Pipsqueak

A speck of dust, puny, measly, insignificant, the single-seater biplane known as the “Gipsy Moth” was confusing to transatlantic aviation enthusiasts. Shipped to St. John’s in a series of crates from Liverpool, England, the biplane could muster a comical 85 horsepower, less than half of the 200 horsepower of the monoplanes used for transatlantic crossings, and its Captain, Harry C. MacDonald always mustered far more. MacDonald was known as a firebrand, a Royal Navy reservist, he served in the Battle of Jutland as part of the HMS “Warspite” crew, during which his boldness was on full display.

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The “Gypsy Moth” in Harbour Grace

The HMS “Warspite” crashed through the jagged waves of the North Sea, its deck barraged by a torrential downpour and its signals obscured upon encountering a taunting fortress of dense fog. Flanked by the HMS “Malaya,” the “Warspite” uneasily scanned for enemy vessels, unaware that German submarines lurked beneath the desolately deep darkened depths. With a thunderous boom the “Warspite” trembled, its hull contorting and contracting reacting to the piercing sting of a German torpedo. She was hit. Cannons opened, alarms blared, the Battle of Jutland began. The largest naval engagement of the first world war, the Battle of Jutland pitted 151 British ships against 99 German and resulted in approximately 10,000 casualties total. Harry C. MacDonald, a deck hand on the “Warspite” would have been one of many servicemen dazed by the blast and selflessly tending to the damaged areas of the hull. It is easy to picture the pointed shrapnel and scorched steel threatening to injure the crew, all the while hearing panicked shouts of another imminent strike. That day, the “Warspite” was holed 150 times by submerged torpedoes, battleship barrages, and anti-personnel mines. Nonetheless, the British claimed victory.

Jutland location and battle lines

Battle of Jutland Theatre

Jutland

HMS “Warspite” (left) Flanked by HMS “Malaya” (right)

Invincible Blowing Up

HMS “Invincible” Torpedoed

MacDonald’s experiences that day undoubtedly stayed with him, as the bold audaciousness he exemplified during the Battle of Jutland accompanied his aviation exploits. Before arriving in Harbour Grace in October 1928, MacDonald toured France, Italy, Egypt, Arabia, ancient Mesopotamia, and Spain in his tiny “Gipsy Moth.” Soaring above ancient civilizations and enduring the radical weather changes in the separate regions, MacDonald piloted his biplane as an ace would, despite only having an astonishingly low eight hours of previous flying experience. His decision to conquer the Atlantic in the “Gipsy Moth” came with no reservations, reflecting the trailblazing spirit possessed by those transatlantic aviators before him. MacDonald arrived in Harbour Grace with the intention of following Alcock and Brown’s famous 1919 pioneering transatlantic route. Intentions, however, are often unintentionally subverted.

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An Arabian Sandstorm, MacDonald Avoided Storm Systems.

As Alcock and Brown discovered when departing St. John’s in 1919, a mixture of high winds, erratic precipitation, and faulty early aviation technology, posed a grave risk to transatlantic pilots. While Alcock and Brown reached Clifton, Ireland successfully, it was not without nearly ruinous dangers. As noted in “The Handley Page “Atlantic” at Sea Level,” the ambitious aviators travelled through a blinding curtain of fog laced with pillorying ice shards. At one point, they flew in a nauseating, disorienting upside-down fashion to avoid storm cloud formations. When considering the monstrous size of the Handley Page “Atlantic,” weighing 14 tons with a wingspan of 126 feet, and shipped in 15 over-sized crates, it is impossible to think the minuscule “Gipsy Moth” would remain sturdy during the relentlessly repetitive retribution of the elements.

Alcock and Brown Cross Atlantic

New York Times Report on Alcock and Brown Successfully Completing their Transatlantic Flight.

Handley Page Atlantic

The Enormous Handley Page “Atlantic.”

While in Harbour Grace, MacDonald endured a three-week delay because of uncertain weather, advised by the Department of the Air Ministry of the United Kingdom to remain grounded while storm systems subsided off the coast of Newfoundland. While not having extensive preparation to tend to, MacDonald did, as did numerous transatlantic aviators before him, allow the townsfolk to refuel and clean his aircraft. Magistrate John Casey supervised the maintenance, according to one report, he was visibly perplexed at the notion that such a flimsy and puny plane would attempt a transatlantic crossing. Picturing Casey, one can imagine the anxiety he felt while observing the hearty tradesmen of Harbour Grace, many of the same men who prepared the “Sir John Carling” and “Royal Winsor,” laboriously tweak the fuel cylinders and wipe down the visor of the “Gipsy Moth.” He must have realized the potential for disaster awaiting MacDonald, should even the slightest obstacle face his single-seater biplane. Nevertheless, on October 17, 1928 MacDonald departed the Harbour Grace Airport at 1:21pm, bound for Croydon, England, his plane seemingly hopping down the runway.

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Harry C. MacDonald (left) Preparing to Depart Harbour Grace

The following morning, he was spotted 700 miles East of Newfoundland, by the Dutch steam ship “Hartenburg.” If the “Gipsy Moth” continued as intended, MacDonald would arrive in England in a few short hours. Unfavourable rainstorms had cleared up over Galway shortly before he was scheduled to arrive. As his family and friends waited for the triumphant landing, the minutes ticked by, then minutes became hours. Unreasonably late, MacDonald’s family began to rationalize, avoiding the horrible conclusion that felt increasingly likely. Perhaps MacDonald had gotten lost and landed in an area with nobody to communicate with. After all, he brought no wired communication apparatus on the flight, they reasoned. A day passed, and on October 19, flares that had been lit to guide MacDonald to Croydon were extinguished. Eventually, with no sighting of MacDonald for weeks, it was acknowledged that he was another unfortunate victim of the swallowing Atlantic. Harry C. MacDonald was never seen again, nor was any trace of the feeble “Gipsy Moth,” ever found. The conclusion implicitly expected by Magistrate Casey and the aviation enthusiasts of Harbour Grace upon first seeing the biplane became reality, the “Gipsy Moth,” was simply no match for the treacherous endeavour.

Despite the recklessness exhibited by MacDonald’s transatlantic flight attempt at first glance, it can be assumed that his foolhardiness may have saved future lives, as traffic at the Harbour Grace Airport slowed dramatically in the following year due to new safety concerns. Regardless, Harbour Grace would host its most historically significant and daring flights since the Handley Page “Atlantic” in the coming years.

Authored By: Francis Finlayson

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I/The-Battle-of-Jutland

https://conceptionbaymuseum.com/

Memorial University of Newfoundland – Digital Archives Initiative, http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/landingpage/collection/daily_star

https://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-01-HMS_Warspite.htm

Parsons, B. and B. Bowman 1983 “The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.” Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers: Newfoundland.

 

Concert in the Park Series Starts This Wednesday, August 5!

lunchconcert

Event: Concert in the Park Series (Wednesdays in August)

August 5 Lineup: 12:00: Paul Stevenson; 12:45: Phillip Clarke

Location: Conception Bay Museum Grounds

Notes:

  • Weather permitting! We will post at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays if the concert is a go!
  • Social (physical) distancing required: please follow separate enter and exit locations.
  • No concessions will be sold this season. 
  • Max capacity: 50 people. 

August Update

The Conception Bay Museum Executive has decided that our museum will remain closed this season for tourists and the general public. While we are saddened to make this decision, we feel it is necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, just because you can’t come to our museum, doesn’t mean our museum can’t come to you!

We are happy to announce that we will be hosting some outdoor events on our beautiful grounds during the month of August (weather permitting). We will be following social distancing protocols, with separate Enter/Exit locations on our grounds. We ask for the public’s cooperation and understanding, so that we may continue with these weekly events.

These events include…

Display Day: We will display museum artifacts and some hidden gems on our grounds. Drop by for a visit, take some pictures, and embrace our wonderful history! Starting Sunday, August 2, from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Lunchtime Concerts: Bring a blanket and lawn chair and enjoy fantastic local entertainment with a breaktaking view! Starting Wednesday, August 5, from 12 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Stay tuned for upcoming event ads on our social media and website for additional information.

We look forward to seeing you again soon! Be safe!

 

 

Humble Heroics

Calm seas do not make a skilled sailor. An adage reflective of Newfoundland’s history of hardship, development, and nautical experience, but also emblematic of the story of Lamont, better known as Lal, Parsons. Born in 1919 to Reuben and Gertrude Parsons, Lal grew up imbued with a tenacious work ethic reminiscent of his father, whose photography was essential in documenting the history of Harbour Grace. At 16 he faced danger wobbling on the ever-lopping waves of the Atlantic, fishing for the precious whale oil that warmed the houses of Harbour Grace, as part of the Newfoundland Whaling Company. Lal strained his aptitude and body mining for the Atlantic’s organic gold, unaware that distressing altitude would define his future four years later, when the world was drowned in chaos.

From 1939 onward the British Royal Air Force desperately sought aspiring pilots from the commonwealth nations as Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and France crumbled under the force of the mechanical German onslaught. British citizens scrambled to construct air defenses and shelters as the Luftwaffe began blotting out the sun. Lal Parsons, intrigued by the prospect of challenging adventure and the call from the former metropole, travelled to Nova Scotia and joined the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, under the Royal Canadian Air Force. His training began immediately, Parsons often recalled training exercises which tested his reflexes, including a game in which the “pilot” with a control stick, had to line up three sets of lights as quickly as possible. Parsons excelled to such a degree that his fellow trainees told him “not to bother” checking the postings on the base notice board, as they felt it was certain he would be accepted as a pilot. Indeed, Parsons was. After becoming a pilot, Parsons was posted across Canada, to Toronto, Trenton, Saskatoon, Montreal, Montmagny, Moncton, and Dartmouth to name a few destinations.

British Air

BCATP Overview

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Lal Parsons Standing Next to his Hawker Hurricane Fighter

Parsons’ duties were based on east coast defence, and included leading endeavours such as sector reconnaissance flights, altitude tests, formation flying, practice dogfights, and scrambles. In Dartmouth Parsons described the “scrambles” as “somebody pulling a horn, and pilots getting on their parachutes and getting airborne as quickly as possible.” This type of drill was designed to respond to an undetected enemy air force coming into view within minutes. It is easy to imagine the Newfoundlander sprinting as the blaring horn signalled an incoming emergency, shouting to his squadron to get airborne, while Hurricanes and Spitfires sputtered to life on the sunrise bathed tarmac. Soaring above coastal Nova Scotia within minutes, Parsons would gesture to his comrades to maintain defensive formation while peering at the crimson horizon, scanning for enemy bombers and their fighter escorts. No such confrontation would come to Canada, but Parsons’ piloting career became instantly exciting when, in June 1942, he was transferred, along with the entirety of his 125 RCAF Fighter Squadron, to Torbay, Newfoundland.

Hurricane formation

Standard Hurricane Formation, WWII

The “local boy” was coming home to Newfoundland, and the St. John’s Daily Star explained in excessively exorbitant exuberance, that Parsons exemplified a self-made man, one who, through gritty hard-work, went from floating on ocean currents to sailing on wind streams. The purpose of 125 Fighter Squadron’s transfer was to provide similar defence to that provided in Nova Scotia. Parsons was part of a readiness section that investigated suspicious sightings and unidentified aircraft. In February 1943, the squadron’s training was put to the test when intercepted radio signals suggested something had arrived just off Cape Race. Newfoundlanders were weary of German submarine attacks ever since the attack on Bell Island in mid-1942 which killed more than 60 servicemen, and 125 Squadron feared this could be another. Like a fish to a bait, Parsons scrambled to his Hawker Hurricane plane and took off to observe the entity. Peering down to the monstrous Atlantic below, Parsons saw nothing. Even had he seen a U-Boat, the .303 machine guns on the Hurricane were unlikely to do any serious damage.

Battle bell island

Cleaning up the Wreckage After the Attack on Bell Island, 1942

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Hurricane .303 Machine Guns

This caused Parsons to ponder the potential for a depth charge dropped from a plane, as an anti-submarine weapon. After proposing the idea to Flight Sergeant A.S. Goodwin, a solution was discovered. Angled iron bars and springs from bunk beds in the military barracks were used, along with electrical arming mechanisms, to create racks that enabled Hurricanes to carry depth charges under each wing. It became known as the “bedspring bomb rack” and was a staple throughout the remaining years of the war. In March 1943, Parsons tested the device off Cape St. Francis, describing how the successful detonation of the dropped depth charge “just about blew the Hurricane out of the air and gave me one of the greatest frights of the whole war.”

Depth charge Hurricane

Parsons (Top) Testing the “Bedspring Bomb Rack” with Depth Charges, 1943

During Parsons’ posting in Torbay, he frequented his hometown of Harbour Grace to the glee of the townsfolk. The dapper young man, dressed in his RCAF uniform, visited various community landmarks to interact with friends and town leaders. Parsons knew he would be transferred to England later that year to face real combat duty, so, in order to pay tribute to the town that raised him, he got the daring idea to fly his Hurricane fighter plane between the iconic spires of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. By any stretch, it was crazy, the plane would have to be maneuvered to a diagonal degree to completely avoid clipping the cathedral’s wooden and metal spires. One can picture Parsons careening towards the spires, pulling the control stick at just the right angle, and calculating the time necessary to jolt the plane back upwards. However, in what is now a famous incident in Harbour Grace, he soared crisply through the spires, making it look easy.

Lal Flying through the cathedral

Rendition of Parsons Flying Between the Spires of the Cathedral, 1943

Lal Parsons’ story is a remarkable one, one that cannot be done proper justice in a 1000-word blog. However, Parsons himself was always humble when recounting his experiences during the second world war. He constantly deflected praise for his actions onto his fellow pilots, even when telling the stories of his postings in Europe, once providing coastal defence for the Scapa Flow Naval Base in Scotland, and also being involved in escorting key British cargo planes and bombers over occupied Europe. Parsons’ involvement in those endeavours aside, it is undeniable that his heroism not only inspired pilots who soared alongside him but built his reputation in Harbour Grace that persists to this day.

Authored by: Francis Finlayson

Sources: 

Doyle, Robert. (2020). Doyle’s 2020 Almanac of Newfoundland and Labrador. Neighbourhood Pharmacy LTD.

Hillier, Darrell. (2012). The Gentleman Pilot: Lal Parsons. The Newfoundland Historical Society.

Memorial University – Digital Archives Initiative http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_enl/id/2677/rec/1

Profile: St. Patrick’s Hall

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On July 20, 1879, the Harbour Grace Standard posted the following tender:

The Building Committee of the Benevolent Irish Society will receive sealed tenders until Saturday, 28th instant, at noon, from persons wishing to contract for for the erection of St. Patrick’s Hall. Plan and specifications can be seen on the application to the Chairman. The Committee do not bind themselves to accept the lowest or any tender. 
                                                              – Michael J. Jones, Chairman, Building Committee

St. Patrick’s Hall (pictured above) was constructed at the bottom of Kingswell Lane, just west of Ridley Hall.

Robert J. Connelly recounted his memories of the Hall in his history of Harbour Grace:

Movies were held at St. Patrick’s Hall in the town. Those were the days of the silents, in the early decades of the century. The feature pictures were usually western thrillers, but for many of the happy patrons, especially the youth, the main attraction was Charlie Chaplin. The admission was 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for other–and others tended to be legion!

St. Patrick’s Hall can be seen on several old survey maps of Harbour Grace:

Insurance Map of Harbour Grace, 1893.

Insurance Map of Harbour Grace, 1893

survey1914

Insurance Map of Harbour Grace, 1914

 

Queen of Diamonds

Mabel Boll was elegance personified. A Broadway actress, she indulged in exquisite fashions and was considered strikingly beautiful. According to those who encountered her at high-society gatherings, she was short, vividly blonde with dark eyes, and wore impeccable jewelry. Thus, her nickname, the “Queen of Diamonds” fit like a glove. It seems strange then that her legacy is centered on an activity as rugged, laborious, and treacherous as early aviation. Yet, Boll was transfixed by the prospect of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a non-stop, transatlantic flight. Her ambitions reflected a growing sentiment among women that traditional barriers to daring endeavours could be broken down, and the societal roles of women could be imbued with newfound independence. So, in early June 1928, Mabel Boll arrived in Harbour Grace in the American monoplane “Columbia.”

Mabel Boll

Mabel Boll

The “Columbia” landed at the Harbour Grace Airport on July 12, 1928 with a gusting wind threatening its descent, experienced pilots Captain Oliver LeBoutillier and Captain Arthur Argles guided the plane to safety. Mabel Boll emerged from the aircraft visibly weary, as one observer recalled, she explained that she had slept through part of the journey from New York and was quite nervous gazing down at the Harbour Grace Airport. However, Boll encountered enormously energetic enthusiasm from the locals, who praised her amicable ambitions. It is easy to imagine the women of Harbour Grace beaming with inspiration as a woman known for her affluently curated persona broke the shackles of delicacy and embraced the role of trailblazing adventurer. She dropped her diamond earrings, silk clothing, and meticulously styled hair for a leather aviator’s helmet and a button-up wool sweater, which she wore at the Harbour Grace Airport that day. The crew of the “Columbia” sought to explore the quaint town on the sea after arriving, as the mighty mega-metropolis of New York was clearly the opposite of Harbour Grace. Thus, they retired to Cochrane House, now famous in the town for hosting past aviators, for dinner.

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“Columbia” over Harbour Grace

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“Columbia” at the Harbour Grace Airport, June 1928

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Mabel Boll and the “Columbia” Crew

Following dinner, Boll and the “Columbia” crew strolled through the historic areas of Harbour Grace, not knowing they would become part of it in the distant future. St. Paul’s Anglican Church would have been the first structure they came across due to its proximity to the Cochrane House. An imposing stone cathedral, it was built in 1835, making it the oldest stone Gothic Revival style church in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador describes it this way:

“The exterior of St. Paul’s has simple Gothic Revival decoration including pointed arched windows, a pointed arched door, and Gothic stained glass. The lay-out of the church is of the Latin-cross plan, a lay-out which can also be seen in other churches across Newfoundland. Due to the loss of two previous Anglican churches occupying this site to fire, the congregation decided that they would construct a new church using locally quarried stone. The stone used is still largely intact, as are the original windows and doors. The interior of the building continues to reflect the Gothic Revival style through its decoration and woodworking.”

Two dimensions must have collided during that walk-through Harbour Grace, the unambiguously modern crew of the “Columbia” delving into the time-honoured traditions of a small community. St. Paul’s Anglican Church could not have been a better site for this contemplation, a site representing the community’s faith, cultural leaders, educators, and in some cases, hardships. In the Great Fire of 1832, the Church was razed along with a large portion of Harbour Grace, this was the first of three Great Fires, all of which forced the resilient residents of the community to rebuild. Each time, St. Paul’s was rebuilt alongside the rest of the community, in 1835 it was completed as the rock-solid structure it is today. Mabel Boll and the crew of the “Columbia”’ were so impressed by the unique story of Harbour Grace that they decided to stay an extra five days, as LeBoutillier wanted to ensure the transatlantic flight was flawless, and needed time to prepare, it was a win-win, so they thought.

St. Paul's

St. Paul’s Anglican Church Today

Over the next few days, Boll attended lavish receptions resembling those she frequented in New York, specifically an event hosted by the Knights of Columbus on June 13, and a cocktail party in St. John’s on June 15, 1928. This nonchalant attitude spelled disaster for Boll, as on June 18, 1928, Amelia Earhart, a woman who would later become a household name in Harbour Grace, landed safely at Burry Port, Wales, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean in her hydroplane “Friendship.” Amelia Earhart thus became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a non-stop flight. Mabel Boll was heartbroken over the news.

NYT Amelia

NYT “Amelia Earhart Flies Atlantic,” 1928

On the cool, misty morning of June 20, 1928, with the sun rising behind their backs, LeBoutillier and Argles trudged up the dirt path to the Harbour Grace Airport, intent on returning to New York after their now-disappointing week vacation. Mabel Boll, with her dreams dashed by Amelia Earhart, begrudgingly made her way to the Airport hours later than the crew. However, Boll, in a display of her kindness and desire to see aviation in Harbour Grace grow, gave a $500 cheque to President of the Harbour Grace Airport Trust, Magistrate John Casey, before the “Columbia” departed. She remarked that Harbour Grace had provided a thoroughly efficient service. While Boll may not have been the first woman to cross the Atlantic, it is undeniable that her desire to soar above the boundaries set for women at the time motivated many like her, as she remains a symbol of women’s advancement in Harbour Grace. This time though, it was the ace airwoman Amelia Earhart who held the winning card, and the “Queen of Diamonds” did not take the trick.

Authored By: Francis Finlayson

Sources:

https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/women-pilots-history-forgotten-trnd/index.html

https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=2144

St. Paul’s Anglican Church

Memorial University – Digital Archives Initiative http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_enl/id/2677/rec/1

Parsons, B. and B. Bowman
1983 The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers: Newfoundland.