Thomas Raddall Selected Correspondence: An Electronic Edition

About the electronic version

Copyright 2000. Dalhousie University.

PRINT SOURCE: Thomas Raddall Fonds, Correspondence. From Thomas Raddall to Richard O. Allen, 23 November 1977. MS-2-202 37.6.

Subject Headings


T. H. Raddall responds to a letter from a former wireless operator, Richard O. Allen, who had just read Raddall's 1976 memoir. Raddall comments on shared memories of the wireless service in the 1920s, especially on Sable Island, how he fictionalized actual events on Sable Island for his novel, The Nymph and the Lamp, and his views on the lifestyle, personality and literary work of Charles G. D. Roberts.

November 23, 1977

Mr. R.O.Allen,
68 Belmont Street,
Toronto, Ontario.

Dear Mr. Allen:
     Thank you for another interesting letter, for the
Xerox copies of our 1951 correspondence, and of Hood's letters.

You are right in your belief that I modeled "Matt Carney" on Jim
Hood. As I pointed out in my memoir without naming him, I sub-
tracted from and added to the actual man in order to shape him
for my tale. So it was with the real people whom I called "Isabel"
and "Skane," who in actual life never met each other and never set
foot on Sable Island. The accidental shooting of a chief operator's
wife, and the problems of keeping her alive and then getting her
away to a ship, occurred on a Labrador station after I left the
service. I learned about it from an operator who was present at
the time, and when I wrote The Nymph and The Lamp the incident
fell into place on "Marina Island".

When I was at VCT1 I heard one of the lifeboatmen yarning about the
burning of the wireless station in 1919. According to him, someone
at Main Station2 noticed the glare and all hands grabbed buckets
and hurried to the scene. They found the wireless shack well
alight, and the operators drawing gasoline from a drum on the
nearby dune and running down and hurling it on what remained of
the station. Excepting Hood, who stood grim and aloof. The others
were drunk and jubilant. This yarn may have been a snide invention
(there was no love between the operators and most of the Main
Station gang in my time) but I do know that some small drums or tins
of alcohol, salvaged from the Plataea earlier that year, had been
stashed away for local consumption by all hands on the island. They
used it to fortify their home-brewed beer. The result must have
been liquid dynamite.

Hood was well regarded by Arcon3, and so they kept him on the pay-
roll when they let the others go; but as he said to you in one of
his letters, he soon quitted the Marconi service himself and went
away to the States. From your letter to me I can see that you had
mixed feelings about Hood (you mention "lasting bitterness") but
that you found his virtues greater than his faults.

Jack Gregoire was still in charge of East Light when I was there
in 1921-22. Jim Horne kept West Light. Walter Blank had the patrol
post at the west end of the salt lake or lagoon, and Reuben Naugle
had the post between Blank's and East Light.

- 2 -

About Charles G.D.Roberts. There is plenty of testimony about his
Jekyll-and-Hyde personality where attractive women were concerned.
Some people saw only the poet, some the satyr, but many were able
to see both. The strange thing is that until the age of 35 or so
he seems to have been content with the simple life of a comfortably
married professor in the rustic surroundings of Windsor, N.S.
It was there that he wrote his best verse and established the
reputation that made him the vates sacer of Canadian literature
in his time. Then, suddenly, he flitted away to New York, and soon
after that to Europe, where for thirty years he revelled in
la vie Bohème.

Andrew and Tully Merkel, with whom he stayed nearly a whole winter
after the prodigal's return to Canada, both described him as
"utterly charming". Yet Tully confessed that she never dared to
leave Roberts alone in the house with her maid. She took the maid
with her. And Merkel himself observed that Roberts wrote best about
animals and scenery because his view of humans was so shallow.
The president of King's College in the 1920's used to refer to
Roberts as "C.G.I.T.Roberts" -- an allusion to the teenage groups
in church societies known officially as the Canadian Girls In

In her (1943) biography5 Elsie Pomeroy saw only the poet, and her
book was adulatory from start to finish. A very plain spinster, she was
not exposed to Charles's other side. His brother Theodore, who knew
all about it, once went through Merkel's copy of the Pomeroy book,6
pencilling gleeful comments in the margins and adding episodes
that Elsie missed. Merkel showed it to me afterwards in the house
at 50 South Park Street. I wonder what became of it after Merkel's
death. It would be priceless nowadays.

All that Roberts wrote after his sudden metamorphosis at 35 was
a farrago of prose and verse, mostly rubbish except his nature
tales. As a youth and in his twenties he had roamed the woods and
streams of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and he was a good observer.
Even so, I seem to recall a story of his about Grizzly bears in
the Rockies, written at a time when he had never been west of
Ontario, and had seen grizzlies nowhere but in the London Zoo.

Well, enough of that. I'm glad you have enjoyed my reminiscences.
I've had several letters from old-time brasspounders in the Can-
adian sea and land service, and I had a phone call from Mike Walsh,
whom I saw last on the beach at Sable Island in 1922. He is now
retired at North Sydney.
Best wishes,


1. THR uses the international telegraphers' code for Sable Island.

2. Here, and further on in the fifth paragraph, THR refers to locations on Sable Island.

3. THR is referring to Canadian Marconi headquarters in Montreal, code-named ARCON.

4. The Presidents of King's College in the 1920s were the Rev. T. S. Boyle (1916-1924) and the Rev. A. H. Moore (1924-1937). THR is probably referring to the latter, known to have been a friend of Roberts.

5. Elsie May Pomeroy, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: A Biography (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1943).

6. This book is now in the library of the University of King's College and was acquired in 1952 in a collection of books and papers left to King's in Merkel's estate.

7. A brass-pounder is a telegrapher or amateur radio operator, so-called because the sending keys are made of brass. New Dictionary of American Slang (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).