How Peter Pan Came to Be in Bowring Park
In the west end of St. John's, the capital city of Newfoundland Labrador, is a beautiful, 200 acre public park. It was given to the city and its residents in 1911 by Bowring Brothers Ltd., a successful shipping and trading company, to commemorate their 100th anniversary of doing business in the province. The company purchased a 50 acre piece of farmland in the Waterford Valley known as Rae Island Farm, which would be transformed into Bowring Park.
Work on the park began in 1912. Though the original construction was not completed until 1921 (at which time Bowring Brothers turned the park over to the City of St. John's), it was officially opened on July 15, 1914, in a special ceremony presided over by the Duke of Connaught.
Over the 100 plus years since its official opening, the park has continued to be developed, with increased recreational facilities, new plants and flowers, bridges, monuments, and walking trails. It has also been expanded, by the addition of adjacent lands purchased by the by the city of St. John's for this purpose, to its current 200 acres.
Just inside the park's east gate, on the west bank of the "Duck Pond," stands the Peter Pan monument. It shows an always youthful Peter at the top, playing his flute, while fairies and woodland creatures scamper toward him, listening to the music. This statue has been, since its unveiling in 1925, one of the most popular and beloved features of the park. Just how it came to be there is the story of a tragedy at sea, and a grandfather's struggle to come to terms with the loss of a beloved granddaughter, and honor her memory.
Tragedy at Sea
On February 23, 1918, John Shannon Munn, the stepson of Sir Edgar Bowring, one of the partners in Bowring Brothers Ltd., along with his 4 year old daughter Betty, Sir Edgar's granddaughter, boarded the S.S. Florizel at St. John's, bound for Halifax. There they were to meet up with Mrs. Munn, and continue on a journey south, where, due to Mrs. Munn's ill health, they were to spend the remainder of that winter. Tragically, the ship never reached Halifax.
During the night of the 23rd the Florizel met with a terrible storm off Newfoundland's southern shore. High winds buffeted the ship as it was tossed on the waves. Heavy fog reduced visibility to nearly zero. The ravages of the storm also wreaked havoc with the ships equipment. The crew was confused and disoriented, unsure of their location. In the early hours of the morning of February 24, 1918, the ship was crashed upon the rocks off Cappahayden.
An inquiry later determined that the captain, William Martin, had failed to take soundings, and that had he done so the crew would have known the correct location of the ship, and would most likely have saved it from being wrecked.
Of the 138 passengers and crew that were on board the Florizel 94 perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Miraculously 44 were rescued, after spending 27 hours in the frigid cold, being battered by the relentless sea. Sadly, John Munn and his beautiful little daughter, Betty, were among those that did not survive.
In Memory of Betty Munn
Sir Edgar Bowring was crushed by the loss of the little granddaughter that he had loved so dearly. He wanted to do something special to honor her memory, so he commissioned a renowned sculptor, Sir George Frampton, to create the Peter Pan memorial. The statue was to be an exact copy of the one he had sculpted for London's Kensington Garden's.
On August 29, 1925, as part of a special Children's Day celebration, the Peter Pan monument was unveiled. Several dignitaries, including the sculptor himself, were present for the ceremony, as were more than 3000 children. The then mayor of St. John's, Tasker Cook, gave a brief speech, and, addressing the children, said of the statue: "learn to know him and love him with all your hearts."
Seventy-five years later, on August 29, 2000, the Bowring Park Foundation began the annual Peter Pan Festival, a delightful, one day, family event which included food, musical and theatrical performances, and other family events to commemorate the anniversary of the unveiling. The festival, though no longer active, was successful for several years. Festival or no, this wonderful statue has delighted children and adults alike for nearly 100 years, and will continue to do so for many more years to come. And though it is meant to bring joy to all those who go to see it, it is important to remember why it is there.
On one side of the statue's pedestal is the inscription, "Presented to the children of Newfoundland by Sir Edgar R. Bowring, in memory of a dear little girl who loved the park." On the opposite side it says simply, "Betty Munn."
Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, will always stand as a fitting memorial to a little girl who never got the chance to.
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© 2017 Stephen Barnes