Book Review: Ted Drover Ships Artist

Ted Drover was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1907. He had polio as a child which left him with one leg shorter than the other and gave him a distinctive walk but did not prevent him from living an active, adventurous and successful life. Ted was a businessman, sailor and artist who had a deep interest in the history of his native land and especially the way its ships and sailors typified, indeed created, the unique culture of Newfoundland. His family had sawmills in Green’s Harbour in Trinity Bay and later in other outports, with a finishing mill in St. John’s which Ted’s father managed, so he was well acquainted with all aspects of the marine scene.

Ted showed an early aptitude for art and in the 1920s, after completing his schooling in St. John’s, he attended the Ontario College of Art where he studied under E. H. MacDonald and Frank Johnston of the Group of Seven. However, the stock market crash of 1929 had its affect on the family business and in that year Ted returned to Newfoundland to run the family sawmill in Alder Harbour. While he was seldom without his sketchpad (his preferred medium was pencil) he did not seriously pursue his art until 1936 when he was commissioned to draw portraits for The Book of Newfoundland. He was also a talented cartoonist. (His portraits and cartoons are not included in this book: they may be in another volume).

This collection of his ship portraits has been put together by his daughter-in-law Sheilah Mackinnon Drover. Starting with sketches of ancient and historic ships, it is then divided into chapters on sail, steam and motor vessels. The accompanying text describing the work and history of each ship provides us with a virtual nautical history of Newfoundland. The Grand Banks fishery which has been well covered elsewhere is not largely featured but there is an important section on the contribution of women and girls, especially in the Labrador fishery to which thousands of Newfoundlanders, men, women and children, migrated every year.

Sealing was an important part of the economy of Newfoundland, conducted in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth in wood or composite ships with auxiliary engines, many originally built in Dundee, Scotland as whalers. There was fierce competition and successful sealing captains became locally famous. A berth on a sealer was coveted by townies and outporters alike. (Ted had signed on for a trip to the ice in a sealer when he returned to St. John’s in 1929).  Then there was the coastal trade. As early as the 1860s the Newfoundland government granted subsidies to steamship owners who would provide reliable communication with the coastal settlements. There were two types: the “coastal boats” which connected St. John’s with the larger coastal towns and the “bay boats” that plied between the many settlements around the larger bights – Fortune, Placentia, St. Mary’s, Conception, Trinity, Bonavista and Notre Dame Bays. (Look at a map of Newfoundland: even today, after the consolidations of the 1950s and 60s, they seem innumerable).  These were small steamers by ocean-going standards: the larger ones 1000 -1500 tons, the “bay boats” a few hundred. Ted’s images of the earlier vessels are especially interesting as they have seldom been illustrated. These ships were operated by the Reid, Crosby and Bowater companies and the later ones, which were government and then CN owned, survived to the post WW2 period. I first saw St. John’s in May, 1947, the first port in my first trip in my first ship, and was there from time to time up to 1955. I remember the Portuguese white fleet of dory fishers, the Glencoe,the last of the clipper bowed steamers, the famous Kyle on the Labrador run and the Northern Ranger which did the long haul from St. John’s around the northern tip of Newfoundland to Corner Brook on the West Coast and return. These steamships and many more are featured in this book.

During World War Two there was a great demand for shipping of all kinds. In 1942, the Newfoundland government set up a new shipyard at Clarenville on a long inlet off Trinity Bay. Ted Drover was contracted to set up a sawmill there to provide the material for a group of ten wooden motor vessels designed by William Roue, who had designed the schooner Bluenose. These little ships, known as “the splinter fleet” were very successful and found ready employment during and after the war. In 1935 Ted had married Jessie Troake, a District Nurse. They lived first at Alder Harbour and then Clarenville but in 1944 Ted and his family moved to Twillingate where Ted acquired his own vessel, the MV Jessie Cull which he operated as a charter boat. These were smaller vessels that could take a few passengers and a small amount of cargo and were used by government officials and commercial firms that wanted to go directly to a destination avoiding the many calls of the “bay boats”. The Jessie Cull measured only 21 tons and was 47 ft long but he took her as far as Labrador. He sold her in the early 60s after suffering a heart attack and the new owner soon lost her. Then, in 1965, Premier Joey Smallwood invited Ted to come to St. John’s and establish a new maritime museum. He accepted and took great pride in exhibiting the objects that typified Newfoundland’s marine heritage. He died in 1980 having taken part in virtually all of his Province’s maritime activities and leaving an historically valuable collection of ship portraits. It is very good to have many of them reproduced in this book.

Sheilah Mackinnon Drover. Ted Drover Ships Artist. St. John’s NL, Flanker Press,, 2018. Xvii + 186 pp., illustrations, glossary, notes, bibliography. CDN $21.95; ISBN 978-1777117-436-7.

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