Jane’s Walk: Prescott Street

Submitted by: Bob Hallett
May 31, 2021

Prescott Street might not be the steepest street in St. John’s, (there are a lot of contenders), but it often feels like it. Going down it reminds me of hitting that last snake in a game of Snakes and Ladders, number 99, the big long one everyone hates, the one that sends you weeping with frustration all the way back to the first square. Children hate landing on that square, they take it personally, and the game ends in sulking and tears. So it is with the street itself.  Going down it is a little scary, and climbing to the top a lot of effort for a meager reward.

When the first sailors stopped in St. John’s, this hill featured a babbling brook and a series of waterfalls; Keen’s Brook was forced into culverts hundreds of years ago, but you can still follow the river’s course down the precipice. The road goes right from the top of the old city to the bottom, in a long dramatic curve, and ends right on the edge of the wharf, where the old river pours into the harbour. If you were of a melancholy nature, it would indeed present an inviting prospect. One can imagine the last few moments of a suicidal drive, flying through intersections, dogs and old ladies leaping out of the way, with a spectacular ‘Thelma and Louise’ flight into the drink at the end. Or not. More often, my experience of this street has been less exciting.

Prescott Street is so steep it hurts your legs when you walk down it – you have to lean backwards, like a some sort of Dr. Seuss character, your head back, your arms swinging, a living St. John’s cartoon.  In the winter it’s so dangerous it’s the first street the salt trucks attack; new drivers approach it with trepidation, afraid even a soft touch of the accelerator will send them plunging into the muddy harbour. Driving up the hill can be a challenge. The first time I ever went through the light at Duckworth on a standard transmission I popped the clutch and rolled backwards for thirty feet. Only the hand-brake saved me from disaster. As a very young child, I often watched my father marching down the hill with the CLB band; in those days it was the route from the Sergeant’s Memorial to the War Memorial. There was an apocalyptic tale about the bass drummer dropping his instrument at the top of the hill, whereupon it bounded out of control down to the docks, scattering bandsmen and cadets in front of it. While probably fiction, it was a great image, and I secretly hoped at every Armistice Day parade to see it repeated.

Walking up the hill is even worse. No matter what the pace, you are puffing and blowing like a whale, and even the healthiest pedestrian can feel their heart pounding dangerously by the time they get to the very top. More often than not it’s a dreary hike, with the wind in your face, and the cold mist poking under your coat, and whipping at your legs, biting at your ears.

I’m inclined to stop at Number 62, just at the corner of Bond Street, more than halfway up the hill. There used to be a store just across the street, when I lived nearby I would often pop in for beer and smokes. The girls who worked there were some of the crookedest and most sullen young ladies I have encountered anywhere; they hated the store, the job and the customers in equal measure. Almost the entire sales base of the place was Black Horse beer, stale potato chips, Players smokes and lottery tickets, so expectations were always low, and yet they treated their clients with an air of contempt that would not have been out of place on the Rue Saint-Honore in Paris. Dripping in makeup, they were always particularly mean to the adolescent boys who came in to buy candy and snoop through the Playboys. Whenever I went in there I would always attempt a bit of repartee, just to see them sneer and sniff back at me. From such small moments is entertainment born.

A blue house stands at 62 Prescott Street.
62 Prescott Street, former home of Johnny Burke, a man locally known as the ‘Bard of Prescott Street’.

The houses across the street have gentrified a bit since those days. Until the 1930s number 62 was the home of one Johnny Burke, a man locally canonized as the ‘Bard of Prescott Street’. His descendants don’t live there anymore – Burke was a lifelong bachelor, and shared the house with his spinster sister – so there is no point knocking on the door. It’s a nice place though, a restored Victorian, with a dandy view of the narrows out the back. This whole neighbourhood is pretty calm today. Too bad, in Burke’s days this was a happening spot. A musician, poet, playwright, theatrical producer, occasional office clerk, and all around townie character, Burke is best remembered for his songs. Like other popular balladeers of the day, he had them published on a sheet or two of paper, and then hired young cornerboys to peddle them on the streets for a few cents a copy. In an era when musical entertainment was something you did at home, and provided yourself, new material was a valuable commodity. Burke had a way with words, and while he was no composer, the common tunes he chose for his songs were very complimentary. A lot of his songs went into the oral tradition and stayed there. This is no small victory. Just think – how many songs do you know all the words to? After ‘Happy Birthday’ and a few Xmas carols, most people’s repertoire gets pretty thin. Burke wrote so well dozen of his songs are still alive in Newfoundland today, eighty years after they were first performed, and dozens more went into oral circulation, at least for a while. Songs have to be really good for people to remember them for their own sake.

Johnnny Burke
The late Johnny Burke, “Bard of Prescott Street”

He wrote a lot of sentimental stuff, but he also had a great ear for comedy and satire. The Kelligrew’s Soiree (or soir-EE, as it is pronounced hereabouts) is about a party, one full of the high and mighty of his day, complete with egos ripe for Burke’s sharp satirical pen. Unfortunately, the song has appeared in too many children’s classroom song books, tarnishing its poetry a little, but if you listen to it you can reclaim a little of his cynical bite. Excursion Around the Bay was a Great Big Sea staple for a decade and a half, and has largely been reduced to its chorus, but when you read the words you can capture a bit of his bite. Burke was poking fun at the popular townie tradition of the day trip into the rural hinterland, and everyone of his listeners would have gotten the joke. He also wrote plays, operettas and skits, and was renowned for hosting entertaining afternoons at his house, when friends and community leaders would gather to be regaled by his songs and comedy routines. In a town where sharp wit has always been highly prized, Burke was a standout.

For a man who wrote dozens of songs, several plays, countless poems, and no doubt uttered thousands of memorable witticisms, we know surprisingly little about Mr. Burke. His life covered a good 70 years, and his work is still widely regarded; and with the exception of one blurry photo,  we hardly even know what he looked like. His words have been his memorial, and a fine one at that.

Whatever, his street is much the same. The climb up from the harbour was no easier in 1920 than it is today. And no doubt a student of comedy like Burke enjoyed sitting by the window in his parlor on an icy February day, when all and sundry slipped and slid up and down its treacherous length. Such indignities would have provided rich fodder for his sharp pen.  And in a time when history is so far away, all you have to do to recreate his experience is walk down Prescott Street. The view has changed, but St. John’s has no shortage of characters and egos awaiting satirical puncture.

Or if you really want to have a ‘Snakes and Ladders’ experience, make the trip in the manner of the brave and the bold among the current St. John’s generation of cornerboys – do it on a skateboard.