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Revisiting the demise of the Winifred Lee


It was a sight to stop anyone in his tracks. A schooner, nearly 100 feet in length, moored securely to a wharf at Twillingate was spewing a threatening plume of oily-black smoke. The vessel’s decks were tightly stowed with barrels of petroleum products — kerosene, gasoline, oil. The smoke was moving fast from the hold of the Winifred Lee where baled hay was packed.

Nearby vessels, also moored, were being hastily boarded, their ropes dropped and their engines thrown into reverse.

In my column of Aug. 17, I carried an extract from a correspondent’s report from Twillingate to the papers in St. John’s in September 1955. It concerned the daring action of the crew from a schooner in Twillingate harbour at the same time as the Winifred Lee. Five men of the Shirley Louise witnessed the grave danger to the town’s waterfront, and to neighbouring buildings and stores. With little thought to their own safety, they brought their vessel perilously close and scrambled aboard the burning schooner. Pulling its anchor from its grip on the harbour bottom, they fixed one end of a tow-rope to the schooner and the other end to their own boat. Cautiously they began the harrowing process of pulling the Winifred Lee away from the waterfront and steered for a harmless position in mid-harbour. Hopefully before the whole thing blew they would reach that point.

Flankers scattered over the town. Grass fires were breaking out. Houses and stores were watched closely.

One of the people who reacted to that column was the daughter of the Shirley Louise’s captain, Kay Norman of St. John’s. Her father was Douglas Manuel. It was her belief that here were some things about that correspondent’s report from 60 years ago that should be explained more fully. There was more to the story. Not only that, but her granddaughter, Jenna Evans, 13, had only recently put together an essay and a poster on the event which saw her great-grandfather and four others named recipients of the Canadian Medal of Bravery. Jenna’s project was for her social studies class taught by Chesley West at MacDonald Drive School.  It would contribute to a heritage fair at her school.

Jenna wrote, “At first the crews of the other schooners tried to help, but when they realized that the Winifred Lee had a cargo full of inflammable gasoline, they hurriedly left the wharf and anchored out far in the harbour. At the same time a general alarm had spread and the residents of Twillingate were also evacuated. There was, however, one boat that did not leave and that was the Shirley Louise, a motor vessel that my great-grandfather was captain of. My great-grandfather, Douglas Manuel, age 36 at the time, knew that if he also left, all of Twillingate would be destroyed.”

 According to the correspondent writing short days after the event, the men of the Shirley Louise boarded the Winifred Lee after drums had begun to explode. Whatever may have been the timing, there were slightly more than 500 barrels of assorted flammable products aboard. It was not a place for the faint of heart.

Following close on the heels of Douglas Manuel as he boarded the stricken vessel were mate Allan Troake, cook Clarence Jones, engineer Albert Froude and deckhand George Pride. Once they had freed the Winifred Lee from her moorings and affixed the tow rope, they turned their smaller vessel slowly toward centre-harbour. But the tow rope broke.

The Shirley Louise now had to approach the “time bomb” close enough to touch her. They succeeded in placing a second tow rope. As spectators on shore held their breath, the two vessels and five men made it to a safe distance away from the community.

By now, the black plume streamed from the schooner. A ball of flame played in the centre of the jet-black cloud. Some drums blew, others toppled into the harbour water, cooling at the same time.

All that evening and into the next day, the Winifred Lee burned. Late the next day, snaps would be taken of a ghostly bow still afloat but with no ship’s bulwarks behind it.

 

Relieved and thankful

A grateful community of Twillingate took up a collection even as the last wisps of smoke flew from the skeleton of the schooner. While at the presentation to the men of the Shirley Louise, it was acknowledged that the amount of $100 among five was not large, the presenters made the point that it represented merely a token of the gratitude felt by the people of Twillingate.  

Kay Norman says she remembers the day but as a young person, she did not dwell long on the event and its unthinkable possibilities. Today she regrets not having asked her father more about it. She is not alone on that point. Many of us regret not asking the older generation about occurrences when they were young. A resident of Loon Bay, Douglas Manuel died in 2008.  

 

A well-known schooner

The Winifred Lee had seen happier days. Five years before her destruction in Twillingate harbour, ship and captain had been celebrated by an article in The Atlantic Guardian (see online, “The Winifred Lee in The Atlantic Guardian”).  Another reader who contacted me was Eric Winsor, St. John’s, a grandson of Skipper Josh Winsor, MBE, owner of the Winifred Lee.

In the mid-1930s, the schooner and her captain were welcomed along the Labrador coast as they brought mail and supplies (not to mention word-of-mouth news) to the Labrador fishing places  — the summer pursuit of fishermen (women and children) from the island of Newfoundland. For his dedication to the work along our coasts, Skipper Josh became a member of ‘The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.’

Jenna Evans, for her school project wrote, “In 1954 when she (the Winifred Lee) was replaced by the M.V. Trepassey, the sole duty of the Winifred Lee became the transport of cargo of an explosive nature, like gasoline and kerosene. It was this dangerous cargo that led to the destruction of the Winifred Lee on Sept. 7, 1955.”

An observer at the Twillingate waterfront on that day commented, as young Captain Manuel brought the Shirley Louise close to the burning Winifred Lee in order to board it, that Lewisporte Wholesalers (owners of the Shirley Louise) “won’t like how you’re putting their schooner at risk.” Kay Norman remembers (with a slight smile that betrays pride) the response of her father: “When I’m aboard the Shirley Louise, I’m in charge!”

 

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail: psparkes@thetelegram.com

 

 

Nearby vessels, also moored, were being hastily boarded, their ropes dropped and their engines thrown into reverse.

In my column of Aug. 17, I carried an extract from a correspondent’s report from Twillingate to the papers in St. John’s in September 1955. It concerned the daring action of the crew from a schooner in Twillingate harbour at the same time as the Winifred Lee. Five men of the Shirley Louise witnessed the grave danger to the town’s waterfront, and to neighbouring buildings and stores. With little thought to their own safety, they brought their vessel perilously close and scrambled aboard the burning schooner. Pulling its anchor from its grip on the harbour bottom, they fixed one end of a tow-rope to the schooner and the other end to their own boat. Cautiously they began the harrowing process of pulling the Winifred Lee away from the waterfront and steered for a harmless position in mid-harbour. Hopefully before the whole thing blew they would reach that point.

Flankers scattered over the town. Grass fires were breaking out. Houses and stores were watched closely.

One of the people who reacted to that column was the daughter of the Shirley Louise’s captain, Kay Norman of St. John’s. Her father was Douglas Manuel. It was her belief that here were some things about that correspondent’s report from 60 years ago that should be explained more fully. There was more to the story. Not only that, but her granddaughter, Jenna Evans, 13, had only recently put together an essay and a poster on the event which saw her great-grandfather and four others named recipients of the Canadian Medal of Bravery. Jenna’s project was for her social studies class taught by Chesley West at MacDonald Drive School.  It would contribute to a heritage fair at her school.

Jenna wrote, “At first the crews of the other schooners tried to help, but when they realized that the Winifred Lee had a cargo full of inflammable gasoline, they hurriedly left the wharf and anchored out far in the harbour. At the same time a general alarm had spread and the residents of Twillingate were also evacuated. There was, however, one boat that did not leave and that was the Shirley Louise, a motor vessel that my great-grandfather was captain of. My great-grandfather, Douglas Manuel, age 36 at the time, knew that if he also left, all of Twillingate would be destroyed.”

 According to the correspondent writing short days after the event, the men of the Shirley Louise boarded the Winifred Lee after drums had begun to explode. Whatever may have been the timing, there were slightly more than 500 barrels of assorted flammable products aboard. It was not a place for the faint of heart.

Following close on the heels of Douglas Manuel as he boarded the stricken vessel were mate Allan Troake, cook Clarence Jones, engineer Albert Froude and deckhand George Pride. Once they had freed the Winifred Lee from her moorings and affixed the tow rope, they turned their smaller vessel slowly toward centre-harbour. But the tow rope broke.

The Shirley Louise now had to approach the “time bomb” close enough to touch her. They succeeded in placing a second tow rope. As spectators on shore held their breath, the two vessels and five men made it to a safe distance away from the community.

By now, the black plume streamed from the schooner. A ball of flame played in the centre of the jet-black cloud. Some drums blew, others toppled into the harbour water, cooling at the same time.

All that evening and into the next day, the Winifred Lee burned. Late the next day, snaps would be taken of a ghostly bow still afloat but with no ship’s bulwarks behind it.

 

Relieved and thankful

A grateful community of Twillingate took up a collection even as the last wisps of smoke flew from the skeleton of the schooner. While at the presentation to the men of the Shirley Louise, it was acknowledged that the amount of $100 among five was not large, the presenters made the point that it represented merely a token of the gratitude felt by the people of Twillingate.  

Kay Norman says she remembers the day but as a young person, she did not dwell long on the event and its unthinkable possibilities. Today she regrets not having asked her father more about it. She is not alone on that point. Many of us regret not asking the older generation about occurrences when they were young. A resident of Loon Bay, Douglas Manuel died in 2008.  

 

A well-known schooner

The Winifred Lee had seen happier days. Five years before her destruction in Twillingate harbour, ship and captain had been celebrated by an article in The Atlantic Guardian (see online, “The Winifred Lee in The Atlantic Guardian”).  Another reader who contacted me was Eric Winsor, St. John’s, a grandson of Skipper Josh Winsor, MBE, owner of the Winifred Lee.

In the mid-1930s, the schooner and her captain were welcomed along the Labrador coast as they brought mail and supplies (not to mention word-of-mouth news) to the Labrador fishing places  — the summer pursuit of fishermen (women and children) from the island of Newfoundland. For his dedication to the work along our coasts, Skipper Josh became a member of ‘The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.’

Jenna Evans, for her school project wrote, “In 1954 when she (the Winifred Lee) was replaced by the M.V. Trepassey, the sole duty of the Winifred Lee became the transport of cargo of an explosive nature, like gasoline and kerosene. It was this dangerous cargo that led to the destruction of the Winifred Lee on Sept. 7, 1955.”

An observer at the Twillingate waterfront on that day commented, as young Captain Manuel brought the Shirley Louise close to the burning Winifred Lee in order to board it, that Lewisporte Wholesalers (owners of the Shirley Louise) “won’t like how you’re putting their schooner at risk.” Kay Norman remembers (with a slight smile that betrays pride) the response of her father: “When I’m aboard the Shirley Louise, I’m in charge!”

 

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail: psparkes@thetelegram.com

 

 

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