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The Foresters’ Scribe

ISER Books publishes story of First World War foresters


By Ashley Sheppard

When Dr. Ursula Kelly stumbled upon the letters of Sgt. John A. Barrett, she knew there was a story to be told.

The Foresters’ Scribe, now available from ISER Books, details the lifeways of Newfoundland men who answered the call to cut timber overseas during the First World War.

Below is a video that contains an excerpt from The Foresters’ Scribe.

The letters of Regimental Quartermaster Sgt. Barrett of the Newfoundland Forestry Companies, a former journalist who offers vivid accounts of his life and work through his writing, have been compiled and contextualized to animate the story of these soldiers during their time at Dunkeld and Kenmore, Perthshire, Scotland.

“I wanted to put the letters in context,” explained Dr. Kelly. “Because the story of the First World War foresters hadn’t been comprehensively told, I wanted to take that opportunity to present its story from formation to demobilization and to capture some of the individual experiences, as well.”

Finding the foresters’ scribe

In 2012 Dr. Kelly, along with Dr. Meghan Forsyth, undertook a CD project that unearthed the songs of woods workers in Newfoundland and Labrador titled Mentioned in Song (MMaP).

Through their exploration of archival recordings, they uncovered more than the initial project could contain, extending their research to the book, The Music of Our Burnished Axes, the first comprehensive collection of musical compositions written by, for, and about 20th-century woods workers in Newfoundland and Labrador (ISER Books, 2018).

In doing so, Dr. Kelly says, “It became clear that there were some stories that needed to be pulled out, if you will, and told with more focus and in greater depth.”

Shaping remembrance

To promote public education around a group that had not been well remembered, Dr. Kelly and Dr. Forsyth produced a travelling exhibit on the Newfoundland foresters. The exhibit celebrated the foresters who served in the U.K., mostly in Scotland, in both the First and Second World Wars.

Loading lumber for Aberfeldy.
Photo: Submitted

It was through this project she realized how very little was written about the First World War foresters — and that she could help better shape public remembrance by providing a comprehensive history, using the voice of one of the forestry companies’ own.

Sgt. Barrett’s letters include tribute songs and poems, local history and lore and a range of accounts from toil and travel to marriages and misfortunes and are given insightful context by Dr. Kelly’s text.

Family connections

It is important to remember the family connections that were crucial to the creation of The Foresters’ Scribe.

Dr. Kelly first met Sgt. Barrett’s daughter through the travelling exhibit, where she had given her a photo of her father and mother, who had met and married in Scotland.

Dr. Ursula Kelly
Photo: Submitted

When Dr. Kelly decided to go ahead with this project, it was vital for her to get permission from the family. They generously gave her their blessing and went on to play an instrumental role in the research process.

“That’s really been one of the great gifts of the research overall,” said Dr. Kelly. “The connections with families, their enthusiasm for the work and the everlasting love that you see expressed about their ancestors. So, it’s really a wonderful thing because they want to see these events and these stories told and remembered. It’s very poignant.”

Ursula A. Kelly is a John Lewis Paton Distinguished University Professor at Memorial University whose research is interdisciplinary and within the areas of cultural studies and critical education. The Foresters’ Scribe is published by ISER Books. For more information, visit the website.

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