Shallaway Celebrates the Legacy of Ann Harvey

The talented young artists of Shallaway are hard at work these days, rehearsing for their upcoming folk opera Ann and Séamus, to be premiered in St. John's June 1st - 4th. For months, enthusiasm has been building around the opportunity to present the story of Ann Harvey of Isle aux Morts; a 17 year old who was instrumental in saving 168 lives from the wreck of the brig Despatch in 1828.

"The opera is very inspirational; we are creating this huge production right here, with our people, about our history, our place and about such an amazing person... and we'll be showing that to the world"
Kathleen Allan, Shallaway Chorister

Ann's accomplishment and that of her family was recognized by Governor Cochrane in 1830 with a gold medal from the Royal Humane Society and she became known in some circles as the "Grace Darling of Newfoundland", after the British heroine who performed a similar rescue off the northeast coast of England in 1838 and became an acclaimed celebrity throughout Victorian England. In 1987, the Canadian Coast Guard named its new ice breaker the Ann Harvey. But, except for local recognition, her heroism was otherwise unheralded for 175 years until, in 2002, Kevin Major was inspired to write the award-winning narrative poem Ann and Seamus.

In turn, in 2003, Shallaway's Artistic Director Susan Knight commissioned Stephen Hatfield to compose a folk opera to further celebrate Ann's legacy. As opera producer, she then was delighted when Jillian Keiley of Artistic Fraud agreed to direct the production. Finally, everyone was thrilled beyond words when world opera star Ben Heppner from Dawson Creek, British Columbia agreed to be Honourary Patron.

Isle aux Morts today

Fifteen minutes drive east of Port aux Basques lies the modern day community of Isle aux Morts. When the cod and herring fisheries were at their height in the 1970s and 80s, it was home to over 1200 people, but in recent years it has experienced the out-migration common to so many of our rural communities. Many expatriates are expected to visit Isle aux Morts this coming summer as the town celebrates its Come Home Year. Some workers continue their long established practise of commuting to work on the Great Lakes and the town is actively seeking new development opportunities. The 3.5 kilometre coastal hiking route "Harvey Trail", the Town's flag and family headstones are Isle aux Morts links to the Harvey family of the 1800s.

Pioneering in the early 1800s

Just off-shore from Isle aux Morts is an archipelago of islands, including one also called Isle aux Morts. It is there that George Harvey and his wife Jane settled about 1810 to harvest the rich fishing grounds nearby. His brother Tom and family also established a homestead nearby at about the same time. The Harvey family had immigrated from Jersey, Channel Islands and George may have been born there before the move to Newfoundland. While little is known of Jane, she was born in the early 1790s and likely grew up on the south coast of Newfoundland.

In 1811, the first of George and Jane's nine children was born; they called her Ann. Over the next 22 years, eight other siblings would be added to the household. As the eldest, Ann grew up being an important part of the family's fishing enterprise and likely went fishing with her father from an early age.

An extraordinary rescue mission

As the name "Isle aux Morts" suggests, George Harvey's island and those nearby have witnessed many ship wrecks, particularly in the sailing era when ships met their doom on the rocks by being either blown ashore or lost in fog, while travelling to and from Cape Ray and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the summer of 1828, this fate befell the British Brig Despatch, captained by a William Lancaster. She had left Londonderry, Ireland in late May, en route to Québec City, crammed with 200 Irish immigrants (plus 11 crew). The passengers were part of the first wave of Irish migration to North America that occurred in the early 1800s. Many of the ships brought labourers to work in the woods of Québec, returning laden with lumber. On Saturday, July 10th, 1828, forty-two days after leaving port and about three quarters of the way to her destination, a raging storm blew the Despatch onto the rocks near Isle aux Morts.

The Harveys, who lived about four miles from the wreck site, spotted debris being washed ashore on the evening of July 10th but were unable to investigate due to the storm and approaching darkness. Upon discovering the wreck the next morning, with the survivors clinging to the rocks, the Harveys started their rescue mission with a vengeance.

Over an incredible three day period, with her father, 12 year old brother Tom, their Newfoundland Dog Hairyman, and working day and night, Ann was instrumental in saving 168 of the passengers and crew, getting them to land over stormy seas in the Harvey's twelve foot skiff.

The fact that Ann's story is inspiring to the Shallaway choristers is easily understood. Over an incredible three day period, with her father, 12 year old brother Tom, their Newfoundland Dog Hairyman, and working day and night, Ann was instrumental in saving 168 of the passengers and crew, getting them to land over stormy seas in the Harvey's twelve foot skiff.

With all survivors safe on shore as of Tuesday night, July 14th, the Harveys continued their incredible rescue operation. For another exhausting five days (July 15th - 19th), they built makeshift shelters on the beach, shared their home, clothing, all the family's food secured for the winter and helped to row all survivors to Port aux Basques, where they were transferred to the British naval vessel HMS Tyne.

On July 26th, the survivors were discharged from the Tyne at Halifax. Among them were the two Smilie families (two brothers married to two sisters) from County Tyrone, the McLeans from Donegal and the McMullans from Londonderry. The sole Scottish family was Daniel and Catherine Arnot and their eleven children; the youngest being just three years old. From Halifax, some families migrated to various parts of North America and today there are thousands of their descendants that could bear witness to the heroism of Ann and her family.

Ann married Charles Gillam and they had eight children over an eighteen year period while living in Isle aux Morts, Port aux Basques and Brooks River, Bay St. George. She is also credited with helping her father rescue all 25 crew from the Scottish cargo ship Rankin in September, 1838, which blew ashore on the exact same rocks as the Despatch had ten years earlier. She died in Connoirs Bay (just east of La Poile Bay) in March, 1845, nearing her 34th birthday. Charles died twenty-one years later in the McKay's-Robinson's area.

In addition to the Harveys and Gillams, the Harvey diaspora includes surnames such as the Hulans, Legges, Messerveys and McKays, to name just some of the first generation families.

Ann and Séamus, the folk opera, will celebrate the story

The World Premiere of Ann and Séamus will take place June 1st - 4th, 2006 at the Robert G. Reid III Theatre, Memorial University. A North American tour is also being planned in the summer of 2007.

The unique mentorship process of Shallaway is being documented by Ottawa producer Michael Ostroff, who is making a film about Stephen Hatfield's composition and his collaboration with the choir. It has been pre-sold for broadcast to Bravo (national) and CBC TV (Atlantic Canada). Audiovisual materials about the teaching/performing process are also to be developed by Shallaway for international distribution.

Descendants of Despatch survivors to attend the premiere

A particularly exciting part of the project is that contact is being made with descendants of the Despatch's survivors. Several are travelling to St. John's to attend the premiere from as far away as Washington State, where they will meet descendants of Ann and the Harvey family and hopefully current residents of Isle aux Morts.

Among the descendants will be Bruce Arnot of Dearborne, Michigan, Great Great Grandson of survivors Daniel and Catherine Arnot. Bruce's cousin John Johnston of Toronto recently wrote Kevin Major to say that the family still possesses the Paisley shawl used to ferry the Arnot baby from the Despatch to safety, the mother clinging to the rope with her hands while gripping the baby-laden shawl with her teeth.

The members of Shallaway continue to rehearse as excitement builds for what is sure to be a powerful opening night. The big day is in sight.

On Thursday, May 25th, Shallaway will be co-hosting a seminar with the Newfoundland Historical Society to explore the significance of shipwrecks in our cultural heritage. There will be presentations by Kevin Major, Jim Wellman, Robert Parsons, and the Archaeology Unit of the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, as well as a performance by Shallaway. The event will be held at the INCO Innovation Centre at Memorial University, starting at 7:30pm. Admission is free.

Tickets for the June 1st - 4th premiere performances will go on sale Saturday, May 13th for $25 (adults) and $20 (seniors and students) at Belbins, Living Rooms at Terrace in the Square, West End Electronics and Lane Gallery. Tickets can also be purchased at the Shallaway office, call 738-6792. For further information about the opera, visit www.annandSéamus.com

Dennis Knight, St. John's, 10 May, 2006, with special thanks to Kevin Major, Blanford Billard of Isle aux Morts and Kirk R. Butt, direct descendant of Ann's brother Tom, who has conducted extensive research into the Harvey family

The Ann & Séamus wordmark and "rowboat image" are the Property of SHALLAWAY - Newfoundland and Labrador Youth in Chorus Inc.
All Rights Reserved. Site content copyright © 2006 - 2017