How to find family in the Newfoundland cod trade

By Guest, 19 August 2019 - 12:03pm

Simon Wills explains why anyone with West Country ancestry may share a link to Newfoundland cod with Katherine Ryan

Newfoundland cod trade Katherine Ryan
Fishermen drying cod in Novia Scotia in the 19th century (Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

From the 16th century until the early 1800s, many British fishermen, merchants, labourers and ship-owners earned substantial seasonal incomes from fishing over 2,000 miles away.

Their focus was Newfoundland, off the east coast of modern Canada.

It was a long and potentially dangerous journey in the days of sail, but the financial rewards could be considerable because of the abundance of cod there, which were easy to catch.

The full version of this article will be available in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine September 2019, on sale from next week

There were many dangers in pursuing a livelihood so far from home, not least the risk of shipwreck in the North Atlantic before even reaching the fishing grounds.

In addition, the fishing was generally done from small, open vessels, and the Newfoundland coast is notorious even today for unpredictable weather: sudden storms can swamp a small boat.

Also, men could easily become disorientated and disappear forever in the area’s dense offshore fogs.

There were dangers on land, too.

The fishermen would set up a base with rudimentary shelters on the coast where all of the fish were brought ashore and where men usually slept, because this was in theory safer than spending the night at sea.

But Newfoundland was a remote and inhospitable place, where any injury or illness might result in an early death.

Many fishermen died of hypothermia.

Quite apart from these hazards, work was demanding, relentless and repetitive.

During daylight, the fishing was done using baited lines carrying hooks lowered over the side of the boat and hauled up again by hand.

In the evenings, or when the weather was too bad to fish, there were no entertainments or diversions except what people could devise for themselves.

The Newfoundland landscape was uninviting to say the least, the human company was extremely limited, and there was little else for the fishermen to do except eat, work and sleep.

The different groups of men involved in fishing were also effectively in competition with each other, which could result in all sorts of intimidatory tactics.

It was not unknown for men who arrived early in the season to sabotage or steal the shelters and equipment left behind by others from the previous season.

The first to reach Newfoundland also claimed the best harbours.

The last to arrive fared less well economically, because they had to waste a lot of time re-establishing camps and equipment in more remote locations, and had farther to travel each day to fish.

Newfoundland code trade
Newfoundland fishing ships often risked wreck in the region's rough weather (Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

How to trace Newfoundland fishermen

Early records about the Newfoundland fisheries are in the colonial series CO1 at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, indexed by year; however, they have not been digitised.

The records include some Newfoundland censuses, mostly from the 17th century.

For example, CO1/38 enumerates named inhabitants and visiting British ships in 1676.

Unfortunately, the captain is the only person named on the ships.

Ship censuses from the West Country in the 16th and 17th centuries include many vessels that sailed to Newfoundland.

These are in series SP15 and SP16 at TNA, and often identify their captains and owners.

The Devon and Cornwall Record Society has published ones for both counties in Early-Stuart Mariners and Shipping: The Maritime Surveys of Devon and Cornwall 1619–35 (£25 from Boydell & Brewer; also available in some libraries and second-hand).

There is one for Dorset in 1629 in SP16/138/11.

In addition, there are a number of websites for accessing records and other useful information in Canada including the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage site, which has many articles about the history of fishing and the early settlement of the area.

Katherine Ryan Who Do You Think You Are?
Katherine Ryan travelled to Newfoundland to discover her fisherman ancestors on Who Do You Think You Are? (Credit: Wall to Wall)

Katherine's cod connection

During her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, comedian Katherine Ryan discovered that her 5x great grandparents Giles Hosier and Grace Newell had a fishing room in the port of Bonavista, essentially a large shed where fishermen processed their catch.

Fishing rooms were usually owned by a merchant family who traded with the fishermen.

Katherine was shown a record describing her ancestors’ room from a list of Bonavista Bay Fishing Room Inhabitants, 1805–1806.

This has been digitised and is among the many genealogical sources on the Newfoundland’s Grand Banks website, including an incomplete collection of censuses.

The room had been built by Grace’s family, and was known as Newell’s Room.

Giles came over to Newfoundland from Poole in Dorset, probably as a chief agent in the late 1700s, and married Grace, taking on her family’s business.

Sadly one of their sons died when the ship he was on, full of goods that the family planned to trade, was lost with all hands in 1812.

The ship was not insured, and the family’s cod business could not survive the loss.

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