The area around Twillingate has been continually inhabited for about 3,500 years. The earliest known inhabitants were the Maritime Archaic. This group lived on the islands about 1500 BC. A major finding of their artifacts occurred in 1967 in Back Harbour, Twillingate. Over seventy five items were recovered from the site such as projectile points, adzes and crystals. In more recent times the maritime Archaic were supplanted in Twillingate by the Dorset Eskimos.
French fishermen were probably the first Europeans to sight the Twillingate Islands as early as the 1500s. They didn’t settle the area, but gave Twillingate its name, which is derived from the word Toulinguet. This could refer to a French surname, but likely comes from an island group off Brest that resembles Twillingate from the sea. The name was in use prior to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and appeared on a French map of 1720 . Although they never settled the area, the French remained a presence off Twillingate for some time. As late as 1786 Newfoundland’s governor, Sir Hugh Palliser reported that a French vessel, the Bon Ami, was paid a bounty to fish off Twillingate to irritate and hopefully drive away English settlers.
The French were said to have abandoned their local fishery for fear of the area’s Native people. These were no longer the Dorset, however, as these people were long gone from Newfoundland. By the historic period the main indigenous group on the Island were a people known as the Beothuck, or Pi’taw. The Beothuck enjoyed sole possession of the area until around 1700 when the first English settlers arrived. Eastern Newfoundland suffered from poor fishing and overcrowding at the time and Twillingate, now vacated by the French, was natural place to relocate.
There are two traditions about who the original settlers were. According to a Twillingate diary found in 1870, four families-said to hail from the English town of Sturminster Newton-can lay claim to this distinction. A planter named Moore made his home in Back Harbour. Lawrence Smith settled on the North Island where Smith’s lookout still carries his name. The Bath family settled in Jenkin’s Cove, Durrell and the Young’s on the South Island. Most of the surnames still exist in the town. The other tradition originated in a letter written to James Cook in 1764 while he was mapping Newfoundland’s west coast. This letter indicates that the first Englishman to settle at Twillingate was a Thomas Tizzard, originally from Bonavista, in 1732. Whichever story is true, Twillingate was a well-known settlement by the year 1750 and had acquired its modern name-the closest the early English inhabitants could come to the old French.
Despite strained relations with the Beothuks, the settlement continued to grow. In the 1730s Rev. Henry Jones of Bonavista complained about the numbers of his congregation who were being lured away to Twillingate and nearby Fogo by the plentiful fish. Twillingate was then the most northerly English settlement in Newfoundland. In 1738 Twillingate was first recorded in official English records by Governor Van Brugh. According to his letters, 12 families were then living in Twillingate. They were joined by 114 servants from England. Settlers might hire as many as 20 men to help with the fishing and these fishing servants signed on for a term of one to three years. Normally a settler would divide about a third of his catch equally among the servants. With their help Twillingate’s 14 fishermen caught and dried 8000 barrels of fish. English fishing vessels were also active off the islands and in the same year caught 4000 barrels. In the Fall 3 vessels returned to England with the Twillingate catch and 152 stayed behind for the winter.
With its good harbour and closeness to rich fishing grounds, Twillingate grew steadily over the next 100 years and became one of Newfoundland’s greatest fishing ports. By the year 1857 Twillingate boasted some 400 fishing vessels with 793 nets and seines. About 40 vessels were also engaged in the seal fishery. The residents owned about 1000 farm animals, including pigs, milk cows, sheep, goats and horses. A variety of crops were grown including 7141 barrels of potatoes, 154 barrels of turnips and non-food crops like hay. 6416 lbs of butter were churned and 9 boats built. The population that year was 2348, including clergy, a doctor, mechanics, fishermen and merchants.
Like the fishermen, the merchants were an early feature of life in Twillingate. English businessmen were attracted by Twillingate’s fine fishing grounds and fitted out vessels to send to the islands for cod. For the first decades of settlement the merchants conducted business through their ships which returned each Fall with their catch to ports in Spain and Portugal where the fish was sold. The merchants also imported food, fishing supplies and salt which they provided in return for Twillingate’s salt fish. This barter system lasted well into the twentieth century and many fishermen never received cash for their labour.
Twillingate’s first resident merchants were the Nobles, their main suppliers being Slades of Poole, Dorset, in the years 1785-1848. At one time the islands were home to more than a dozen fish merchants, including the Hodges who came from Fogo in 1871; Earle and Sons on the South Island; E.J. Linfield, established in 1888, and Manuals who still operate on the north island, not far from their original store. Merchants are often seen in a bad light, but towns like Twillingate would probably never have survived without their activities. Without men like John Slade and their vessels, Twillingate fishermen would have had no way to get their fish to the markets in Portugal and Spain. These ships also carried most of the early settlers to Newfoundland and gave them work when they arrived. As in all Newfoundland communities, Twillingate’s merchants were at the top of the social scale and often filled important appointments such as Justice of the Peace.
Although they lived in a very religious age, Twillingate’s early settlers had no permanent clergy, or church for more than a hundred years after they first arrived. In the early 1800s residents petitioned the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to send a minister whom they agreed to pay themselves. In October of 1816 Rev. John Leigh arrived and remained until 1819. At this time the first St. Peters Anglican church was built, although its construction was said to be poor. In 1842 a new St. Peters was consecrated during the tenure of Rev. Thomas Boone at a cost of 1000 British pounds. This fine building, modeled on a church in Poole, England, remains as a proud testimony to the faith of the Twillingate settlers. The original church served as a Parish Hall, Sunday School, Day School and Rectory until 1870. It was then replaced by a new Parish Hall, which, like St. Peters, is still in use.
The first Methodist congregation met in a private home in 1831 and welcomed their first minister in 1842. A new church was built, but it burned, along with the rectory, in 1868. The rebuilt church still stands and, although replaced in recent years, can still be viewed by the public.
Twillingate’s Anglican Church contains a relic of the most famous event in the town’s early history, the Great Seal Haul of 1862. Twillingate was once an important centre of the sealing industry since the ice flows on which the seal herds travel often strike the land here. In 1862, however, a seal catch unheard of even in Twillingate blessed the island residents. The seals first struck on March 10th, but the ice drifted offshore and five men were lost. By March 14th the winds turned around strongly from the northeast, pushing the seals on their ice pans back within reach of Twillingate sealers. One lucky man even retrieved a batch of seal pelts he marked from the earlier strike. In all, island residents took 30,000 seals, including a number caught by a woman who struck out to feed her family as her husband was too ill for the work. This was the largest seal harvest ever in that period. In thanks residents commissioned a bell in England to place in the tower of St. Peters church where it remains to this day. On the bell are inscribed the words, “In memory of the great haul of seals 1862.”
The seal harvest-and more particularly the cod fishery-continued to bring prosperity to Twillingate and by the turn of the twentieth century it was one of the most important settlements in the colony of Newfoundland. Fishing schooners departed with fish and arrived with goods from all over the globe. The town’s merchants and ship owners even had their own Mutual Insurance Club to protect their investments. The club insured 193 vessels in 1888. The value of this protection was evident during the great gale of September, 1907 when dozens of schooners broke free from their moorings and were grounded-luckily without losing their cargoes of fish. One schooner even drove its mast through a store window as workers watched! As one of the largest settlements in Notre Dame Bay Twillingate became known as the “Capitol of the North.” With an active community life the town had a number of lodge halls such as the Masonic, the Society of United Fishermen and the Orangemen. By the 1940s Twillingate had three coopers, an equal number of blacksmiths, a tin shop and a customs office. There was also a furniture factory owned by the Colbourne family.
The fishery was always the bedrock of Twillingate’s economy, but attempts were made to diversify. The best known of such industries was based at Sleepy Cove in what is now the municipality of Crow Head. An American firm, the Great Northern Copper Company of North Dakota, opened a copper mine there in 1913. Newspaper opinions held high hopes for the find and former Twillingate resident Obadiah Hodder was a partner in the venture. In the end the mine amounted to little; after only a few loads of ore were shipped out, the price of copper plummeted and the mine shut down in 1917. Today, little remains of the original mine structures, but tourists can still see pieces of the mine equipment and its site in Crow Head’s Sea Breeze Park.
Much more successful was the paper where news of the copper find appeared. The Twillingate Sun was founded in June, 1880. Its founder was Jabez P. Thompson, a former journeyman printer for the Harbour Grace Standard. He had a staff of two and all his print was hand-set. The paper was normally four pages in length, with the first being given over to outside advertisements; the inside contained local news centering on the town and local area. This included church news, weddings, socials etc. Its original price was three cents an issue.
In 1896 Thompson sold the paper to George Roberts, who later became a member of the House of Assembly. He then sold the Sun to its third editor, William B. Temple in 1910. Temple played a role in bringing the first telephone service to Twillingate, helped form a fire insurance company and was involved in founding Twillingate’s hospital.
In August of 1921 Stewart Roberts took over the newspaper. In 1946 the Twillingate Sun was acquired by its final editor E.G. Clarke. Clarke employed five men, all of whom were typesetters. Paper for the Sun in this era was provided by the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company (AND) of Grand Falls and was shipped to Hodge’s Store in Twillingate via coastal boat. The Sun’s final issue appeared on January 31st 1953. At the time it was Newfoundland’s oldest continually published paper and the last in Canada to be hand-set.
Another long-lived Twillingate institution is the Notre Dame Bay Memorial Hospital. It is the greatest monument to the community spirit existing in Twillingate over the years. Since the 1920s no institution has been more important to the people of Twillingate and the North-East coast of the Province. The region had medical services of some sort before the 1920s, with its first permanent doctor, William Stirling, setting up practice around 1850. At the end of the Great War, in 1918, locals started a movement to establish their own hospital as a tribute to those who died in the war. The hospital site was chosen on South Side since it was near a good source of water. Building took three years (not counting the winters) and the Memorial Hospital was opened for patients on October 1st, 1924. The first medical superintendent was Doctor Charles Parsons who served until 1934. Parsons was replaced by John M. Olds who served with the hospital in some capacity until the 1980s. On February 28th, 1943, part of the original hospital burned down-luckily with no fatalities. The greatest loss was the staff house and storage space. Rebuilding the hospital took three years and cost almost $200,000. The current hospital opened near the site of the original in 1974.
Twillingate has produced well known people along with its institutions. Undoubtedly the most famous Twillingate resident was a daughter of Dr. Stirling. Georgina Sterling was born on April 3rd 1867 and John Peyton Jr. was her maternal grandfather. As a young girl Georgina showed promise as a soprano opera singer. There was no local training available, but as the daughter of a doctor Georgina was able to travel to Europe where she could study and hone her skills. In Paris she studied under Madame Marchesi. She performed under the stage name Mme. Marie Toulinquet, from the French name for her home town. In addition, her singing talents earned her the nickname “Nightingale of the North,” from her many fans. Stirling’s career took her to both Italy and France, the centres of the operatic world. It is said that during a performance in France she once sang Britain’s martial naval anthem, “Rule Britannia.” At the time the two nations were on far from friendly terms, but such was the power of Georgie’s talent that her performance, including Rule Britannia, got rave reviews and won over the audience. Besides this triumph, she sang in Milan at the La Scala opera house with the Italian Royal Family in attendance. Sadly, illness prematurely ended her singing career. She died in 1935 in relative obscurity. In 1964 a memorial was erected to “Miss Georgie” at her grave site in St. Peter’s cemetery.
Another famous Twillingate resident was John Peyton Jr. His father, John Sr., first came to Newfoundland in 1770. Peyton Senior traded in fish and furs on the Exploits River. His relations with the native Beothuk were even less amicable than usual and he was said to have been harsh in his retaliation for Native ‘pilfering’ of goods. In 1812 Peyton’s son, John Jr.-born in the family’s home town of Wimborne, England in 1793-accompanied him to Newfoundland. Like his father, John experienced losses at the hands of the Beothuck, but appears to have been more even handed in his approach to them. Peyton is best remembered for his dealings with these people, especially the women Demasduit and Shanawdithit (See Beothuk section). Still, this is far from the only contribution made to the area by John Peyton. Aside from his own merchanting activities, he became Twillingate district’s first Justice of the Peace (1818) and the area’s first Magistrate in 1836. John died in 1879. His son Thomas was himself a member of Newfoundland’s House of Assembly, a magistrate and Justice of the Peace. John Peyton’s greatest gift to the town of Twillingate may be his correspondence. Between his diary and other writings Peyton left an invaluable record of nineteenth century Twillingate.
Twillingate was rising in importance during John Peyton’s lifetime and probably reached its greatest prosperity at the height of Mme. Toulinguet’s fame. By the end of Georgina Stirling’s life, however, Twillingate was slowly declining. The building of a railway across Newfoundland was much closer to the community of Lewisporte than Twillingate. More and more goods were being shipped by rail than water and Lewisporte replaced Twillingate as Notre Dame Bay’s main entry point for goods and services. Twillingate was once the heart of the Bay but became just one of many isolated communities on the Northeast Coast. More recently, the decline of the town’s traditional industry, the fishery, has seen many young families leave, never to return.
Still, Twillingate’s story remains a positive one. Since the 1970s the community has been linked to the mainland by a modern causeway and the “Road to the Isles.” Although the fishery is in decline, Twillingate has become one of the Province’s premiere tourist attractions. Some of our old buildings, such as St. Peter’s church, remain and the Twillingate and Durrell Museums continue to preserve our history. Perhaps the greatest attraction, however, is the town’s natural beauty. Hundreds of people each year come to see breathtaking sunsets, magnificent icebergs and the playful antics of pods of humpback whales.