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Swain's Island, Newfoundland

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Date: 1810 [unknown]
Location: Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland, Canadamap
Surname/tag: newfoundland
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This article is an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland, and needs to be edited for length and content. Anything you can do is appreciated.



Swains Islands are a group of low-lying islands on the north side of Bonavista Bay, just to the southeast of Wesleyville. Eight of the islands were at one time or another inhabited, before being abandoned in favour of the growing settlement of Wesleyville on the adjacent mainland[1].

The Outer Swains Islands — Hill's (or Tiller's) Island, Winsor's Island and an off-lying islet known as Brenton Point — were the earliest settled. The Outer Islands offered the closest access to the fishing grounds to the east, as well as shelter for vessels in the Outer Tickle and a prime location for the netting of seals in the spring.

Early Families

The islands were probably used by migratory fishermen out of Greenspond for some years prior to being settled by William Tiller and William Winsor in about 1810. Soon other families settled: the Brentons at Brenton's Point (connected to Winsor's Island by a footbridge); the Mulletts, Stockleys and Dykes at Middle Island (the largest of the group) and the Hills at Hill's Island.

By 1836 these four islands had a combined population of 85, and a Church of England school/chapel had been built on Hill's Island. The population had increased to 171 by 1857, and Ford's Island had also been settled. The inner islands (Stockley's, Dyke's and Sammy Hoyles') were the last settled, each of them home to only two or three families.

The first teaching done on the islands was by a fisherman, John Feltham, who was asked by William Tiller to stay ashore rather than fish to teach his boys[2]. Feltham agreed to this, and sometime later, in 1829, he was appointed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), to be a teacher. In 1830 there were about 25 students, but this school was discontinued in 1834. The next record of school was by the teacher Edward Churnside Bishop under the Newfoundland School Society from 1843 to 1883. In 1869 a new school house was built; and the last teacher to teach at Swain's Island was Annie Alice Hall in 1901.


By the 1860s Swains Islands had begun to prosper, based on inshore fishery and supplemented by the Labrador fishery and a growing vessel-based seal hunt. The tickles between the islands and islets provided sheltered anchorages for the schooners which many of the families were building up the Bay, and the islands soon developed a reputation for their sealers and "fish-killers". The Winsor family in particular produced a number of noted skippers, beginning in the 1840s with Sam Winsor. In 1843 E. Churnside Bishop began his long service to the community as layreader and teacher. He helped organize the building of a new school, opened in 1848, and Church of England church (consecrated 1861).

In 1869 the population of Swains Islands was 265, and the Outer Islands and Middle Island were severely overcrowded. Ironically, the Labrador fishery, which contributed so much to the community's prosperity and reputation, made the Islands less attractive as a site for settlement, as it became unnecessary to live close to local fishing grounds. By the 1860s some people had settled on the adjoining mainland (originally known as Swain's Reach) as well as at Cold Harbour, just to the north.

Several of the families who moved to the mainland — after a school-chapel was built in 1874 — were those who had become converts to Wesleyan Methodism in the 1860s. Former Swain's island residents were joined in what came to be known as Wesleyville by people moving from the more isolated islands further out the Bay. By 1891 two community leaders had moved to the mainland, merchant Ned Bishop and noted master William Winsor Sr. The population of Swain's Islands dropped to 219. Services were also becoming concentrated at Wesleyville.

After the death of Churnside Bishop in 1883 the islands sometimes experienced difficulties in getting a teacher, and a ferry service was established in 1896 primarily to bring the children to Wesleyville to attend school. Winsor's and Hill's islands were the first vacated. They were home to only a handful of families by 1909 (when the church was closed), and were abandoned by 1921. Within four years Middle Island was also abandoned, while a few families remained on Dyke's and Stockley's Island until 1930.


What links to this page.


  1. Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1994 volume 5 (Extract: letter S). Entry for Swain's Island, p. 328. Memorial University of Newfoundland Website. Accessed 2018.
  2. Wikipedia article for Swain's Island, Newfoundland and Labrador. Accessed 2018.

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