Newfoundland in the 1920s
Melvin Baker

The dominant issue of much of the tenure of Squires' ministry from 1919 to 1923 centered on Coaker's efforts to impose order and regulation upon Newfoundland's chaotic fisheries industry, which the FPU had long sought since its beginnings in 1908. During the war, Newfoundland had experienced great demand for its fish in south Mediterranean markets, especially with the Scandinavian countries unable to export their fish there, and the local fisheries prospered. Indeed, both fisherman and merchant alike invested heavily in the industry to take advantage of the boom, the former buying new gear and boats and the latter through over-extending their borrowing. The end of the war and the re-entry of the Scandinavians into the fish markets adversely affected this precarious prosperity. In particular, western governments began to impose tighter restrictions on their money banking policies in the face of a growing shortage of foreign currency.

In September 1918 the Italian government sought to deal with its problem of currency shortage with regard to fish buying through the formation of a monopoly popularly known as the Consorzio. The Consorzio hoped to force exporters to accept one price for their fish and at as low a price as possible. For Newfoundland, the Consorzio represented an unexpected intrusion into the market place as her fish exporters had already purchased fish from fishermen at high prices based upon arrangements previously entered into with Italian importers. When Italy refused to accept the 300,000 quintals of fish Newfoundland had already shipped to that market at previously agreed upon prices, exporters had to eventually divert this fish to less desirable markets for even less profit.

On January 16, 1919 the Lloyd government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of John Crosbie to control the shipment of all fish exports to markets and to negotiate with the Consorzio. While the committee had success in controlling fish sent to non-Italian markets, it found the Italians unwilling to purchase the 300,000 quintals of fish, despite an offer to sell the fish at substantial price reductions. Later in 1919 the Crosbie Committee recommended to exporters that it be permitted regulatory authority over the price, quality, and supply of fish to the Italian and Greek markets, a proposal which the Board of Trade endorsed. However, the Cashin ministry, which now held office, refused to accept this recommendation, presumably because Cashin did not wish to promote a discussion of fishery problems just before the pending election in November that could only help the FPU. For the products of the 1919 fishing season, the Consorzio again offered low prices for Newfoundland fish that would inevitably result in large losses for Newfoundland exporters. The Canadian banks in Newfoundland subsequently declined to advance further loans to local exporters, because they feared they might ultimately be made responsible for such losses. Cashin finally sponsored a meeting of exporters with Crosbie and George Hawes, a prominent European fish broker. The result was that the exporters agreed to allow Hawes to be their sole spokesman in negotiations with the Italians. While such negotiations ensued, the Cashin ministry had been replaced by one led by Prime Minister Squires and Coaker, who was the new Minister of Fisheries and Marine. The new government decided to continue the policy initiated by its predecessor. Hawes reached an agreement with the Consorzio which was favourable to Newfoundland. However, the agreement quickly collapsed when two maverick Newfoundland exporters decided to undersell their fish to the Consorzio, which now favoured the two mavericks over the other exporters.

Fearful of a collapse of the Newfoundland domestic market, if the remaining exporters refused to buy fish for which they could not sell in the Italian market, Coaker acted swiftly to bring some order to the chaos in the marketing of fish. The government issued a series of proclamations that imposed a marketing regulations policy on the fisheries, whereby minimum prices were set for each major market and exporters were threatened with the loss of their license for breaching the regulations. Hawes was also retained to continue negotiations with the Consorzio. The government also established an Advisory Board for consultations with the fish trade, and allowed for the setting of price, exporters would demand, to fluctuate upwards or downwards according to the supplies on hand and individual market conditions. In January 1920 Hawes succeeded in getting favourable concessions from the Consorzio for the 1920 fishing season. The policy had been a success and Coaker received the support of the Board of Trade for his actions.

Coaker then introduced to the Assembly a legislative programme that contained the various fisheries reforms the FPU had advocated for years. Receiving unanimous support of both houses of the legislature, the Codfish Exportation Act provided for the establishment of an Advisory Board consisting of the Minister of Fisheries and Marine, four licensed exporters appointed by the Governor-in-Council, and two members elected by the exporters through a Salt Codfish Association. The Board was authorized to grant licenses to exporters and issue, suspend, or cancel any license according to its judgement. The weakness of this system, as Ian Mcdonald has noted in his study of the FPU, was that any exporter who lost his license could still apply for another one in the name of his company's general manager, a weakness which would later prove fatal to the success of the Act. The Board's purpose, then, was to set minimum prices for a market and maximum volumes to be shipped at any time (David Alexander, The Decay of Trade. An Economic History of the Newfoundland Saltfish Trade, 1935­ 1965, St. John's, Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University, 1977, 23­24).

Other legislation passed by the legislature was the Codfish Standardization Act, which established a commission charged with the responsibility for regulating all aspects of catching, processing, culling, warehousing, and transportation of fish. It was hoped by this means to improve the quality of Newfoundland fish and to establish a national grading system that would improve the reputation of Newfoundland fish in the markets and eliminate the argument of buyers that it was of a poor quality when it arrived in the markets. The government also appointed trade agents in those countries in which Newfoundland fish was sold and established a public information service for fishermen and a bureau to undertake scientific research. On the whole, the various measures known popularly as the Coaker Regulations, were a progressive and economical means to form a sound basis for future planned development of the fisheries. At a September 1920 meeting of the Convention of Licensed Codfish Exporters, the Regulations received the general support of exporters, but nonetheless, they did have their opponents in the Canadian banks, certain irresponsible merchants, and a few hostile politicians.

The action of the banks to continue their restrictive tight money policy, which cut loans made to badly overextended exporters for fish buying, resulted in considerable anxiety among some merchants not eager to get caught in a credit squeeze. Moreover, some opposition politicians, who were also merchant-exporters, such as Albert Hickman and John Crosbie, also created considerable uneasiness among exporters through their actions in encouraging the officials of the Consorzio to hold out and break the regulations policy. An opportunity arose when George Hawes, the government's negotiator with the Consorzio, became temporarily ill and the exporters asked W.A. Munn, a prominent merchant and opponent of the Coaker Regulations who was in Italy at the time, to assume Hawes' role as negotiator. However, Munn agreed to act as negotiator only if the exporters would terminate the regulations policy, which they refused to do. A further serious blow was dealt the regulations policy when a few days later it became public knowledge that Hickman had recently sold a shipment of fish to the Consorzio at prices lower than that established by the Coaker Regulations. While the government cancelled Hickman's license for this breaching of the Regulations--he, in turn, simply got another license in his general manager's name--his action had the desired effect and two other exporters, one of whom was Munn, followed suit, believing that the Consorzio would lift its import regulations if the Coaker Regulations were dropped. Panic ensued among Newfoundland exporters, who also feared that Norwegian fish would replace their exports if their Regulations were not dropped. Consequently, the Exporters' Association voted to suspend the enforcement of the Regulations, a move Coaker, who was en route to Europe at the time, failed to have the Exporters to reconsider. Concerned over the loss of other markets, the exporters got the regulations lifted on the Portuguese market as well and, through the Board of Trade, began a movement for the repeal of the Codfish Exportation Act, which Squires agreed to do in order to conciliate the protests of the Water Street merchants. Ironically, the Coaker Regulations within the next decade would serve as a model for the reform of their fisheries by Newfoundland's major competitors, Norway and Iceland. As for Newfoundland, eventually the Regulations would serve as the basis in the mid-1930s for the reorganization of the fisheries by the Commission of government through the establishment of the Newfoundland Fisheries Board.

Coaker's disillusionment over the failure of his cherished fisheries regulations almost led to his retirement from politics after 1921. That he did not can be attributed to his growing enthusiasm for an industrial development project being proposed by the Reids, who since 1915 were attempting to secure financial backers to build a paper mill on the Humber River in Western Newfoundland where they held extensive property and power concessions. In 1920 the Reids had found a Norwegian company interested in their proposal and both parties subsequently commissioned a prominent British engineering and armaments firm, Armstrong-Whitworth, to do a detailed survey of Reid's west coast properties. Both parties also hoped that the British firm would be willing to carry out much of the construction work once development started. For Coaker the Humber project was regarded more as a supplement than as a substitute for the fisheries, thereby serving as an outlet for the Island's growing number of unemployed and, hence, reduce the rising cost of relief expenditures.

Despite the withdrawal of the Norwegian partner in 1921 from the Humber project, Coaker and William Warren remained steadfast in cabinet in their support of the project, believing that it was better to expend the money on industrial development to create employment than to raise large loans simply for relief expenditures. Both cabinet ministers were prepared to recommend that the government should, if necessary, support the Reids with financial guarantees of $15 million if they decided to go it alone with the Humber project. Concerned over the guarantee commitments and yet unwilling to risk the success of the project by refusing such assistance, Prime Minister Squires in December 1921 encouraged both Coaker and Warren to pursue further the feasibility of the project with government aid. A month later Squires changed his mind from one of uncertainty to the project to that of outright opposition, because of the considerable government financial risk that would be involved. Consequently, in February 1922 the cabinet decided not to support financially the project, but offered to give the project any other necessary support.

Later in 1922 the Reids and Armstrong-Whitworth put together a new proposal to the Squires government, which now proved more receptive to the project's request for financial assistance. The new proposal would see Armstrong-Whitworth assume majority control of the proposed project that would cost £4 million to develop. Funding would be raised through an issue of debentures in two series of £2 million each. The British government would guarantee the interest and principal on the first series--and the developer agreed to spend £2 million on plant and machinery in Great Britain--and the Newfoundland government would be asked to provide an equal guarantee on the second series. Squires found this proposal more to his liking, especially because of the British guarantee, and was prepared to approve the proposal. With a general election pending in 1923, the Humber proposal, with its promise of hundreds of jobs and the expenditure of millions of dollars into the local economy, was a very attractive symbol of industrial progress for campaigning purposes.

However, the Reids in late 1922 made the success of this project going ahead dependent upon the Newfoundland government buying the profit-losing railway from them. While the railway had operated briefly at a profit during the war, it historically had been a financial drain on the Reid Newfoundland Company, which, after the re-negotiation in 1901 of the 1898 Railway Contract, was only interested in developing its vast mineral and timber concessions on the island. In June 1920 the Reids threatened closure of the railway unless the government immediately provided it with financial assistance. Faced with a shutdown of the railway, the Squires government gave the Reids a loan of $1.5 million for capital expenditures and agreed to assume any losses over the amount of $100,000 on the railway operation for a one-year period. The government also decided to make an investigation of railway finances and placed operation of the railway temporarily under a commission consisting of both government and Reid appointees.

In 1921 the government abolished the commission upon the recommendation of a Canadian railway consultant and appointed, instead, a public Board which would supervise the Reid Company's running of the railway for another year. Under this new arrangement, the government would meet any railway operating losses up to a maximum of $1.5 million. In April 1922 the Reids requested further assistance from the government, but were refused. The following month they closed down the railway, forcing the Squires government to give them a further loan until a final settlement on the disposition of the railway could be settled. After receiving expert legal opinion from three British jurists that it was best for the government to reach an amicable settlement with the Reids, in July 1923 the government bought the railway, the dock in St. John's, and the steamships for a total of $2 million after having earlier in the year given its approval of a guarantee for the Humber proposal. Consequently, on May 2, 1923 Squires went to the electorate for public approval of the Humber project and received his expected mandate, winning 23 of the 36 seats (J.K. Hiller, The Newfoundland Railway, 1881­1949, Newfoundland Historical Society pamphlet, 1981).

In 1920 the Squires government also made significant reform to the educational system. In that year legislation was passed creating a department of education with Arthur Barnes appointed as minister and Vincent Burke as deputy minister. The legislation also provided for the creation of a normal school for teachers on a non-denominational basis, a development that led to the establishment of Memorial University College in 1925 as a junior institution providing the first two years of post-secondary education. In 1927 new legislation was enacted creating a Bureau of Education to replace the department of education to control all educational matters. This new arrangement confirmed denominational control of education through the operation of their own school boards, the right to appoint and dismiss teachers, and the right to receive public funds on a non-discriminatory basis. The act enabled the churches to withstand future major attacks to revise the system over the next decade. The Bureau rarely met and all power lay in the hands of three denominational superintendents from the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and United Church churches; there were three departments of education not one, and government had no control over them.

The Squires-Coaker government won re-election in 1923 against an opposition led by John R. Bennett, a former Morris associate. The Bennett-Cashin party renamed itself the Liberal-Labour-Progressive Party and won 13 of the 36 seats, again mainly in predominantly Catholic voting areas. Within a month of re-election a cabinet revolt in July 1923 forced Squires's resignation as prime minister because his government had used public funds for electioneering purposes. William Warren replaced Squires as prime minister but his Liberal Reform ministry was defeated in April 1924 on a non-confidence vote when several supporters defected to the opposition. Warren received a dissolution for a general election for June 2, 1924 and to strengthen his re-election bid formed a coalition with the opposition. On May 3 he formed a new cabinet consisting mainly of opposition members, including leader William J. Higgins, former leader John Bennett and only one of his former members, Matthew Hawco. Coaker had decided not to run in 1924.

When Hawco withdrew his support for Warren, the prime minister resigned on May 7 and a new government led by Albert Hickman was formed consisting mainly of supporters from the Liberal Reform Party previously led by Squires and then Warren. Hickman's faction was called the Liberal-Progressive Party, while the Warren-Higgins regrouped itself as the Liberal-Conservative Party under St. John's businessman Walter S. Monroe who won 25 seats to Hickman's 10. Warren was re-elected as an independent representing Fortune Bay district.

Having promised the electorate in 1924 to "clean up, keep clean, and give stable government," the conservative-merchant dominated government of Water Street merchant Walter S. Monroe "the plain man of business" failed in its efforts to reduce the island's spiralling public debt and to bring honesty and efficiency to the daily operation of government. His administration proved to be one concerned first with the welfare of the Water Street merchants first, and then, with the people in general. Indeed, during his campaigning in 1924 Monroe sounded his vision of the merchant and fisherman in a state of symbiotic amity--"they to catch, I to export. If they prosper I prosper. If their energies and rewards increase so will mine." While his administration in 1925 gave the franchise to women 25 years and over, many of its other measures proved self-serving to the mercantile class in general and some members of the administration in particular. For instance, the government repealed prohibition in 1924, a measure most beneficial to Colonial Secretary John R. Bennett who was a major brewer. It abolished the income tax and rearranged the customs tariff, which incidently benefited major members of the government. Specifically, in 1925 the government increased the import duties on such items as cigarettes, tobacco, rope, twines, fishing nets, butter, and margarine. While Prime Minister Monroe had a large financial interest in the Imperial Tobacco Company and the Colonial Cordage Company, Sir John Crosbie invested in the construction of a margarine factory after the tariff changes were made. Disenchanted with such policies, the political maverick Peter Cashin in 1925 resigned from the government accusing the Prime Minister of enacting "class legislation of the rankest kind.... The Income Tax had been expunged, and in its place we have a new tariff that will bleed the people white..." (quoted in Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, p. 182).

Nor was the Monroe government free from any charges of political patronage, despite its promises to clean up public affairs. In 1924, for instance, it appointed one of its St. John's MHAs to the post of Liquor Commissioner and removed from public office many civil servants who had been appointed by previous governments. Their replacements were political supporters of the Monroe government. In 1926 his administration experienced five defections led by Gordon Bradley, whom Squires accused of conspiring to overthrow his government. Along with Cashin, these five defectors in opposition served as the nucleus of a small group in the House nominally under the leadership of Liberal Opposition Leader Albert Hickman, but whose loyalties really belonged to Richard Squires who, despite his humiliation in the 1923­1924 period, was poised for a return to active politics. Part of his political resurrection began with his election in July, 1925 as grand master of the Orange Order; another vehicle for his ambitions was the founding in December 1924 of a newspaper called the Globe, which, while not overtly supporting Squires, was opposed strongly to the Monroe administration. Moreover, by the end of 1925 Squires had made overtures to Coaker with regard to the possible formation of another coalition party of the two leaders. By 1928 such a combination had been agreed upon and the Unionist members in the Assembly, in addition to those supportive of Squires, took measures to disassociate themselves from Hickman's leadership. In May 1928 nine members of the opposition, including seven of whom were either Unionists or holders of Union seats, deserted Hickman and informed the Speaker of the House that they had established a new political party under the leadership of Unionist William Halfyard but supporting Richard Squires.

In the 1928 general election, Squires led a confident party with Coaker's Unionist support into the campaign against an administration led by Frederick Alderdice, a Water Street merchant and cousin of Monroe who had replaced Monroe in August 1928 after the latter had retired from politics. The electorate now had a choice between another "plain man of business" in Alderdice and a "man of politics" in Squires. The Alderdice administration had many disadvantages against it entering the campaign, the chief of which was that its predecessor, the Monroe government, had clearly shown itself to be a government indifferent to the plight of the island's working people and had been unable to solve many of the problems faced by the Squires administration from 1919 to 1923. Indeed, for the years 1924­ 1928 the government had continued Squires' policy of borrowing to pay for both the interest on the national debt and for current expenditures, the average amount of borrowing each year was approximately $4 million. For the 1927­1928 fiscal year, moreover, about 40 percent of total government revenues went to meet interest payments on that debt. With no new leader having emerged to challenge the Monroe-Alderdice administrations, the candidacy of Squires for Prime Minister took on an attraction it otherwise would not have had. Reminding voters of who put the "Hum on the Humber" and promising further industrial development if elected, the voters rejected the political rule by Water Street in favour of Squires. Unlike the 1919 election in which Squires owed his electoral victory to Coaker's help, in 1928 the victory was very much Squires' own. Altogether, Squires won 28 of the 40 seats--in 1925 the Monroe administration had increased the number of seats from 36 to 40--and only nine of them belonged to Unionist members. As S.J.R. Noel observes in his Politics in Newfoundland, explanations of "his success may vary: the judgement of the electorate may be taken to imply simply their preference for `the devil they knew over the devil they did not'; or the choice offered them may be taken as reflecting `the ultimate bankruptcy of public life' that Sir Robert Bond had been so fond of predicting; but above all it is clear that the return of Squires was not merely a victory for him and defeat for Alderdice; it was also the most damning verdict that could have been given on the record of Monroe's administration

A strong social reform pulse was evident in St. John's during World War I and in the early 1920s. One aspect of reform had been that manifested by Coaker and the FPU in its quest to reform the fishery. The previously noted NIWA was another aspect of social reform that had emerged late in World War I. Another manifestation was found at the municipal level in St. John's where a civic reform movement had been launched in 1913 by businessman Gilbert Gosling and the Board of Trade. Influenced by North American civic reform ideas elsewhere, Gosling was interested in updating and upgrading local services and government. This civic agitation culminated the following year in the temporary suspension of elected local government and its replacement by a government-appointed commission chaired by Gosling. In 1916 Gosling had won election as mayor and over the next four years helped to draft new civic legislation known as the "Charter" passed by the Newfoundland legislature.

The local churches were also active in social reform, and 1917 church leaders, and civic and labour leaders were at the forefront of a social congress held in St, John's to discuss social and economic problems. One of their main campaigns had been a prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages, which the government introduced on January 1, 1917. The Salvation Army, first established in the city in 1886, was active ministering among the city's labouring population in the west end and in 1921 opened a maternity hospital to fill a pressing need in the city's health system.

Efforts to enhance the political and working conditions of women had been ongoing since at least the early 1890s. The history of these efforts has been documented in a recent book by Margot I. Duley (the niece of the 20th century novelist, Margaret Duley), Where Once Our Mothers Stood We Stand: Women's Suffrage in Newfoundland, 1890­1925 (Charlottetown 1993). In 1891 the St. John's branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Whiteway government to allow women to vote in local districts on whether there should be prohibition on the sale of alcohol. In the early 1900s prominent middle class women in St. John's formed the Current Events Club to discuss public issues affecting women. Leading suffragists included Armine Gosling (who greatly influenced her husband Gilbert in promoting child welfare reforms which led to the establishment of the Child Welfare Association in 1921), Anna Mitchell, Fannie Knowling, May Kennedy Goodridge, and Adeline Browning. Through their work with the Women's Patriotic Association in fundraising for the war effort, these women had numerous contacts with other women in the outports and these contacts were critical during the 1920s in their island-wide petitions to secure suppport for the franchise for women. After several legislative attempts, in 1925 the Monroe government gave the vote to women at age 25; by contrast, men could vote at age 21. In the St. John's municipal election held later in December 1925, three women were candidates for a councillor's position without success, although one of them, Judith Salter Earle, failed to win election by only 11 votes. Earle was also a leading labour figure as president of the Ladies Branch of the NIWA, which from 1918 pressed for shorter working hours, better working conditions and higher wages for women (see Nancy Forestell and Jessie Chisholm, "Working-Class Women as Wage Earners in St. John's, Newfoundland, 1890­1921," in Peta Tancred-Sheriff, ed., Feminist Research: Prospect and Retrospect, Kingston and Montreal, 1988, pp. 141­55).

Source: Melvin Baker, "History 3120 Manual: Newfoundland History, 1815-1972", Division of Continuing Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1994, revision of 1986 edition)