Henry (Harry) Martin

Reprinted from Georgestown, an historic corner of old St. John’s
By Wallace Furlong


Mr. Henry Martin, who resides at 28 Williams Street in the Georgestown Section of St. John’s, is the city’s oldest citizen. Harry, the name by which he has always been known, is 102 years of age as of August 1, 1981. He is the oldest child of the late James and Johanna (Brown) Martin. Both of his parents were born in old St. John’s, however, Harry’s place of birth was at Little Heart’s Ease, Southwest Arm, Trinity Bay.

Harry’s father was a boat builder by trade, and plied his skills wherever he obtained an order to boat construction. James Martin and his wife moved to Little Heart’s Ease in April of the year 1879, Mr. Martin had been hired, by a wealthy fish merchant of that settlement, to build a “Jack” (a small schooner-type vessel) and two “Bait Skiffs.” All boats were to be ready for use no later than mid-September of that year. The owner wanted them working the waters of Trinity Bay. From all accounts the merchant wanted to use them on the Labrador in the Spring.

On the first day of August 1879, Harry Martin first saw the light of day in that little settlement. The Martins lived in Little Heart’s Ease for the next eight months. They moved across the Arm to a little harbour known as Hatchet Cove, where James Martin built a cottage, wharf and his little boat yard. Martin chose this place because it had an abundance of fine timber that grew right down to the waters of the Arm, and the little cove was sheltered from the bad winds. Although Martin was a boat builder by trade, he was also a logger, a farmer, a carpenter and a fisherman. He, like all of the early Newfoundlanders, possessed an inborn industrious trait and a strong determination to succeed in his pioneer life. Two more sons were born to the Martin family before they moved back to St. John’s in the year 1884. As it was late in October when they arrived in St. John’s, they lived with Mr. Martin’s family (in his house) on Signal Hill. In June of the following year their new residence was on Cookstown Road, in a house that Mr. Martin leased from a Miss Carrigan.

While living in this area of St. John’s, young Harry met up with young boys who were to become his lifetime companions. Such lads a Gordy Miller, Willie Miller, Carson Payne and Stevie Brien became his childhood friends, with whom he spent most of his leisure time. The young group became good swimmers, and not a day passed in summer that they did not have a “dip” in Sandy Bottom, a pool carved by nature in a bend on Leary’s Brook that flows into the western end of Long Pond. (The old swimming pool was in the area where the Health Sciences Centre on Memorial University Campus now stands.)

On the afternoon of July 8, 1892, the boys were returning from swimming when one of them saw huge billowing clouds of smoke in the sky over the city. As they were walking uphill, they could not see the town until they got to the top of the grade. (Old Newtown Road crossed over the hill and led down to the Sand Pitts at the head of Long Pond. That length of road is gone now, but Westerland Road is very near the location of the old road.) Then they saw the holocaust. They ran all the way to the Martin residence only to find if completely gutted by fire. The boys helped Mrs. Martin move the few items of clothing and furniture that she and the younger Martin children salvaged from the flames.

Harry wanted to go downtown to find his father, but his mother prevented him and his companions from doing so. She persuaded them that they were needed at what was left of their homes, for their safety. That night the Martins were all together and found shelter in the basement of a Mrs. Smith’s house located on LeMarchant Road. By the week’s end, the Martins had shelter in fire-victims accommodations set up on the Parade Grounds, and following that date they were moved to tents erected in Bannerman Park. As nearly all of St. John’s East End had been destroyed by the Great Fire, it was almost impossible to purchase or lease housing in the unburnt sections of the city. However, James Martin was successful in leasing a house on the lower section of Springdale Street where his family were reunited under the same roof for the first time in five weeks.

The months following the Great Fire were rough on many, but the Martins were very busy because James, while a boat builder, now as employed as a carpenter. He was constantly busy in building or repairing homes. He and his brother decided that they would open up their own carpentry business and within a week of their decision, they were building a row of houses in the East End of the city. They also built new houses on Walsh’s Square and had moved into them before Christmas. James, being a very thrifty man banked a large share of his earnings for, during the height of the building boom, his son Harry was working with him and an uncle as an assistant carpenter. His earnings also augmented the family budget. The Martins, at last, were a fairly well-to-do family, and the prospects of more building in the new year (1895) gave promise of a fair share of the work for the Martins.

However, St. John’s was to face its most devastating disaster on December 10, 1894. On that day the Union and Commercial Banks went broke. The day is known as “Black Monday” in Newfoundland History. James Martin had all his saving wiped out in that bank crash. He wand many other citizens were bankrupt because of the terrible financial collapse of the two Newfoundland Banks. James Martin sought and obtained employment with a shipping firm. His son Harry found work with a Marine Engineering Works. It was with this firm that he became interested in the automobile branch of the mechanical trade. After the year 1898 in which the SS Greenland went down at the ice fields with a loss of 34 lives, Harry’s father accepted employment with a shipping firm in Montreal when a former manager, who had moved to that city, offered him a position. Mrs. Martin and most of the younger members of the family moved with Mr. Martin.

If ever a family had the so-called germ of longevity, the Martins certainly found it. That family lived long beyond the biblical allotted span to man of three score ten years. Very few of the Martin clan have not lived beyond a span of 60 years. Harry Martin married Mary Barton in the year 1905. Mrs. Martin died in the year 1940. By this marriage there were eight children, of which seven are living either in St. John’s or Montreal. Harry Martin has two brothers still living. Mike resides in California. He is 100 years of age. His brother, Jack, lives in Holyrood and he is now 98 years of age. James Martin, Harry’s, Mike’s and Jack’s father, lived to be 101 years of age. Their mother died at the age of 99 years. Henry Martin, their grandfather, was 94 years of age when he died, and great grandfather John Martin went to his eternal reward at 92 years.

John Martin (great grandfather) came out to St. John’s as a shipwright to service either his uncle’s or cousin’s ships. The relative Martin had a fishing and shipping business operating out of St. John’s in the late 1700s. John Martin’s two sons were boat builders and repairers of ships, but Henry became a sea captain and sealing skipper. Harry is named after his grandfather.

A story is told of an incident in Harry Martin’s early manhood days. It appears that Harry and one of his chums got employment on a ship sailing out of St. John’s on a regular service to Halifax, Boston and New York in or about the year 1898. Harry signed on as an engine room assistant while his friend, Gordy Miller, was signed on as a deckhand. The two men were walking along Duckworth Street, on their way to the pier with their duffle bags slung over their shoulders, when they met a pal of theirs. This “buddy,” Stevie Brien by name, asked them were they were going at the hour of 9:00 a.m. They told him they were sailing for Boston at 10:30 a.m. as they were now seamen. Stevie, who had a milk jug in his hand, said, “Wait fellows, I’ll go with you.”

The two new seamen tried to tell him that they were not passengers. They were seamen. Stevie walked to a nearby door-way and there put there put the milk jug under the wooden steps that led up to the door. He then followed his buddies up to the wharf where their ship was “docked” or “tied up.” Stevie, somehow, got past the “gangway guard” and found a hiding place on board the ship. That night his hiding place was discovered, and Brien was taken to the captain. His two “buddies” came to his rescue, but the captain assigned him to the gallery, a duty he had to carry out until the ship returned to St. John’s. However, he was allowed to go ashore in all the foreign ports, but had to be escorted by either Martin or Miller and one of the ship’s officers.

When the ship docked at St. John’s, the three companions disembarked. Miller said to Brien, “Stevie, what are you going to say to your mother when you go home?” Martin said, “It’s been almost a month since she sent you for that jug of milk.” While Harry and Gordy decided that they would accompany their pal to this home and try to help him get over the expected difficult meeting with his mother, Stevie retrieved the milk jug from under the steps where he had put it about a month earlier. He went into a shop, purchased a fill, and the three friends walked over the hill to Brien’s home. When they got there, Stevie said to his mother, “Here’s your jug of milk, Mom. Sorry I was a bit late getting it to you.” Mrs. Brien told the young men she had a feeling her son had “stowed away,” as he often did it during the sealing seasons, and for that reason she was not too worried about him.

Another story told of Harry and his buddies at an earlier time (when he was 13 years old) was an event that took place at “The Day of the Races.” Harry and some of his friends were “down to the pond” to enjoy the fun. They were at the site of the “Greasy Pig Arena” (a compound of about 400 square feet), where a pig of about eight months” growth was greased and let loose. Anyone who thought he could catch the young animal paid his 20 cents and got into the fenced-off arena to try for the prize. The boys were in the “front row” and were enjoying the spectacle of man versus beast. Their laughter must have irked the huge man in the ring doing combat with the pig, because he came over to where they were standing. He is supposed to have said, “So you think you can do better than me. Well, let’s see you, young fellow, catch that pig.” He picked up Harry, who happened to be nearest and stood him in the ring. Getting out he said, “Go ahead, laddie, the pig is all yours.”

At first Harry was motionless, but the crowd soon began to urge him into action. Harry noticed an old coat on the ground (probably that of an earlier person who had tried for the prize) so he picked it up and threw it over the pig’s head. The poor animal was now in the dark, and trying to find daylight. It poked its head out a sleeve of the jacket. Harry held on for dear life, for he now had the pig under his control. With the body of the jacket, he wrapped up the pig with it. By doing so he did not get covered by the grease in which the animal had been coated, and, holding the trussed-up pig, he held on for the required time period. However, the judge of the show would not award the young lad the prize on the grounds that his method of capture was not according to the accepted rules. When the crowd heard the verdict, they pushed forward to the judge, and in no time he reversed his decision. Someone gave Harry a piece of rope and he left the compound with his prize. That Christmas the Martins had roast pork on their table as well as the turkey and plum pudding and other goodies that were extra treats at that time.

Harry Martin was a very good motor mechanic, and an excellent chauffeur. He was hired by one of the Bowring’s to drive their “Stanley Steamer,” a very famous motor car of that era (early 1900s). At another time he was hired by Reid’s as a chauffeur to drive a Stanley Steamer and a Rolls Royce for that family. Later in the 1920s, he drove Mr. Charles Marshall, of Marshall Brothers Ltd. That motor car was a “Cunningham,” believed to be one of the first front-wheel drive cars ever made. He drove Dr. Rendell, but the transportation was horse-drawn. It was a wintertime vehicle, a closed in sleigh. The carriage was a landau on runners, and the interior was heated by a series of hot bricks wrapped in burlap and covered with a rug. When the Rendell’s moved to England, the doctor offered the horses to Harry, but stabling and feed for the animals were too expensive and he turned down the offer.

For a while Harry drove the Herders, owners of The Evening Telegram. However, the most famous Newfoundlander for whom he acted as chauffeur was Sir Richard Squires when he was the Prime Minister of Newfoundland. After that service he moved to the Newfoundland Highroads Department as a chauffeur for the Superintendent of Bridges Construction. Here he spent the last 30 years of his working days. Mr. Wm. Whelan, the superintendent, would have no other driver to take him on is rounds of the Avalon Peninsula. It was while driving for this gentleman that Harry told one of his great experiences of the hazards of road construction and bridge building.

On a fine summer’s day Harry was summoned to the main office to take Mr. Robinson, Engineer with the Department, and Mr. Whelan to a proposed bridge site near the village of St. Mary’s, St. Mary’s Bay. When they got to the area where the bridge was to be built, the roads construction crew had everything ripped out and no vehicle could get through to the river. There was a small lane that had been made by horse-cart traffic that would take them to the river’s edge, but it would be rough driving as heavy brush and trees lined both sides of this path. Mr. Robinson was most anxious to see the bridge site so he gave the order to drive over the narrow path. Harry started out on a short drive through what was to be two miles of the darkest woods he had ever seen, and the trees got bigger while the path narrowed to about the width of the vehicle he was driving at the time.

Suddenly they came to the river. It was 30 feet below a sheer cliff. All three got out and had to squeeze between the side of the car and the trees in order to get to the edge of the cliff in front of the stopped vehicle. The engineer and the superintendent looked over the flow of the river below, and having spent some time in technical discussion, they pushed their way back to the side of the car and slowly walked back over the path towards the roads-construction crew. Harry was left to get the vehicle back as best he could and on his own.

His first act was to cut down a few trees. From one he cut two logs of about three feet in length and approximately ten inches in diameter. He used the two logs as wheel chocks. He then “jacked up” the front wheels so that he had a clearance of about 15 inches between wheels and ground. He then pushed the car to the left until it fell off the “jack.” He repeated this action many times over the next two hours, however, he had to adjust the rear wheel blockings, and in limbing out or cutting down several trees during that time. By this method he had turned the car a full 180 degrees without any damage to the vehicle. He removed the wheel blocks, got behind the steering wheel and drove back over the narrow path to the newly constructed site where he stopped to let Mr. Robinson and Mr. Whelan get in, and from there back to St. John’s over the gravel highways.

The above stores are just a few of the numerous accounts of the happenings in the life and times of Harry Martin. Volumes of eventful stories could be compiled and printed about the old St. John’s if it were possible to record Harry Martin’s memories of over a century’s experience.

Henry (Harry) Martin resides at 28 William Street and is now confined to his bed. He is wonderfully well cared for by his daughter-in-law, the former Patricia Hynes of Portugal Cove, who is the wife of Harry’s youngest son, Leslie. The Leslie Martins have 12 children.


Book_Georgetwon Henry Martin


Transcribed by Wanda Garrett, April 2018

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.