This blog post was written by Alison Batstone, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Alison!
Above is a photo taken of the Peter Pan Statue located in Bowring Park, St. John’s NL. The statue is centered in the picture, a bronze sculpture of children, animals and plants swirling around a rock perch as Peter stands atop playing flute; most characters, including Peter, are wearing small shifts as clothing. The statue sits on a stone walkway, and is framed by a duck pond and leafy trees. It is autumn, and green, orange and yellow leaves cover the grass and stones behind the monument. (Branes, 2020).
Afternoon light bounces playfully off the greening angle of a rabbit’s sculpted paw as I watch my little cousin Maeve find footholds amongst the bronze figures. She and I are spending a sunny day at the park while her mother is attending a school meeting, and after feeding the ducks and playing on the swings, she is drawn to the statue of the lost boys. As she climbs I stand below, ready to catch her should she slip, and remembering countless afternoons of myself and my little sister engaging in a similar effort to reach the top.
Peter has watched over the duck pond since before my great-grandmother’s birth, and as Maeve giggles to herself I read the simple dedication on the statue’s side: “Presented to the children of Newfoundland by Sir Edgar R. Bowring, in memory of a dear little girl who loved the park”. When Maeve slips down the statue to chase a fleeing crow, I decide to look more closely at the characters and faces of the sculpture. Above the head of a smiling girl is inscribed “Betty Munn”, and I wonder, 95 years after the statue’s unveiling, who she is (Barnes, 2020).
John and Betty Munn, stepson and granddaughter to Sir Edgar R. Bowring, board the tragically doomed SS Florizel bound for Halifax from St. John’s on February 23rd, 1918 (Shavel, 2009). The ship was met with an unpredicted storm off the coast of Newfoundland in the late hours of the 23rd, disorienting the crew and pushing them off course (Barnes, 2020). Once out of the storm’s radius, the ship’s navigators were unable to locate their position, and it was later discovered that the captain, William Martin, had failed to take proper surroundings and thus misinformed the navigators (Barnes, 2020). Due to the captain’s error, the ship crashed against the rocky outcroppings of Cappahayden, NL in the early morning of February 24th, resulting in the death of 94 crew and passengers (Barnes, 2020). Of the ship’s complement, 44 were rescued after 27 hours in the frigid Atlantic waters, not among them John and Betty Munn, who perished in the initial crash (Shavel, 2009).
Devastated by the loss of his beloved son and 4 year old granddaughter, Edgar Bowring commissioned a replica of the Peter Pan statue that sits in Kensington Gardens by the original sculptor George Frampton (Shavel, 2009; Macdonald, 2015). According to interviews and statements from Frampton, Bowring wanted the statue to represent youthfulness and play, imagining the memorial as being a space for children to enjoy themselves in Betty’s honour (Shavel, 2009; Barnes 2020). Bowring Park had previously been donated to the town by Bowring Inc. in honour of their 100 year anniversary, and on August 29th, 1925 Peter Pan was unveiled by Bowring and Frampton to friends, relatives, and nearly 3000 children gathered to remember a little girl who loved the park (Sharvel, 2009).
How we Memorialize
Edgar Bowring’s story is not a rare one for an island steeped in tragedies of life lost at sea. Betty Munn has been memorialized forever in a beautiful statue, and by extent it is in her memory that children like Maeve play upon the flutists perch, but for 93 others, including her father, there is little to memorialize their lives and deaths. The Admiralty House has a small display dedicated to the SS Florizel victims, collecting data on their grave sites and personal histories, however this exhibit is nearly all that memorializes the wreck (VOCM News, 2020). Why do we remember Betty and not the other victims? In this case, due to Betty’s privileged status in life as an upper-class child, she is given a privileged position in the world of the living after her death. It could also be argued that because we remember Betty we remember through her the other victims of this awful tragedy, and that perhaps Peter’s endless song is for all those who perished on the SS Florizel that chilly February morning.
A community’s shared knowledge is a powerful tool for immortalizing those that are no longer with us, and to implement a monument in a community’s landscape is to imprint it into the cultural landscape. Betty’s statue stands as a reminder of youth and innocence, and gives these gifts to other children who play upon its features. It is often said that memorializing the dead is done only for the living, and if this is so then Betty’s life has affected thousands of living souls without intending to. Perhaps that is the legacy we should remember all of the SS Florizel victims by; the gift of youth on cold October evenings, and a reminder of why we should treasure it.
Barnes, Stephen. “How Peter Pan Came to Be in Bowring Park”. Wander Wisdom, February 17th 2020. https://wanderwisdom.com/travel-destinations/In-Memory-of-a-Little-Girl-How-Peter-Pan-Came-to-be-in-Bowring-Park
Shavel, Gil. “History of Bowring Park”. Bowring Park History, updated by Stephanie Dunn, 2009, pg.18-19. http://www.bowringpark.com/usr/documents/history_of_bowringpark.pdf
MacDonald, Andrea. “… the History Behind Bowring Park’s Peter Pan Statue?” Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, February 23rd 2015. https://www.historicsites.ca/blog/2015/2/23/the-history-behind-bowering-parks-peter-pan-statue
VOCM News. “Admiralty House Sets Out to Document Burial Sites of Those On Board the Florizel”VOCM News, August 10th 2020. https://vocm.com/2020/08/10/admiralty-house-florizel/