Home   |      Enter the Diaries       |      Copyright      |      Contact Us      |      Acknowledgements    

Biography's of the Slade family and William Kelson


The Slade family

The House of Slade 1804-1861

John Slade founded a merchant-firm with headquarters at Twillingate about 1750 and when he died in 1792, he divided an estate estimated at ₤70, 000 among a cousin and four nephews, one of whom was Robert Slade. Robert was born in 1768 and his father died in 1780, leaving him ₤50 in trust until he was 14 years old. This money was to be paid to place him as an apprentice; meanwhile he was “to be kept in school.” Robert was apprenticed as a clerk in his uncle’s counting house in Poole and subsequently came to Twillingate. In 1793 he was manager of John Slade & Co’s premises at Battle Harbour in Labrador and then became a partner in the firm.

In 1804 Slade bought a house in Trinity and leased the mercantile premises of John Jeffrey, located near Hog’s Nose, please see the accompanying drawing of the property from an 1833 map of Trinity. In the year of 1806/7, his company collected 5227 quintals of fish, a cash flow of ₤5870, and operated three vessels, the brigs Active, Gannet and Falcon. His initial efforts in Trinity were successful enough to encourage him to purchase Jeffrey’s property in 1807 and he began to enlarge and expand his trade. In Trinity Harbour he acquired property in Maggoty Cove and Churchill’s Room in the Southwest Arm.

 Slade’s expansion was not limited to Trinity Harbour alone. In 1813, they took possession of waterfront property in Catalina that lead to the building of a wharf, house and store, which was soon developed into a major out-establishment with a resident manager. By 1835, the firm also had establishments in Heart’s Content and Hant’s Harbour. Until they went insolvent in 1861, the Slade dynasty in Trinity Bay traded successively under the names: 1804-1822 “Robert Slade”, 1822-1837 “Slade and Kelson”; 1837-1850 “Executors of the late Robert Slade Sr.”, and 1850-61 “Robert Slade and Co.”.

Robert Slade Sr. (1768-1833), founder of the firm, spent very little time in Trinity himself as he managed the trade from Poole, and although his sons, Robert, Thomas, James and John made occasional visits, the Trinity end of business was supervised by agents who included: 1804-9 Joseph Gover, 1809-51 William Kelson, and 1851-61 Alexander Warren Bremner.

Robert Slade’s business in Trinity for the first decade continued in a somewhat tenuous and uncertain footing. His first agent, Joseph Gover, proved to be incompetent and was replaced by William Kelson. Due to the great amount of repairs needed on the property and the irresponsibility of Gover, Kelson set out to establish Slade’s company on a more secure and profitable basis. It took a few years however and some considerable repair and building before Slade started to become a serious competitor of Garland, while in the meantime, some of the most profitable years ever known in the Newfoundland trade had passed by.

Kelson did however have a plan to improve the premises in Trinity and to build new establishments elsewhere, which Slade agreed to. With Kelson’s efforts, Slade secured a significant number of planter-dealers in Trinity, and attracted trade from planters in Bird Island Cove (Elliston). Encouraged by all this success, Kelson considered opening an establishment in Bird Island Cove, however, a better alternative was to build a store in Catalina.

In the fall of 1813, Kelson reported having taken possession of a waterfront site for a room in Catalina and having placed one Joseph Curl on it to secure possession. In the winter of 1814 he wrote, “I think there will soon be an opportunity of doing a great deal of business at Catalina. Joseph Curl and I will have no doubt a flake, a small store and a wharf constructed by the spring agreeably to my instructions and I intend sending salt down in the spring for the planters and also supplies for them…I intend to see the place this winter by land and in all likelihood shall send one of the large vessels there to load with fish next season. I am rather pleased in my own mind (whatever opinion you may entertain of it) with our having taking possession of the spot, as the Harbour bids fair for becoming inhabited, most of the lately vacant good situations near yours room being already taken up..”

Kelson’s description of expanding into Catalina not only provides a very clear picture of how he went about the task but also contains one of the best documentations on the close relationship between merchants and settlers, and how a mercantile establishment attracted permanent settlers. Under Kelson’s directions, James Lannigan, formally a clerk in Trinity, was sent to Catalina to take charge of “Mr. Slade’s business there” and each fall delivered his account books to Kelson in Trinity, who then dispatched them for Robert Slade’s inspection in Poole.

In the winter of 1822, Kelson took the trade books to Poole himself and during his stay, something was found to be amiss in the Catalina accounts. He returned to Trinity on July 10th and was accompanied by Robert Slade Jr. A few days later, they went to Catalina with the local magistrate and James Lannigan was arrested and brought to Trinity to be charged “with embezzling property.” He was then convicted in St. John’s “For Grand Larceny and Embezzlement” and was sentenced “to be transported beyond the Seas, for the term of 14 years, to such a place as his Majesty may direct.”

Alexander Bremner replaced Lannigan at Catalina. He was a Scotsman who had come to Trinity in 1811 as a bookkeeper and clerk to Archibald Graham. He joined Slade’s employee in 1820, served as winter agent during Kelson’s absence in 1822, and then went as agent to Catalina. He remained in this position until the firm went insolvent in 1861 when he bought the premises.

Slade’s Employees 

Slade kept a number of salaried servants year round, and engaged many others on a seasonal, monthly, and casual or job basis, as the demand required. Some were recruited in Poole, others in Trinity Bay or St. John’s if they could be found. In 1823, there were 32 full-time servants at Trinity who, apart from Kelson himself who earned about ₤400 a year plus living costs, were paid about ₤1000 in wages. This sum did not include the wages of sailors, casual labour, and the shares paid to sealers. That year Slade also had 11 servants in Catalina who earned about ₤400 and 6 in Heart’s Content earning ₤175.

At this time, it was required for servants to have a written agreement for employment, known as shipping papers – please see the examples in this virtual exhibit. Although a particular job was specified, it was also required that each employee do “everything in his power for the good of the voyage and his master’s interest.” This meant that any individual as demand required was to be employed at various tasks.

Some of Slade’s employees had their own homes, but until 1832 the firm maintained a cookhouse on their premises for their clerks, tradesmen and labourers. On November 8, 1832, the diarist wrote “the Cookroom of Slade and Kelson’s nailed up this day…the newly shipped servants will provide themselves at the planters houses & c for the future”. This however, was a significant event, for it marks the end of an era when most of the servant requirements could be met from local sources. It also marked the declining phase of emigration from Poole as permanent settlement had started to take place.


In addition to fishing and other trade Slade’s also took part in sealing. By the time Robert Slade began business in Trinity, it had become an established practice for the merchant firms and the more substantial planters who owned schooners to send them to the ice floes off the northeast coast to hunt seals. The peak of Slade’s sealing efforts was probably reached in 1852, when it was reported they sent ten vessels to the ice.

The Slade’s crewed their schooners for the seal fishery with men from Trinity and vicinity however, significant numbers also came from Ragged Harbour, Catalina, Bird Island Cove, Bonavista and King’s Cove. Sealing, or “Ice Hunting” in schooners and sometimes brigs was more precarious than most other economic activities, and success was largely dependent upon luck as well as being fraught with numerous perils.

Master-Mariners and Ships

The men who captained Slade’s ocean-going vessels were fairly distinct from those commanding their coastal craft. In 1809, Hamon, a Jersey-man and highly regarded by Kelson, was put in command of the brig Alpha and the next year Kelson observed that he “seems to be enterprising and preserving man and a good sailor”. He remained with Slade for about 10 years. John Roallons stayed with Slade even longer. In the beginning of 1814, he commanded vessels between Poole, Ireland, Trinity and the various markets for Slade until 1832. From 1814 onward, Thomas Biel worked for Slade until 1838 when a terrible storm hit and lost two of its crew members. This however was enough for Biel and the ship was sailed back to Trinity under the command of Capt. Henry Moores.

Slade’s Ships and Schooners 1806-1836

            1806                            1826                                        1836

            Active                          Active                                      Active

            Falcon                          Faith                                         Faith

Gannet                         George                                     George

                                    John & Elizabeth                       Louisa Hannah

                                        Louisa Hannah                         Robert & James

                                   William Kelson                            Telemachus


                                                                                    William Kelson

Others brigs owned 1806-1836: Anna, Perseverance, William

Schooners: Cosmopolite, Mary, Swallow, Sally, Anna, Caroline, and Thomas and Sarah.

Though Slade owned various brigs, few were constructed in Trinity. The Alpha, Gannet and Robert & James were built locally, however, they did build their own schooners, numerous craft (which included boats, bait skiffs, punts, etc), and they did their own repair work on the ocean-going brigs.

Source: The Merchant Families and Entrepreneurs of Trinity in the Nineteenth Century by Dr. Gordon Handock, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, March 1981 pgs 90-125.