The Newfoundland cod fishery trade was important to Newton Abbot for centuries. The earliest record of Devon involvement seem to be ships sailing from Plymouth in 1544.
In the latter part of the 17th Century Devon ship-oners sent 150 ships a year to Newfoundland. At the end of the Napoleonic war (1811 – 1815 ) there was a final boom in the trade. After that there was a steady decline and the regualar fleet had gone by 1844. The occasional ship still went out mainly to Labrador throught the rest of this century.
The way the trade was conducted altered over time. At first it was called `migratory` business. Ships would leave England in the spring, crews would fish and then process the cod during the summer months, and return in the autumn.
Later some of the men started to over-winter overseas and set up more permanent fishing operations, `sedentary` fishing. Devon merchants established fishing stations, and in time they became more important than the migratory fishing.
In the early years much fishing was also done along the coast of the North American mainland as well as Newfoundland.
Later much of the trade was done on a three-way basis, the homeward voyage would see the boats calling into the ports of Iberia or those of the Mediterranean, where the fish was sold, and fruit, salt or wine loaded onboard to bring back to England.
The business was labour intensive, so that labour was recruited each spring at places such as The Dartmouth (which can still be seen today in East Street) and Newfoundland Inns in Newton Abbot. It was known that applicants would attend from other small towns and villages to try and sign on. The trade was looked on with some favour by the government, as it regarded it as a good training for potential sailors for the Royal Navy in time of need.
The other aspect of the trade that affected Newton Abbot was furnishing of supplies.This facet was to endure long after `migratory `fishing had ceased. The settlers of Newfoundland needed to sell their fish and wanted supplies so that they could continue the business of fishing. Devon traders had long furnished the needs of men going out to fish, so they had the expertise and supply knowledge to provide the supplies that the settlers needed. These were to include leather aprons and seaboots, which meant that the local tanners, cobblers and curriers always had plenty of work. Ropes and twines were made at ropewalks and fishermen`s knives and fishhooks were also made locally.
It was the arrival of steamships, operating from bigger ports that proved the death of the centries of trade with Newfoundland.
Records locally show that many local residents of Newton Abbot can claim that they were born in Newfoundland.
There is an area of Newton Abbot which takes its name from this trade link, Newfoundland Way.