In the health-care system, battles of all kinds are fought every day – the battle against disease: inherited, chronic and unexpected. The battle against sudden trauma. The fight to prevent illness, through immunizations and improved diet and lifestyle. The evidence is everywhere you look.
But during the winter of 2019, evidence of another kind of battle was discovered half-buried in the back lot of the Waterford Hospital.
Poking through the snow was a cannon. A very old cannon. Provincial historians and archaeologists believe it likely originated in the late 1700s.
How and why it ended up on the Waterford site isn’t known. The location is too far away from the St. John’s harbour to have been effective as a point of defense during military skirmishes of the 1700-1800s.
The cannon, along with an old anchor, may have originally been transported to this site with the idea of putting them on display, and re-discovered during the construction of one of the hospital wings.
“It was unexpected, interesting – and amusing, to say the least,” said Daniel Parsons, Eastern Health’s senior regional manager with Infrastructure Support.
“Working with infrastructure is always interesting, as a lot of buildings are old, and you can never be sure of what you’re going to find. But I was a little surprised that there was a cannon onsite!”
The cannon’s origin is all a bit of a mystery at this point.
But one thing is for certain. The cannon is a match in size and scale for one on display in the community of St. Mary’s on the southern Avalon. And when the St. Mary’s Battery Restoration Committee got wind of the one at the Waterford – it fired their enthusiasm – and their imaginations!
St. Mary’s was a strategic point of defense in the late 1700s….and during the peak of military activity, there were four cannons positioned on a high point of land, known as The Battery. Four eventually dwindled to one…and the Restoration Committee was determined to restore the Battery to its former historic glory.
But cannons aren’t easy to come by in the 21st century!
In an interesting coincidence, two other cannons had already been found on another ‘Battery’ – the Battery in St. John’s, on the site of Memorial University’s Signal Hill Campus.
The Restoration Committee was able to obtain those – and were on the lookout for a fourth, to complete the set – when a resident of St. Mary’s happened to be visiting someone at the Waterford Hospital…and you guessed it! In the most unlikely of places, in a field behind the hospital…was the cannon.
Following consultations between Eastern Health, the provincial Departments of Tourism and Culture and Health and Community Services, and the St. Mary’s Battery Restoration Committee – to determine the origin and ownership of the cannon – the decision was made to pass the cannon over to St. Mary’s.
“My heart rate is up even now, thinking about it,” said David Fagan, the president of the St. Mary’s Battery Restoration Committee. “The whole complement of cannons is back in St. Mary’s! Our original cannons came from a ship…and when they were used in defense in the 1700s, the ones at St. Mary’s were the only ones on this shore that were fired in anger. They actually took out an American privateer ship called the Hazard.”
But these days, the St. Mary’s cannons will ‘rest in peace.’
In fact, the biggest battle in 2019 might just have been wrestling the 1,800 pound ‘Waterford cannon’ out of the hospital yard – onto a truck, and over the highways to St. Mary’s, according to Patrick Monsigneur, a committee member, who negotiated the move:
“It took a lot of strategic planning – a borrowed flatbed – a couple of close calls… and an irritated heavy equipment operator,” Patrick added with a laugh.
But where there’s will, there’s a way… and the fourth member of their cannon quartet made it safely to St. Mary’s.
And of course, the safety of everyone involved in the move was important, according to Daniel Parsons. Even though the cannon had been examined by the office of the provincial archaeologist, and the bore hole determined to be filled with concrete, no chances were taken.
Over the summer, the three ‘new’ cannons underwent a lot of restoration work, by several volunteers with the skills and enthusiasm to erase 200-300 years of wear and tear – and neglect.
The restoration work was done near the Battery – in a shed the workers dubbed Chamberlayne’s Cannon Emporium – after Charles Chamberlayne – the captain of the Ship ‘Proteus’, where St. Mary’s original cannons came from in the late 1700s.
In typical Newfoundland fashion, the work was done with a heart and a half – and a healthy dose of humour… with restoration volunteers claiming to do a ‘booming business.’
At first glance, there might not seem to be a clear connection between Eastern Health and the military history of St. Mary’s. But by helping to restore some of St. Mary’s former military history, which, in turn, residents believe will attract visitors to their community – the donation of the cannon will also help to restore the overall economic ‘health’ of the area.
“That is kind of what’s going on in St. Mary’s these days – promoting the cultural and historical value of the community,” said David Fagan. “Just as the cannons were fired to protect the health and welfare of St. Mary’s a couple of centuries ago, that’s also where we’re trying to go today, as we promote the history they represent.”
It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off. The Restoration Committee hit their target dead-on, finishing their work on the cannons – just in time to hold a public celebration on September 14th – to reveal the town’s newest military landmarks.
The ‘Waterford cannon’ has joined the others on the St. Mary’s Battery. The town once again has a healthy complement of cannons overlooking the harbor – standing not only as a testament to the town’s determination to preserve its history – but its future, as well. ■
This story was written by Deborah Collins, a communications manager with Eastern Health.