erle rose spencer - newfoundland quarterly 1986 a - Copy.png

Spencer, circa 1920's

 

Source: "Erle Spencer and the Newfoundland Romance" by Ronald Rompkey, p. 29-33,

Newfoundland Quarterly, Spring 1986, Vol. 81(4)

 

c/o Centre of Newfoundland Studies

erle rose spencer - newfoundland quarterly 1986 a - Copy.png

Spencer, circa 1937, just before his death.

 

Source: "Erle Spencer and the Newfoundland Romance" by Ronald Rompkey, p. 29-33,

Newfoundland Quarterly, Spring 1986, Vol. 81(4)

 

c/o Centre of Newfoundland Studies

Erle Spencer

Erle Rose Spencer was born in Fortune in July, 1897, to Thomas E. Spencer, a local merchant, and Clara Spencer (formerly Clara Rose from Harbour Breton). He had two brothers, John Joseph and Clyde and one sister, Blanche.

Erle was stricken with tuberculosis at a young age, which caused him to miss school for long periods of time. James Haddon, the local schoolmaster, may have come to personally tutor him at home. In 1911, when Erle was 14, his tuberculosis infected his lymph nodes. The hospital in the neighbouring town of Grand Bank was not equipped to handle long-term tuberculosis patients. Erle’s father sent him to Grenfell Hospital in St. Anthony, located about 1,100km away on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. The doctors removed the infected lymph nodes and Erle’s health improved, but he was not entirely cured and he was left with scar tissue on the right side of his neck and his head consequently tilted to the right. His tuberculosis still lurked within himself.

 

He continued and finished his schooling in Fortune and moved to St. John’s to attend Methodist College, where he graduated with an Associate of Arts diploma. He then moved to Chatham, Ontario, where he completed an office practices course at the Canadian Business College. In 1919, he went to Calgary, Alberta, and did clerical book-keeping positions for mercantile establishment and later a machinery manufacturer. Part of the reason for moving there may have been the hope that the dry prairie climate would be better for his health.

 

Erle returned to Fortune in 1922, due to a combination of his problematic health, and realizing that office work was not for him. Instead, he chose to pursue a childhood dream: writing. He believed that his health would not enable him to live beyond 40, and at age 25, decided to pursue writing in his remaining years.

 

Erle booked passage to Oporto, Portugal, on a schooner called the “Ronald M. Douglas” which delivered salted codfish to Europeans. It is believed he started his writing during the journey. After the ship arrived in Portugal, Erle eventually moved to London, England. Within a year, he found work as a reporter for the “Daily Express” newspaper owned by Lord Beaverbrook, and Erle found his life’s calling in journalism.

 

However, the London weather was unkind to Erle’s health and he began a search across Europe for a place where the climate would be gentler for him. He eventually found his answer in Leysin, Switzerland, and made an arrangement with the “Daily Express” publishers to allow him to work May-October in London while spending winters at a Leysin sanatorium to recuperate.

In 1924, he published his first book: “Yo-Ho-Ho!: A Story of Piracy and Smuggling”, which tells the story of a boy who overheard a smuggling plot but was abducted by the smugglers. The story was set in and around the French island of St. Pierre, just off the coast of Fortune. Due to his firsthand experience of how boats operated, Erle was able to paint an accurate picture of working on the sea in his story. He would send correspondence, clippings and reviews back to Fortune to keep in touch with the folks back home.

Over the years he wrote 8 more novels:

“A Young Sea Rover” (1925) - aimed at juvenile readers

- "Contraband" (1926) - aimed at juvenile readers

- "The Piccadilly Ghost" (1929) - takes place within London's newspaper business

- "The Death of Captain Shand"  (1930) - an adventure story set in Oporto

- “The Four Lost Ships” (1931) - a retired naval officer looks for missing seamen in St. Pierre

- “Stop Press!” (1932) - also within London's newspaper business

- “The King of Spain’s Daughter” (1934) - An Englishman inherits an estate in Fortune Bay

- “Or Give Me Death!” (1936) - set in Greece

People from the Grand Bank-Fortune are who traveled to London would try to seek out Erle before returning home. For instance, he once had lunch on Fleet Street in 1935 with H. B. Mayo, Fortune’s own Rhodes Scholar, and the two of them discussed books. Among his the highlights of his journalism career was that he met with Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, who had gone into exile in England (1936-1941). Erle travelled in the ship with him and got a first-class interview.

Sadly, the ill health that plagued Erle took a turn for the worse. He died in his sleep in London in November of 1937, four months after his 40th birthday. He was buried in the city's Hendon Cemetery.

His estate went to his brother, John Joseph Spencer, who was living in the American state of Georgia at that time. John inherited some of Erle’s unpublished works and held onto them until he died. His daughter, Joan Kissel from Maitland, Florida, inherited them and in 1998, 61 years after Erle died, passed them to Dr. Ronald Rompkey, a Memorial University professor of English Language and Literature. He in turn deposited Erle’s unpublished works at the Centre of Newfoundland Studies, which later got approval from Joan Kissel to transfer ownership.

 

Coincidentally, Dr. Rompkey had previously written an article about Erle in 1977 for “The Gazette”, Memorial’s in-house newspaper. He was later instrumental in having “Yo-Ho-Ho!” reprinted in paperback in 1986, and even wrote an introduction about Erle for it. Erle’s impact on the writing world seemed to be in obscurity in his native Newfoundland, but it wouldn’t stay that way. In July of 1957, the “Atlantic Guardian” magazine published an article by Margaret Duley about Newfoundland literature in which she said “Unfortunately, Erle Spencer died before his works had penetrated his own land, but now they have become collector's items for Newfoundland library shelves.” In his 1977 article, Dr. Rompkey said “I have seen no evidence of such collections, but it is encouraging to find that during the past year the Centre of Newfoundland Studies at the Henrietta Harvey Library has acquired or copied all of Spencer’s books. Perhaps before much longer, Spencer will achieve, in Newfoundland, a measure of the recognition accorded him by others during his lifetime.”

List of novels by Erle Rose Spencer

"Yo-Ho-Ho! A Story of Piracy and Smuggling" London, Chambers, 1924

“A Young Sea Rover” London, Cassel’s, 1925

“Contraband” London, Cassel’s, 1926

"The Piccadilly Ghost" London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1930

"The Death of Captain Shand" London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1930

“The Four Lost Ships” London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1931

“Stop Press!” London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1932

“The King of Spain’s Daughter” London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1934

“Or Give Me Death!” London, George C. Harrap & Co., 1936

Bibliography

Duley, Margaret (1957, July) “Glimpses Into Newfoundland Literature” Atlantic Guardian, Vol. XIII, No. 7, p. 26

via

"Atlantic Guardian", Memorial University of Newfoundland - Digital Archive Initiative, Memorial University - Centre for Newfoundland Studies

https://collections.mun.ca/digital/collection/guardian

 

Riggs, Bert (1993, February) “A Backwards Glance – Erle Rose Spencer” Word, Vol.4, No.2, p. 4-5

 

Riggs, Bert (2000, April 27) “Prolific writer product of Fortune” The Gazette, p. 12

 

Rompkey, Dr. Ronald (1977, June) “Newfoundland’s Forgotten Storyteller” The Gazette, p.  11

 

Rompkey, R. (1986 reprint, introduction), Spencer, E. R. (1924 original) Yo-Ho-Ho! A Story of Piracy and Smuggling, Creative Publishers

Young, Ewart (1939, April 8) “Sickly Fortune Youth Climbed Ladder of Success in London’s ‘Street of Ink’” Daily News

Haile Selassie. (2004, January 28). In Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haile_Selassie#Exile

 

Certain articles and pictures provided by Jackie Hillier c/o Centre for Newfoundland Studies.

 

Arranged and edited by Jeffrey Elford