The Swanskin Seafarers of Sturminster

19th July 2022

A story collaboration between Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust, Sturminster Newton High School, J M Olds Collegiate in Newfoundland, and Emerald Ant, through shadows and voices we tell the story of how Dorset people emigrated to Newfoundland in 1600 – 1800, following real life characters George Penny and Thomas Adams.

The story emerged through a process of research carried out by Year 9 students at Sturminster Newton High School and at J M Olds Collegiate, Twillingate, Newfoundland. Students exchanged their findings through zoom meetings run by Emerald Ant, supported by local historians, teachers, artists and volunteers at Sturminster Newton Mill. Groups visited historical archives, museums, graveyards and Stur Mill to piece the story together. A student in Twillingate discovered that her ancestor Thomas Adams was from Sturminster. The groups worked with us artists to create shadow puppets and music. The film was finally put together by artist Thomas Hughes.

The Project

March 2022

This project engages two schools, Sturminster Newton High School in North Dorset, and J M Olds Collegiate in Twillingate, Newfoundland, in exploring their common histories. Between the 1600s and 1840s people from Sturminster Newton emigrated to Newfoundland to begin new lives in the cod fishing industry. The starting point of our story is Sturminster Newton Mill, where a thick, woollen, waterproof cloth called Swanskin was made. This was taken to Newfoundland to clothe the fishing community.

Swanskin travelled from Sturminster Newton to Poole Harbour, and was then put on boats that stopped at Waterford in Ireland before taking the long journey across the Atlantic. Over 3700 km / 2300 miles was travelled.

Around 25 Year 9 students are involved in this project and are using it as part of history curriculum. We have discovered that students at both schools have the same family names, and swanskin items still exist in Newfoundland. Our project is working with local historians, teachers and students, to uncover the stories of those that emigrated. Students will work to produce information panels for Sturminster Newton Mill and Museum. They will then pass on their stories to Emerald Ant, who will work with young artists to make a shadow film.

To start the project, on March 21st students from Sturminster Newton High School visited Sturminster Mill, here are some video clips they made to share with their new correspondents.

The River Stour and Sturminster Mill on a cold March day. Milling has taken place on this site for over 1000 years. Nowadays flour is milled here. Find out more about the mill here

Mechanics of the Mill…

Meanwhile in Newfoundland

Some swanskin mittens have been found in Peter Porter’s Museum, The Olde Shoppe, on Change Island. We are sure these were made at Sturminster Mill. Here is Peter presenting the special mitts!

Through March and April students and historians are meeting on zoom to share their discoveries. This page documents our findings as we go.

June 7th – Here is a podcast by CBC News in Twillingate. It shows how the project is working with teenagers in Newfoundland:

The project is funded by AIM, the Association of Independent Museums. Project Partners include Emerald Ant, Sturminster Newton Mill, Dorset History Centre.