a bite-sized podcast about Newfoundland

The History of NONIA in Newfoundland

Hello and welcome back to NewfoundPod, a bite sized podcast about Newfoundland. I’m your host, Debbie Wiseman. Today I’m going to tell you the story of NONIA.

There’s some construction going on in downtown St. John’s right now, but the store owners want you to know, they are open for business. This got me to thinking about the stores that have been downtown for quite a while, and one of those stores is NONIA. You may know NONIA as just a store that sells beautiful handmade sweaters, but there’s actually a rich history behind it.

NONIA stands for The Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association. The committee was established in 1924 in response to the lack of health services in the outport areas. Four years earlier, another committee had attempted the same kind of outreach, placing six British nurses in outports to act as nurses and midwives, but within 2 years, 4 of those nurses left and part of the committee as well, and they didn’t attempt to replace them. It was also a financial issue; the community was supposed to support their nurse financially, but a lot of the people in the outports were barely getting by themselves and it just wasn’t possible.

Lady Elsie Allardyce, who was the wife of the Governor of Newfoundland at the time, came up with an idea that would work here. She proposed that the women in the outports knit garments that could be sold at a central location that would be run by colunteers. The proceeds, along with a government grant to help, would go to the knitters who would then be able to support their local nurse. Lady Allardyce reorganized the original committee and got things under way.

There were Shetland women who were contributing to their communities in the same way; she arranged for samples of their work, the wool and the instructions to be distributed to Newfoundland outports. The first town to receive them was Fortune Bay. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell also provided a trained weaver, Minnie Pike of Red Bay, Labrador, who was sent to Pouch Cove to teach weaving. By the end of 1923, six of the industrial centres had been established.

In January 1924, a public meeting was held that established the aims and objectives of the organization. In April, NONIA was officially established and Lady Allardyce was the first president and the motto “Born to Serve.”

The nurses employed by NONIA were almost all from England. NONIA’s requirements for their nurses were

“be skilled and highly trained in all aspects of medical care, including midwifery;

have the initiative to work independently of doctors and hospitals;

possess a missionary spirit.”

NONIA worked closely with the London branch of the Overseas Nursing Committee to select nurses for the jobs here. They provided clothing for the nurses and collected second hand clothing to be donated to the outports.

In 1926, Corner Brook opened it’s own branch of NONIA and set up at the Glenmill Inn. They hired a nurse who was stationed at Port Saunders.

NONIA was very successful in the 1920s. The revenue that first year was over $25,000. Nurses were paid $900 per year and over $5000 was paid out to the knitters. NONIA also provided the drugs and supplies needed by the nurses. By 1925, they had 615 workers in 35 communities. By the following year, they were employing 12 nurses. By 1934, their nurses had treated over 83,000 cases.

That was the year the nursing branch of NONIA ceased operations. The government took over control of all nursing services in the province. The 8 remaining NONIA nurses were among the first employed by the new Department of Health and Welfare.

NONIA may have folded then, but Lady Walwyn took over as president in 1935 and aimed to continue the knitting aspect. Under her guidance, the 2 remaining industrial centres expanded to 33 by the end of 1935. Marguerite Beckett was the depot manager from 1931 to 1940 and she made sure that her high standards were followed. She visited all the centres to make sure, and inspected every garment before it could be sold. NONIA became known for it’s excellent craftsmanship all over Newfoundland, Canada and England. The Queen hereself purchased tweed from NONIA that was made into jackets for her daughters and she allowed them to use the words “as supplied to Her Majesty the Queen” on their products. Earlier, two garments from Newfoundland knitters were chosen for newborn princess Elizabeth, the current queen of England. She went on to purchase sweaters for her own children. Many other members of the Royal Family were said to have worn clothes from NONIA.

NONIA continued to expand and entered the wholesale business. They now required a larger storefront, and in 1958 they moved to 286 Water Street, where they remain today. They expanded their line of products to include other Newfoundland and Labrador handicrafts, such as jewellery, toys, wood carvings, papercrafts and so much more. Next year will mark their 100th anniversary and I’m excited to see what they have planned.

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’ll be back next week with another episode. Talk to you then!