, for instance, fish scales discarded in the streets, which are flammable, were a significant accelerator of the blazes.

[Above] Curing cod on the Newfoundland coast, early 19th century. The process of curing or drying fish, principally codfish, was vitally important to the livelihood of St. John’s. As fish spoils easily and quickly, and St. John’s was so distant from most centers of commerce in the Atlantic world, preservation was key despite the laborious nature of either drying or salting the catch. This process has been repeated in numerous fish-based coastal economies across the centuries; the Norse fishermen of Bergen, for example, were doing it in the 10th century.

[Above] Richard Goodwin Keats, the Royal Navy officer who preceded Francis Pickmore as Governor of Newfoundland, and who probably recommended Pickmore as his successor. The bulk of Keats’s historical reputation was as a fighting sailor, most famous for his exploits at the Battle of Algeciras Bay in 1801, where he commanded the HMS Superb. Keats was one of the models for Patrick O’Brian’s character of Jack Aubrey, and some of Keats’s real-life experience in battle influenced the 2003 film version of O’Brian’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. After leaving Newfoundland in Pickmore’s hands, Keats returned to England, administered Greenwich Hospital, and died in 1834.

[Above] Sir Charles Hamilton (1767-1849), who succeeded Pickmore, was another Royal Navy hero, and he also served as a Member of Parliament. It was on Hamilton’s watch that new building codes designed to make St. John’s slightly less flammable came into being. Hamilton was reputedly disappointed by Newfoundland and frustrated in his attempts to make it more agriculturally productive. He served as governor until 1823, and also returned to England. He died in 1849.

[Above] St. John’s, in ruins again after the devastating fire of July 1892. The danger of fire abated slightly after the Second Decade and Hamilton’s reforms, but fresh conflagrations in 1846 and especially the 1892 blaze dwarfed the devastation of the 1816-19 fires. City fires like these became considerably less common in the 20th century, when concrete became the predominant urban building material; most large city fires since then have occurred in the context of war.

All pictures are believed to be in the public domain.

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