“Until the establishment of these two companies [AND and IPP] the interior of his country was an unopened book to the Newfoundlander. He made his way some distance up the larger river courses by Indian canoe. But except for the river courses thus reconnoitered and the newly opened lumbering areas his country might have been full of cannibals and prehistoric monsters for all he knew.”
Public Schools Explorers in Newfoundland
Roald Dahl was a very well known author. If you have never heard of him you might be familiar in some way shape or form with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach or Matilda. Many of his books have been turned into movies at least once, some even more.
Most people don’t know that Roald Dahl at the age of 17 and fresh out of school, spent the late summer of 1934 traipsing around the forests of Central Newfoundland as part of the British Public School Exploring Society. It should be noted that in the United Kingdom a public school is in most cases actually a private boarding school like Eton, Rugby or Ripton.
The group that came to Newfoundland was described by the chronicler of the expedition, newspaper reporter Dennis Clarke:
“There were fifty drawn from almost every public school in the United Kingdom, in addition to University students, Naval and Army officers and plain would-be explorers like myself.”(1)
One of these military officer and also the founder of the Exploration Society was Commander George Murray Levick, whose wife would play a key role in preparing for the expedition. She went ahead of the expedition and purchased most of the provisions and made arrangements at Grand Falls. It was noted that : “Without her aid I am sure we should still be floundering in a bog somewhere in the middle of Newfoundland.” She seemed most comfortable in dealing with the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company and they appear to have bent over backwards for the Explorers. Mrs. Levick may have had some pull with the Company, since Mrs. Edith Murray Levick was originally Edith Audrey Mayson Beeton, daughter of Sir Mayson Beeton the first president of the A.N.D Company! Commander Murray Levick was no slouch himself and had accompanied Scott on his ill-fated expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911!(2)
The plan for the expedition was to explore the headwaters of Great Rattling Brook and the North West Gander River, down towards Great Burnt Lake. They were to map the area and collect whatever flora and fauna they could find. There were also members assigned as ornithologists and entomologists who would collect whatever birds and insects they could.
After a short stay in Grand Falls, where they stayed at the staff house, the expedition set out. The Company brought them over on the same boat that they transported loggers to the camps in Bishop’s Falls Division. At Rattling Brook Depot they explorers were loaded aboard Company trucks for the journey down the Rattling Brook Line to the 30-Mile Depot. That was as far as the “road” went at the time and from there the expedition would explore the country on foot.
The group of explorers covered an extensive tract of country while in the interior. At times they broke down into a couple of different parties with some ranging as far as the area around Great Burnt Lake near the present Meelpaeg Reservoir in the South West and near Middle Ridge to the East.
The area they traversed was largely unexplored, much of the are had yet to be accurately mapped. One map they used was a timber cruising map from the Company, which proved to be less than satisfactory and it is likely it didn’t cover the whole area they explored.
The expedition at times give the appearance of a somewhat failed military reconnaissance, into a colonial backwater. At times food became scarce and the explorers were forced to subsist on what was left of their rations, supplemented by wild berries, a few rabbits and trout. By the end of the foray most of the party were hungry and Dahl himself was forced to fashion a boot out of a canvas bucket after his own footwear had fallen apart.
Hungry, weary and a little worse for wear the explorers arrived back at the 30-Mile Depot and were again transported back to Grand Falls.
The return visit coincided with a visit by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Prior to leaving, a football match was organized between the best players in Grand Falls and the Explorers. Roald Dahl played in that game. The Grand Falls team won the match and it was noted:
“An appreciative crowd of about five hundred citizens of Grand Falls watched the match, and picked on Dahl, our left wing forward, who frequently flashed down the
wing a maelstrom of long legs, as the target of their good humoured wit. The match, if not first-class football, was a social success and Grand Falls left the ground thinking
perhaps we were human beings after all.”
Clarke Public Schools Explorers in Newfoundland pg. 262
Before leaving for St. John’s and the final departure for Britain, they were also treated to an extensive tour of the paper mill. The tour was described by Clarke:
“Groups then set off at intervals to be swallowed up in the bowels of the enormous monster which night and day ground trees to pulp and paper. It took about four hours to be shown all the processes of sawing, barking, pulping and chemically treating, with the thousands of intermediate stages. The wonder of the mill was not so much the actual processes, as the way the various departments, spread over an area of several acres, were continuously fed by runways carrying the wood from department to department, in various stages of manufacture. It was like a vast scenic railway. The man who conducted my group had the right ideas about showing people round mills. He regarded it as a race against the time-table, a sport in which the group joined, and knocked two hours off by ingenious short cuts.”
One can’t help but wonder if this tour had any impact on the young future author. Perhaps this huge paper factory may have come back into his mind when imagining Mr. Wonka’s Chocolate factory some thirty years later.
Maybe there should be a plaque or a marker at (presumably) Church Road Park to note: “At this place in 1934 British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald saw renowned children’s author Roald Dahl loose a soccer game to the Grand Falls team.”
I didn’t know any of this when our Grade 5 teacher read us James and the Giant Peach, just a short distance up the road.
Does that make us Oompa Loompas? Was Sir Vincent Jones Willy Wonka? Maybe somebody could write an English paper on this!
Clarke, Dennis Public Schools Explorers in Newfoundland http://collections.mun.ca/PDFs/cns/PublicSchoolExplorersInNewfoundland.pdf
Sturrock, Donald Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
Bryan, thank you for this most excellent piece of local history. I am quite sure VERY few know about this. I certainly did not. Much appreciated! Keep it coming. Loving the newer layout as well.
Thanks! There is a short video of it somewhere on Youtube too, but I can’t find it anymore.