Uncle Dick Nurse

My great-grandfather/uncle Edward Richard Nurse was a man of wisdom and high intelligence. He was born on 04 April 1873 and baptized on 01 June by Jacob Pitcher in the Church of England parish of Trinity. He was the third of eight children, and first son, born to Edward Spragg and Honor (Forde) Nurse of Salmon Cove (now Champney’s), Trinity Bay, Newfoundland

He went to the west coast at a young age, was engaged in the Bank Fishery and was fairly successful. For a number of years, he served as captain of the mail packet Gypsy Smith as well as the SS Wren and SS Susu. Richard Nurse was illiterate, capable only of signing his name, but obviously very intelligent. One wonders what heights he might have reached had he been educated.

When and where Richard and Eliza Williams first met is uncertain, though it was probably during his time on the mail boat. The boat called at Eliza’s home town of Pool’s Cove as part of its regular run. Richard and Eliza were married at Little Bay East on 09 November 1898. Sometime after their marriage, Richard hired George Miles, a renowned carpenter in the community, to build a house. Many things he had seen during his travels were incorporated into the design, making it one of the finest homes in the community.

Although they had no children together, they raised Berkley (Eliza’s son), and a foster son, Charles Anthony Williams. Charlie, born 1898 at Lake’s Beach to Samuel and Mary (Dominy) Williams, was a distant relative of Eliza’s. Berkley later married Richard’s niece, Helen Bailey, while Charles met his wife, Lillian, in Wales during an overseas stint with the Royal Navy.

Physically, Richard Nurse was described as a strong, able man about five feet seven inches tall and weighing about 155-160 pounds. From all accounts he was quick-tempered and, when angered, sometimes displayed violent outbursts.

His work on the sea kept ‘Uncle Dick Nurse’, as he was generally referred to, away from home quite a lot. He was generous, but considered to be a ‘hard man to live with.’ Because of his position as captain, he expected the best of everything at home, especially when he brought visitors home to share a meal – sometimes unannounced. His wife, having no ‘worldly knowledge’ to speak of, could not always comply with his wishes and sometimes bore the verbal brunt of his displeasure.

Eliza, meanwhile, is remembered as a kind, soft-hearted woman who was never known to say a cross word to anyone. She always wore long dark clothing and kept her white hair in a neat bun at the back of her head. She knit for the NONIA organization, to earn a little extra money for the family, sometimes knitting long dresses out of very fine wool. Her education was very limited but she could read her Bible. Eliza could also help her grandchildren with very simple things in their first years in school. She was always concerned that her only granddaughter, Sophie, be able to finish school and not have to ‘go into service’ (as a maid), which was the most common practice for young girls of the time. To Helen (her son’s wife) and her sister, Maggie, Eliza was known simply as ‘Auntie.’ Richard was well-known in Pool’s Cove. When Dr. Hugh MacDermott (Dr. Mac) came to the community in 1904, there was no boat belonging to the Mission. He often borrowed John Henry Williams’ 35-ton vessel, the Cerina. In his book, MacDermott of Fortune Bay, he states, ’…Dick Nurse was our skipper; he had been a banking skipper for years…’

On one particular trip, just a few days before Christmas, they had taken shelter at New Harbour. Before leaving the next morning, Dr. Mac performed a wedding ceremony. As they were leaving the house, Dick Nurse remarked, ’Did you notice the ring?’ Dr. Mac replied that he had not and Nurse explained, ’That was the top of a thimble filed off!’ Dr. Mac went back to check and found that his friend’s keen observation had been correct.

In January 1915, Skipper Dick Nurse left St. Jacques in the schooner Marion, bound for the Western Shore. They harboured in Cape La Hune and were driven ashore in a gale. The vessel was then towed to St. Pierre and another captain took over. The schooner, with its entire crew, was later lost after leaving St. Pierre.

After Richard and Eliza were settled, Richard’s niece Helen (daughter of his sister Sophia) came to live with them, to help out around the house. Sometime around 1914-15, Richard either bought of leased a house at St. Jacques from Dr. Conrad Fitzgerald. The Nurse family remained there at least until 1921.

During their time at St. Jacques, when Helen was 18 years old, Richard purchased two organs – one for Helen and the other for her sister, Maggie – which were ordered and shipped in from St. John’s. he also paid for music lessons. Helen’s first lessons were learned from the nuns of the Presentation Convent at St. Jacques. Further instructions were then taught by Winnie Davidge of Belleoram. Helen put her musical abilities to good use over the years but Maggie never learned music.

Over the years Richard’s relationship with his foster son, Charlie Williams, was rocks. Oral history relates that on the night of 20 November 1927, Richard visited Charlie, who was supposedly dying from some unknown cause. His previous health problems were heart trouble, rheumatism and rheumatic fever. The purpose of the visit has never been revealed.

Early the next morning, Richard rose just at daylight, and was preparing to go up to Bay d’East in his motor boat. He and his stepson/son-in-law, Berkley, were going in the woods. Charlie was also up, carrying wood from the beach up to his house. From all accounts, the two men exchanged some heated words which ended in tragedy. Charlie fired a fatal gunshot at Richard, claiming it was in self-defense because Richard had an axe. There were no witnesses and Charlie was acquitted. Was it self-defense or was it a planned murder? I have my own opinion but only God knows for certain.

© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Apr/May 06

Non-fiction 1

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