Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Gower Street Gang

A view of Gower Street with Basilica but no Rooms!

A view of Gower Street with Basilica but no Rooms!

A one time resident of Gower Street’s east end in St. John’s, Phyllis Oxley Grant, moved away from Newfoundland after the end of the second world war, but all her life felt very much a Newfoundlander at heart. Her family lived across the street from mine, and she was a good friend of my sister, Helen (Carter), going to the same school, Mercy Convent. I remember her as a vivacious red head, always smiling and friendly to everyone in the neighbourhood.
She told of her love of St. John’s life in a letter published in the June 2000 issue of the Downhomer magazine under the heading “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here (the Gower Street Gang of course.)” I am quoting extracts from that letter, with the kind permission of the magazine. Phyllis was then living with her husband Ray and three children in Oshawa, ON, while her brother Harold lived in Don Mills. They had moved to St. John’s from Halifax when their father, Harold Sr., became manager of Dunn and Bradstreet.
“Around 1935,” she explained, “he started a private pavilion in Topsail…known as the Newfoundland Swimming, Boating and Tennis Club. It certainly would have gone over big but for a bad fire in 1936 or 1937 that totally destroyed it.” Oxley’s Pavilion, built on the site of the present Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club, is described in a club history as “a grand facility built by Harold Oxley, which had a swimming pool, dance floor, a large outside deck, a roof garden, wharf, dining room and a room for members of the Avalon Yacht Club.”

Yacht club of yesterday

Yacht club of yesterday

yacht club beginning

yacht club beginning

I remember the Pavilion being very popular with my sisters and their friends summering in Kelligrews, when they hiked or bused there once in a while.
The Oxley family’s first home in St. John’s was on Leslie Street but they came to live on Gower Street with their grandmother, Mrs. Barron a few years after the Pavilion fire, she recalled:
“Harold and myself made a good many friends while living there. We called ourselves the Gower Street Gang. Just good clean fun doing silly things with very little money – but lots of fun and no hanky-panky! We all enjoyed each other`s company. … There were 10 or 12 of us who were part of the fun. … We used to go to dances at St. Bon’s, Mercy and the Colony Club, the Regatta every August, St. Bon’s Sports Day and the odd good movie – oh, what great memories.” The Oxleys left St. John’s in the mid 1940s to join their father in London, Ontario, where he got a job as manager of a weekly newspaper.
Phyllis Grant went back home in Come Home Year 1966 and had a wonderful time meeting old friends. “I am the type of person,” she wrote, “who would never forget her roots. I am still a Newfoundlander at heart. God bless the Rock.” This statement was further borne out when her Toronto Star obituary, on her passing at Oshawa in 2005 in her 81st year, ended with this familiar phrase: “Stays where you’re to, till I comes where you’re at.”
Her brother Harold, who passed away in Toronto in 2014 at the age of 91, clearly retained his prankster practices throughout his life. As his obituary noted: “Harold (the big H) was also known as Bozo to his family, friends and co-workers, appearing as a clown at many family, friends and fund raising events throughout the years.”

The Other Side of the Street

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A colourful photo featured in the Travel Section of the Ottawa Citizen July 25th depicted a Newfoundland scene hauntingly familiar to me despite the passage of five decades or so since I lived there. Captioned “‘Jelly Bean’ houses with their vibrant colours line down town St. John’s,” the picture showed a section of Gower Street directly across from my family home. It so happens that, on a holiday visit in 1998, I took a photo of the same section of houses, but from the other direction. I must admit I like the Citizen photo better.

I can remember many of the families who lived there when I was growing up, and got a little help in doing so from my childhood playmate and best friend, Tom Howley. The first home on the left, at the corner of Wood Street, housed the family of Warwick Smith, a gentleman known for his writings on historical matters. Next door lived real estate agent John T. O’Brien whose family of four girls and two boys were friends with young folk on our side of the street. The Caldwells came next, and then the Walter Barnes family with three children, youngest of whom was Wally, who joined us in some of our games.

Four imposing dwellings forming what was called the Musgrave Terrace stood detached from others on the block, housing families of some repute within the upper middle class community. The Blacks, next door to the Barnes, had one son, Bill, who joined the British army at the outbreak of the Second World War, and rose to the rank of general. His mother and sister moved to England shortly after the war broke out. The home was taken over by the Cowan family and turned into a boarding house for construction workers. Cowan children took part in everyday neighbourhood activities.

Next to them lived the family of John P. Kelly, a long time city councillor. Then came the Harveys, members of a prominent mercantile family. They were succeeded about the 1950s by the Henneburys, whose daughter Betty was among our regular companions. The fourth unit in the complex was home to the Watson family headed by a founding partner of a leading accounting firm, Read, Son, Watson and Leith. After they moved out, the house was occupied by the Giannous, owners of a downtown restaurant.

Separated from the terrace by a laneway, the next house was home to a family of four, the Oxleys, who lived with their grandmother, Mrs. Barron. They had moved to St. John’s from Halifax when the father became manager of Dunn and Bradstreet.

Harold was a great prankster, showing it on many a trick played on friends, neighbours and even family. I was one of many watching one time when he left a plank standing upright near a neighbour’s front door and, when it was opened, tugged on a string attached to it, so that it fell partly upon the home owner. No injuries resulted but the caper did earn him a visit from the police, and a most unhappy neighbour. Harold’s crowning feat was performed at the wake of his grandmother, held in the family home, when he did his string-attaching trick once again, but this time the string caused an arm of the deceased to rise, scaring everyone out of their wits.

The Bearns lived in the next house with their daughter, Margaret Joy and her sons, Aynesley and Gordon. Very athletic and energetic, the Joy brothers became the ring leaders of boys of the neighbourhood, drawing us into all kinds of games and sports.

A door or two away lived the Emberleys, of whom Gertie was the one I knew best as she was closest to my age. Her older sister, Marg, married Mark Ronayne, who was a well known Telegram reporter before making a career in information services with the federal fisheries department in Ottawa. (He was later to become my boss.) Now widowed, she lives in Ottawa still, well into her 90s. Finally, the corner dwelling at the junction of Gower and Cochrane Streets, was the home of a dentist, Dr. Mogue Power.

All in all, it was a lively and interesting neighbourhood, housing a solid cross section of St. John’s families and alive with healthy youthful activities. P1050922PW

A Gift Remembered

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Toe-Byrne-poemWAn almost forgotten fragment of the past popped up while clearing away some papers the other day. It was a large envelope containing a black and white newspaper photo that was left on my desk many decades ago at the old CJON Newsroom. The date: probably about 1965.

The photo, recalling a St. John’s, Newfoundland scene almost a century ago now – Bonaventure Avenue facing what is now the Roman Catholic Basilica – was a most unexpected gift from an equally unexpected donor. Frank “Toe” Byrne was a well known sports figure in the city during the fifties and sixties. He coached and managed a succession of sports teams in hockey, basketball and baseball for Holy Cross and other clubs. I saw him often in the Memorial Stadium when I reported on hockey games for the Telegram, and he was a frequent off hours visitor at CJON’s radio and TV studios at Buckmasters Field. Being often on night shift – 6 pm to midnight – I was there many a night when he dropped by for a chat about sports or whatever was in the news of the day. He was a pleasant and friendly guy, sometimes offering tips on what was going on in the city.

Why he brought me that old photo and a parting note he left with it, I really don’t know, as we weren’t great friends, but it touched me when I read his note. I guess it came not long before I pulled up stakes to move from St. John’s to Ottawa, so perhaps that explains it. Yet this didn’t dawn on me until I rediscovered it among other paraphernalia my packrat habits tend to preserve from the past.

His note, so nicely penned in his own hand writing, offers sentiments still as pertinent today as in those bygone years. Too late to thank you personally, Toe, but treasured nonetheless.

Happiness is like a butterfly

The more you pursue it,

The more it will elude you

But if you turn your thoughts

To other things, it will come

And gently rest on your shoulder.

It’s nice to be important

But it’s important to be nice.

God bless

Amen.

Remembering the Quidi Vidi Regatta

01regatta_0214AVW 14Nfld13_0340AVW 13Nfld13_0342AVW 12Nfld13_0341AVW 11Nfld13_0343AVW 10Nfld13_0265AVW 09Nfld13_0270AV 08Nfld13_0269AVW 07Nfld13_0268AVW 06Nfld13_0354AVW 05Nfld13_0285AVW 04Nfld13_0331AVW 03Nfld13_0247AVW 02Going to the Regatta was a rare event for my family when I was growing up because we spent our summers in Kelligrews. Being out in the country, as it was in those days, held far more charms than what my mother called the “dirty old town” of St. John’s in summer.

Still, I did go a few times later on, and once, purely by chance, found out what it was like to row the Quidi Vidi course in a six-oared racing shell. It was just a practice run, being dragooned to replace one of the regulars in the St. Bon’s crew training for the Amateur Race. Well do I remember it as the toughest and the longest ten to twelve minute workout of my life. Muscles I never knew I had ached for days afterward, but left me with deep respect for the athletes who master that challenging course every Regatta Day.

Mainland bound for many a decade offered few chances to see the Regatta, but we did make it two years ago on a pleasant day marred only by the fact that we didn’t meet a soul we knew. Unlike the old days when a walk around the pond found many a familiar face and joyful chatter. There is nothing quite like the hurly burly of regatta day music, racing announcements, kids’ excited voices, and hundreds of spin the wheel vendors urging everyone to “get your tickets now!”

The races we watched that day in 2013 were spirited and colourful. The crowds were happy and enthusiastic. Got a few pictures to capture a splash of living history.

Nice to see VOCM so prominently involved as in the days when Bob Cole and Denys Ferry teamed up to cover the action.

A few pleasant surprises.

Amid the revelry, gently snoozing ducks rocked softly on pondside wavelets churned up by passing official craft and rowing crews.

Sprightly impromptu dancing drew admiring glances amid roaming spectators along the shoreline pathways – especially a pair of calisthenically agile performers led apparently by an off duty RCMP member. Sorry, did not catch any names!

Regatta Day 2013 was fun to be a part of.