Five People on An Island

The strange story of “The Swiss Family Dingwell" which for twenty-five years has been isolated on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

BEVERLEY OWEN December 15 1932

Five People on An Island

The strange story of “The Swiss Family Dingwell" which for twenty-five years has been isolated on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

BEVERLEY OWEN December 15 1932

Five People on An Island


The strange story of “The Swiss Family Dingwell" which for twenty-five years has been isolated on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

ON A WIND-SWEPT blurb of land and rock in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence lives a solitary family of five persons, in an isolation as stern as that endured by any of the hermits and anchorites of history or romantic fiction.

A few miles to the north pass the great Atlantic liners and the sea commerce of this and many other nations; eleven miles to the south is the main group of the Magdalens, of which this lonely island is an outpost. The cliffs of Grosse Island are visible in outline. Sixty miles away, over the southeastern horizon, lies the island of Cape Breton a jxirt of Nova Scotia province.

Bryon Island so it is named is surrounded by irxxlem civilization. Yet the domicile of the aged Townsend Dingwell, his two unmarried sons and two unmarried daughters, might well be on another planet.

No mail service, no radio, none of the ordinary means of communicatitm. Rarely do they see a newspa]>er. The only music they hear is the whistling of the wind, the raucous whining of sea birds and the pounding of waves against the cliffs. They have no instruments. With the exception of a Magdalen missionary who calls once a year and occasional fisherman, they see and talk with no one.

Of the momentous passing events of the world they have only vague hearsay. Here is one Canadian family that is only remotely affected, if at all, by the current economic stress and muddle. It means no more to them than does a fkxxi in Manchuria mean to a Halifax drug clerk.

In summer, for weeks on end they are cut off. through a conspiracy of wind and wave, from human fellowship.

In winter -November until May— their island is encircled by a floating morass of ice. It renders dense, chill mists that blot out vision. Anything might occur in the world at large war, famine, holocausts, plagues, anything short of the world itself coming to an end and the Dingwells would pursue their daily, monotonous, rigorous round, utterly oblivious. Through a telescope, when visibility is fair to good, they can see human figures moving about the icy slopes of Grosse Island, but these might be men and women of Mars for all the contact that is possible.

When I landed on Bryon Island on August 31—the day of the sun's eclipse—I was the first mainland visitor in five years. The previous one was an American schoolteacher who had responded to the urge of sheer curiosity.

It is a question which was the more exciting event for the five recluses; the solar antics, of which they had no advance notice, or my sudden appearance. Perhaps the latter, for when I introduced myself they recalled me as a lad of ten, who, on a certain tumultuous morning thirty-one years ago, was hoisted on a boatswain’s chair from the deck of the steamer Turret Bell when that ship crashed against a Bryon Island cliff.

In those days, there were about a dozen families on the island, and William Dingwell, Townsend’s elder brother, kept a general store and ruled them like a baron^ In his home, my mother and myself found refuge until the C. G. S. Lord Stanley came from Quebec and took us to Sydney. Three years later William Dingwell died and the little community began to break up. Within a year or so, all the other families had migrated to other islands of the Magdalen group. The survivors of the Dingwell family were left alone, and for a quarter of a century they have lived entirely unto

themselves. A cable was installed following the Turret Bell wreck, but it never functioned for more than a fortnight. The only other habitation within their orbit is a lighthouse. It stands on an isolated jut of rock at the western end of the island, accessible only from the sea. Here, Edward Kating, his wife and three children, maintain their lonely vigil. Tow-nsend Dingwell told me that the two families had never met.

No Place Like Home

YYJITII the light keeper there is duty and practical purpose to justify separation from the world; in the case of the Dingwells, it is purely a matter of choice. All but one of them, at some early period, saw life in the great centres of the mainland. They know what they are missing, and there is evidence on Grindstone Island, business centre of the Magdalens, that the Dingwells have considerable cash assets.

At any time during the summer they could pack up, await favorable conditions, and within twenty-four hours transfer themselves to a comfortable mainland hotel or boarding house and there plan their future abode anywhere in this broad country. And that would imply much; chiefly, the warmth of human contacts and the end of unnatural suppression.

They have only one explanation. Be it ever so cold and dreary, ever so lonely and bleak, a playground for tempestuous nature and a terror to mariners, to them Bryon Island is home. Legally, they own most of it; practically, they own it all. Every member of the family was bom there, including Townsend himself and he is seventy-eight. His father came to the Magdalens in 1832 as a steward to Captain Townsend Coffin, R.N., when the latter inherited the islands from his uncle, Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin, and

Bryon became the Dingwell bailiwick. And under its soil lie the bones of every Dingwell who has died writhin the last hundred years.

Caroline Dingwell, the elder daughter, is now fiftytwo years old, and Florence, the younger is forty. Between them in age are the two sons, James, fortynine, and Richard, fortyfive. They have become reconciled to their circumscribed w'orld, and are prepared to cleave to it until the end of their days. When they dwindle down to one or two -well, they’ll wait for that problem to arise.

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Bryon Island forms a slight crescent, running east and west, and at both extremities it projects jagged spearheads of sandstone into the sea. rugged cliffs range along the southern shore, and the surface rises at a steady incline to towering crags that face the north, with a plumb drop of from seventy-five to 210 feet. Excepting four or five acres under cultivation and some open grazing land, it is a virgin wilderness of spruce and pine.

Toward the east, the island narrows down to a mere waist of land at sea level, not more than 150 yards wide. This is Saddle Cove. Once there was a small jetty here where schooners docked, but years ago it crumbled away, and marine conditions are so forbidding that no small boat dare attempt a landing unless well favored by wind and weather.

With a gentle breeze out of the southern quarters—which is infrequent—it is fairly easy to pilot a motor dory into Saddle Cove and negotiate an anchorage on the sandy beach. Otherwise, fishermen will tell you, it is a hazardous business. Big swells breaking on the shoals form whirlpools and velocity currents, and boatmen refuse the risk of having their frail craft swept in among them and dashed to smithereens against the iron-bound coast.

A Hazardous Journey

TO REACH Bryon Island, you go to Pictou, N.S., or Souris, P.E.I. An 800ton steamer lands you on the Magdalens, and your jumping-off place is either Grand Entry or Grosse Island.

It was my luck to strike the calmest day the gulf had known all summer. What wind there was obligingly had shifted to the southwest. Conditions couldn’t have been lx*tter. But the impending eclipse had thrown panic into the Acadian fishermen at Grand Entry. They expected cyclones, waters|x)uts; perhaps there'd be an earthquake or a tidal wave. There wasn’t a volunteer in sight for a trip to Bryon. Bryon, of all places! I heard muttered phrases in French which, translated, probably meant “sick in the head.”

Grosse Island was six miles distant. I got there in little less than an hour, and found a young seafarer named Phil Clarke, whose antecedents possibly hailed from Aberdeen. He was disposed to look upon the situation from a business ix>int of view.

"We'll get over there, all right,” he said. "But if it begins to storm up, we’ll have to stay. That all right with you?”

It Ux»k us nearly three hours to make the eleven miles. A heavy tide was running and Clarke had to steer almost northeast by east to make due north. As we approached the island the meaning of velocity currents struck home. On the crest of a long swell we were carried forward at an astonishing clip. Clarke jx>ssessed both judgment and skill. The dory hit the entrance to the cove square in the centre. He shut off the engine, and the succeeding swell landed the lx>at almost high and dry on the beach.

Twenty minutes walk westward along a low cliff, and a rough, winding trail through bush and dense undergrowth brought me to a gate which opened into a meadow. About a dozen head of cattle, three horses and any number of sheep were grazing. At the bottom of the meadow, facing south toward Grosse Island, was the Dingwell habitation a rambling two-story structure, white, and flanked by a bam and two or three other outhouses. About 200 yards farther to the west another dwelling. Though it was deserted looking, weather-beaten and black with age, it had a familiar aspect. I knew it. in the island’s more active days, as the home of William Dingwell. All the other homes and buildings 1 once knew had vanished ; decayed or

dismantled, and the timbers fxrhaps used for firewood.

A man repairing the roof of the bam — soon to be identified as James Dingwell— saw me approaching and hastily descended. He hurried into the house, and when I came up, four of the family had gathered in a semicircle around the kitchen door. The other son, Richard, was not in sight.

They stood awkwardly. There were no smiles of welcome, only blank curiosity and timid reserve. I might have been a traveller in the dynamite trade with a case of samples.

But when I introduced myself and uttered a few key phrases like “Turret Bell,” “Dandy Head,” (the cliff against which the ship pounded almost to pieces)and “a thoroughly drenched small boy in a sailor suit,” their surprise at this abrupt visitation, “thirty-one years after,” was alone well worth the trouble and price of the trip.

They mellowed immediately, and the next twenty minutes were given to recollections and the filling in of gaps on both sides. I learned much of what liad happened to the Dingwells in those intervening years. When I stated that I proposed to put them all in a Maclean's Magazine article, the women looked appalled.

Caroline Dingwell is tall, thin and frail. Her wan face almost matches her hair in dead whiteness. Florence, on the other hand, is short and plump, her face round and ruddy, with large features; her complexion perhaps accentuated by the red dress she wore. Her hair is jet black—and bobbed.

Townsend Dingwell is a sprightly little man. sandv-complexioned with healthylooking cheeks and a perfect set of teeth. He wore a short, thin beard. Although amiable, he was taciturn except when we discussed the early history of the island. Its name, he told me, originally was Brian, after a French frigate that was wrecked there before the days of Wolfe.

Presently Richard appeared, and all explanations had to be repeated for his benefit. Between the sons there is not much dissimilarity. James is lean, dark, and of an aesthetic, thoughtful type. Richard is more powerful, stocky and square-shouldered, very much the yeoman. In complexion, he follows his father. Both of them were cleanshaven.

All five -it was very noticeablehad an odd, furtive look; eyes that seemed unable to remain fixed even for a moment. After the first burst of enthusiasm, they again became shy and embarrassed. I felt my own nerves getting on edge, too.

Both sons looked stony and emotionless when I put questions to them. They answered vaguely and evasively. James said "perhaps” and “I guess so," while Richard’s favorite come-back was, “I don’t know about that.” They refused to be drawn out on their reactions to their years of voluntary exile.

Richard or more familiarly, Dick had an oblong piece of wood, about four feet long, under his arm. I caught a glimpse of carved lettering, “Sacred to the Memory of—” He saw my curiosity, but said nothing. The elder woman explained.

Dick’s Curious Hobby

"PXICK. she said, made it his special interest in life to care for the graves of mariners that are dotted about the island. Some of them date back two centuries. The tablets are of wood, and as they begin to fade and decay Dick takes them to his workshop and carves exact replicas. On that particular day he was engaged in perpetuating the memory of the captain and mate of the English barque Lady Seaton which foundered off the island in 1847.

The two sons, I learned, divide the heavy work of the farm and the care of the livestock. Caroline Dingwell is the economist and general household supervisor; in other words, the “mother.” Florence is the cook

and general factotum. She also makes the butter.

With the family all together, I suggested a photograph. There was instant rebellion from the feminine side. The men. curiously enough, raised no objection. After much persuasion, the five lined up in front of the house. But Florence deliberately made a fizzle of it. She refused to hold up her head.

The two sons then disappeared, and I did not see them again.

It was not yet eleven o’clock, but the Dingwells had had their mid-day meal. Florence, however, had been busy, and the boatman and myself were summoned inside the house.

We passed through a large, well-equipped, immaculate kitchen. In an alcove to one side was a pump and a sink as big as a bathtub. No doubt, it filled that function, among others. We were led into a long, narrow dining room. The furniture was mahogany and the table was covered with a spotless white cloth. The massive sideboard, I was told, once adorned the cabin of a ship. It was laden with silver and appointments such as might be found in any average, well-kept Canadian home.

Caroline Dingwell sat at one end of the table while we made an excellent meal of cold mutton, fried potatoes and homemade bread. From her I gleaned the facts of the Dingwells’ existence. She speaks good, wellmodulated English, as do all the others. Her mother and William Dingwell’s wife both had been Magdalen school teachers.

It was obvious that the Dingwells produced most of the essentials of life themselves. But how did they obtain other necessary supplies—sugar, tea, kerosene, matches and so on? How did the men get their tobacco?

“We don’t grow any wheat either,” said Miss Dingwell. “We get all those things from Grindstone twice a year, in the autumn and spring. The bank there knows what we need, so many barrels of flour, so much kerosene, and how much of each other item. If there is anything special, any extras, we try to get a note to them. They load a schixmer, and on a good day it can anchor in the cove.”

I referred to the utter loneliness; the scarcely-ever relieved monotony, their complete detachment from the world. I mentioned the coming winter.

She smiled feebly.

“We never think about it now,” she said. “I s’pose we’re used to it. We don’t talk about it.”

“But you, yourself,” I persisted. “Don’t the lights of passing ships, the big liners, sometimes make you feel—well, that you’d like to go somewhere, be with people and see things?”

“We don’t bother about ships,” she returned. “Except,” she added with a quaint little grimace, “when they get wrecked.” And back she went to the subject of the Turret Bell.

“But couldn’t you spend your summers here and your winters somewhere on the mainland; or even at Grindstone?” I suggested.

“Perhaps.” she said. “But I’m frightened of the water. So is Florence. And Mr. Dingwell is getting old now.”

“And your brothers?”

“I don’t think they’d leave us, even if they wanted to.”

Time Means Little

MISS DING WELL told me she had not been on the mainland for twenty-six years. Before that she spent six years in Boston, where she was trained as a nurse. The illness of her mother brought her back to Bryon Island, and she had never left it. Mrs. Townsend Dingwell died five years ago.

Both James and Richard, in their youth, put in several years in mainland cities. Richard, indeed, had seen the sights of Gotham, having worked on a dredge in

New York harbor. The same factor that caused the return of their elder sister also drew them back to their island home, and they have hewn to its soil ever since. Townsend Dingwell himself once got as far afield as the West Indies. In his early days he was a mate on a square-rigger.

Florence has never been farther away than Grindstone. She made that trip twenty years ago. She has never seen a train, a motor car, a brick building, or a gas stove. Electricity to her is a complete mystery.

None of the family has ever seen a movie.

“But I’ve seen an airplane,” volunteered Florence.

That was in the depth of winter, two years ago, when the Dingwell family had an extraordinary “break.” For some time the Newfoundland sealing fleet have used a seaplane for scouting, and on this momentous occasion, having landed at Grindstone for fuel, the situation at Bryon Island was brought to the pilot’s attention.

One day, the astonished recluses saw a great, black bird sweeping toward them. It circled over their home at several hundred feet, and presently a small, weighted, canvas bag came shooting down. To their delight, it contained a bundle of newspapers, magazines and a number of letters.

Townsend Dingwell joined us in the “parlor.” It was a large, bright, well furnished room. A massive, brass kerosene lamp stood on a table in the centre. Everything was shipshape. Two bookcases were ranged along one wall. In a comer was a spinning wheel.

But there was no piano or organ. Not a vestige of anything that produces a musical sound.

I put it up to them. Wouldn’t a radio, bringing in the programmes from the mainland, New York and Boston, the daily news bulletins, weather reports, chain link-ups with London and every other advantage of wireless, mean all the difference between absolute isolation and continual contact with the throbbing world?

Neither of them answered. I had failed to stir any excitement.

“But you’ve never heard or seen a radio,” I persisted. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

Miss Dingwell nodded.

“Perhaps some day we’ll get one,” she said. She spoke as if the idea frightened her.

I looked over some magazines. All but one bore a 1931 date. There was a newspaper among them. It was six weeks old.

“Can’t you get better service than that?” I asked the old man.

He told me they had a mail arrangement up to three years ago, but the Government had cut it off. It was too costly and there was no revenue.

I glanced over their supply of books. A great many were of a religious nature, and there were piles of tracts. What novels there were ran to the standard variety, like Scott and Dickens.

Just how these five people survive the long winter months, year after year, is a secret held only by themselves. The dreariness and utter monotony may only be imagined. In summer, sunrise and sunset are the alpha and omega of existence. In winter, with the dawn blotted out by fog or mist, the sun veiled by chill, dark clouds, and biting winds sweeping down from Labrador, time is of small significance. But the Dingwells have done it for twenty-five winters. It has now become a habit.

Townsend Dingwell’s only apparent regret is that the annual almanacs are not published before the ice floes lock them in.

There was nothing more to be seen or learned, so I took my departure. Perhaps I was the last mainland visitor the Dingwells would see for another five years, but I had a curious sensation, as I turned my back upon their home, that they were glad to see me go.

The End