The Great St. John's Fire of 1846


Melvin Baker (c)1983

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXIX, no. 1 (Summer 1983)

The origin of the fire, which broke out on the sunny and windy day of June 9, 1846, has generally been attributed to the carelessness of a cabinet maker who lived on George Street in the congested heart of the town. George Street at this time was in reality but a small lane running east and west between Waldegrave and Queen Streets. At 8:30 a.m. a pot of glue, which the cabinet maker was heating on a stove, boiled over and caught fire. The frame shop and tenements above were quickly engulfed and the flames then spread to the adjoining tenements. The fire alarm was immediately sounded, but it took a full 20 minutes before the fire engines arrived. When the firemen did get to the scene, they were unable to act for want of water.

In the meantime, the fire had moved east to Queen Street, which was predominantly of stone construction. There, the fire was so intense that the firemen despite having got some water, were again stymied. Both sides of the street were soon in flames, the doors, window sashes, and woodwork of the stone buildings proving excellent combustible material. Despite this progress, the merchants remained confident that the firebreaks on Water Street would ensure the safety of their premises. Strong winds, combined with the efforts of the military and civilian fire companies, stopped the fire spreading to the west. In the east, naturally these same winds carried the fire and flying fragments of burning timber further and further. From Queen Street the fire swept southward to Water Street, where it branched off to both east and west. As the flames advanced from Queen Street Governor Sir John Harvey ordered a house on the south side of Water Street blown up to create an even wider firebreak. This, he believed, would effectively prevent the further expansion of the blaze. As so often happens, his action had the opposite effect: the exploding gunpowder scattered showers of burning brands to the east and north, where they engaged several churches and schools. On Water Street the fire's rapid advance was also assisted by the presence of huge vats of seal oil, the produce of a prosperous spring fishery, in the merchants' premises. As the conflagration travelled down Duckworth and Water Streets, many abandoned the fight and fled home to save what little property they could. Naturally, wholesale looting followed. (1)

In the end, the fire consumed all the public, religious, and commercial buildings in its path. Though a Roman Catholic Church, situate to the rear of the north side of Duckworth Street, was preserved after much difficulty, the nearby Church of England Cathedral was less fortunate. So, too, was the gaol located on that street's same side. Indeed the flames from that building jumped across the street and ignited several commercial and legal premises, of stone and brick construction. Among the buildings destroyed here was the stone residence of Robert Prowse, the most substantial private house in the town. From Duckworth Street the fire branched north along King's Road, consuming all the frame tenements and houses along it. To the north, however, Government House was saved. By 7:00 p.m., when the fire had finally run its course, over 2,000 buildings had been burned and about 12,000 people, or 57 per cent of the town's total population, left homeless. (2) The total amount of property loss was estimated at £888,356, only £195,000 of which was later recovered through insurance. (3) Altogether, there were three casualties: one soldier died as a result of the demolition Harvey ordered on Water Street; one citizen collapsed while attempting to carry his possessions to safety; and one prisoner died in his cell when the gaol burnt. A few days after, two labourers clearing away ruins were killed by a falling wall. (4)

Acting promptly both to provide relief for the fire sufferers and to control the rebuilding of the town, Governor Harvey issued several proclamations the following day. The legislature, he announced, would be convened in emergency session on June 16 to determine how the town would be rebuilt. Until that plan was decided upon, no wooden buildings were to be constructed in the burnt out district. In the meantime, a circular letter was to be sent to all British North American governors, and to the British Consul in New York, notifying them of the fire and asking them to raise relief for the St. John's inhabitants (St. John's residents had answered a similar appeal from Quebec fire victims the previous year). Harvey also chartered two vessels to procure provisions in Halifax and New York. Finally, he called a meeting of prominent merchants, clergymen, judges and government officials at Government House to discuss how relief measures should be carried out. (5) The result of this meeting was his appointment of a general Fire Relief Committee consisting of a clergyman from each religious denomination; three military officers (the commanding officer, and the officers in charge of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers respectively); one official each from the Commissary and the Ordinance Store; five members of the Amalgamated Legislature; and eleven merchants. (6)

Harvey's appeal for relief abroad was quickly answered from Great Britain, the British North American colonies, and the United States. The Peel Government, although in the process of dissolution, gave £5,000 and the succeeding Russel ministry sent an extra £25,000. The citizens of Halifax immediately subscribed £1,500 for the purchase of provisions, while the Nova Scotian government itself sent £1,000. Excluding the Imperial Grant, the total amount of donations raised for the fire sufferers was, according to the 1847 estimate made by Governor Sir Gaspard Le Marchant, approximately £41,000. (7) Another £29,000, the so called Queen's Letter Fund, was raised in Great Britain by Church of England clergymen to help rebuild the local Anglican Cathedral. (8) Half of the Imperial Grant and most of the donations, except those raised under the Queen's Letter, were expended by the Relief Committee, which had responsibility both for sheltering, clothing, and feeding the homeless and for helping individuals to rebuild. The Committee also paid the passage of any individual made destitute by the fire who wished to leave Newfoundland. The number who emigrated in this manner was probably less than 500; their most favoured destinations being Prince Edward Island, Halifax, and Boston. By the time the Committee was disbanded in June, 1847, it had spent a total of £32,397 14s, most of which went to the town's small shopkeepers, professionals, tradesmen, mechanics, fishermen, and labourers. Direct aid for rebuilding was also provided by the colonial government. (9)

The plan for the rebuilding of St. John's, which the legislature adopted during its emergency session following the fire, was the product of considerable debate and compromise. In effect it rejected an official plan done on its behalf by the Surveyor General which called for the straightening of Water Street and the widening of that thoroughfare from 60 to 70 feet. (10) This plan would have entailed great cost to the colony, since landlords would undoubtedly have demanded a high price for any land taken, especially on the south side of Water Street. It would also have forced many merchants to move their premises back towards the harbour waters. (11) By contrast, the plan (12) adopted by the House minimized the amount of land to be taken, providing also greater security for the merchants through a separation of the residential area of the labouring population from the Water Street business district. The hope of the legislature was to make Duckworth Street the residence of the town's merchants and professional men a solid middle class enclave between the business district and the labouring population.

Both sides of Water and Duckworth Streets were to be rebuilt using fire proof materials, while the streets themselves were to have a width of 60 feet each. Duckworth was to be shortened to accommodate landlords wishing to develop their land for the construction of tenements. In making this change the legislators acknowledged the pressing need of fishermen, tradesmen, and labourers to live as close as possible to their place of work on the harbour front. Duckworth Street was to end at its intersection with Gower Street. The street west of this intersection was to be renamed New Gower Street. Here, and in the area above, wooden houses were to be allowed. The legislature also made a concession to those residents who, despite Harvey's rebuilding plan, had erected, or planned to erect, temporary wooden houses and stores on Water and Duckworth Streets. May 1, 1849, was now stipulated as the final removal date for these structures. (13)

Another provision of the 1846 Rebuilding Act provided for an increase in the number of firebreaks to 11; several of these were now to be 70 to 80 feet wide, the former requirement having been 60 feet. (14) Moreover, all building outside the Water and Duckworth area was to be regulated; in the future nobody could build less than 25 feet from the center of a main thoroughfare. What constituted such a main street was to be decided by the Executive Council, which was to appoint a supervisor of streets to enforce the Act. The Act further stipulated the method by which land arbitrations were to proceed. Finally, the act allowed the stipendiary magistrates in Quarterly Sessions, on the recommendation of the Grand Jury, to levy assessments for the construction of drains and sewers. These were to be based on the annual rental value of lands and buildings within the town and to be paid by all landlords and lessees. (15)

The success of the Rebuilding Act assumed the raising of a general loan of £250,000 by the Imperial Government on behalf of the colonial legislature. This loan was to pay for the compensation that would inevitably follow the expropriation of the private land required for the street program and other civic improvements. To assist residents in erecting stone or brick buildings and houses, the legislature proposed to make available out of the loan funds public grants to defray the cost of construction. (16) The loan itself, the protestations of a few outport legislators notwithstanding, was to be repaid out of general revenue, there being a strong feeling among most members that the town itself could not, under the existing circumstances, shoulder such a large financial burden associated with property assessments. (17)

Unfortunately for this plan, the Imperial Government declined to act on behalf of Newfoundland, preferring that the colony secure the necessary funds on its own credit. (18) When this became known, Colonel Robert Low, the Administrator of Newfoundland between Harvey's departure in August, 1846, and Sir Gaspard Le Marchant's arrival in April, 1847, called another emergency meeting of the legislature in December. (19) The modified rebuilding plan that emerged from this session reflected the concern of both Liberal members who were determined to protect the interests of St. John's leaseholders and absentee landlords' agents, prominent among whom in the legislature was St. John's merchant William Row. These absentee landlords owned much of the lost valuable commercial and residential land in the town and their estates dated from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Generally, the estates had been formed both through land grants made by the governor and through purchase of land titles from military officials and civilians who had originally owned the land. Their goal in the rebuilding of St. John's was to ensure both a maximum return on any land taken for street widening and for its future rental for building. (20)

Under this new rebuilding plan, both Water and Duckworth Streets were again set at a width of 60 feet; but in the case of the former, the street line as it existed on the day before the June 9 fire was to be retained wherever possible. (21) It was, however, on the north side of Duckworth Street that the most significant and retrograde change was made. There, the clause in the original Act limiting construction to fire proof materials was repealed and frame structures were again permitted. Knowing that the Phoenix Fire Insurance Office of London the largest underwriter of property in the town considered a width of 60 feet sufficient for fire protection, the merchants in both the legislature and the town were content to look to the south side of Duckworth Street, with its fire proof construction, as security from the town above. (22) Through these arrangements the merchants were saved from paying for costly general civic improvements while the Liberals were able to offer their working class followers in St. John's the dubious benefits of cheap frame construction.

To pay for these street improvements that were to be made, the legislature decided to raise a loan of 20,000 pounds on the security of the colonial revenue. There was now also to be a 10% duty on imports passing through the port of St. John's. This latter impost was to pay for such general improvements as the construction of drains and sewers and the levelling of the surfaces of Water and Duckworth Streets. The new duty, which in effect replaced the assessments provided for in the original Act, was also to provide the salary of the new supervisor of streets. (23) What St. John's got then was a watered down version of the original plan without the imposition of any property assessment.

That the property assessment was withdrawn in favour of a duty illustrated the great power of landlords in general and absentee landlords in particular to avoid municipal taxation. In the aftermath of the fire many landlords put covenants in their leases specifically protecting themselves from any property tax the colonial government or some future municipal corporation might impose. (24) These covenants obligated leaseholders in the words of one typical lease to "pay or cause to be paid all taxes, assessments, rates, and impositions whatsoever which now or may hereafter be charged, rated, or imposed on the said demised land and premises or any part thereof, or on the rents reserved ... in respect thereof." This particular leaseholder was, moreover, bound to construct on the leased land a stone or brick building of specified dimensions. (25) To encourage leaseholders to put up such substantial buildings, landlords now gave leases for more than the previous tenure period of 12 years, with 40 years apparently being the most common tenure. A leaseholder might be required to keep his premises in a certain state of repair but might not at the end of the lease be entitled to any compensation for the improvements he had made if his landlord refused to renew. (26)

This whole system obviously worked against systematic local government. The existence of the assessment covenants provided a strong argument against any assessment on property at all. While it was true that in the decade after the fire absentee landlords received only about 16,076 pounds of the 60,000 pounds paid out by the colonial government in land compensation, they benefited greatly from the improvements of St. John's without providing any of the means by which that improvement was effected. (27) Making the absentees pay would be a familiar refrain in St. John's politics for the remainder of the century.

By the early 1850s the rebuilding of St. John's along the lines laid down by the legislature was complete. Yet in the new town there was much of the old. On the south side of Water Street, the merchants had generally erected substantial two storey brick and stone buildings costing from four to eight thousand pounds; but they had often done so under the terms which greatly favoured ground landlords, especially absentees. (28) The security of their property was, however, marred by the continued existence of the temporary wooden sheds used since 1846 by a few merchants, shopkeepers, publicans and others both on the north side of Water Street and on the south side of Duckworth Street. (29) The fire threat that these posed meant that the merchants had great difficulty in insuring for more than half the value of their new property, given the high premiums enforced by the foreign insurance companies. (30) These sheds were to have been removed by May 1, 1849, but their occupants, working through the Liberal members in the legislature, were able to have this deadline extended by 18 months. (31) The sheds finally came down in 1851 (32) but beyond them there was another menace.

Before 1846 the labouring population had been concentrated below the north side of Duckworth Street; it was now on the slope of the hill above New Gower Street and Duckworth Street. (33) But in the move little had been done to ameliorate its condition. Part of this new district Tarahan's Town had huddled within its closely packed tenements over 400 families comprising some 2,000 persons. (34) Both resident and absentee landowners in areas like Tarahan's Town refused to offer leases of more than 20 to 25 years duration. It was, the Newfoundlander reported, unprofitable for them to do so, considering their tenants could afford only wooden construction. But if the leases were shorter on the hill than they were on Water Street, both groups of tenants faced the same prospect at the end of their tenure the surrendering up of property without any compensation for improvements made. (35)

The official survey commissioned by the legislature in 1846 had envisaged a St. John's ornamental in appearance whose streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Many factors worked against the implementation of this plan. The cost involved was obviously one and the attitude of landowners towards property assessments was clearly another. Then again, if land was to be taken for improvement, whose land should it be whose interest should be sacrified so that streets might be shaped "into forms marked with parallel lines and squares, for the erection (of) palaces and castles?" General improvement was also controversial in that it would have enhanced the value of some properties more than the value of others but all would pay. These and other considerations combined to ensure that the real model for the rebuilding of St. John's was "the town as it is." (36) The winding lane symbolized the continuity between the old town and the new.


1. This account of the fire is based on the following contemporary sources: C. R. Fay, Life and Labour in Newfoundland (Cambridge 1956), 180-84; Newfoundlander, June 18, 1846, as quoted in D. W. Prowse, History of Newfoundland (London 1895), 458-60; and Morning Courier, June 12,1846.

2. Ibid. See Irish University Press Series of British Parliamentary Papers (Shannon 1971), Colonies, Canada, vol. 19, 278, 280, hereafter cited as British Parliamentary Papers.

3. J. J. Broomfield as quoted in Fay, Life and Labour in Newfoundland, 188.

4. Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland (Erin, Ontario 1976), 628.

5. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Canada, vol. 19, 275-76.

6. Ibid., 279, 316.

7. Ibid., 282, 294-95, 347-48. See also Charles Pedley, History of Newfoundland (London 1863), 419; and 1846 St.John's General Fire Relief Committee, Report (St. John's 1847), 7.

8. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Canada, vol. 19, 318-40.

9. Ibid.., 322, 356, 375-80. See also 1846 St. John's General Fire Relief Committee, Report, 90-1; and Gertrude E. Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, 1832-1864 (Toronto 1966), 105.

I0. Newfoundlander, July 20, 1846.

11. Ibid., July 30, 1846.

12. The 1846 St. John's Rebuilding Act is published in the British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Canada, vol. 19, 305-11. Its official title is 9 and 10 Victoria, Cap. 3.

13. Ibid. See also Newfoundlander, July 2, 9, December 31, 1846, January 4, 1847.

14. 9 and 10 Victoria,Cap.3; Newfoundlander, July 9, 1846; and J.J. Broomfield "Report on Fire Risks, St. John's and Harbour Grace, November 8, 1845" (pamphlet in the office of the Newfoundland Historical Society, St. John's), 3-4.

15. 9 and 10 Victoria, Cap. 3.

16. The 1846 St. John's Rebuilding Loan Act is published in British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Canada, vol. 19, 295-97.

17. Newfoundlander, July 2, 1846.

18. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Canada, vol. 19, 298-99.

19. Ibid., 330.

20. Melvin Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980), 16-20, 45-7 .

21. Gazette, January 19, 1847.

22. Ibid. See also Newfoundlander, December 24, 31, 1846, January 4, 1847.

23. Gazette, January 19, 1847.

24. Newfoundlander, January 4, 14, 1847.

25. Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, P4/7, Robert Pinsent Papers, lease between H. W. Hoyles, administrator, estate of John Flood, and Samuel Knight, March 30, 1847.

26. Journal of the House of Assembly (JHA), 1883, Appendix, 27-113.

27. Newfoundlander, March 1, 1858.

28. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol. 8, 434, and JHA, 1883, Appendix, 27-113.

29. Ibid. See also Newfoundlander, January 18, 1849.

30. Journal of the Legislative Council, 1849. Appendix, 126-27.

31. JHA, January 25, 1849; Public Ledger, February 13, 1849; and Statutes of Newfoundland, 12 Victoria, Cap. 15.

32. Statutes of Newfoundland, 14 Victoria, Cap. 6.

33. Express, November 6, 1860.

34. Newfoundlander, October 18, 1855.

35. Ibid., October 25, 1855.

36. Ibid., June 25, 1846.