The History of Newfoundland Publishing


A Brief History of Newfoundland

Literature Review

Early Publications

First Newfoundland Publishers

Reading in Newfoundland

Cultural Revival


The Literature

The history of the Newfoundland book and publishing industry has slowly made its way into the historiography of the island. Little has been written about the history of printing on the island, due primarily to the absence of credible sources of information (Barker and Hannaford, paragraph 5), which can be explained by two nineteenth century fires that destroyed much of down town St. John’s, including the library and literary society. However, some research completed by enterprising historians has begun to fill these earlier gaps.

While few major research projects about Newfoundland publishing exist, information on the subject can be gathered from several important sources. Perhaps the most influential being Patrick O’Flaherty’s The Rock Observed, published in 1979 by the University of Toronto Press. O’Flaherty’s text discusses the history of writing about Newfoundland beginning with the literature of early discovery carrying through to writers in the New Newfoundland (Chapter 8). This study used original sources and built on the work of historians such as Keith Matthews and others to formulate a comprehensive study of literature on the island. O’Flaherty’s text provides useful information on the island’s most important writers, and is particularly strong when considering the pre and early settlement period. O’Flaherty’s work has been strengthened by a number of other authors including Lisa de Leon, whose Writers of Newfoundland and Labrador: Twentieth Century, provides detailed biographies of many of Newfoundland’s most prominent and prolific authors.

In 1960, E.J. Devereux published an article in the Dalhousie Review regarding the early printing industry in Newfoundland. This article focused primarily on the establishment of a newspaper industry on the island by John Ryan and others in down town St. John’s. The article, one of the first to address early printing in Newfoundland, relied on Colonial office letter books and early editions of the Royal Gazette to establish a history of the King’s Press and Royal Gazette (Devereux 1960, works cited). While the article is a worthy source, providing information on the very earliest period of Newfoundland publishing, it does not consider the development of the printing industry after 1836.

Maudie Whelan’s masters and doctoral theses have expanded on the writings of Devereux, discussing the development of journalism and the newspaper industry in Newfoundland. In her doctoral thesis titled The newspaper press in nineteenth-century Newfoundland: politics, religion, and personal journalism, Whelan argues that the opening of The Royal Gazette in 1807 led the way to the development of the printing industry in St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula. These presses, she argues, competed with one another opening “the way for the expression of political religious conflict”, and ultimately creating a unique identity (Whelan 2002, 1). As Whelan notes, society in Newfoundland at the time was separated into two distinct classes: the poor, illiterate, fisherman dependent on the truck system and an emerging middle class with a disposable income (Whelan 2002, 1-3). The newspapers were designed for the literate middle classes who were establishing themselves primarily in the urban St. John’s area. Whelan’s study is unique in Newfoundland, where few others have considered the early newspaper publishers. It explores the themes of religion, poverty, and temperance as they arise in the newspaper press dating from 1830 to the end of the century. Ultimately, she argues, “journalism not only reflects society, but tends, in a variety of ways, to shape and control society” (Whelan 2002, 18). Her doctoral study, and previous masters dissertation are groundbreaking works in an area long neglected.

William Barker and Sandra Hannaford have also extended the work of Devereux in their paper Towards a History of the Book in Newfoundland. In fact, Barker and Hannaford’s paper builds on the work of Whelan, O’Flaherty and Devereux by examining both the writing and publishing in Newfoundland’s history. This paper is perhaps the most valuable and comprehensive source on the Newfoundland book to date. Barker and Hannarford, acknowledge that there are very few sources available concerning the history of Newfoundland’s early history publishing industry, but believe such a project is possible by piecing together what they can through newspaper records and other previously ignored sources (Barker and Hannaford, paragraph’s 45-46). This paper touches on all the island’s major authors and important publishers. The authors indicate where further steps can be taken to fill in the missing gaps in the topics history, suggesting that newspaper advertisement and the history of the public library may both hold information of value for historians interested in the topic (Barker and Hannaford, paragraph’s 45-46).

While the literature about the publishing industry is beginning to build, steps have also been taken over the last three decades to preserve information on the literature of the island. In 1986, Agnes O’Dea and Anne Alexander compiled the first volume of the Bibliography of Newfoundland. This source provides researchers and students with a compressive list of Newfoundland literature from the Greenland Saga to works produced in 1975. Agnes and Alexander have organized the bibliography chronologically and have assigned each text a number from 1 to 5911. While this source is a tremendous tool to researchers, it is in need of an update so important works created since 1975 can be included. Memorial University of Newfoundland’s centre for Newfoundland studies has also begun to collect and preserve information on the Newspapers published in the province. The Directory of Historical Newfoundland Newspapers is extremely useful for students of history and other subjects who may be interested in studying Newfoundland life from 1807 to the present. The directory is very easy to use and includes the ability to sort in chronological order (Chronological Listing 1807-1996) as well as alphabetical order. The directory is also useful for it contains information on publishers and editors (Historical Directory of Newfoundland papers). Both the bibliography and historical directory are excellent reference tools for any librarian or student looking for literature and information on the Newfoundland writing and publishing industry.

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This website was created by Sara House and is based on a paper written for Publishing LIS 519 at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.
Last updated July 31, 2010

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