A Labrador Doctor – Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

I have long been resisting the strong pressure from friends that would force me to risk having to live alongside my own autobiography. It seems still an open question whether it is advisable, or even whether it is right—seeing that it calls for confessions. In the eyes of God the only alternative is a book of lies. Moreover, sitting down to write one’s own life story has always loomed up before my imagination as an admission that one was passing the post which marks the last lap; and though it was a justly celebrated physician who told us that we might profitably crawl upon the shelf at half a century, that added no attraction for me to the effort, when I passed that goal. Thirty-two years spent in work for deep-sea fishermen, twenty-seven of which years have been passed in Labrador and northern Newfoundland, have necessarily given me some experiences which may be helpful to others. I feel that this alone justifies the writing of this story. To the many helpers who have coöperated with me at one time or another throughout these years, I owe a debt of gratitude which will never be forgotten, though it has been impossible to mention each one by name. Without them this work could never have been. To my wife, who was willing to leave all the best the civilized world can offer to share my life on this lonely coast, I want to dedicate this book. Truth forces me to own that it would never have come into being without her, and her greater share in the work of its production declares her courage to face the consequences.


To be born on the 28th of February is not altogether without its compensations. It affords a subject of conversation when you are asked to put your name in birthday books. It is evident that many people suppose it to be almost an intrusion to appear on that day. However, it was perfectly satisfactory to me so long as it was not the 29th. As a boy, that was all for which I cared.

Still, I used at times to be oppressed by the danger, so narrowly missed, of growing up with undue deliberation. The event occurred in 1865 in Parkgate, near Chester, England, whither my parents had moved to enable my father to take over the school of his uncle. I was always told that what might be called boisterous weather signalled my arrival. Experience has since shown me that that need not be considered a particularly ominous portent in the winter season on the Sands of Dee. It is fortunate that the selection of our birthplace is not left to ourselves. It would most certainly be one of those small decisions which would later add to the things over which we worry. I can see how it would have acted in my own case. For my paternal forbears are really of Cornish extraction—a corner of our little Island to which attaches all the romantic aroma of the men, who, in defence of England, “swept the Spanish Main,” and so long successfully singed the Bang of Spain’s beard, men whose exploits never fail to stir the best blood of Englishmen, and among whom my direct ancestors had the privilege of playing no undistinguished part. On the other hand, my visits thither have— romance aside—convinced me that the restricted foreshore and the precipitous cliffs are a handicap to the development of youth, compared with the broad expanses of tempting sands, which are after all associated with another kinsman, whose songs have helped to make them famous, Charles Kingsley. My mother was born in India, her father being a colonel of many campaigns, and her brother an engineer officer in charge during the siege of Lucknow till relieved by Sir Henry Havelock.

At the first Delhi Durbar no less than forty-eight of my cousins met, all being officers either of the Indian military or civil service. To the modern progressive mind the wide sands are a stumbling-block. Silting up with the years, they have closed the river to navigation, and converted our once famous Roman city of Chester into a sleepy, second-rate market-town. The great flood of commerce from the New World sweeps contemptuously past our estuary, and finds its clearing-house under the eternal, assertive smoke clouds which camouflage the miles of throbbing docks and slums called Liverpool—little more than a dozen miles distant. But the heather-clad hills of Heswall, and the old red sandstone ridge, which form the ancient borough of the “Hundred of Wirral,” afford an efficient shelter from the insistent taint of out-of-the-worldness. Every inch of the Sands of Dee were dear to me. I learned to know their every bank and gutter. Away beyond them there was a mystery in the blue hills of the Welsh shore, only cut off from us children in reality by the narrow, rapid water of the channel we called the Deep. Yet they seemed so high and so far away. The people there spoke a different language from ours, and all their instincts seemed diverse.

Our humble neighbours lived by the seafaring genius which we ourselves loved so much. They made their living from the fisheries of the river mouth; and scores of times we children would slip away, and spend the day and night with them in their boats. VIEW FROM MOSTYN HOUSE, THE AUTHOR’S BIRTHPLACE, PARKGATE, CHESHIREToList While I was still quite a small boy, a terrible blizzard struck the estuary while the boats were out, and for twenty-four hours one of the fishing craft was missing. Only a lad of sixteen was in charge of her—a boy whom we knew, and with whom we had often sailed. All my family were away from home at the time except myself; and I can still remember the thrill I experienced when, as representative of the “Big House,” I was taken to see the poor lad, who had been brought home at last, frozen to death. The men of the opposite shores were shopkeepers and miners. Somehow we knew that they couldn’t help it. The nursery rhyme about “Taffy was a Welshman; Taffy was a thief,” because familiar, had not led us to hold any unduly inflated estimate of the Welsh character. One of my old nurses did much to redeem it, however. She had undertaken the burden of my brother and myself during a long vacation, and carried us off bodily to her home in Wales.

Her clean little cottage stood by the side of a road leading to the village school of the State Mining District of Festiniog. We soon learned that the local boys resented the intrusion of the two English lads, and they so frequently chased us off the village green, which was the only playground offered us, that we at last decided to give battle. We had stored up a pile of slates behind our garden wall, and luring the enemy to the gates by the simple method of retiring before their advance, we saluted them with artillery fire from a comparatively safe entrenchment. To my horror, one of the first missiles struck a medium-sized boy right over the eye, and I saw the blood flow instantly. The awful comparison of David and Goliath flashed across my terror-stricken mind, and I fled incontinently to my nurse’s protection. Subsequently by her adroit diplomacy, we were not only delivered from justice, but gained the freedom of the green as well. Far away up the river came the great salt-water marshes which seemed so endless to our tiny selves. There was also the Great Cop, an embankment miles long, intended to reach “from England to Wales,” but which was never finished because the quicksand swallowed up all that the workmen could pour into it. Many a time I have stood on the broken end, where the discouraged labourers had left their very shovels and picks and trucks and had apparently fled in dismay, as if convicted of the impiousness of trying to fill the Bottomless Pit. To my childish imagination the upturned wheelbarrows and wasted trucks and rails always suggested the banks of the Red Sea after the awful disaster had swept over Pharoah and his host.

How the returning tide used to sweep through that to us fathomless gulch! It made the old river seem ever so much more wonderful, and ever so much more filled with adventure. Many a time, just to dare it, I would dive into the very cauldron, and let the swirling current carry me to the grassy sward beyond—along which I would run till the narrowing channel permitted my crossing to the Great Cop again. I would be drying myself in the sunshine as I went, and all ready for my scanty garments when I reached my clothing once more. Then came the great days when the heavy nor’westers howled over the Sands—our sea-front was exposed to all the power of the sea right away to the Point of Ayr—the days when they came in with big spring tides, when we saw the fishermen doubling their anchors, and carefully overhauling the holding gear of their boats, before the flooding tide drove them ashore, powerless to do more than watch them battling at their moorings like living things—the possessions upon which their very bread depended. And then this one would sink, and another would part her cable and come hurtling before the gale, until she crashed right into the great upright blocks of sandstone which, riveted with iron bands to their copings, were relied upon to hold the main road from destruction. Sometimes in fragments, and sometimes almost entire, the craft would be slung clean over the torturing battlements, and be left stranded high and dry on our one village street, a menace to traffic, but a huge joy to us children. The fascination of the Sands was greatly enhanced by the numerous birds which at all times frequented them, in search of the abundant food which lay buried along the edges of the muddy gutters. There were thousands of sandpipers in enormous flocks, mixed with king plovers, dunlins, and turnstones, which followed the ebb tides, and returned again in whirling clouds before the oncoming floods. Black-and-white oyster-catchers were always to be found chattering over the great mussel patches at low water. With their reddish bills, what a trophy a bunch of them made as we bore them proudly home over our shoulders! Then there were the big long-billed curlews.

What a triumph when one outwitted them! One of my clearest recollections is discovering a place to which they were flighting at night by the water’s edge; how, having no dog, I swam out for bird after bird as they fell to my gun—shooting some before I had even time to put on my shirt again; and my consequent blue-black shoulder, which had to be carefully hidden next day. There were wild ducks, too, to be surprised in the pools of the big salt marshes. From daylight to dark I would wander, quite alone, over endless miles, entirely satisfied to come back with a single bird, and not in the least disheartened if I got none. All sense of time used to be lost, and often enough the sandwich and biscuit for lunch forgotten, so that I would be forced occasionally to resort to a solitary public house near a colliery on our side of the water, for “tea- biscuits,” all that they offered, except endless beer for the miners. I can even remember, when very hard driven, crossing to the Welsh side for bread and cheese. These expeditions were made barefoot as long as the cold was not too great. A diary that I assayed to keep in my eighth year reminds me that on my birthday, five miles from home in the marshes, I fell head over heels into a deep hole, while wading out, gun in hand, after some oyster-catchers which I had shot. The snow was still deep on the countryside, and the long trot home has never been quite forgotten. My grief, however, was all for the gun. There was always the joy of venture in those dear old Sands.

The channels cut in them by the flowing tides ran deep, and often intersected. Moreover, they changed with the varying storms. The rapidly rising tide, which sent a bore up the main channel as far as Chester, twelve miles above us, filled first of all these treacherous waterways, quite silently, and often unobserved. To us, taught to be as much at home in the water as on the land, they only added spice to our wanderings. They were nowhere very wide, so by keeping one’s head, and being able to swim, only our clothes suffered by it, and they, being built for that purpose, did not complain. One day, however, I remember great excitement. The tide had risen rapidly in the channel along the parade front, and the shrimp fishermen, who used push-nets in the channels at low tide, had returned without noticing that one of their number was missing. Word got about just too late, and already there was half a mile of water, beyond which, through our telescopes, we could see the poor fellow making frantic signals to the shore. There was no boat out there, and a big bank intervening, there seemed no way to get to him. Watching through our glasses, we saw him drive the long handle of his net deep into the sand, and cling to it, while the tide rose speedily around him.

Meanwhile a whole bevy of his mates had rowed out to the bank, and were literally carrying over its treacherous surface one of their clumsy and heavy fishing punts. It was a veritable race for life; and never have I watched one with keener excitement. We actually saw his post give way, and wash downstream with him clinging to it, just before his friends got near. Fortunately, drifting with the spar, he again found bottom, and was eventually rescued, half full of salt water. I remember how he fell in my estimation as a seaman— though I was only a boy at the time.


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