The Long Forgotten

Remembering the Casualties of the Spanish Civil War


 They looked for me in the cafes, cemeteries, and churches but they did not find me...

 Federco Garcia Lorca


 Eric Ledrew from Lush's Bight, Newfoundland, left home in the spring of 1925 to work as a sailor on the Halifax-New York run. For the next twelve years, he stayed in contact with his family. In his last letter dated in the winter of 1937, he indicated that he was going away for a while and would not be in contact for perhaps five years. He was never heard from again.

Across Canada, many other young men and a few women were to tell loved ones a similar story before embarking on an unknown journey. They traveled a circuitous route, often under an assumed name with false identification papers. Their destination: Spain. Why they went to that country is a complex story.

Much like Eric Ledrew, Wilson Joseph Pomeroy alias Jose Palmer left Newfoundland for Halifax in 1927. After a short stint as a sailor, he drifted from Halifax to Montreal and then to Vancouver looking for work at a time when the Great Depression had taken a stranglehold on the country. Born on Fogo Island, he had worked as a miner in Newfoundland and subsequently became a member of the militant United Mine Workers of America. In 1937, now a veteran of the infamous 1930s work camps and the 'On to Ottawa Trek,' he arrived in Spain as a volunteer in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (the Mac-Paps) to fight for Spanish democracy.


  Joseph Wilson Pomeroy--The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion 


In February 1936, Spain elected its first truly democratic government, a loose coalition of leftist parties dedicated to bringing extensive reform to Spanish society and breaking the centuries-old feudal grip of land-owners, the church, and the military. The moves by the new government caused widespread alarm among the ruling classes, all of whom viewed the new government as a band of socialists, communists, and Jews, intent on the destruction of western civilization.

Barely five months after the election, General Francesco Franco launched a military coup in Spanish Morocco aimed at overthrowing the fledgling government. Within a few days, the military uprising had spread to the mainland of Spain. The coup leaders expected to occupy Madrid within a few days.

The rebel units of the military were met with stiff resistance from loyalist elements and from ordinary civilians who took up arms to defend their government. The Spanish Civil War had begun.

Back in Canada, the civil war in Spain received little attention. The entire country was consumed by the Great Depression. A hundred thousand jobless young men roamed the streets of the nation's cities. Unemployment was at 30%. A monthly dole allowance of $3 barely kept starvation at bay. International trade slowed to a trickle and to compound the misery, crop failures, and drought destroyed the economic lifeblood of the Prairie Provinces.

Richard Bedford Bennett, Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, between 1930 and 1935, saw communists around every corner, distrusted the trade union movement, and believed that in time the Great Depression would go away on its own, a do-nothing attitude that did little to relieve the national misery.

Bennett's one enduring legacy was to set up a system of work camps to contain the large number of unemployed men wandering the country. The work camps emerged as nothing more than a system of enforced labour. Men were paid 15 to 20 cents a day to slave on make-work projects such as road building--a strategy to keep the unemployed from coming under the influence of communists and trade unions.

In the summer of 1935, unrest across Canada came to a head. In British Columbia, men from the camps went on strike and converged on Vancouver. After several days of violent unrest in the streets, the leaders of the movement decided on a strategy to take the protests to Ottawa and to the very doors of parliament. Hundreds took the freight trains out of Vancouver heading east. All along the route, they were joined by hundreds more intent on carrying their 'On to Ottawa Trek' all the way to R. B. Bennett's office. 

Bennett would have none of it. He ordered that the 'mob' be stopped at all costs in Regina.

The RCMP and city police in Regina attacked the 'trekkers' with bayonets, bullets, and truncheons. Hundreds were seriously injured. To diffuse the situation, Bennett finally agreed to meet with a delegation representing the workers.

Nothing constructive came from the meeting. Workers in the country were further alienated and conservatism became more entrenched in the Canadian power structure.

In 1936 and 37, the conflict in Spain became a rallying cry for the disaffected in this country. Canadian workers viewed the civil war between the democratic forces in Spain and the nationalist forces of General Franco as having many similarities to their own struggle for survival. The alarming rise of fascist organizations in cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg added to the general sense of unease.

By late 1936, a trickle of Canadian volunteers had opted to join the fight in Spain. By 1937, it had become a steady stream.

Volunteers saw themselves as champions of freedom, fighting the nationalist forces of Franco and his fascist allies, Germany and Italy.

The volunteers became known as the International Brigades with the United States and Canada at the forefront. By June 1937, the Canadian contingent was large enough to form its own battalion 'the Mac-Paps.' They fought and died at the Battles of Jarama, Brunete, and Quinto; at Zaragosa; and at the Ebro River.

They were poorly trained and poorly equipped. A motley band of miners, mill-workers, and lumberjacks; fishermen, sailors, and dock-workers; shop-owners, nurses, and teachers. They fought on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War under the hostile eye of their own government which in 1937 made it illegal for any Canadian to join the conflict.

By early fall 1938, the forces of Franco in combination with those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sensed victory. On the Ebro River, the International Brigades were overwhelmed. In September, the Spanish Government made the ill-fated decision to withdraw all foreign fighters and send them home. Perhaps the gesture would convince Franco to do the same with forces from Nazi Germany and Italy, they thought. It was not to be. In March 1939, the civil war ended with a Franco victory. Spain entered a long night of right-wing dictatorship which lasted until 1975.

Wilson Joseph Pomeroy was wounded at the Battle of the Ebro River on July 25, 1938. He subsequently made his way back to Canada after deserting from the hospital on September 10.

James Walsh, another Newfoundlander from Conception Harbour, lay wounded in the same hospital. Eventually, he too returned to Canada.

Eric Ledrew did not return.

Of the nearly 1800 Canadian volunteers, 50% died in the conflict. Many of those have not been identified. They fought under assumed names. Others, who were prisoners of war, were executed by Franco's forces and buried in mass graves.

The civilian toll was equally grim. Conservative estimates place those numbers at 600,000. Thousands more died in Franco's prisons after the conflict.

(With thanks to Library and Archives Canada and to relatives of Joseph Wilson Pomeroy)







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Dancing on Air: New Edition: New Publisher

Dancing on Air

The revised edition of Dancing on Air(Boulder Publications) is now available from Boulder -- also from Chapters/Indigo and Coles bookstores across Canada as well as at

Advance Reviews:

     "What a fascinating read this is. It has all the suspense of a true crime novel ...Newfoundland itself emerges as a colorful character..." -- editor, Friesen Press

     "In Dancing on Air, Eric Colbourne exposes the raw politics and behind the scenes intrigue of critical events in Newfoundland and Labrador history. In the process, he has skilfully unveiled the human faces of tragedies which have remained with us for well over half a century."   --Mervin Wiseman, Political Activist, NL.

     "This is a great way to present history. It's emotionally engaging, highly instructive, and jam-packed with fascinating details."  --Editor, Friesen Press.

     Dancing on Air: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland is a story of justice and injustice amidst war and political upheaval.

     On St. Patrick's Day, 1942 Herb Spratt, the youngest son of a prominent St. John's city councilor, murdered his girlfriend, Josephine O'Brien. A weak defense at a two day trial in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland resulted in a guilty verdict coupled with a strong recommendation for mercy. The chief justice pronounced a sentence of death on April 28, 1942, but that was not the end of the story.

     Six years later, on October 23, 1948, during a night of terror in the town of Norris Arm on the central north coast of the island, Alfred Beaton stabbed his girlfriend and shot to death another young woman. At least 10 other individuals narrowly escaped death as Beaton rampaged through the community with a high powered rifle.

     Beaton went to trial in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland on January 31, 1949. The jury returned a guilty verdict without a recommendation for mercy. The chief justice again imposed the death penalty.

Alfred Beaton (center) after the death sentence

The incidents come together as a gripping account of a flawed justice system and of the impact of public opinion. With its cast of powerful characters, the story reads like fiction but what happened was only too real.  

The Dancing on Air Mystery: Who was Portia?



On Monday, February 7, 1949, two days after Judge Emerson handed down the death penalty in the murder trial of Alfred Beaton, a mysterious letter appeared in the St. John's Evening Telegram. It contained an emotional plea for mercy and a call to action against capital punishment in Newfoundland. 

The eloquent letter writer persuaded thousands of citizens in the city and across Newfoundland and Labrador to demand an end to a barbaric practice. The final outcome was a surprise. Who was the mystery lady, Portia? For the first time in over 60 years, it is now possible to identify her--but the reader has to pick up the clues in the text.







Eric Colbourne grew up in the small community of Lush's Bight-Beaumont on the northeast coast of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. His earliest memories are of the tales spun by village elders under the flickering light of oil lamps in the kitchen of the family home on the isolated island. This tradition of story-telling is captured in his first book Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland which has enjoyed international success.


His latest work, Dancing on AIR: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland, published in October 2016 by Boulder Publications, represents an enduring fascination with the issue of capital punishment which he has researched extensively over many years in this country and around the world.


Colbourne was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland, The University of Reading in the UK, and at McGill University in Montreal. He has enjoyed a varied career in education, community development, tourism and senior management in the public service of Nunavut and the NWT. He currently devotes his time to writing and historical research.

Back Cover:Dancing on Air

Public Executions: Dancing on Air

At 5.32 a.m. on August 14, 1937 a young black man, Rainey Bethea was executed at Owensboro, Kentucky after his conviction for the rape of a white woman. A crowd, estimated at 20,000, gathered in Owensboro the day before and held 'hanging' parties throughout the night. One reporter likened the scene at the scaffold next morning to a sporting event. The hangman was intoxicated and barely managed to trip the lever. It was the last public hanging in the US.

The practice of public executions was abandoned in Canada in 1869 and in the UK in 1870. Many countries, notably Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran continue the practice to this day for crimes such as drug trafficking, witchcraft, disloyalty to the government. and homosexuality.


If you have comments on this site or reviews of Dancing on Air, please e-mail me at

Advice for Writers

Elmore Leonard, a well known mystery writer who died last year offered a number of rules for good writing. A few of them:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Keep your exclamations points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

3.Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

4.Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

From the Ballad of Reading Gaol

 It is sweet to dance to violins

  When love and life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

  is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet

  To dance upon the air!


                       ...Oscar Wilde

Historic Vote

In 1948, residents of Newfoundland and Labrador decided their future in two referenda. In the first vote, held on June 3, Commission of Government was eliminated but neither Confederation with Canada nor Responsible Government received a majority, making a second referendum necessary. Voting was heavy, nearly 89% on June 3rd and 85% on July 22nd. 52.34% of voters chose Confederation on the second ballot.

Where to Buy Disappeared

     Disappeared:Stories From the Coast of Newfoundland is available in print and e-book from and in e-book format from Kobo, Chapters etc. To locate it on Amazon, type 'Disappeared Colbourne' into their 'find' bar. Delivery is about one week.

     Author copies are also available directly from Click on the facebook link and send the author a message. Price is $15 plus postage.

     Due to the short print run the book will not be available in most bookstores.

New Edition: Dancing on Air

More Questions About an Execution

The case of Wilbert Coffin who was convicted of murder and hanged in Quebec more than 60 years ago raises many new questions. For the full story see:

Excerpt from Dancing on Air

(A Hanging in Quebec, 1902)



...Until the mid-1800s some 200 offences were regarded as capital crimes that carried the death penalty. In a modern age most of those offences now seem absurd.


John Dean, variously described in the records as a child of eight or nine, may have been the youngest to suffer death by hanging. On February 23, 1629 he was convicted of arson at Abington, England for setting fire to two barns in the town of Winsor. The judge saw evidence of wickedness in the boy's actions, an attitude which led directly to his death sentence.


In early August, 1814, an unfortunate William Potter received the death penalty at the high court in Chelmsford, England, for damaging an orchard. He had chopped down an old apple tree for firewood. To no avail at his trial, William pleaded ignorance of the law. The judge had second thoughts several days after sentencing, but with the wheels of justice already in motion, William was hanged about a week later on August 12.

From our Readers: Dancing on Air

I finished the book this morning and my only regret is that I couldn't read more....The exacting research gives real context in shaping the period, but it's Colbourne's ability as a writer that allows the reader to feel the crisp bite of the wind, smell the damp night air, and experience the pain and anguish of the characters. Colbourne's deft footwork in handling the historical record while giving life to the characters is to be applauded, and it separates this work from the pack.  (Glen Tilley)


An absolutely lovely read...The book reads like a richly textured novel but the story is flawlessly woven into the historical account (or borne out of it). It is clear that the book is meticulously researched...An excellent read on all fronts. Difficult to put down! (Monty Henstridge)


Excerpt from the story 'The Black Arts Book' in Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland.


...Old Meriam was indeed dead but no one seemed to know how she had died or where she was buried, all of which added to the mystery of her life  and the power of her witchcraft.


After her death, the old house seemed lonely more than anything else, sitting way out on the point by the landwash, facing the September storms and enduring the sad soundings of the ocean swells.


With each passing season it added a deeper tone of grey as the harsh weather of late fall and winter took its toll. Nobody in the village could understand how the old house could withstand so much punishment.


Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland  has been named a top seller on KOBO, one of the largest e-book distributors in the world. It continues to receive positive reviews in Canada and fifteen other countries. Disappeared is also available from and in kindle and print format.