The Swanskin Seafarers late-late show


Roger Guttridge reports on a twilight event at Sturminster Newton Mill that was a spectacular end to a four-month project with a Newfoundland community.

As bats criss-crossed overhead and bemused swans looked on from the river, more than 50 people enjoyed a late, late show that included live music and a shadow puppet film projected on to a screen on the front wall of the mill.
This twilight culmination of the four-month Swanskin Seafarers of Sturminster project, that has brought together communities on both sides of the Atlantic, showcased the spectacular results at the mill.Elliott Wagner-Hale, a Year 9 student at Sturminster Newton High School, was among several speakers who described the project, which focused particularly on the Blackmore Vale’s historic connections with Twillingate (population 2,000) on the remote north coast of Newfoundland.

Collapse of an industry
Thirty Sturminster students and a group at the JM Olds Collegiate in Twillingate researched various aspects of the connection, which came about after the Blackmore Vale’s swanskin cloth trade collapsed in the early 1800s.
A water-powered fulling mill which adjoined Sturminster’s corn mill was demolished about the same time, after serving the trade for 200 years.
North Dorset’s swanskin merchants solved the resulting economic problems by going directly into Newfoundland’s cod-fishing trade and developing Twillingate and several other communities. Their employees migrated in large numbers to work in the fisheries.
It is estimated that 92 per cent of Twillingate’s ancestors came from Dorset – and about half of those from the Blackmore Vale.
Many of their descendants today still speak with a Dorset accent and traditional Dorset surnames are commonplace.

Discovery of swanskin
This project inspired many of the Twillingate students to research their family trees after discovering that their ancestors came from Dorset.
They also enjoyed a school trip to Change Islands (population 208), where a pair of swanskin mittens has turned up in a private museum. These are the world’s only known surviving swanskin garments, and they came to light as a direct result of the Swanskin Seafarers of Sturminster project.
At Sturminster, students investigated the lives of children who were apprenticed to the sea trade and ended up in Newfoundland.
Children in both schools also contributed to the shadow puppet film, organised by Dorset-based arts organisation, Emerald Ant, the project leaders (see above).
The film tells the story of Sturminster’s Twillingate connection in a humorous and entertaining way.
As project leaders waited for darkness, to show the film, four members of the New Scorpion Band entertained the crowd with traditional Dorset folk music and sea shanties.
Elliott unveiled a new information board describing the mill’s 1,000-year history and there were tours of the mill. Visitors were able to see the new exhibition boards that include the story of a Twillingate student’s Sturminster ancestors, extracts from the Newman merchant letters, photographs of students and Newfoundland ponies (descended from New Forest, Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies), ledger entries, quotes from a podcast and a short film of Change Islands museum owner Peter Porter with his mittens.
The celebration was hosted by Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust and the High School.
The Swanskin Seafarers project was funded by the Association of Independent Museums.


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