Ernest Sheppard was born on March 4, 1878, to John Coryer Sheppard (1851-1932) and Janet (Courage) Sheppard (1853-1936), of Harbour Grace. In 1891, at the age of sixteen, Sheppard left Newfoundland to find employment in mainland Canada and the United States. When in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Boer War started in South Africa, and Sheppard enlisted with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a mounted Canadian regiment raised and funded by the eponymous Canadian millionaire.
According to his military discharge papers (see below), on March 8, 1901–Strathcona’s Horse disbanded the next day–Sheppard enlisted in the South African Constabulary (SAC), a paramilitary force raised by the British army during the war. Intended as a transitional policing force after peace was established, the SAC performed a much larger combat role than originally anticipated. Major-General Robert Baden-Powell, its commander, filled the SAC with a number of Canadians, after their impressive showing at the Relief of Mafeking on May 17, 1900. Sheppard served with the SAC for five years, leaving on March 7, 1906. His discharge papers note his conduct as “very good.” The SAC disbanded on June 2, 1908, six years after the war ended.
Shortly after returning from Africa, Ernest married May Catherine Payne; the two took up residence at Payne House, a row house her father constructed in 1856. The pair had two children, Harold and Frank (1910-1997). After May Catherine died in 1922, Sheppard later married Anne Beatrice Smith (1886-1974).
In 1912 Sheppard became the ferryman of the M.V. Muriel, the first engine-powered ferry to transport people between Harbour Grace, Harbour Grace South, and Riverhead. Sheppard operated the ferry until 1932, when the Newfoundland government discontinued the service to cut costs. His twenty-year service without accident earned him recognition that same year. Having some experience as a cooper in his earlier years–his military records state his occupation as such–Sheppard opened a cooperage near the waterfront behind his home, where he sold and repaired barrels. In 1940 he retired from business.
On March 4, 1955, Sheppard passed away at St. Clare’s Hospital, St. John’s. He is buried with his second wife, Anne Beatrice, at the Church of England Cemetery in his hometown, Harbour Grace. His headstone reads: “VETERAN OF THE BOER WAR.” Notably, Sheppard was a member of Masonic Lodge No. 476: the square and compass iconography of freemasonry figures prominently on his headstone. His obituary, printed in the Daily News on March 11, notes his “fifty-year” membership in the Lodge.
Portrait & Military Discharge Papers
Housed in a filigreed wooden frame, Sheppard’s portrait measures 24.5′ x 28.5′. According to John Payne, the portrait once hung above the brick fireplace at Payne House. A relative later donated this artifact to the Museum for posterity. Today, it hangs above the World War I & II uniforms displayed in our glass cabinet. Sheppard is pictured on a horse holding his rifle, with an ammunition belt draped across his chest. His uniform is unique–a wide-brimmed Stetson with knee-high, leather cowboy boots (called the Strathcona Boot). Sheppard fits the nickname for Strathcona’s Horse: “Canadian”–or Newfoundland–“cowboys.”
Sheppard’s military discharge papers (pictured below) note some interesting biographical facts, namely his medals–King’s and Queen’s Clasps–and former occupation, “cooper.”
Sheppard’s biography is particularly unique, for various reasons. First, his military career broadens the accepted narrative of the “Fighting Newfoundlander”: Harbour Grace natives were fighting in imperial conflicts long before the Great War. (He’s not alone in this regard: Sir Henry Pynn famously fought in the Irish Rebellion  and Napoleonic Wars.) Secondly, his career trajectory harkens back to a bygone era of Harbour Grace, the days when ferries were needed for quick transportation across the harbour, and handmade barrels required for storing and shipping goods. Thirdly, his connection to Harbour Grace’s early built heritage is worth noting: he lived in Payne House, a Registered Heritage Structure which recalls Water Street’s nineteenth-century architecture, before the third “Great Fire” of Harbour Grace in 1944.
This post is part of the Harbour Grace Notebook series. Follow the updates on social media with the hashtag #hgnotebook.
Author’s note: If you have any additional information (or corrections) on the life of Ernest Sheppard, cooper, ferryman, and veteran of the Boer War, email us. And come see Ernest’s portrait and discharge papers when we reopen in the spring!