"Every circumstance," Moses Harvey a prominent St. John's
Presbyterian Minister and writer, wrote to the Montreal Gazette
six days after the blaze, "combined to favour the progress of the
destroyer." For a month prior to the fire on July 8, 1892, St.
John's had received little rain, and its many shingled roofs had
become dry as tinder. On the day of the fire the temperature
reached an unusually high 85 degrees farenheit, with a strong
wind blowing from the northwest. The fire began about 4:30 p.m.
in a stable on Freshwater Road, a street on the top of the hill
overlooking the center of the town. The spark was evidently
provided by Thomas Fitzpatrick, who, in stumbling in the stable,
dropped his pipe and lit some hay. The building was quickly
enveloped and the alarm immediately sounded, the message being
sent either by telephone or by person to the three fire stations
belonging to the Municipal Council's voluntary fire brigade. It
took 30 minutes for the firemen and their steam engine to arrive
at the scene of the fire, and even then, efforts proved futile;
they forgot some necessary equipment and there was an
insufficient water supply. A water tank, located opposite the
stable and placed there to protect the neighbourhood, was almost
empty because the firemen had forgotten to fill it after a recent
The town's hydrants were also useless because of the low water
pressure in the mains. At 9:00 a.m. Municipal Council Chairman
Thomas Mitchell, without consulting his fellow councillors, had
turned off the water in the Freshwater Road area to add new pipes
to the system. The water had been turned back on at 3:00 p.m. but
it took three hours to fill the local mains at this high level in
the town. The firemen's difficulties were further complicated by
their inability to tear down houses in the area to make
firebreaks; they had not brought hatchets with them and the rope
they had on hand was rotten and quickly broke when used. While
this tragic comedy, so typical of the beginning of most
conflagrations, proceeded, the strong winds were carrying burning
fragments to the roofs of houses and buildings in the center and
east end of the town igniting buildings scattered through these
After racing down Freshwater Road, the fire split into two at the
intersection of Harvey Road and Long's Hill. One stream of flames
rushed down Carter's Hill to reach Water Street and aided by the
wind, continued its path of destruction eastward. However, its
course westward was stopped when some wooden buildings were torn
down to make firebreaks. The other branch of the fire swept down
Long's Hill to the residential heart of St. John's and erupted
eastward into Gower and Duckworth Streets. In the panic of the
moment, many residents brought their possessions to stone and
brick buildings, including the Anglican Cathedral, which they
believed were safe havens. But these buildings too were all
completely gutted. Social disorder followed; on Water Street many
merchants simply opened the doors of their stores to looters. (2)
By the time the fire subsided the next morning, much of St.
John's, except for the West End and the northeast, lay in ruins.
"Nothing," Moses Harvey wrote of the morning after, "was visible
for a mile . . . but chimneys and fallen or tottering wall." "The
thick smoke, from the smouldering ruins, still filled the air,"
he observed, while the "wreck of fanes of religion stood out, the
broken walls pointed heavenward, as if in mournful protest
against the desecration that had been wrought." (3) Some 11,000
persons were directly affected by the fire and many of the town's
finest buildings burnt, a notable exception being the well-situated Roman Catholic Cathedral. Property loss was estimated at
$13,000,000 with only $4,800,000 being covered by insurance. (4)
Fortunately, the loss of life was small; this was probably
because disaster struck by day rather than by night. The only
victims were a widow named Mrs. Stevens, her invalid daughter,
and their servant. (5)
On July 9 the Liberal Government took steps to provide food and
shelter for the homeless. Sheds were set up in Bannerman Park,
beside the Colonial Building on Military Road, to house those
fire sufferers who could not find shelter with relatives or
friends. The purchasing of provisions for the group at Bannerman
Park, as well as for those housed elsewhere in the town, was
placed in the hands of Constabulary Inspector Morris Fawcett. (6)
On July 11 responsibility for relief was given to a citizens'
committee appointed by the Administrator of the colony, Chief
Justice Frederick Carter, who was serving as head of the
government while Governor T. N. O'Brien (1889-1895) was
vacationing in England.
The 1892 Fire Relief Committee was broadly based and included
representatives of the community's religious denominations, its
two political parties and the Executive and Legislative Councils.
The Chairman of the St. John's Municipal Council was also a
member. To advise the Relief Committee on its operations, two
former members of the Relief Committee which had operated in
Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1877, volunteered their services
and came to St. John's. (7)
What St. John's needed most from the outside world was financial
assistance to enable the homeless to rebuild. Its citizens were
not to be disappointed for donations of both money and provisions
poured in from Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. (8)
The Canadian Government sent $10,000, a sum that was matched by
the Province of Ontario. The Imperial Government made £15,000
available to the Relief Committee; this was in addition to
£20,000 which Governor O'Brien and several Newfoundland
politicians, who were also in Great Britain at the time of the
fire, were able to raise by private subscription. In the United
States, Boston was the main source of assistance with former
Newfoundland residents to the fore in raising funds. (9)
Altogether, the St. John's Relief Committee, which functioned
throughout 1892 and 1893, received and disbursed money and goods
to the value of $336,463.77.
By November, 1892, the Committee had constructed 320 temporary sheds for the homeless. It had also provided mechanics with tools to replace those lost in the fire and had given lumber to builders to construct permanent homes for the town's labourers on condition that their future occupants receive a year's free occupancy. (10) A sub-committee, chaired by Edward P. Morris, a St. John's West MHA and member of Whiteway's Executive Council, was given $50,000 to help wealthier citizens who had lost property and had not carried adequate insurance. Again, the Committee opened for unemployed women a school of industry which taught them spinning and knitting. The problem of female unemployment was also addressed by paying the passages of women wanting to go to Canada and the United States to work as domestics. (11)
This fine record notwithstanding, the Committee was soon
embroiled in party politics. Specifically, the Tory opposition
charged, despite the presence of several Tory merchants on the
committee, that the Whiteway Government was using the Relief
organization to give favours to its own supporters. (12) In late
1892 one zealous Tory apparently even went so far as to advise
some English merchants not to send any more relief money because
enough had been made available already and because the Relief
Committee could not be trusted. (13) Although these charges were
never fully substantiated, suspicion of the Relief Committee's
activities persisted through the 1893 legislative session with
the Tories clamouring for publication of the Committee's
accounts. For its part, the Whiteway Government evaded all
responsibility for the Committee, claiming that, since it had
been appointed by the Administrator, the Assembly had no
authority to investigate its proceedings. (14) The Committee
published a full account of its proceedings in 1894, (15) no
charges ever having been laid against any of its members.
In addition to the immediate problem of relief, the Whiteway
Government was faced in the aftermath of the fire with the task
of formulating a rebuilding plan. This time local tenants
demanded protection against British absentee landlords who would
force them to accept short leases and pay all assessments. This
had been the case following the fire in June, 1846, that
destroyed much of St. John's. These landlords, who owned much of
the most valuable commercial and residential land in the town,
had acted swiftly through their local agents in St. John's to
insert covenants in their leases specifically protecting
themselves against any property tax which might be imposed by the
colonial government or by a municipal corporation. Consequently,
strong measures must be taken, Moses Harvey wrote in the Montreal
Gazette on July 14, 1892, "to get rid of the incubus" that
plagued St. John's by giving the absentee landlord the "hoist".
What was needed, he continued, was a local landlord and tenant
act along the lines of the one adopted for Ireland in 1881. That
legislation had established a land court which enabled tenants to
obtain fair rental agreements with their landlords. But the
possibility of a similar reform measure for St. John's was
complicated by Whiteway's conservatism on the issue, the Premier
himself being an absentee landlord agent. (16) Only reluctantly
would the Government be brought to deal with the land questions.
Nor was the future of land ownership the only obstacle to the
formulation of a rebuilding plan. A more immediate problem was a
dispute between the Government and the Municipal Council over how
the rebuilding should proceed. Authority for making building
plans was vested in the Council, which wanted street lines
surveyed as quickly as possible to allow leaseholders and tenants
to put up new stores and houses. On the other hand, Council was
required under the 1892 Municipal Act, which had been passed by
the colonial legislature a month before the fire, to have the
approval of the Governor-in-Council for costly street
improvements.(17) To secure that approval the Municipal Council
held a conference with the Executive Council several days after
the fire. At this meeting Council consented to the Surveyor
General undertaking a survey of the burnt area, and agreed to
prohibit any rebuilding until his work was complete. The plan was
that once his survey was complete the Government would give the
Council the necessary funds to compensate the owners of land
taken for street widening. (18) This money, the Government hoped,
would be part of a loan from the Imperial Government. The request
for this loan was made on July 14, 1892, a further purpose being
the purchase by the Government of all land on the south side of
Water Street, whether absentee or resident owned. (19)
Disagreement between the Government and the Municipal Council
soon arose over the designated width for Water Street. While the
survey was being carried out, the Municipal Council agreed to the
widening of Water Street from 60 to 70 feet and of Gower Street
from 50 to 60 feet. Duckworth Street was to remain at 60 feet.
These proposals were placed before another conference of the
Government and the Council on July 27 and passed with but one
dissenting voice that of Premier Whiteway. (20) In the
Premier's view the further widening of Water and Gower Streets
was an expense that neither the colony nor the town could afford.
In the case of Water Street additional land would have to be
taken at great expense from the commercially valuable south side.
Whiteway's position was undoubtedly influenced by the attitude of
the Imperial Government towards the colony's request for a
rebuilding loan. The Imperial authorities were unwilling to
provide the funds requested until a thorough financial review had
been done of both Newfoundland and St. John's. (21)
Since the Government was hesitant to submit itself to such an
enquiry, the Executive and the Municipal Council met on July 29
to consider a more economical rebuilding plan. The Municipal
Council was now asked to accept a revision whereby Water Street
would remain at 60 feet in width but Gower Street would be
increased to 60 feet. Council found this plan objectionable and
at a meeting of its own that same day passed resolutions in
favour of the 70 foot limit, both for fire safety and future
traffic reasons. At this meeting, the Council also pointed out to
the Government the urgent need to define street lines for those
wanting to rebuild. Many leaseholders, Council noted, had
covenants in their leases requiring them to give notice to
landlord agents within 10 days of fire destroying their property
whether or not they wished to terminate their agreements. (22)
Because of the delay in deciding upon a rebuilding plan, some
leaseholders had given up their leases, while those who were
continuing their leases now found themselves at the mercy of
their landlords and caught between the Government and the
On July 20 a group of tenants led by Tory leader Moses Monroe,
whose lease was to expire in 1893, organized a Tenants' League to
pressure the Government to immediately convene a special session
of the legislature to enact legislation, based on the 1881 Irish
Land Act, for the protection of St. John's leaseholders and
tenants. Such legislation, the League proposed, should be made
retroactive to apply to all lease agreements made since the July
8 fire. (24) Whiteway resisted this pressure, convening the
legislature on August 11 only after negotiations for the Imperial
loan had failed. (25)
With regard to the rebuilding of St. John's the legislature now
proceeded to pass a bill based on the Government's revised
rebuilding plan. Duckworth and Gower Streets were to be
straightened wherever possible, but Water Street was for the most
part to be left alone, the south side especially. The legislators
saw no need to give St. John's a gridiron street pattern,
preferring only to widen and straighten streets to minimize the
cost of improvement. "Perfectly straight streets running parallel
and at right angles to each other," Whiteway argued, "were not
the most beautiful to each other"; curved streets afforded "a
greater means of shelter to pedestrians on a stormy day." (26)
Under the terms of the new legislation control of the town's
rebuilding was to be in the hands of the Governor-in-Council and
the Surveyor General's Department. The Municipal Council thus had
all its powers under the 1892 Municipal Act with regard to the
rebuilding and the widening of streets taken from it. This Act
the Whiteway Government justified on the grounds that the colony
would have to raise a rebuilding loan and guarantee its interest.
(27) In the view of the Liberal Whiteway Government the Municipal
Council, which was composed of a majority of Tory supporters, was
incompetent to undertaken the rebuilding work because it lacked
the public's confidence. Several Government members even called
for the Council's abolition, blaming it for the recent disaster
through having turned off the water supply in the Freshwater Road
area on the fatal day. Their disdain for Council was best
expressed by St. John's West MHA Edward Morris who in the heat of
the moment proclaimed that the "wiping out of the Council would
be the most popular measure that could be introduced in the
During the 1892 special legislative session, Premier Whiteway
also had his way on the land tenure issue, despite strong
protests from the Canadian born Alfred Morine, the representative
for Bonavista and the spokesman in the Assembly for the Tenants'
League. Morine claimed that uncertainty about government policy
had forced some tenants to abandon their leases. (29) To protect
those tenants burnt out in the fire, Morine called for the
establishment of a land court to decide fair and equitable rents
upon appeal to it by a lessee. The right of appeal would extend
not only to leases terminated by the fire but also to those which
expired the near future.
Under the arrangement proposed by Morine a tenant would be
entitled to financial compensation from his landlord at the
expiry of his lease for any improvements he had made to the
property. If a tenant wished to buy leased land and the buildings
on it, the proposed court would be empowered to decide the real
value of the property. (30) By contrast, the legislation which
the Government introduced did not interfere with the right of
landlords to make rental agreements with their tenants as they
saw fit, although it did encourage them to make 99-year leases.
If a landlord gave such a term, he had no obligation to
compensate his tenant for improvements at the expiry of the
lease. If the lease was for less than 99 years, some compensation
was required, the amount to be determined by three arbitrators.
One of these was to be appointed by the landlord, the second by
the tenant, and the third jointly. If the parties could not agree
upon a joint nominee, the choice was to be made by the Supreme
Unfortunately, for some tenants the legislation put forward by
the Government said nothing about those leases which had been
entered into since the fire. As for the land court suggestion
which had come from the Tenants' League, Whiteway rejected this
on the grounds that landlords and tenants could best deal with
their own affairs. "The less the government interfered with
contracts," he said, "the better,"; for his part Morris cautioned
the House against letting the impression get abroad that
St.John's was a "bad place to invest money." (32) St. John's had
not escaped the grasp of the absentee landlords, but its citizens
would now enjoy a more equitable landlord-tenant relationship
through the incentive permitted by the new legislation for 99-year leases. "After a lengthened experience of the relations of
landlord and tenant in this town," Chief Justice Carter informed
the Colonial Office on August 30, 1892, "my own opinion of the
provisions contained in the Act is that they will have a salutary
operation in the interests of both." The new Act, he continued,
did not interfere with the right of the two parties to make
arrangements between themselves on the details of leases. (33)
However, not all absentee landlords were happy with the new
legislation; in late 1892 several of them lodged a protest with
the Imperial Government. They were however unsuccessful,
Newfoundland's argument that the legislation was the best
compromise that could be reached finding favour in London. (34)
Since the Municipal Council had been virtually ignored in the
rebuilding of St. John's, it is not surprising that it received
little support from the Government when it attempted to bring
some order to the town's finances. The Council's total loss of
property and revenue due to the fire was $40,467.58, $25,967,58
of which was written off as water and sewerage rates owed by
persons whose property was destroyed. The Council's floating debt
at the end of the 1891 fiscal year had been $17,308.02; at the
close of the 1892 fiscal year it was $52,804.75, the increase
being attributable to the loss of assets in the fire. This
floating debt, moreover, did not include interest of $35,549.72,
on the debt which Council owed the colonial government. Given
this situation, Council could offer only the most limited
services during the second half of 1892. (35) Thus, the estimate
which Chairman Mitchell submitted to the Government in January,
1893, forecast a deficit of $21,585.00 which he wanted to be
offset by the Government giving part or all of the surplus
revenue the colony now had in its treasury to the Council. This
surplus, he noted, was attributable largely to the sudden
increase in the importation of the building supplies which the
fire had necessitated, the colonial revenue for the most part
being derived from a duty on all goods imported into
Newfoundland. Since St. John's residents were contributing this
extra revenue, they should get the benefit of it. The 1893 budget
speech estimated the extra revenue Council was claiming at
approximately $137,000. (36) With a general election looming, the
matter of the disposal of this surplus was quickly turned into a
party question, the Tories lining up on the side of the Council
as early as September, 1892.
On the 30th of the month Moses Monroe and Sir James Winter
convened a public meeting to support the Council's stand on the
revenue question. The extra money which had accrued to the
Government, they argued, should be used to compensate Council for
the revenue it had lost because of the fire and to help rebuild
the town. The alternative of forcing Council to raise another
large loan was both unnecessary and unfair. A committee of
prominent Tories was subsequently appointed to draft a petition
in support of these demands for presentation to the Assembly at
its 1893 session. (37) With the government press calling for the
abolition of the Council on the grounds of economy and
efficiency, this petition met with considerable success. Over
2,000 signatures were collected from citizens who were attracted
to the Tory proposal that the surplus revenue would be used to
replace taxation on property in the burnt area until the town had
been rebuilt. (38) When the petition was submitted to the
Assembly on May 2, 1893, the Government accepted it in principle,
but refused to divert any of the surplus revenue to the purpose
demanded. Instead, Whiteway announced, the extra revenue would be
used for municipal improvements in St. John's. (39)
Deprived of control over the rebuilding of the town, Council had
a limited role from mid-1892 onwards. It maintained the two
public parks and the water and sewerge systems and repaired and
cleaned streets; even within this limited jurisdiction it was
frequently interfered with by the colonial government. In May and
June, 1893, there were several fruitless meetings between Council
delegations and Government representatives over street and sewer
improvements. At one meeting Whiteway promised Council
approximately $100,000 for needed work but this money was never
transferred. Instead, the work was carried out during the summer
of 1893 by the Surveyor General's department and without the
permission which by law only Council could give. In
September,1893, a compromise was reached whereby the Surveyor
General did the work under the supervision of the Council's
Engineer. This arrangement left the Government firmly in control
of labour supply and wages, in short of patronage. (40)
When an election was called for November 6, the importance of
this device was soon obvious. The 1893 campaign was described by
one contemporary as the "most stubbornly-contested party fight in
our annals." (41) According to Governor O'Brien public "money was
squandered in all direction," over 1500 men and 300 carts being
employed on public works in St. John's alone. The chief
occupation of these men, he observed, was to "congregate together
to talk over the contest when they were not taken off their work
to aid in a public procession or demonstration of some Government
candidate." (42) One such demonstration was later commemorated in
verse by a local ballader as the "Wild West Show" where Edward
Morris and a free supply of alcohol were the main attractions of
the day. In the event, the Whiteway Government was triumpliantly
sustained, defeating the Tory Party, now led by Moses Monroe, 26
seats to 10.
Ultimately, the Whiteway Government did not raise a loan
specifically for the rebuilding of St. John's, but rather issued
debentures under the authority of the 1892 Rebuilding Act to
compensate landowners for street improvements. By the time the
rebuilding was completed in 1895 the colonial government had
spent a total of $370,786.00, most of it in 1892 and 1893 by the
Whiteway Government. This amount was added to the Council's
consolidated debt, although the Council had had no say in its
expenditure. (43) The expenditure of this money had been a
contentious political issue between the colonial government and
the Council immediately after the 1892 fire and was to remain one
for the next forty-five years between the two levels of
government. In 1937 the government finally responded to Council
representations and relieved St. John's of the rebuilding debt it
had been charged after the 1892 fire. (44)
1. Moses Harvey, "The Great Fire of 8 July, 1892," in Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, eds., By Great Waters: A Newfoundland and Labrador Anthology (Toronto, 1974), 114-18; and Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL), PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-1898, 4.
3. Harvey, "The Great Fire of 8 July, 1892," 117.
4. Journal of the House of Assembly (JHA),1896, Appendix, 330.
5. PANL, PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-l898, 3.
6. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, July 9, 1892.
7. Report of the St.John's Fire Relief Committee: Fire of July 8, 1892 (St. John's, 1894), 6-9.
8. For an account of the relief work undertaken in Toronto, Canada, see A. C. Winton, "Newfoundland and its Capital," Dominion Illustrated Monthly, vol. I (1892), 657-66.
9. D. W. Prowse, History of Newfoundland (London, 1895),528-29; and PANL, PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-1898, 38.
10. JHA, 1893, Appendix, 354-57; Report of the St.John's Fire Relief Committee, 1-13; and PANL, PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-1898, 37-9.
11. Report of the St. John's Fire Relief Committee, 1-13.
12. Evening Herald, September 19, 1892.
13. Evening Telegram, November 8, 1892.
14. Ibid., May 22, 1893.
15. See Report of the St. John's Fire Relief Committee.
16. PANL, PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-1898, 2, 5, 27; and Evening Herald, September 13, 16, 1892. On the 1881 Irish Land Act, see Samuel Clark, Social Origins of the Irish Land War (Princeton, New Jersey, 1979), 335-38.
I7. Evening Herald, September 12, 1892.
18. Ibid. See also Royal Gazette, July 19, 20, 22, 1892, and St. John's Municipal Council, Letter Book, P. W. Kelly to John McNeil, Maurice Hallerhan, and L. Parker, July 15, 1892.
19. PANL, CN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, July 14, 1892.
20. Ibid., July 27, 1892. See also Evening Herald, September 12, 1892.
21. PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, July 18, 28, August 1, 1892.
22. Morning Despatch, July 19, 30, 1892; and Evening Herald, September 13, 14, 1892.
23. Evening Telegram, September 2, 1892.
24. Morning Despatch, July 21, 22, 1892.
25. PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, July 18, 28, August 15, November 1, 1892, February 10, 25, March 4, 1893.
26. Evening Telegram, September 30, 1892.
27. Ibid., September 8, 1892. See also Statutes of Newfoundland, 56 Victoria, Cap. 1.
28. Evening Telegram, September 8, 1892.
29. Ibid., September 2, 3, 1892.
30. Ibid., September 8, 13, 1892.
31. Statutes of Newfoundland, 56 Victoria, Cap. 2.
32. Evening Telegram, September 8, 14, 1892.
33. PANL, GNI/1/4, Governor's Office, Letter Book of Despatches to the Colonial Office, Carter to Marquis, August 30, 1892.
34. PAN L, ON 11216, Despatch no. 80, Ripon to O'Brien, December 10, 1892, and enclosure.
35. JHA, 1893, Appendix, 211-29.
36. Ibid., 222. See also Evening Telegram, April 29, 1893.
37. Evening Herald, October 1, 3, 4, 5, 28, 1892.
38. Ibid., February 13, March 10, 20, 25, April 5, 10, 24, 1893.
39. Evening Telegram, June 9, 10, 1893.
40. Daily News, March 24, 28, 29, 1894.
41. Prowse, History of Newfoundland, 529.
42. Colonial Office Records Series 194, Newfoundland Correspondence, vol. 225, 1893, O'Brien to Ripon, November 4, 1893.
43. Melvin Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800- 1921 )) (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980).
44. PANL, ON 1/3/A, Box #202-237, file 237/36, Mayor Carnell to Governor Walwyn, September 12, 1936.