Wessex – The Name
Wessex (West Saxony) was the name of an old Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in southwestern England. In the 19th century author Thomas Hardy used a fictionalised Wessex as the setting for many of his novels, adopting his friend and dialect poet William Barnes’ term Wessex for their home county of Dorset and neighbouring counties in the south and west of England. Barnes and Hardy both recognised in Wessex a region with a distinctive cultural history and identity. The Wessex of Barnes and Hardy defines very accurately the demographic and cultural origins of our English ancestry.
Our Wessex Roots – The Raw Facts
Beginning in the early 17th century, immigrants from the West of England (mainly from Wessex) began to settle in Newfoundland. By the early 1800s they had founded numerous fishing villages and towns and comprised about 60 percent of the resident population. The Wessex component was the largest ethno-European group to settle Newfoundland and Labrador. Most of these immigrants (80-85%) originated in the counties of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset, with notable additions from the adjacent counties of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and Cornwall. The main embarkation ports were Bristol (whence John Cabot sailed in 1497 to discover the ‘new founde land’ and its prolific cod stocks; and whence John Guy founded the first English colony in Canada at Cupids in 1610), and later Poole, Dartmouth, Teignmouth, Plymouth, and Topsham. By far the largest numbers sailed out of Poole. Inland towns throughout the Wessex region including Newton Abbot, Ashburton, Totnes and Exeter in Devonshire, Wimborne Minster, Blandford Forum, Bridport, Sturminster Newton, Shaftesbury and Sherborne in Dorsetshire, Yeovil, Crewkerne and Wincanton in Somerset, and Ringwood and Christchurch in Hampshire represent the origins of many Newfoundland families. Other forbears came from rural farming villages. These place-origins were all part of the recruiting hinterlands of ports involved in the transatlantic migratory fishery and Newfoundland trade carried on from West of England ports for over three centuries.
Wessex folk settled all around our coasts but were most prominent in two regions: the Northeast Coast (from around Brigus in Conception Bay north to White Bay), which in ethno-cultural terms can be called Wessex North; and the South Coast (Placentia Bay west to Bay St. George) or Wessex South. English migrants mainly from Wessex but also from Liverpool and London formed a significant percentage (next to the Irish) in populating St. John’s and its region.