Flat Islands

A history of Flat Islands and St Nicholas Church. 

Flat Islands, Bonavista Bay (pop. 1956, 200). A cluster of rocky islands, named Flat (Samson) Island, Berry Head, North Island and Coward's Island, in central Bonavista Bay, the Flat Islands together form a narrow, land-locked harbour, well-protected from storms. The Flat Islands derive their collective name from the flat-topped metamorphic and volcanic rocks of which the islands are composed and which are strongly folded and faulted from the northwest.

Settlement occurred on the four islands, three of which have sufficient soil on the slopes and boggy land bordering creeks and coves to support some agriculture. Settlement on Flat Islands concentrated on Samson or Flat Island, with about one half of the population living there. North Island (formerly called Northern Head) and Coward's Island had each approximately one-quarter of the total population. Berry Head's population never exceeded fifty people, and after 1935 there were no people reported living there. Both parts of Flat Island (Upper and Lower) and Coward's Island (Upper and Lower) were connected by bridges in the late 1800s and in 1915 respectively.

Flat Islands, which is the most southerly of the once populated island groups of Bonavista Bay, including Fair Islands, Bragg's Island and Silver Fox Island was one of the earliest reported settled areas in Bonavista Bay. In an extensive study of the peopling of central Bonavista Bay, A. G. MacPherson (1977) states that Flat Islands was first recorded as occupied in the "Register of Fishing Rooms in Bonavista Bay," in 1806. In that year the mercantile firm of Grey and Collins erected a stage and claimed the area "in right of building and possession." There seem to have been no independent fishermen in the area that year. The Grey and Collins operation may have been a seasonal one, developed as an outgrowth of the English migratory fishery or of the Newfoundland based fishery conducted from older settlements, such as Trinity and Bonavista.

It is not known when Flat Islands underwent the transition from a seasonal base to a permanently settled area, but it appears from parish records that Flat Islands had become a permanent settlement by the late 1820's. The pioneer family of Flat Islands, as deduced from these records, was a Hallett family who had two children baptized in 1827 and 1829. According to MacPherson, Hallett was "almost certainly a settler from Greenspond of Somerset origin." MacPherson surmises that the Hallett family, the Dyer and Cheater families, Samson family (from King's Cove, Bonavista Bay) and later the Kelligrew and Ralph (Rolf) families (Conception Bay), the Hiscock and hicks families (Gooseberry Islands). the Rogers family and the Morgan family were permanent residents of Flat Islands by 1815. Names associated with the settlement after 1845 included Power, Crocker, Petten, Philpott, Butt, Pike and Honnibon (Honniburn or Honeybun). These later migrants, with the exception of, Honeybun originated in Port de Grave and "ensured that Flat Island thenceforth was dominated by the Conception Bay element in its population". After this time settlers came to Flat Islands from Catalina, Newell's Island and Greenspond. mainly through marriage into the community. Lovell's Newfoundland Directory 1871 (1871) lists Davis, Moss and Pickers (Dickers) in addition to the names mentioned above.

According to oral tradition a shipwreck was said to have occurred c. 1820 near Flat Islands. Of the survivors of the wreck, named John Collins and "soldier" Brown, only Brown managed to swim to Flat(Samson) Island where he built a log cabin. Brown was reputedly living on Lower Flat Island when others came to settle c. 1830 because "they wanted to be as far out in the sea as possible where fish, seals and birds were more plentiful". Other names associated with Flat Islands were Lane, Hefferman and Hancock. According to G. W. Roberts (1973) the first settlers of Coward's Island were named Puddister. Later settlers included the Ralph, Pike, Saunders, Kelligrew. Durdle, Morgan, Seymour, Hiscock, Crocker, Hancocks, Butt and Lane families.

Tremendous growth and development was reported at Flat Islands from 1836 to 1891 (Census). In 1836 the nascent community was composed of twenty-six Protestant Episcopalians three of whom were fishing servants. Seven dwellings were occupied and the settlers prosecuted the small-boat, inshore cod fishery from four craft of 760 kg (15 qtls) capacity and under. By 1869 Flat Islands had a population of 230 (three of whom were born in England), composed of 176 Church of England adherents and fifty-four Wesleyans. By 1891 the population reached 417, 355 Church of England and sixty-two Methodists.

In 1844 it was reported that a schoolhouse was being built at Flat Island and by 1846 this school was in operation. Oral tradition names James Cullen as the island's first teacher. He was said "to have escaped from a man-of-war, found his way to Flat Island and settled there. As he was an educated man and knew very little about the fishery, he decided to take up teaching. . ." Later, three schools operated, on Coward's Island, Samson (Flat Island) and Northern Head (Northern Island). The last school reported operating on the islands was the Flat Island school, which closed in 1958.

The original schoolhouse served as a chapel until the 1890's. Bishop Edward Field held service in that school until 1853. In 1896, the people of Flat Island met and "decided the should build a church which should be a clear testimony of their faith. Besides being a place of worship, it would also be an expression of their love and a fitting reminder of God in their midst." Later, by 1903 the beautiful St. Nicholas's Church was built. A small Methodist chapel had also been erected by 1881.

The rapid growth and development of Flat Islands rested on the shift from local fishing to the Labrador fishery by the 1850s. According to Head "Fish was brought from the Labrador to be made at Flat Islands, and then, with the landsmen's fish (caught by old men and boys on the local grounds), was taken to St. John's to be sold, so that the settlement's supplies for the next year could he purchased. Local merchants supplied only those fishermen and their families who were directly attached to them. In later years, anti continuing right to the end of the Flat Islands settlement, merchants from Catalina and St. John's bought and stored fish on Flat Islands, and collected it by schooner in the fall." The extent of involvement in the Labrador fishery was illustrated by an incident in 1919 when police and later the warship Cornwall, which was dispatched by Justice Minister A. B. Morine investigated claims of moonshining and found only a few fishermen, the rest having gone to Labrador for the season. In 1900 a merchant named Callahan established a small lobster factory on the island, operating it with labour drawn from among the older school pupils. Salmon was also later collected from nearby Salvage, Newport and Bragg's Island and Flat Island for processing at the Samson and Samson cannery on Flat Island.

In the Nineteenth Century the settlement's production of Labrador cod averaged between 152,400 and 203,200 kg (3,000 and 4,000 qils) per year, from eight or nine vessels. Flat Islands men also had "a widespread reputation as boatbuilders." According to G. M. Story (1974), the grounds off the Labrador coast frequented by floater fishermen from the area included White Bear Islands, Jigger Tickle, Drawbucket, Cod-bag Islands, Indian Harbour, Groswater Bay and Cut-throat. "For three ears in a row ... the Flat Islands men alone produced 100,000 quintals (5,080,000 kg)" On the local grounds mackeral was fished for the first time in 1951 and lobster continued as a sideline.

With the decline of the lucrative Labrador fishery in the in 1900s, however, and the abundance of jobs created in insular Newfoundland during World War II, more than half the workforce by the 1950s were employed in carpentry, construction and woodwork in shoreline communities of Bonavista Bay and in central Newfoundland. In 1953 the North Island merchant mover to Harbour Grace, and in 1954 the first house from the island was floated to Glovertown, its inhabitants wishing to be close to jobs, the road and the railway. By 1956 the school on Cowards Island was closed and towed to Glovertown, and in 1957 the majority of the population prepared to move. The first families to leave Flat Islands had done so without government assistance, as one condition of the early resettlement scheme for assistance was the agreement of all residents of the settlement to move. The last move out of Flat Islands, involving 19 families, was undertaken with government assistance. About twenty percent (42) of this total moved to St. John's. The remainder scattered, to Glovertown (17), Eastport (12), St. Chad's (12), and Burnside (23). Many houses were floated or disassembled and rafted to their new locations, where Flat Islands houses with their older style have made significant contributions to local architecture.

The population of Flat Islands had declined from 891 in 1901 to 666 by 1921 and 492 by 1951, mainly through outmigration, but it had remained until resettlement one of the most heavily populated island groups in Bonavista Bay. At the last service held in St. Nicholas's Church in 1958 "a crowd of nearly five hundred souls had assembled in the holy edifice. . . . As we entered we were immediately struck by the rich beauty of the interior, and the pews, handcarved by fishermen who had no schooling in this art. . . . We could see the Samsons, Hiscocks, Morgans, Lanes, Pikes, Seymours and many others, names that originated in Dorset and Devon Countries in South-Western England, names that are now embedded in the history and culture of Newfoundland".