Thursday, August 5, 2021

Parachutes and Petticoats - Exploring a peculiar NL legend with folklorist Nicole Penney #FolkloreThursday

Parachute Petticoats
By Nicole Penney

Do you know the store of the girl whose life was saved by her dress?  

As the tale goes, a young girl fell from a very high cliff but was not injured. She couldn’t remember anything about the fall, but it was generally accepted that the wind was so high that it gathered under her dress and parachuted her safely to the beach… some 200 feet below! 

The Baroness Bomburst floating back to earth in the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

In the version relayed to me, the girl is named Janis aka Jane/Janay Phillips and the event took place around 1935 in Bonavista, between Spillar’s Cove and Cable John Cove.  

Upon researching the details of this account, I discovered many more examples of life-saving dresses. As it turns out, the “parachute petticoat” is a well-used media trope. In Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s dress puffs out, allowing her to drift, unharmed, down the rabbit-hole. There’s also the Baroness Bomburst floating back to earth with the help of her petticoat in another Disney film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The so-called parachute petticoat has been utilized over and over in TV and movies, especially cartoons. 

Interestingly, it seems the trope may stem from reality. There are numerous historical accounts of dresses, particularly hoop dresses, saving lives. According to The News and Observer, a Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper, a woman by the name of Mrs. Louisa Biggs Station Yates was travelling on the Mississippi River when the steamer caught fire. Mrs. Yates jumped into the water and was saved by her hoop skirt, “which was fashionable in those days.” 

The book Bridging Saint John Harbour by Harold E. Wright includes a story from Saint John, New Brunswick about a Victorian woman who threw herself in the dark waters of the Reversing Falls, a series of rapids in the Saint John River. She was saved from certain doom when her “her hoop skirt acting as a parachute.” 

The following event occurred in Munfordville, Kentucky and was compiled by Edith Bastin as part of the Polston/Poston Family Index. According to Bastin, Nancy Josephine 'Josie' Harrod Edwards aka Granny Edwards, often told her grand-daughter about the adventurous stories of her life. In one such story, Granny Edwards and Grandpap Edwards were walking to Munfordville from their Rowletts home and as they walked across the Green River via the railroad trestle at Munfordville, they heard a train coming. Grandpap climbed over the edge and held tight to the railroad cross-ties for the train to pass. While Granny was holding the cross-ties, the train was rumbling overhead and she lost her grip. As she fell to the ground, her big hoop skirt ballooned out and let her down easy. The hoop skirt again acted as a parachute!
There’s also Mary Kingsley, an English ethnographer, scientific writer, and explorer whose travels throughout West Africa and criticism of missionaries helped shape European perceptions of African cultures and British imperialism.  On more than one occasion she fell into a game trap, a deep pit dug by hunters to catch unwary animals, and found that her skirts saved her legs by snagging on the sharp spikes of ebony. Not quite a parachute petticoat, but a life-saving dress nonetheless.  

The account of Ms. Janis Philips, isn’t even the only parachute petticoat story found in Newfoundland and Labrador.  A letter from Franklin Arbuckle dated May 29, 1945, published In the St. John’s Telegraph, recounts the story of “Lover’s Leap”, a cliff located between Ship Cove and Blow Me Down.  

According to residents, in 1864 a young couple, Charles Dawe and Brigitte (Biddy) Warford, were leaning on a wooden rail on the eastern gulch in Daniels Hole as they had their goodnight kiss. Suddenly, the rail gave way and the two fell more than 60 feet to the beach below. Brigitte survived with light injuries, but Charles was seriously injured. 

According to local residents, the area known as Lovers Leap, near Patrick’s Pier, in the community of Blow Me Down on the Port de Grave Peninsula, was the inspiration behind Frank Arbuckle’s painting, “True Lovers Leap, Newfoundland,”

Gerald W. Andrews states in “Heritage of a Newfoundland Outport: The story of Port de Grave, 

“It was surmised that both were saved from instant death by the fact that Biddy was wearing a hoop skirt which acted as a parachute to slow their descent, and it hooked in to a ledge before their final impact.” 

Brigitte carried her love to safety, Charles recovered and they went on to marry. It was later discovered that the rail had been sawed.  Apparently Brigitte’s family disapproved of the relationship and her brother, Azariah, came under suspicion. However, it would never be proven. 

Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951)

If you’re questioning the veracity of these stories, you’re not alone. I mean, the stories sounds plausible enough but can a dress really save a life or is this the stuff of legend? To answer that, we need to look at what exactly a legend is. 

According to folklorist Elliott Oring, “legends are considered narratives which focus on a single episode, an episode which is presented as miraculous, uncanny, bizarre or something embarrassing.” Our parachute petticoats definitely have the miraculous, uncanny and bizarre going for them. Also, legends are set in an historical time and often makes reference to real people and places. Life-saving dresses cover this aspect of legend as well. Moreover, the structure of a legend by its very nature makes the question of its “truth” subjective. Legends often depict the improbable within the world of the possible and force us to negotiate the truth of these episodes. The dress stories leave us to ponder not only the limitations of gravity but also petticoat aerodynamics. 

Sadly, it seems our parachute petticoats might be too good to be true. Upon closer examination, the stories are likely an example of migratory legend. That’s not to say a dress couldn’t save a life, but these tales have all the hallmarks of a legend. But as far a legend goes, the truth of the story isn’t really that important anyway. Legends are told because they are interesting, entertaining and amazing stories that require the audience to examine their worldview. Legends are valuable folk narrative because they not only entertainment us, but require us to question our sense of the normal, the boundaries of nature, and conceptions of fate, destiny and coincidence. 

But there’s so many newspaper accounts of this actually happening. How could the parachute petticoat be a legend if the story was documented in the media? This is actually another characteristic of legend. Many urban legends have been reported on in the media as though they were true. Take for example the century-old legend of the alligators that supposedly infest the sewers of New York City. 

Having made the news repeatedly over the years, it was first reported in a 1907 article that described a worker in Kearny, a New Jersey town about 12 miles from Midtown Manhattan, who was bitten by a small gator while he cleaned out a sewer. The media often legitimises a legend by reporting on it and by doing so, helps transmit it. 

It’s said that journalists came from St. John’s to interview the Jane Phillips and her mother for the papers. I suspect this story is a local legend but would love to find evidence that it actually occurred. If you’ve heard this story before, please feel free to reach out! 

Nicole R. Penney 
Archival Assistant 
Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA) 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Explore to your Heart’s Content with this self-guided walking tour

In 1612, John Guy of Cupids visited Heart’s Content, calling it an “excellent good place for fishing.” Over the next 300 years Heart’s Content grew into a thriving community, but it was the landing of the trans-Atlantic cable in 1866 that changed the world and gave Heart’s Content international status as the first gateway of communication between Europe and North America. 

This year, new visitors to the community can explore the town’s history by walking in the footsteps of fishermen, plantation owners, shipbuilders, and cable workers. 

Working in partnership with Heritage NL, the Heart’s Content Community Development Corporation, has produced a self-guided walking tour pamphlet for visitors and staycationers exploring the historic Trinity Bay town. 

“Visitors to Heart’s Content have a natural curiosity about the cable station and the many styles of buildings in the surrounding area,” says Ted Rowe, Chair of the Heart’s Content Community Development Corporation.”

“This section of the town was designated a Registered Heritage District a few years ago and now we have a detailed map to guide them through the area and highlighting points of interest.  The tour gives a feel for Heart’s Content as it was over a hundred years ago and enhances the historical appeal of the town.”

The release of the walking tour map is part of Heritage NL’s mission to promote a better understanding of the historic places of the province. 

“Registered Historic Districts highlight the culture and significance of a place by showcasing and preserving the natural and architectural significance of that area,” says Heritage NL chair Dr. Lisa Daly. 

“Town or district maps, such as this one, share that with the community and visitors alike. Heritage NL is pleased to be able to partner with communities like Heart's Content to create such programs and initiatives.”

Printed copies of the map are available for curious walkers and heritage enthusiasts free-of-charge at the Baccalieu Gallery, located in the heart of the district, beside the Heart’s Content Cable Station Provincial Historic Site. Digital copies can also be downloaded for printing at home from the Heritage NL website ( 

View the map:

Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador (Heritage NL) was established in 1984 to stimulate an understanding of and an appreciation for the historic places and intangible cultural heritage of the province. 


To arrange an interview, contact

Dale Jarvis, Executive Director
Heritage NL


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Known burials at the Old Methodist Cemetery at Jimmy Gilbert's Garden, Come By Chance


Heritage volunteers in the town of Come By Chance have been busy cleaning up an old, overgrown, Methodist cemetery. There are ten marked graves, with a number of other spaces which could possibly hold other burials. Parish records identify an additional eight individuals buried in the cemetery, without markers. Most are members of the Adams and Gilbert families, with a Dicks and Stanford also buried there.

You can see the headstone data for the Cemetery here:

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Job Posting: Young Canada Works Historic Places Intern with Heritage NL

Job Posting: Historic Places Intern with Heritage NL

Heritage NL is a non-profit organization that promotes the conservation and awareness of Newfoundland and Labrador's historic places and the safeguarding of its Intangible Cultural Heritage. In addition it operates the Provincial Historic Commemorations Program. Heritage NL is seeking a qualified individual for the position of Historical Researcher to undertake a number of projects that will support the various programs of the foundation. These will include the development of short research papers on historical subjects, the rewriting of descriptive texts on designated properties, documentation of Registered Heritage Structures through field study, archival research, and oral histories.

Eligible candidates should have an undergraduate or graduate degree in a relevant field such as: history; archaeology, folklore; architecture; cultural geography; archaeology or other related field. Candidates must meet eligibility requirements under the YCW program and be a resident of Newfoundland and Labrador (although they may be enrolled in an educational institution outside of the province). The job will be situated at the Heritage NL offices in downtown St. John's. 

This is a 26 week position for 35 hours/week @ $20/hr.

In addition to registering with YCW, a resume and accompanying letter should be submitted to by July 23, 2021.

Note well: Applicant must fit the following criteria:

·       Canadian citizen or a permanent resident, or have refugee status in Canada (non-Canadians holding temporary work visas or awaiting permanent status are not eligible);

·       Legally entitled to work in Canada;

·       Will be between the ages of 16 and 30 years of age at the start of employment;

·       Willing to commit to the full duration of the work assignment;

·       Will not have another full-time job (over 30 hours a week) while employed with the program;

·       Unemployed or underemployed;

·       College, CGEP, or University graduate;

·       Not receiving Employment Insurance (EI) benefits while employed with the program.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Living Heritage Podcast Ep207 Traditional Fence Building in NL


In Newfoundland and Labrador, fences were built for a number of reasons including keeping animals out of gardens and delineating property lines. In this episode of the podcast we learn about traditional fence types, the importance of fences in the cultural landscape of the province, and in particular the way to build a traditional wriggle fence.

We talk with Andrea O’Brien and Dale Jarvis of Heritage NL, and hear audio clips from Kevin Andrews of New Perlican. Andrea O’Brien is the Municipal Outreach Officer and Provincial Registrar, and Dale Jarvis is the Executive Director of Heritage NL. Kevin Andrews of New Perlican learned how to make wriggle fence by helping his uncles and grandfather make their own. He and George Burrage of New Perlican will be leading a wriggle fence making workshop on July 17, 2021. This workshop is a partnership between Heritage NL and Heritage New Perlican and is offered with support of the Labour Market Partnerships program, Department of Immigration, Skills and Labour, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.    

Learn more about the wriggle fence – also known as a wiggling, wriggling, wiggle, or riddle fence – by watching this 1977
Wrigglin' Fence video. This short film, directed by Newfoundland artist Don Wright, follows the Paddy Brothers of Port Kirwan, Newfoundland, as they build a traditional 'wrigglin' fence around their garden. Often built without nails, they are one of the most unique of NL fence types and useful in your garden to support climbing plants, to keep animals out, or for a bit of a wind block.


Living Heritage is about people who are engaged in the heritage and culture sector, from museum professionals and archivists, to tradition bearers and craftspeople - all those who keep history alive at the community level. The show is a partnership between HeritageNL and CHMR Radio.

Theme music is Rythme Gitan by Latché Swing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Victoria Lodge Show and Tell Night, Fortune

July 15th, 2021

7pm at the Fortune Fire Hall

Victoria Lodge #1378 was constituted on July 17, 1871 in Fortune under Master James P. Snook, and predates the Masonic lodge in neighbouring Grand Bank, which was started as an offshoot of Victoria Lodge. Victoria Hall was home to the Masons from the time of its construction circa 1883 until 1996, when membership had declined and Victoria Hall was closed. 

Today, the future of Victoria Hall is uncertain, though we would love to see its history preserved and to find a new use for this historic building. To start things rolling, we are hosting a Show and Tell to share stories and memories of the lodge and its members, and to get your ideas on what you’d like to see happen to the building. 

How can YOU help?

We want you to come with your memories of activities in the hall such as dances, weddings and other events! Did you have wedding photos taken at the hall? Bring them along! Was your father, grandfather, or uncle a member of the Lodge? We’d love to scan any photos of them or any Lodge certificates or plaques you might have!  We’d also love to see any photos you might have of old Masonic parades or funeral marches. 

The staff of Heritage NL will be on site to scan your photos and documents to share online, or to take photos of any artefacts you might want to show off! Whatever you bring with you, you will take home at the end of the night, we’ll only be collecting digital copies! 

Come have a cup of tea and a chat about one of Fortune’s most historic properties.

Free event. Register at: 

Did You Know?

The building was designed by Henry J. Haddon, a respected figure in Fortune’s history. Before the construction of Victoria Hall, meetings were held in his home. Haddon played an instrumental role in the social and cultural development of the community. He initially came to Fortune to pursue a teaching career but resigned in 1863 to become the town’s Justice of the Peace.


Please remember to wear a mask while at the event and to respect social distancing. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

Living Heritage Podcast Ep206 Cemetery Clean Up Tips and Tricks, with Andrea O'Brien and Robyn Lacy

Often well-meaning people clean or “restore” old gravestones in ways that actually damage them or hasten their deterioration by using the wrong methods. In this episode of the podcast we talk with Andrea O’Brien and Robyn Lacy about some tips and tricks for cemetery cleanups including headstone cleaning and repairs. We also learn more about the work happening in the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Cape Broyle including some stories of local characters buried in the cemetery.

Andrea O’Brien is Heritage NL’s Municipal Outreach Officer and Provincial Registrar. A graduate of Memorial University, she has a BA focusing on folklore, history, Newfoundland Studies, and English, a Bachelor of Education, and an MA in folklore. She serves as Heritage NL’s Register of Historic Places, Municipal Outreach Officer, Heritage Places Poster Contest coordinator, Historic Commemorations Program coordinator, and web manager.

Robyn Lacy is a PhD student in Historical Archaeology at Memorial University, studying 17th century burial landscapes in North America. She is also co-director of Black Cat Cemetery Preservation which specializes in historic gravestone and monument conservation and restoration in Canada. Wife and husband team Robyn Lacy and Ian Petty, have a combined 20 years of experience in the heritage sector as archaeologists, gravestone conservators, and cultural heritage technicians.


Check out our two upcoming cemetery workshops: Headstones Cleaning and Basic TLC for Old Headstones. These workshops are offered by Heritage NL with support of the Labour Market Partnerships program, Department of Immigration, Skills and Labour, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.


Living Heritage is about people who are engaged in the heritage and culture sector, from museum professionals and archivists, to tradition bearers and craftspeople - all those who keep history alive at the community level. The show is a partnership between HeritageNL and CHMR Radio.

Theme music is Rythme Gitan by Latché Swing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

So, you want to clean up an old cemetery? A free webinar June 28th


When: Jun 28, 2021, 7:00 PM Newfoundland and Labrador

Topic: So, you want to clean up an old cemetery? 

Is there an old or abandoned cemetery in your community that you want to see fixed up? Does your town, parish group, or heritage committee have questions about how to go about cleaning up a cemetery that is overgrown? Tune in to this free webinar with Heritage NL folklorist Dale Jarvis about where to get started (and the things you should definitely Not Be At!).

There are two ways you can take part in the webinar:

Join on Zoom:

Watch on Facebook Live:

Monday, June 21, 2021

Resources on the history of blacksmithing and forges in Newfoundland and Labrador


"Douglas Pinkston owns the last forge in Brigus." circa 1986

Someone came looking for information on the history of blacksmith's shops, forges, smithies, whatever you wish to call them, so I figured I'd share it here! This is a list-in-progress, so if you come across other online resources that we can share, let me know - 

Green Family Forge, Trinity:

Rendell Forge, Heart's Content

Littlejohn's Forge, Bay Roberts

Pinkston Forge, Brigus interview

Decks Awash article on Pinkston Forge:

Blacksmithing Living Heritage podcast

interview with Ian Gillies, NL Blacksmith

John Rodway House, Baine Harbour