The Devon–Newfoundland Story, April 2017


The Devon–Newfoundland Story celebrated historical and cultural connections. Organised by the Devonshire Association working with the Devon Family History Society, it marked nearly 500 years of contact and interaction between the two communities.

Devon has strong historic links with the Canadian Province of Newfoundland dating back to the 16th century, with boats from local ports sailing annually to waters off Newfoundland to fish for cod. Initially men left Devon in April and returned in the autumn, but gradually land bases were established and they began to overwinter. In 1583, the Devon mariner, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, claimed Newfoundland as the first English overseas colony.

Whilst people in Newfoundland are very aware of their Devon connections, Devonians are less well informed about the historic importance of Newfoundland to the economy of the county. Through talks, visits, concerts and displays, the celebration aimed to develop both existing and new links between the two communities and to celebrate our shared heritage. Events were arranged throughout the county, but the main events took place over the weekend of 7–9 April 2017 in Exeter, and on 11 April in the north Devon port of Bideford.


The event began with a reception at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery where David Fursdon, Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Devon, read out a greeting from Dwight Ball, Prime Minister of Newfoundland and Labrador. The weekend Heritage Forum was held in the Council Chamber in Devon County Hall where speakers from both sides of the Atlantic shared aspects of common history and trade, dialect, folklore, music and dance. Displays by various local history groups, museums, genealogy societies and record offices were set up in the Committee Suite above.

A review of the first day of the two day Forum

Welcome to Devonshire Association Devon-Newfoundland event

Cllr John Hart (left), Leader of Devon County Council, welcoming delegates

On a sunny April day Councillor John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council, welcomed the Forum to the splendid Council Chamber in our Grade II listed County Hall.

The day opened on a sad note as Peter Beacham reported the death of Professor Peter Pope of Memorial University of Newfoundland in St John’s, who had died a few days beforehand and who had been due to give the keynote address. Todd Gray added that Professor Pope was held in high regard by people in Devon and a period of silence was held in his memory.

Proceedings commenced with an entertaining introduction to Newfoundland and a talk on Devon’s fishery expansion to Newfoundland 1500–1650. Dr Gray described the province as a ‘magnificent place to see’ and what an extraordinary sight it must have been for a lad from Kenton or Bideford arriving in the 1600s. We learned though on the downside that the ‘midges are the size of squirrels’. Dr Gray explained it was the enormous cod that attracted the fishermen and that the majority of the fish was sold on the continent especially Iberia, often in exchange for wine and dried fruit. Having a non-local source for fish helped especially in the years when the herring and other fish did not come to our waters. Also the harvests in Devon typically failed one year in ten and dried fish, or ‘toerag’ as it was known, helped fill the belly at a time when there were no potatoes, rice or pasta.

The logic of the trade was described by Professor Olaf Janzen of Memorial University where he argued that the English preference was dictated by the demands and logistical challenges of the Iberian market.

Dr Jenny Moon

Dr Jenny Moon (Bournemouth University)

The triangular trade from Dartmouth was the subject of Professor Richard Cooke’s talk, himself a Dartmouth resident. The wealth from the trade changed Dartmouth and the infrastructure built between the 16th and 18th centuries remains visible today in the Butterwalk and New Quay. The first Newfoundland cod was landed in Bristol in 1502. By 1510 there were regular visits and many ships sailed from Dartmouth and other ports in the West Country. According to one account at the time ‘the sea was full of fish, taken not only with nets but with fishing baskets’. In 8–10 weeks, 20,000 fish would be caught.

After the story of a fictional Tudor villager who might have sailed from the Exe estuary, delivered by Dr Jenny Moon, Professor Anna Kearney Guigne spoke about Newman and Company of Dartmouth’s influence on the song traditions of Newfoundland’s south coast.

Music came to the fore in the afternoon. Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker of Wren Music explored the long and deep links between Devon and Newfoundland folk song. The talk featured musical examples sung and played live to illustrate some of the melodic and textual changes the songs have undergone. Marilyn’s rendition of the Unquiet Grave was particularly emotionally engaging.

Jim Payne demonstrating Old World folk dance steps

Jim Payne (SingSong Inc., Newfoundland) demonstrating Old World folk dance steps on the Council Chamber table!

Dr Jonathan Roper from the University of Tartu, Estonia, spoke about the songs sung by several generations of the Endacott family in Newfoundland, who were originally from Moretonhampstead. These songs were preserved but changes to the words meant they were not the same ballad.

The final, highly entertaining, presentation came from Jim Payne, a folk song performer from Newfoundland. Jim not only sang but danced in the Council Chamber! Jim bravely danced on a desk to the admiration and delight of the audience so that the audience could see the dance steps, which would otherwise have been hidden. Jim said the dances took place in private homes with little space and so the steps are very short and typically include pivoting on one leg. On occasion, the householder and friends even took out the kitchen stove to create more room.

As they say in Canada, kudos to Professor John Mather and the organising committee for arranging such a memorable Forum, which in the words of Peter Beacham ‘celebrated our common humanity’ and strengthened the cultural links between Devon and Newfoundland.

Nick Wells


Compton Castle, the seat of Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Compton Castle, the seat of Sir Humphrey Gilbert

In South Devon there were excursions and guided tours to Dartmouth and Compton Castle (the seat of Sir Humphrey Gilbert), Exeter and the adjacent historic port of Topsham, and Plymouth with its citadel and old harbour. Festivities in Bideford included a procession through the town led by the Mayor, guided tours, talks, displays, a pottery workshop and demonstrations of fish recipes with tastings.

Throughout there were recitals and concerts – ‘Shore to Shore Revisited’- given by Newfoundland’s Jim Payne and Devon’s Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker of Wren Music.

Museum exhibitions were on view at Arlington Court & Carriage Museum, Burton Art Gallery & Museum, Dartmouth Maritime Museum, Fairlynch Museum & Arts Centre, North Devon Maritime Museum in Appledore, The Teign Heritage Centre and Topsham Museum.

The celebration was deemed an outstanding success by Newfoundland visitors and hundreds of participants from Devon and beyond. According to DA Chairman Peter Beacham OBE, “it was one of the greatest things the DA has ever done and will remain truly memorable for all who were lucky enough to have taken part”.

Tony Buller


Photo gallery

All photos on this page courtesy of Antony T. Buller, except where stated. Click on them to see larger versions. Conditions of reuse are here.