“The Roving Newfoundlanders (II)”


"Ye roving boys of Newfoundland, come listen unto me." In 1863, Shea hires 55 men to work on the railway. They run away to Canada, work on a riverboat and are robbed, ship on the Morning Bloom which sinks on George's Bank; only seven reach St John's


This is a tough one to pin down.

This is surely not about the Newfoundland Railroad which was not begun until 1881. The Windsor Branch Railway in Nova Scotia opened in 1856 and is at least possible as the railroad in question.

Peacock's versions of the song have the date as 1868 and he has "Shea's gang" building the Canadian Pacific Railway; but the Canadian Pacific Railway construction began in 1875 after scandals and false starts in the early Seventies.

As for the wreck of the Morning Bloom on George's Bank: I find no record of that[;] the Northern Shipwrecks Database 2002 lists well over 200 ships by name lost on George's Bank between 1822 and 1995.

A July 2002 note by Wilfred Allan at Nova-Scotia_Seafarers-L_ Archives site states "Georges Bank is at the edge of the Atlantic continental shelf between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. Thus it straddles both the U.S and Canadian borders ... about 250 km by 150 km in area." - BS

We have four texts -- Greenleaf/Mansfield 150, Leach-Labrador 78, Peacock p916A and Peacock p919C -- and we're not likely to find more [Mercer :see bibliography at the end of this note]. This seems a good time to sum up.

In response to my query about railway history as it might relate to Peacock's version and comments, Dave Knowles, Librarian of the C. Robert Craig Memorial Library in Ontario -- established to collect, preserve and make available to the public materials that document the history of rail transportation in Canada -- was kind enough to join me in speculating about the railway and to suggest further paths to follow in researching this problem.

Mr Knowles's thoughts -- quoted by permission with the understanding that "so much of it is guesswork or gut instinct that it really doesn't qualify as research" -- follow and are interspersed among the comments on the railway section of this discussion. He writes, "On balance I suspect that the situation in the song is generic rather than specific. Given the song's length it probably developed over the years with consequent changes in names and facts in order to match the times, the tune, and perhaps even the audiences. In all probability many songs were melded together to create the epic."

While I don't go that far, I did become convinced that the ballad is a constructed "Odyssey" with episodes to work back to "Ithaca" rather than a retelling of an historic journey; why, for example, would even a storm-driven Gloucester fisherman work so hard to reach St John's rather than heading home?

As for the rest of the statement: certainly, the components were in the air for years and, as Greenleaf/Mansfield 183 illustrates, the idea of combining the different adventures of "The Roving Newfoundlanders" in a single song was not new (though Greenleaf/Mansfield 183 does not stitch them together into a single adventure).

Songs about work fill the collections. There are a few songs about fishing on your own in the season: "Rowing in a Dory" where you are "the captain and the crew," "The Fisher Who Died in his Bed," "John Yetman," "Western Boat," .... There are a few more about trying to get through the hard times at home off season like "Brown Flour" and "Fish and Brevis." There are far more about leaving home for seasonal fishing: "The Herring Gibbers," "Taking Back Gear in the Night," "High Times in our Ship," not to count the many "The Wreck of ..." and "The Loss of ..." that end in disaster.

There are many about leaving home for seal hunting, logging, hauling cargo etc.: "Maurice Crotty," "The Sealer's Song," "Twin Lakes," "Jerry Ryan," "The Badger Drive," and some about spiking on railways: "The Boys at Ninety-Five," "The Bonavist Line," "Drill Ye Heroes, Drill." There are ballads about leaving the island for seasonal work: "Labrador," "The Girls of Newfoundland," "The Track to Knob Lake,."... There are ballads about leaving the island for years to earn a stake, like "The Green Shores of Fogo" and "My Dear, I'm Bound for Canady." Finally there are ballads about emigrating when hard times are too much to bear, like "The Emigrant from Newfoundland" and "The Low-Backed Car."

This ballad has five episodes and they cover some of this variety of situation.

(1) In 1863/1868/1872 they (maybe 55 or 62) leave Newfoundland to get work.

My first problem was in taking this range of dates seriously. What was going on in those years? Is this is just meant to refer to "a ways back"?

(2) In three of the four versions, the first stop is to railway construction for Shea (maybe in "Canada"). The conditions being very bad, they run away.

Peacock puts this job at Crow's Nest Pass, and, in 1961, his seventy-seven year old informant reminisced about hearing the old-timers talk about that hard time. If Peacock was right then this episode referred to a Canadian Pacific Railway project in the winter of 1897-1898; Crow's Nest Pass -- or Crowsnest Pass -- is just east of the border between southern Alberta and British Columbia.

Dave Knowles continues on the subject of what workers were likely to be found on railway construction gangs between 1860 and 1900. My original question to him involved the likelihood that Newfoundlanders were contracted as a group in 1863-1872. "The dates cited in the song were in the sixties. There were many different railways built in what is today's 'Canada' beginning in the 1830s. The first railway into Ottawa was 1854, and the Grand Trunk between Montreal and Toronto was 'abuilding' in the 1856-8 period. Most of these early railways were short and soon ended up in the three major systems of Grand Trunk, Canadian Pacific and Canadian Northern....

"As far as labour is concerned most of it was local, contracted and sub-contracted out. Stone bridges, stations etc would require skilled stone masons and carpenters who were a higher level of worker than needed for the roadbeds. The Grand Trunk (between Montreal and Toronto), in contrast, however, was built by British railway contractors Peto, Brassey, Bates and Jackson who imported a crew (estimated at 3000) of the famous 'navvies' from Britain. They returned to Britain at the end of construction. The western end of the CPR in the early 1880s used labourers imported from China!

"In the days before steam or diesel powered construction equipment the work was hard and I gather the attrition rates were pretty high. Consequently labourers were sought from wherever they could be found. Many contractors were involved. I suspect that there were many 'Sheas' among the contractors and sub-contractors as well as in the labour force. In the Ottawa area the Royal Engineers had used many Scots and Irish stone masons on the necessary works of the Rideau Canal, and there was a substantial colony of Irish immigrants located to the west and south of Ottawa." He goes on to recommend Fleming and Coleman as sources for further information, both of which were very useful.

I followed Dave Knowles's lead to look at sources of railway labor throughout the period. The ballad holds together best if the railway work is actually in the East, on the Intercolonial in the Maritimes. The original Intercolonial plan had considered Imperial Government orchestration of Irish emigration to alleviate both the famine and shortage of labour [Fleming, pp. 49-50] I could find no reference to the actual source after 1862 [Fleming, pp 55-64].

The work on the Grand Trunk before the 1860s required temporary contracting of 3000 navies from England because "there was no local labour worth speaking of" [Coleman, pp. 183-184]. English navies continued to be used. While "the navvy age" continued until about 1900 [Coleman, p. 20] the last "great work" in Britain was completed in 1875 [Coleman, p.192] and by 1888 "navvies from London were starving at Toronto" [Coleman, p. 191].

By 1880 use of Chinese labor had become a major issue in the west [Berton, p. 373]. While locals were against the competition, the railway builders preferred Chinese labor. Not only were wages low for Chinese labor but there was "little to fear" in regard to working condition monitoring from a government and public hostile to the Chinese [McKee and Klassen, p.21]. And, besides, in 1885, "Chapleau wrote that 'as a railway navvy, the Chinaman has no superior'" [Berton, p. 374]. Restriction of Chinese immigration by imposition of a $50 head tax, in 1885, reopened the labor market to Canadians [18thC] as the navvy source dried up. By 1887 there were sites employing no Chinese [Turner, pp. 17-18].

By the time of the Crow's Nest Pass project working conditions for white workers were an issue and the description of the situation is very much like that described by the ballad. Thirty-five hundred were employed in construction [Cousins, p 32]. "Complaints reached Ottawa, and in January 1898... a commission [was appointed] to inquire into the treatment of laborers in the Crowsnest construction crews. Its report, submitted in April, told a tale of poor accommodation, bad sanitary conditions, and low wages.... Cases of desertion and of nonpayment of wages by contractors were fairly frequent; there was some violence in the camps and occasionally a murder" [Lamb, p. 212].

Anyone in Ottawa, or near a Canadian library, wishing to investigate the Crow's Nest Pass project further might consider the following sources: _Report of Commissioner N.W.M.P. 1898 (Ottawa: King's Printer, 1898), and _Report of the Commission Inquiring into the Death of McDonald and Fraser of the Crow's Nest Railway_, R.C. Clute Commissione. 1899 Ottawa. Sessional Papers No. 70 Vol. 33 No. 14, may be included in Government of Canada Files at ArchiviaNet, at www.archives.ca/02/0202_e.html, Reference RG43, Railways and Canals, Series A-I-2, Volume 348, File 9080, Access code 90, File Title: Crow's Nest Pass Railway Co. - Labour Conditions. Keywords: Crow's Nest Pass Railway Co. Outside Dates: 1897-1907, File aiding number: 43-50.

(3) In the two versions for which 55 run away, their next job is on a riverboat in Canada (maybe around Montreal); until their money is stolen.

I have seen no other Newfoundland references to river boating. That is hardly surprising since there were no Newfoundland river boats. However, the story is different for the rest of what is now Canada. The first commercial steamboat voyage on the St Lawrence -- between Montreal and Quebec -- took place in 1809, two years after Fulton's Clermont went into service on the Hudson [Croil, pp. 50, 312].

By the time of the years actually mentioned in the ballad commercial steam powered river boats were common in Quebec and Ontario [Croil, pp. 307-332]. At the time of the Crow's Nest Pass project "some of the finest river steamers in the Dominion" were on the Columbia River and Kootenay Lakes, about 160 miles away [Croil, pp. 338-339]. And while river boats may not have been in Newfoundland, steamers were. Steam service began in the 1840's and steamers were used in seal hunting in 1862 [Croil, pp. 354-355]. So Newfoundlanders were knowledgeable steamship hands throughout the period we are considering and steamships were used commercially where the events may be supposed to take place. Whether they actually took place in the context of the ballad is the question.

(4) They eventually go through Halifax to Boston (or Gloucester) and ship aboard the _Morning Bloom_ (or _Morning Glow_) for George's Banks. On November 22, in a bad storm, either their ship, or _Jubilee_, lose 22 men (but no ship is mentioned as sinking).

There is no question about the dangers on George's Banks [cf. "Fifteen Ships on George's Banks" and "George's Bank" (II)]. However, there is no record of a severe storm on some November 22, or thereabouts, that I can find in the Northern Shipwrecks Database for the period in question. Part of the problem may be that no sunk ships are named in the ballad and that the database only records lost ships. However, if the date referred to a real storm I'd expect some ship to have been lost and reported.

(5) Having escaped that storm they continue fighting strong seas. Eventually they see the lighthouse at Cape Ray (built 1871) or Cape Race (starts operation 1856) or Sarne's Point and, of the remaining crew of 18, only 7 survive to reach Cape Spear (built 1835)and St John's.

There's nothing here that we can say is evidence of some one historic event.


Berton [Pierre Berton, _The Impossible Railway. The Building of the Canadian Pacific_ (Knopf, 1983)]

Coleman [Terry Coleman, _The Railway Navvies: A History of the Men Who Made the Railways_ (BCA, 1972)]

Cousins [William James Cousins, _A History of the Crow's Nest Pass_ (Historic Trails Society of Alberta, 1981)]

Croil [James Croil, _Steam Navigation and Its Relation to the Commerce of Canada and the United States_ (William Briggs, 1898)]

Fleming [Sanford Fleming, _The Intercolonial. A Historical Sketch of the Inception, Location, Construction and Completion of the Line of Railway Uniting the Inland and Atlantic Provinces of the Dominion_ (Dawson Brothers, Montreal, 1876)]

Lamb [W. Kaye Lamb, _History of the Canadian Pacific Railway_ (MacMillan 1977)]

McKee and Klassen [Bukk McKee and Georgeen Klassen, = _Trail of Iron. The CPR and the Birth of the West, 1880-1930_ (Douglas & McIntyre, 1983)]

Mercer [Paul Mercer, _Newfoundland Songs and Ballads in Print 1842-1974 A Title and First-line Index_ (Newfoundland, Canada: Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Publications, 1979)]

Turner [Robert D. Turner, _West of the Great Divide; an Illustrated History of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia 1880-1986_ (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1987)]

18thC [18th Century History site: CHAPTER V. THE YEARS OF FULFILMENT] - BS

Cross references

  • The Shea Gang
  • You Roving Boys of Newfoundland


  1. Greenleaf/Mansfield 150, "The Roving Newfoundlanders" (1 text)
  2. Peacock, pp. 916-921, "George's Banks" (2 texts, 3 tunes)
  3. Leach-Labrador 78, "George's Banks" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Roud #17756
  5. BI, GrMa150


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1929 (Greenleaf/Mansfield)
Found in: Canada(Newf)