Monday, 2 September 2019

Fletts in Newfoundland Fisheries Venture 1907-1908

This blog has previously looked in some detail at the novel Bid for Fortune, by "J.S.[Joseph] Flett" (Moray Press, 1934), and in particular among other aspects at the ways in which its author drew on his experience of living in Canada, or more accurately Newfoundland, at that time a distinct 'colony' or dominion of Britain with its own government. But 1915 was not the first occasion on which he had made the transatlantic crossing in the interests of the family fishcuring business. Eight years previously, aged 19, he had been delegated to take responsibility for a pioneering attempt to transform the Newfoundland herring fishing industry, a venture which not only drew the attention of newspapers but involved government sanction and international repercussions.

Banffshire Advertiser, 9-5-1907, p.8

New Departures in Fishcuring
Local Workers off to Newfoundland 
Interesting Experiment
   Much local interest is evinced in a fishing experiment undertaken by Mr Alexander Flett, fishcurer, Buckie, Findochty, and Aberdeen, who has entered into a three years' agreement with the Government of Newfoundland* to carry on drift net fishing for herring and curing after the Scottish method in Newfoundland. This experiment differs from that of Mr Cowie of Lossiemouth, who is in the service of the Canadian Government, while Mr Flett's venture is in charge of Mr Joseph Flett, his son, who sailed in company with Mr G. Flett "Crawford" [nickname/tee-name], Findochty, on 9th April. Mr Flett has already shipped Buckie-made curing stock, and to-day the staff will leave here for Liverpool, whence they sail for Newfoundland on Saturday. [Details of those engaged: 3 fishermen, all Fletts from Findochty; 4 coopers, 3 from Buckie and one from Findochty; 6 (female) fishworkers, 3 surnamed Reid from Buckie, and 3 Mair from Portknockie, 'also three girls from Nairn'.] One of the stations to be opened up will be at Twillingate Island, Notre Dame Bay,. The output of cured herring for export from Newfoundland at present ranges from 100,000 to 200,000 barrels per annum, and everyone will join in wishing that success may crown the venture, so that new markets may be opened up and the present ones extended.
 * "Newfoundland was a British dominion from 1907 to 1934 when it surrendered dominion status by ending self-government..."

A slightly shorter story appeared in the Aberdeen Daily Journal (Press & Journal) 9-5-1907

The Newfoundland Herring Fisheries
The herring exports of Newfoundland at present total from 100,000 to 200,000 barrels annually, and with a view to increasing the output, the Newfoundland Government has - as briefly reported yesterday - concluded a three years' agreement with Mr Alexander Flett, fishcurer, Buckie, Findochty, and Aberdeen, to introduce into Newfoundland waters the Scottish method of catching herrings by drift net, and curing them as is done in this country. Mr Flett has already shipped salt and barrels and to-day a party leaves the Moray Firth shores for the Atlantic voyage. The venture is in charge of Mr Flett's son, Joseph...
Newfoundland in 1907
Four months later the 'P&J' returned to the topic, evidently quite a hot one in the context of a long-running dispute over access to fishing grounds involving diplomatic wrangling with the USA, In a column on 'The Newfoundland Fisheries' (under 'Sir Robert bond's Speech: American Opinion') the paper noted:

Aberdeen Daily Journal (Press & Journal) 12 September 1907 

Important Development
Agreement with Buckie Fish Curers
   The "Standard" says an arrangement has been entered into between the Newfoundland Government and Messrs Alexander Flett and Son, fishcurers, Buckie, Banffshire, to carry on herring fishing operations off Newfoundland upon the Scottish system. Whether the project will have any effect on the differences with the United States remains to be seen, but the experiment is to be tried in earnest. It is not a private speculation on the part of Messrs Flett. A formal agreement has been entered into between the Newfoundland Government and Messrs Flett and Son for three years to develop the herring fishing in the manner in which it is carried on upon the east coast of Scotland. A few months ago a number of fishermen, coopers and girls went out from the east coast of Scotland to train the Newfoundlanders in conducting the industry. It is understood that the Newfoundland Government have granted a substantial subsidy in order to give the venture a fair trial. There will be no curing at sea. The fish will be landed at convenient places, and cured in barrels both for home consumption and export. The advantage of the Scottish system is that Newfoundland will reap the full benefit from the fishing, and it is understood that there is an abundance of herring off the Newfoundland coast. The value of the herring fishing on the east coast of Scotland this year is estimated at £1,300,000 sterling, and it can be understood that to a fishing country like Newfoundland the adoption of fishing methods that bring in such a splendid harvest would be a matter of the highest importance. Naturally the Messrs Flett are very reticent on the matter, but they are very hopeful of success, and a member of the firm has gone out to superintend the operation.

Unfortunately the hopes of success were looking rather forlorn within less than a year.

26 March 1908 - Banffshire Advertiser

Newfoundland Herring Fishing Experiment Reported a Failure
Some time ago, Messrs Alexander Flett & Company, fishcurers, Buckie, sent out a representative and workpeople to Newfoundland by arrangement with the Government. St. John's " Evening Chronicle " contained the following reference hereto:-  
  We understand that Mr Flett, the Scottish herring packer, who is described by the "Herald" as having the profoundest faith in the future of the herring industry in the island, but is alleged by Captain Eli Dawe to have lost 26,000 dollars in the venture here, is reported in Government circles to be desirous of leaving the Colony and abandoning the venture entirely, if he can induce the Government to recoup him for the outlay he has made in the drift-net fishing so far. This would include the Schooners, outfits and gear he provided, and it is held on behalf of Mr Flett that it would be cheaper for the Government to do this than to continue the project for another two years and pay out 5000 dollars each year as a subsidy to him, which will have to be done in the event of no arrangement being now arrived at. Probably outside of a comic opera there is nothing to equal the Government's bungling with this drift-net project... [Details of false starts and failed arrangements since 1905] ... Now, after a season's trial in Green Bay, it is found that he caught just twelve barrels of herring in the outer waters, and for this the Colony has to pay him 5000 dollars.
Neither family tradition nor public records so far discovered give the full story of how and when the 'venture' ended; it may have been affected by a 'modus vivendi' accommodating US demands with regard to the Newfoundland Fisheries (reported in the Press & Journal 14-8-1908). Whatever its losses, however, the firm survived and was evidently sufficiently well regarded and prosperous for a renewed attempt to establish itself in the 'Colony' to appear a reasonable proposition in 1915. This time Joe as its representative stayed for nearly six years, and it was the death of his father Alexander which brought him and his young family back to north-east Scotland in 1921.
Record of Joe's voyage out in 1907 (last name in the second column)

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