The St. John's Fire of July 8, 1892: The Politics of Rebuilding, 1892-1893


Melvin Baker (c)1984

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXIX, no. 4 (Winter 1984), pp. 23-30

"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 fire drill.

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 areas. (1)

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)

Edward Patrick Morris

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 Council. (23)

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 Assembly." (28)

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 Court. (31)

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.

2. Ibid.

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.