The Mysterious, Fabled “Springheel Jack”
Robert C. Parsons
|A man once showed up in Fleur De Lys claiming he could out jump anyone around. It was a challenge not to be taken lightly. Someone would have to defeat this strange boaster. The event could have been a high jump, but in this case he challenged anyone in the town to a broad jump – distance over the ground either from a running or a standing start. The stranger is only known today by his nickname – Springheel (or Spring Hill) Jack.The legends of Springheel Jack appear occasionally in Newfoundland tales. Author and songwriter Otto Kelland, who composed the well-known folk song “Let Me Fish off Cape St. Mary’s”, knew about him and wrote a story of Springheel’s exploits in his book “Newfoundland Stories: Strange and Curious.” Springheel put in a surprise athletic appearance in St. John’s and was seen jumping from rooftop to rooftop on Merrymeeting Road. Horror writer Steven King of Maine mentions the fabled Springheel in his short story “Strawberry Spring.” No one seemed to know who this mysterious character was, where he came from or why he could leap so springingly.
Sporting events get lots of publicity today – the Olympics of summer and winter, World Cups, Stanley, Davis, Grey Cups, bonspiels, matches and scores of other international challenges. Games and contests are closely followed all over the world. But what of Newfoundland about one hundred years ago? Did our hardy pioneers have the time and the skill and would anyone in Fleur De Lys take up Springheel’s challenge?
The well protected harbour of Fleur De Lys, the most northerly community on Newfoundland’s Baie Verte Peninsula, was first established as a French fishing station near the prolific grounds called Petite Nord. In the harbour there’s a striking rock formation over eight hundred feet high which has three hummocks or hills resembling a fleur de lis or lys, a three-leafed plant and the national symbol of France. Fleur De Lys, as one of forty French fishing stations along Newfoundland’s French shore, rose in prominence. In 1706 the station had been the site of a clash between French and English interests. The Falkland, the Nonsuch and the Medway, all British warships, had been dispatched to the Petit Nord to protect British interests on petition of the “inhabitants of St. John’s.” Off Fleur De Lys harbour they exchanged fire with Le Duc d’Orleans, a ship of 30 guns and 110 men from St. Malo. Between 1800 and 1850, a growing need to protect the interests of the French fishery year round was met in the hiring of gardiens for Fleur de Lys. The French presence at Fleur de Lys continued on mostly friendly terms, until the 1880s when English settlers predominated. Today some of the well-established family names in the town of 300 people are Walsh, Shea, Shelley, Traverse, Lewis and Barrett.
And what does all of this have to do with a jumping contest? On one old French map of Fleur De Lys there’s a spot marked in French which roughly translates into English – The Jumping Place. According to local lore, this field or area (located today near Gordon Lewis’ land on Harbour View Road) is where young people gathered to pass leisure time, specifically in feats of athletic ability. It was there Springheel Jack’s jumping contest would take place.
The local gentleman who rose to the occasion was none other than Edward “Ned” Barrett of Fleur De Lys. Ned was one of the best. Perhaps that’s why Springheel Jack showed up; maybe he heard just how good Ned Barrett was and wanted to take him on in a jump or two. It was known in the area that Ned, as a teenager and then as a young man, would rather leap over a fence than go through the gate. He was also known to line up a dozen fish barrels and with both feet together, hop in and out of each barrel in the line.
Another time while berry picking on Pigeon Island near Fleur De Lys, Ned’s boat became untied and drifted to the mainland side of the tickle. Not wanting to get wet that day he leaped from a standing position, as there was no room to run, and landed on the cuddy of his boat on the other side – a distance of about eighteen feet.
On the day of the contest Ned Barrett, not knowing the ability of Springheel Jack, jumped first in a broad jump. The mysterious challenger beat him. The second jump would be the final one and a conclusive statement of who was the best.
To everyone’s surprise – and no doubt most of Fleur De Lys’ folk were there to watch – Ned asked, “Mr. Springheel, how much do you weigh?”
When he learned Springheel was ten pound heavier, Ned said, “I’ll carry two rocks, one in each pocket, to make our weigh even. But this time you go first.” Springheel’s broad jump from a running or standing start was good, but on that day Ned Barrett cleared the former’s mark by a wide margin, won the challenge and celebrated with the good people of Fleur De Lys.
The mysterious Springheel Jack slunk away with his tail between his legs; perhaps he took on no more human challenges after that and went to St. John’s leaping roof to roof. Maybe he went back home, perhaps to Springhill, Nova Scotia, to jump never no more.
But the fate of Ned Barrett, sadly, is well known. According the story passed on by the late John T. Barrett to his son Kevin, Ned was lost at sea in the area of the Flemish Cap while a sailor on the schooner Evelyn. He rose before eight, washed, shaved and prepared to take his turn at the wheel. There were no wheelhouses in those days, so Ned lashed himself to the wheel as was the custom during storms on the high seas.
A short time later a rogue wave swept the deck. Another man working up in the rigging clung on, but the force of hundreds of pounds of water took the wheel from its iron fastenings and carried it and Ned overboard. As reported by the captain and crew who rushed on deck when the alarm sounded, Ned Barrett freed himself from the ropes and the heavy wheel which was dragging him under.
Being a superb athlete, the young man was a strong swimmer and he was visible for a long time from the Evelyn. His shipmates did everything possible to save Ned – throwing ropes with barrels attached hoping he could reach and cling on, but it was not to be. The schooner was running out of control with no steerage and it would be impossible to launch a lifeboat in the high winds and seas.
The captain of the Evelyn spoke highly of Ned Barrett saying Newfoundland could not produce a more able seaman and it was a great loss. The exact date of his death is not clear, except it was before 1913, the year schooner Evelyn was wrecked at Ferryland. But the memory of Ned lives on, especially of the day he defeated Springheel Jack at the Jumping Place at Fleur De Lys.