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From The Daily News, St. John’s, September 21, 1907
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From the N.C. Crewe File, Provincial Archives of Newfoundland
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From The Daily News, October 2, 1907
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My copy of the poem “The Loss of the Duchess of Fife” is typewritten on plain legal paper, photocopied many times and curling at the edges. The original is lost. Its 15 stanzas were written by a sixteen-year-old girl about her experience on a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland in 1907. She was my great-grandmother. She would become Mrs. Noseworthy to her acquaintances, Mom to three, Nanny to my mother and her other grandchildren. But then, her name was Jean Chaulk.
At nine she leaves her home in the little outport of Brooklyn in the skirts of Bonavista Bay to become a servant in St. John’s. There is one year left in the century. The mouth of St. John’s harbour is flanked by towering cliffs. Sealing ships dock just inside the Narrows, carrying carcasses bound for the seal oil refineries. Schooners cluster in farther, foresting the harbour with their masts. Scaffolds for drying cod arch across the streets. Around the north side of the harbour the old city tumbles up the hills, a huddle of narrow dirt streets, wooden tenements and gothic churches. The air is thick with smoke and the dank smell of animals and humans and water. It is a city of about thirty thousand people, a metropolis.
Jean is sent to work for an old judge in one of the colonial mansions on Rennie’s Mill or Waterford Bridge Road. He lives alone; is known to be a mean, severe man. Later there will be hints of abuse, that her years in this house are the seeds of what will become a lifelong bitterness. She works sixteen-hour days for room and board and a few dollars to send back home. She is days away from home, and lucky for it. Lucky to be in St. John’s and not Boston or Manhattan, where she would be closer to Brooklyn, New York, than Brooklyn, Newfoundland.
Monday: Washing. She begins the day by boiling the whites with lye. She scrubs stains on a washboard, cranks the clothes through a ringer, and hangs them to dry until Tuesday.
Tuesday: Ironing. She heats the heavy sad irons on the stove, cycling through them as they cool, with breaks to stoke the fire. Sweat trickles down her back, and the heat chokes her with her own yellowed collar.
Wednesday: Baking. Years of bread, cakes and scones (a secret taste of batter when her thumb pokes down into the bowl).
Thursday: Cleaning upstairs, where the summer sun spotlights the dust.
Friday: Cleaning downstairs, where the winter snow puddles on the floor.
Saturday: More baking, between the dishwashing and cooking, scrubbing the teastained cups with baking soda. She retreats at midnight to a drafty attic bunk, a hook for her apron behind the door. Where she will start to bleed, far away from her mother.
Sunday: A half-day rest—a book in the kitchen with her feet under the stove. Rereading a love letter before returning it to its hiding place in the hollow iron bedpost under the loose brass knob.
Monday: Washing. She begins the day.
On September 16, 1907, Jean Chaulk boarded the cargo schooner The Duchess of Fife, bound for Bonavista. Outport girls often worked in the city through the winter and came home for the summer when the fishing season began, to help make the fish. But no one knows why Jean was returning home at this time of year. She was not returning home for good. As the day went on, the gale grew. Ten miles off Catalina the Duchess lost her main boom, leaving her to drift through the night in the building storm.
The Duchess drifted to the Funks, the island and its bunkers named for the foul odour of guano left by the millions of birds that nest there, where sunkers skulk beneath the water in wait for ships’ hulls. In this place the Duchess began to leak with the strain of the wind and swarming waves. Jean crawled on deck to see the destruction. The captain’s leg was broken, as anything loose on deck became a projectile. She saw the first mate lying on the house, also with a broken leg.
The mate, despite his fractured leg, spent all night at the pumps. The captain was crippled in a cabin half full of water. No one was left to take control. Jean, sixteen but strong, used to seeing what needed to be done, took the wheel and steered the ship across Trinity Bay through the storm, saving all souls on board.
Tom Noseworthy is a mason, stacking stones until whole buildings take shape beneath his hands. Perhaps she falls in love with him for this; while she spends the hours scrubbing collars that will be re-soiled with sweat and baking bread that will be gobbled with one cup of tea, what he makes can withstand even the worst of Atlantic gales. Perhaps she simply sees in him a way to leave the big dark houses of Rennie’s Mill Road.
After they are married, Tom gives up masonry, goes to work at the Harvey and Brehm margarine factory and buys a farm for his growing family on Portugal Cove Road. Many of their neighbours have done this: the men work in the city during the day, do the heavy farm labour at night, and leave the dayto- day running of the farms to their wives.
Part of outport life is subsistence farming, spreading rotting capelin on the soil for fertilizer and growing vegetables to complement the fish on your plate. Little girls weed alongside their mothers, making chains with the piss-a-beds. This farming in St. John’s takes a new kind of hopefulness. The land is lean, muscular. Yet they can grow things here, even on this land long ago stripped of trees and blown raw. Dairy cows, hay for the dairy cows and the horses. In spring she picks the rocks from the soil, brought up to the surface by the winter cycle of freeze and thaw. They say that the soil in Newfoundland grows rocks better than vegetables.
She raises three children but her body has borne five. Ralph is just six months old when he dies of measles. Leroy is stillborn. The winters are lean. The price of fish and vegetables is low, but they have milk and butter, eggs. Barrels in the cellar stocked with potatoes and cabbages.
Sometimes there is a knock on the door, a lean, wasting body begging for leftover vegetables, or a bit of milk.
There is a picture of Jean and Tom on the farm. It reminds me of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, with their stern expressions and rigid pose––all it needs is a pitchfork. Her face glowers like a rough wind is blowing in her eyes. The face of a hard woman, or hardened.
She washes the milk bottles, washes the milk bucket. She puts away tiny sweaters, booties, diapers—all the clothes but the ones that will be buried. They keep her grief warm.
From The Daily News, St.John's, September 21, 1907:
WORK OF STORM
Several messages giving further losses as a result of the storm Wednesday and Thursday, were received in town yesterday, and it is feared the end is not yet. The telegraph lines north of King’s Cove are, we understand, still down, so that no reports from that part of the Island have yet been received.
Shr. Duchess of Fife
The following message was received by the Marine and Fisheries Department yesterday afternoon, from E. Button, New Melbourne: “Schooner Duchess of Fife went ashore, yesterday, at Lance Cove; total wreck; loaded with provisions for P. Templeman, Bonavista; goods practically intact. Const. Dwyer watching wreck; Captain and two of crew with legs broken; in a very precarious condition. Drs Macdonald and Pickard will do all possible for them…”
Late last night, Messrs Baine Johnstone & Co. received the following message from Mr. Barrett, of Old Perlican, “Unknown schooner lost here, points to the Effie of Trinity. Nothing human to be seen.”
Though she went by Jean, her siblings Tryphie and Pearce had always called her Jane. It was Pearce who told my grandfather about the shipwreck. Jean refused to talk about it. Like the rest of her childhood, she kept it locked away in her mind. I don’t know when she wrote the poem, or what she did with it when she finished it. It was discovered after she died, in the strongbox with her birth certificate and other papers. My copy is signed “Miss Jean Chaulk, Sept. 7th, 1907,” but this is the mistaken addition of whoever typed it out, for she couldn’t have written it ten days before the storm.
In 1940, Leslie, Jean’s eldest son, enlists in the British Royal Navy. He is killed just three months after he leaves home. When the letter comes it is addressed to her alone, not to her and her husband, as though the death of a son in war were a particularly female burden.
September 14, 1940.
It is with very deep regret that I learn of the sad death of your son Warwick Leslie Noseworthy, Ordinary Seaman R.N. Patrol Service (H.O.), Official Number, LT/ JX.208914, who is reported to have lost his life in London Docks as a result of enemy air action on 7th September, 1940.
When my grandfather goes to enlist a few months later, he is told, “One in the family is enough.” Though he will never be able to prove it, he will always believe that his mother was behind his rejection, that she begged or bullied the Service Board not to take him. This was her version of tenderness. Instead he learns Morse code and she loses him anyway, to remote weather stations in Labrador. Her only daughter marries a Canadian soldier, and at the end of the war will follow her new husband back to Calgary.
Jean and Tom sell the farm for a house on Cavell Avenue in St. John’s. She immerses herself in church projects and the Women’s Association, assembling care packages for soldiers, making Red Cross bandages for other mothers’ sons. One Christmas, Tom catches a flu that will not go away. When Jean finds her husband lying on the bathroom floor she manages to heave him up into her arms and put him back in bed until the ambulance arrives. He is only fifty-nine when he dies of peritonitis. If Jean wrote him odes or elegies they no longer exist.
From the N.C. Crewe File, Provincial Archives of Newfoundland:
Henry George Chaulk’s daughter (Tryphena, now a widow somewhere) when returning from Labrador in a schooner, when the skipper and mate become disabled by the seas and the third man frightened, she took the wheel at Cabot Island and steered her until she ran aground in Chance Cove, Trinity Bay.
Through the years the story has become knotted as it has passed through the hands of people on that shore. What landed in the archive is a tangle of truth and fiction. The daughter, of course, was Jean Chaulk; Tryphena was Jean’s sister. The ship was leaving St. John’s, not Labrador. And it ran aground at Lance Cove, not Chance Cove. The poem suggests that the swing of the boom that broke the captain’s leg also destroyed the wheel—that the only way the ship could be steered was with a rope tied to the rudder. That she couldn’t have taken the wheel and steered the ship to safety. There are stories here without tellers.
In the 1950s, when my mother and her two older brothers are small, her family lives in their grandmother’s house on Cavell Avenue. Nanny is a stern and frightening woman, whose room is dark and forbidden. She nags and criticizes, picking on her daughter-in-law, complaining to her son.
When the family has grown to seven, my grandfather buys a bigger house, with plans to build a suite for his mother in the basement. His mother goes along with the plan, but the night before moving day Jean announces she isn’t moving anywhere, and will not change her mind. The family has put all of their savings into the down payment and can’t afford to buy new furniture. They move into their new house with their own beds and leave Jean and everything else behind.
At about two in the afternoon, the Duchess sighted land. The schooner was steered aground with the hope that rescue would come from the shore. Someone made this decision—to rip the ship further apart on faith that someone would be able to help. There must have been a violent jolt as the rocks tore into the bow of the ship. Perhaps she does forget. As she forgets the names of people she knew, as she forgets to turn off the stove, as she forgets the year.
Jean lives for a year by herself in the house on Cavell Avenue. She is befriended by a woman who lives across the street, who starts coming over every day. The neighbour tells Jean she is living on a dead man’s pension, that Leslie went overseas to get away from her. Dear Madam, It is with very deep regret that I learn of the sad death of your son. Jean does not miss the armchair from the farmhouse, or the tea service she got for her wedding. Within a year the woman has stolen almost everything Jean owns.
Perhaps she does forget that day of the wreck. Or perhaps she remembers it more clearly, the bare floorboards tilting beneath her, that grinding sound of the ship on the reef. From The Daily News, October 2, 1907:
Editor Daily News:
Dear Sir, — Two of the crew of the ill fated Duchess of Fife, and a passenger, a young girl of 15 or 16, arrived here yesterday, and from them we gather a sad recital of the hardships which they endured while battling for their lives…
The young lady passenger proved herself a heroine, for after the crew got broken up, she would get on deck and do all in her power for the men who were injured. Unfortunately she could not do much, as everything was soaked with water. The name of this plucky young lady is Fanny Chalk, and she should rank amongst the Florence Nightingales of the world…
Thanking you for space, Mr. Editor. Yours truly, X.Y.Z. Brooklyn, Sept. 25th, 1907.
One day as Jean puts out the garbage, the wind takes the storm door and her with it. She falls into the street and breaks her arm. The wind has been waiting all these years to break her bones. Unable to take care of herself, Jean has no choice but to move into my grandfather’s house. And once her arm is healed she stays. She accuses one of my mother’s boyfriends of taking ten dollars out of her purse, another of stealing her red shoes. Then, in the small hours of a summer night, Jean leaves the house in her nightgown and starts walking down the hill. A passing stranger stops his car and asks where she is going.
I’m going home.
Where do you live?
The man drives her to Cavell Avenue, and as he pulls up to the old house he looks at her. You’re not Fraser Noseworthy’s mother, are you? he asks, naming my grandfather. St. John’s is still that small. You don’t live here anymore.
My grandfather finally puts his mother in Hoyle’s Home. My mother visits her there, her stern, prim grandmother smelling like pee, with her stockings rolled down to her ankles, and stains on her clothes. The home mixes up the clothes, puts her in other women’s dresses, ill-fitting around her shrunken frame. She begins to babble. Jean Chaulk Noseworthy dies in Hoyle’s Home in 1975, at the age of eighty-five. Jean writes of the bravery of the crew, of the hospitality of the men and women who rescued them, but nothing of her own heroism. She probably never took the wheel. But there is another story, one my grandfather told, as he was told it by his uncle. As the captain lay unconscious, the sixteen-year-old girl made a bosun chair, to lower the crew into the lifeboats sent from shore as the Duchess sank. I can imagine her scrounging for rope and board or torn canvas, wet fingers trembling, soothing the men as they drop over the side of the deck. Bending against the ribs of her corset as the ship careens in the waves, somehow hoisting herself overboard. She is the last to leave the ship.
I have nothing to prove that this is true. But of all the ways to remember her, I like this one, this story.
When my grandfather was in his late seventies, he found out that his mother’s name wasn’t Jean. He met a distant cousin who had written a book about the area where his mother was born, who told him that his mother was not born Jean, not Jane—nor Tryphena, nor Fanny—but Mavis. Mavis Jane Chaulk. My grandfather had his mother’s birth certificate; it said her name was Jean. But in those daysit was the parishes that kept all the records of marriages, deaths and births, and the church had burned down. When they reconstructed the records after the fire, they simply asked her what her name was.
She told them: “Jean Chaulk.” And it was.