When we talk about early settlers in Trepassey, we are talking really early– as in 15th century early. Old maps abound, like the one shown here, that helped early European settlers and fishermen navigate the rough waters. In 1613, Sir William Vaughan bought the southern part of the Avalon Peninsula. He sold off parts until all he had left was Trepassey and Renews. In 1617 it was his intention to create a new colony for his fellow Welshmen, full of fertile land and waters full of fish, thus Trepassey was born.
Records show the settlements survived for a few years, but in 1637, English royalty seized Vaughan’s land and the settlements were lost. From there it was French and English fishermen and planters who occupied Trepassey throughout much of the 17th century because of its proximity to important fishing grounds. However, both would abandon when the Anglo-French wars began in the 1690’s. By 1708, there were no inhabitants at all living in Trepassey. The French would never return.
South Devonshire fishermen, not North Devonshire fishermen as before, came to Trepassey when the bank fishery began to replace the migratory ship fishery. The former was primarily controlled by firms based in Topsham, Exeter, and brought a new class to Trepassey: the “merchant-planters”. Although the merchant-planters were not permanent settlers at Trepassey, they did exercise a great deal of authority over judicial and administrative matters. Aside from the odd “interloper” or “principal inhabitant” (clergymen, main planters, professionals, tradesmen), their power was unchallenged.
The population at Trepassey would normally expand in the summer with the arrival of bankers from England and Ireland, and shrink once more in the winter. But by the 1770s, permanent residents profiting from the recent growth in the bank fishery began to outnumber the temporary residents. Despite the mix of Irish and English settlers, most of the division in Trepassey society at this time stemmed from class differences. The merchant-planters and principal inhabitants were the most socially important class, followed by the planters, boat-keepers, migratory fishermen and servants.
The South Devonshire firms’ association with Trepassey would come to an end in the late 18th century. The fishery had been unable to dispose of the record catch of 1788 and had been weakened by a period of unrest beginning in 1793. At the same time, the risk of trans-Atlantic crossings had greatened. The movement of goods and men came to a stop, and St. John’s replaced Topsham as the overseer of business in Trepassey.
Eventually, the lack of economic diversity forced many English inhabitants to leave. A new wave of Irish Catholics arrived and the remaining English residents were religiously assimilated within a couple of generations. The Irish influence is evident in the area as we are located on the aptly named ‘Irish Loop’. If you open your ears to some of the local brogue you would be hard pressed to distinguish if it was an Irish or Newfoundland lilt.
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