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The Town of
Torbay, Newfoundland


A man by the name of Dennis McCarthy is reported to have been Torbay's first settler. The story is told that Dennis was a crew member aboard a ship fishing out of Torbay in the year 1527, when he became involved in a fight. Fearing that he had killed a man, Dennis swam ashore and was determined to remain in Torbay rather than face punishment for his crime. Next spring his ship returned and Dennis was relieved to find his fellow crew member still alive. However, he had not changed his mind about living in Torbay and persuaded a friend, Jim Dwyer, to remain with him. For ten years Dennis McCarthy lived in Torbay, making barrels for the summer fishing crews. While in Torbay, Dennis married an Irish woman named Catherine Callahan. One year Catherine went back to Ireland to see her parents and brought back a young apple tree which she planted near her home. This tree, although long dead and silvered by the elements, may still be seen on the hill in Torbay where the McCarthy house stood over four hundred years ago.

The first permanent settlers are generally accepted to have been the Codner's and the Gosse's. The first documented residents, however, were John Corun and John Cole. They arrived from England around 1670, bringing their wives with them and employing a servant each to help with the fishing. They built houses, and fishing premises, owned a boat each and even kept pigs and cattle. Their stay in Torbay came to a sudden end in 1696 when French soldiers from Placentia burnt their homes and drove then out of the colony along with all the inhabitants of St. John's and surrounding area.

The earliest reference to the Gosse name in Torbay is in a judicial affidavit dated February 12, 1755 by one Stephen Gosse, then of Salicombe, Devon. Gosse indicated that in 1713 he was a servant in the house of Samuel Blanks in Torbay, Newfoundland. The 1794 census lists three members of the Gosse family, Sol Goss Sr,. Sol Goss Jr, and Sam Goss, all of whom were born in Newfoundland. (The usual modern-day spelling of Gosse appears to have commenced durig the mid-1800's.)

The earliest reference to the Codner family in Torbay is 1761, when Governor Webb ordered that the land titles of the Codners and the Gosses be revoked. There is a further reference to a Richard Codner at Torbay in court documents from 1762 (concerning a loss of a quantity of fish and oil).

By 1708, two new families had settled in Torbay, Abraham Barrot and Richard Sutton. Both were fishermen and brought their families with them. They too were attacked by the French, however, they were able to get protection at the fort in St. John's and their homes were spared in return for a large ransom which the English settlers agreed to pay the French. Their narrow escape from the French was not the end of Sutton's and Barrot's problems. As might be expected, the seasonal fishermen complained that the Newfoundland settlers used necessary beach front property and interfered with their fishing. In 1711 Joseph Crowe, the Commander of Newfoundland for that year, decided to settle the matter and ordered several planters, as the property owning fishermen were called, to give up their fishing rooms, that is their stages, flakes and storage sheds, for use by the summer fishing ships. The following order passed by Captain Crowe must have been a severe blow to the unfortunate settlers in Torbay.

"A plantation of three boat rooms in possession of Abraham Barrot and Richard Sutton in Torbay. Being ships rooms, they are dispossessed in right of ships that have occassion for them next year."

It is not surprising that Torbay's earliest settlers became discouraged by the difficulties of living in Torbay and attracted to more promising homes, disappeared leaving no traces behind them.

Between 1725 and 1750, more settlers arrived in Torbay, most of them from the west coast of England. Some of these families remained in Torbay all their lives and their descendants still live in the town today. In 1736, the governor for Newfoundland writes about the murder of a member of the Gosse family in Torbay. Since Newfoundland did not have courts of law at this time, the accused man and all the witneses were sent back to England for the hearing. The high costs and inconvenience of this trial made it clear to the British authorities that it was time Newfoundland had her own courts and was given the right to try her own criminals. The Gosse family again came to the attention of the governor of Newfoundland in 1760, when he granted them legal title to their land in Torbay. The Codners, another early Torbay family, received a land grant in Torbay in the same year.

The population of Torbay grew slowly during the late 1700's. By 1794, when a census was taken of the settlers living in and around St. John's, Torbay had a total of two hundred and seven residents. This number of single men and servants who remained in the community for a short time to fish and later returned to homes in England or Ireland. Apart from a carpenter and a few coopers or barrel makers, every one in the community made their living catching and drying cod fish. English fishing crews still worked out of the bay during the summer, almost doubling the town's population for those months. There were no churches, schools or stores as yet. Each summer, ships from England, Ireland and New England stopped in the bay with needed supplies of bread, flour, pork, molasses and peas for food, cord, canvas, tar and salt for the fishing. These same supply ships left Torbay with cargoes of dried cod which was eventually sold in the markets of Europe.

Torbay's new Irish families did more than increase the number of residents in the town. When they arrived the valuable property close to the water's edge, which was necessary to carry on fishing, was already taken by earlier settlers. The only land available for settlement lay on the hills shich stretched around the bay. With the determination characteristic of our early settlers, these Irish families started the back-breaking job of clearing land and gradually they covered the north and south hills of Torbay with their farms. First, these new farmers grew only potatoes, but by the middle of the century they had added other crops such as cabbages, turnips, hay and oats. Cattle and hens were also kept. By 1890, Torbay had become an important supplier of fresh vegetables and dairy products to the larger town of St. John's.

While all these events were happening in the 1800's, life went on in the community much as it had for generations. Fishing was still the town's most important activity and most of the men caught and dried cod in exactly the same way as the first fishing crew to visit Torbay had done. Many of the fishermen were also farmers. Much of the farm work, such as seeding the gardens, caring for the animals and removing rocks from newly cleared land was done by the children. Children and women also had the job of laying the salted cod out on the flakes, turning it over as it dried and gathering it into piles in the evening so that it could be covered from dampness and rain. Boys, as soon as they entered their teen years, accompanied their fathers in the fishing boats and soon learned to do a man's job. Similarly, the girls helped at home with washing, cooking and cleaning and a very early age learned to sew in fine, even stitches, since all clothing had to be made by hand.

Summer was certainly the busiest time of the year, but each season had its work. When the fishing ended, the men went into the woods and cut fuel to last the winter. When the first snow came, this wood had to be dragged out on sled. To provide fresh meat for their families, many men hunted during the winter. Winter was also the time for building new boats or making a new salmon net. When spring finally came, the boats had to be repaired and painted, and the ground made ready for the June planting. In the slack months of February and March, a number of men from Torbay joined the sealing ships, which were sent out from St. John's in late February of each year. It was a good opportunity to make a little extra money and no doubt a sense of adventure attracted many of the men to make these dangerous voyages.

Men from Torbay also accompanied the fishing ships, which left St. John's each year in early April to fish on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland's south coast. When the ships reached the fishing banks, the men were set adrift in small dories, two men to a boat, to fish.

As Torbay entered the twentieth century, the town's fifteen hundred residents had no idea of the great changes which would affect then over the next fifty years. The first of these changes occurred in the fishery ,which had been carried on with no change for three hundred years. Towards the end of the 1800's an inventive Newfoundland man had found a new way to catch cod in large numbers. He had designed a large square net, called a cod trap, which was lowered from the fishermen's boat into deep water and some time later was hauled back into the boat full of fish. This method of fishing was certainly more efficient than the ancient use of baited handlines, which we know today as jigin. However, both methods were popular with Torbay's fishermen. Another invention which affected the fishery in Torbay and all Newfoundland outports was the diesel engine. Fishing boats had always been propelled by small sails or oars. The new engines allowed the fishermen to fish farther from shore and made it easier for them to tend to their nets. Sam Gosse was Torbay's first fisherman to own a diesel engine, but the gentle putt-putt characteristic of these motors soon became a familiar sound in the bay.

Between 1914 and 1918, Torbay families sent many of their young men to fight in the war in Europe. Some of these boys were lost overseas, but many of them faught well and returned home to fish and farm as their fathers did.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought the greatest changes to the town. In 1939, the Newfoundland government allowed the United States government to build a number of air force bases across Newfoundland for defense purposes, since there was always the danger of the war spreading to North America. One of the sites chosen for a base lay half-way between St. John's and Torbay and the new airstrip and base which were built there became known simply as Torbay. The building of the base and the paved road which joined it to St. John's and Outer Cove employed many men form the town. When the base was completed, men and women of Torbay gladly accepted well-paid jobs as carpenters, maintenance men, office workers and secretaries. The new, paved road to St. John's and the increase in the number of cars owned by people made travel into the city easy and more and more Torbay residents took jobs in the city. When the young men of Torbay returned from service in the war they were no longer eager to fish or farm. The result of all this was that fishing and farming in Torbay had almost stoped by the 1960's.

In the 1950's, people from the city of St. John's wishing to escape taxes and attracted by the town's beautiful setting started to build their new homes on the hills overlooking the bay. This movement of new people into the town continued into the 1970's and caused the population to double in just thirty years. Afraid that Torbay was going to become just a densely populated suburb of St. John's, the town's council took steps to control the town's growth. Still, the town continues to grow because many of the town's young people tend to remain in the town after they marry and build their homes on family land.

Newfoundland School Broadcasts: 1978-1979
Torbay: A Community History
By: Linda Cook

The population of Torbay has grown from the S.P.G Report in 1762 of 23 Englishmen, 5 Irish, 8 women, 9 boys and 6 girls to a present day population of over 5000+ residents living in approximately 1400 homes.

Please send pictures or any information to address below.

Last updated 1997.

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Shelley O'Brien
28 Doyle's & Quigley's Lane
Torbay, NF
A1K 1A7