Tag Archives: Grenfell Mission

A Grenfell Mat

At the annual Sussex Flea Market in Princess Louise Park you can find almost anything. But a Grenfell hooked mat was probably the last thing I expected to find. Grenfell mat showing hunter and dogs in winter

It hung on a canvas wall, shining among the antiques and bric-a-brac around it. Fortunately the seller knew what it was, a unique piece of early 20th century Newfoundland art and a beautiful example of a particular type of craft production.

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, later Sir, was an English physician who established nursing stations and cottage hospitals in coastal Labrador and northern Newfoundland. In order to raise Grenfell_1940_Issue-5 cent stampfunds for the Grenfell Mission and to provide a source of cash income for local women, he started a handicraft production industry.

One of the main items produced by what was known as “The Industrial” were hooked mats. At first they were the geometric and floral design rag mats the women already made for use in their own homes. Then they began making “picture mats” of silk, like the one in Sussex.

Mats made of stockings

“When your stockings run, let them run to Labrador!” the Mission’s newsletter asked of its readers. So donations of “silk stockings and underwear in unlimited quantities” were sent to the Grenfell Mission. There they were cut in strips and dyed. Grenfell, his wife and some of the mat-makers themselves drew designs for the mats. Then using the sketch as a guide, the artisans hooked the scene into burlap with the silk strips.

Amazon link for Silk Stocking Mats about Grenfell mats
Click for Amazon link

The lightness of the silk and fineness of the hooking makes the mat almost like a tapestry. The surface sheen is visible these 80 or 90 years after this mat was made.

The height of the Grenfell mat-making industry was in the 1920s and 1930s. Mats were sold throughout the world, marketed through the Mission newsletter and Grenfell’s own contacts. They are still collected as the pieces of art they are. If I’d had the money, the one at the Sussex flea market would have found a home with me.

For detailed photographs and discussion of mats and other Grenfell craftwork, from a 2010 talk given by Silk Stocking Mats author Paula Laverty, see this blog.  

Grenfell Mats etc. on eBay

Tempting Providence TNL

If you’re near London Ont. you’ve got a couple days left to see a grand play at the Grand Poster for Grand Theatre's Tempting ProvidenceTheatre.  Tempting Providence, by Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, runs until Friday March 31st.

It’s the story of Myra Bennett, a British nurse who came in 1921 to Newfoundland for a planned two years.  She married Angus Bennett from Daniel’s Harbour and stayed on the Northern Peninsula until she died in 1990 at the age of 100.  We saw the play several years ago in Cow Head, near where Mrs. Bennett lived.  My dentist, who knows nothing about Newfoundland or outpost nursing, saw it in London last week.  Like us, she loved it.

Tempting Providence  tells her story, but it’s really the story of all the nurses who looked after the health of those living in far-flung and isolated communities on Newfoundland’s west Myra Bennett from northernpeninsula.cacoast.  They did everything from birthing babies to surgery if need be.  Many, like Nurse Bennett, came from England.  Others were from Newfoundland and took nursing training in St. John’s.

In remote areas of the island, nurses were pretty much the entire medical system.  There were Grenfell Mission doctors based in St. Anthony and a few cottage hospitals, but the nurses scattered in small communities were those first called upon and sometimes the only source of medical help.  Today, we would call them nurse-practitioners in that they did much more than nurse training alone teaches.  Many stayed for their allotted time only but others, like Mrs. Bennett, stayed and nursed those who had become their neighbours and family throughout their lives.

Midwives and Healers

Mary Francis Webb, Flat BayThere were also local midwives and healers without formal education who learned by assisting someone more experienced.  Many local healers were Mi’kmaq, using barks, berries and animal parts in medicines.  Some were believed to be able to “charm” illness away.  Mary Francis Webb of Flat Bay was one of them.  Well-known and respected, she served a huge area extending way south of her Bay St. George community right up to Corner Brook.

Nurses, midwives and healers traveled anywhere any time they were needed.  They also raised children, grew gardens, tended animals and did all the work that other Newfoundland outport women did.  Some of the informally trained midwives supplemented their education with formal training if they could.  All worked with doctors, calling on them when they needed specialized skills.  But if the doctor couldn’t get there, they had to rely on their own skills.  Cecilia Benoit wrote Midwives in Passage about Newfoundland’s traditional and professional midwifery.

scene from Tempting ProvidenceTheatre Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tempting Providence conveys the hardship and the beauty of an outport nurse’s life – the place and the work.  It’s a lovely play, transporting you to the Great Northern Peninsula of a century ago with the use of a simple white sheet and talented actors.