In Search of The "New Jerusalem": Slum Clearance in St. John's, 1921-1944


Melvin Baker(c)1983

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXIX, no. 2 (Fall 1983)

Unlike the municipal governments of the 1920s and 1930s to be found in major Canadian cities, the City Council in St. John's was greatly restricted in its jurisdiction over civic finance. In Canada full incorporation was the norm with municipalities having the power to raise loans and issue civic bonds to pay for needed local improvements. By contrast, St. John's did not have such financial independence in its civic administration for, though the legislature had in 1888 granted St. John's a limited form of self-rule, it had never been a fully incorporated municipal body. The Council elected in 1888 had been given authority over water supply, streets, sewers, the fire brigade, and building regulations, but the legislature, to meet the fears of property owners, had provided significant checks on municipal power in respect of taxation and expenditure. Thus, the Council was required to submit to the legislature an annual balanced statement of its revenues and expenditures and to obtain government approval for any taxation increase. This requirement enabled the city's merchants and large property owners, through influence in Cabinet and Assembly as well as in the Legislative Council, to decide what taxes should be levied and what loans raised. (1)

The fact that St. John's could not raise loans on the strength of its own credit often meant that Council could not carry out needed civic improvements, although St. John's might have been able to afford the loans necessary for doing so. Consequently, the city's efforts to undertake any substantial expenditure in town planning and slum clearance were marked by acrimonious debate between the Newfoundland Government and the City Council as to whether St. John's could afford such improvements, a situation which Canadian municipalities by their very existence of full incorporation did not have to confront. It was not until 1944 that the two levels of government were able to reach a settlement on the longstanding issue of how the city debt should be managed and what should be the respective responsibilities of each government in respect of it. Only then were the two governments able to agree upon a co-operative effort in town planning that would allow for the development of new planned suburbs to alleviate the overcrowding and poor housing situation in the city's mixed residential-commercial district. The St. John's Housing Corporation formed in 1944 was the result of this effort.

An overcrowded and unsanitary central slum area had long been a fact of life for St. John's residents. This area was bounded on the north by Harvey Road, on the south by New Gower Street, on the east by Carter's Hill, and on the west by Springdale Street. (2) By 1925 there was in this area alone some 900 houses not connected to the city sewage system. Some 80 per cent of those were considered by municipal authorities to be unfit for human habitation. The social, fire and public health problems associated with this slum area were also being duplicated in a new slum which had grown up in the suburb bounded by Merrymeeting Road to the south and the Old Railway Road (now Empire Avenue) to the north. Before 1921 this area had been outside the municipal limits and under unregulated govenment control.

The living conditions of residents, especially those of young boys, in both old and new St. John's was a matter of great concern to the Rotary Club which had been organized in November, 1921, in the city. Dedicated to social service in the community, the Club in 1922 undertook a survey of boy life, concentrating on their educational, health, and recreational needs. (3) Appalled by what they saw while visiting the unsanitary and dilapidated houses of boys from poor neighbourhoods, the Rotarians were convinced that a practical approach to improving quality of life would be through a program of better housing.

In 1925 the Rotary Club joined with the recently formed voluntary Charity Organization Bureau, whose role was to coordinate the activities of the city's many charity associations and to study all matters relating to social service, to consider what steps should be taken to help alleviate the poor housing situation. A joint committee of both organizations was subsequently appointed under the direction of St. John's merchant, Leonard Outerbridge. This committee visited the homes of the poor and brought the worst housing conditions to the attention of the City Council which forced landlords to make some repairs to their rented properties. In the course of their investigations, the committee found that in certain circumstances tenants paid no rent at all to their landlords because the houses were practically worthless and landlords were unable to collect rent on such dilapidated dwellings. The only reason Council did not destroy these as unfit for human habitation was that there were no alternative residences. Rotary Club members proposed that an expert in urban problems be brought to St. John's to study the city's housing situation and physical development in quest of a permanent solution. (4)

On the recommendation of Toronto municipal authorities, (5) in September, 1926, the Rotary Club secured the services of Arthur Dalzell, a prominent Toronto town planner and civic engineer. The Scotland-born Dalzell had worked for 14 years as an engineer in Halifax, England, before qualifying in 1897 to become an English Sanitary Inspector. In 1908 he took up the position of assistant city engineer in Vancouver, Canada, where he remained until 1918. The following year he was appointed an assistant to Thomas Adams, the town planning adviser to the Canadian Government. During Dalzell's stay in St. John's the Rotary Club instructed him to report on the state of existing housing in St. John's and to make suggestions as to how immediate relief could be given to needy persons. Moreover, he was to set out a well considered permanent town plan that would include ways over a long period of time gradually to eradicate existing slum conditions and to prevent the futher growth of new slum areas. The approximate three thousand dollars needed to bring Dalzell to St. John's for his six-week visit was raised by a committee of the Club. (6)

Dalzell's Report, entitled "To the Citizens of St. John's, Newfoundland, Is All Well?", noted the immediate need for town planning in St. John's. The means, he argued, already existed under Section 92 of the 1921 City Act which allowed for the appointment by government of a Town Planning Commission. (7) The work of this Commission, as envisaged by former Mayor William Gilbert Gosling (1916-1920), who had favoured a strong administrative role for City Council and who had helped draft the legislation on which the Act was based, was to study thoroughly the lands and roads both within city limits and to the extent of one mile outside the limits. The Commission of six was to recommend periodically to the City Council on the opening of new streets, the improvement and extension of new streets, the laying out of building lots, the reserving of land for firebreaks, parks, and playgrounds, and the overall expansion of St. John's. (8) Council's concern over expenditure and its uncertainty as to what work this proposed Commission of trained engineers and town planners should carry out, it seems, help explain why Mayor Tasker Cook (1921-1929), who was a well known opponent of municipal involvement in the housing field, had not asked the government to appoint such a planning body. (9)

To those in the community and on Council who feared that the Commission might act independently of Council's wishes, Dalzell explained that the Commission's powers would be derived from and defined by Council and be strictly of an advisory nature. This Commission, Dalzell suggested, would decide what areas of St. John's were suitable for building based on the availability of water and sewer services. It would also recommend to Council a zoning system for the city with areas designated for residential, business, and industrial purposes. Furthermore, steps would also have to be taken to ascertain which houses in the central slum area would have to be torn down and which streets widened or extended. The proposed planning improvements in the slum areas should take place over a long period of time and at a pace which the city could afford. (10)

With regard to providing houses for the poor, Dalzell strongly urged Council to make use of Section 88 of the 1921 City Act which permitted Council to build houses itself and to give financial assistance to those wishing to build workingmen's houses. To defray the cost of such housing improvements, Dalzell called on the Newfoundland Government to provide Council with funds for the housing question was a "national not a local problem." Good housing was a necessity, he asserted, to the health and welfare of both capital and dominion. (11) This assistance was absolutely necessary since Council could not afford to do so on its own. Indeed, when in August, 1922, E. Collishaw asked for assistance for his proposed formation of the St. John's Building Society to construct homes for labourers, Mayor Cook and Council refused to guarantee a Society building loan of $50,000. (12) In fact, any significant civic improvement could not take place, Cook noted in a 1925 "Bricks with Straw" public address to the Rotary Club, until there was a great increase in property taxation, an unpopular measure that neither Cook nor his predecessors had been willing to implement. (13)

With Dalzel's Report in hand, a joint committee of the Rotary Club and the Charity Organization Bureau was successful in getting the government with Council's approval to appoint a Town Planning Commission. On April 21, 1928, Supreme Court Justice James Kent was named chairman of the six-man Commission whose members were nominated for their particular expertise. (14) Thus, William Howley was to be the Commission's legal adviser and J. J. McKay the financial consultant. The remaining three were J. Boyd Baird, an engineer who was the secretary of the Newfoundland Board of Fire Underwriters, William J. Robinson, the assistant Government Engineer, and Rudolf H. K. Cochius, a Dutch born landscape architect and, since 1925, the Superintendent Engineer of the Newfoundland Highways Commission. (15)

Cochius was in particular a fitting choice for the Commission. He had first come to St. John's in 1912 to lay out a park outside city limits that had been donated to St. John's residents by the local firm of Bowring Brothers. This park had been designed by Montreal landscape architect and town planner, Frederick G. Todd, for whom Cochius had previously worked. (16) In 1917 he returned to Montreal where he formed a partnership with Todd and in 1918-1919 served as a town planning adviser and surveyor to the Quebec Government on its housing policy. (17) As a member of the Newfoundland Highways Commission, Cochius had taken a strong interest in St.John's town planning and how this could be carried out. In 1927, for instance, he had made a plan of St. John's which included an extensive boulevard system both in and around the city limits. It also contained a major reorganization of the central slum area to incorporate a new thoroughfare and the tearing down of some dilapidated buildings and their replacement by a better class of housing. However, since there are no known surviving records of the Town Planning Commission, (18) it is difficult to say to what extent Cochius's ideas influenced the Commission's activities.

A voluntary body, the Town Planning Commission was given free accommodation at City Hall by Council in addition to a monthly grant of $50 to pay for its clerical expenses. Upon assuming office in June, 1928, the Commissioners declared their main priority to be ameliorating the poor housing situation. (20) One of their earliest proposals was to open negotiations with some private investors concerning the redevelopment of the central area. This approach was quickly dropped when the Commission refused to give the investors the great control of development and the ownership of land they demanded and to pay the high interest on the money the investors were willing to put up. In any case, the Commission was against simply tearing down houses in the central area unless alternate housing could be found for those residents who would be displaced by such a course of action. (21) Constructing houses in the suburbs for the working poor whose homes could be torn down was a notion studied in detail by the Commission in May, 1929, but one which was abandoned on the grounds that it was not financially possible to build these homes unless there was some government or municipal rental subsidy involved. (22)

The next scheme embraced by the Commission in May, 1929, was the development of Crown Land on the South Side Hills near the head of the harbour. During the 1920s this area was settled by squatters who could not find cheaper building lots elsewhere in the city. What the Commission had in mind was for the government through its Crown Lands Office to give building lots to the employees of merchants whose premises were located on the south side of the harbour. It was estimated by the Commission that there were between 600 and 800 men employed in this part of the city. For their part, the merchants would lend their employees money to construct houses on the South Side Hills under City Council control. In order to get this building scheme started, later in 1929 the Commission had asked the Liberal Government of Richard Squires to make available about $50,000 to construct an adequate road to the proposed building site. It is not known if the merchants were in favour of this housing scheme, but in any case the matter was dropped when the Government refused the Commission's request for funds. (23)

Despite this setback, the Town Planning Commission had gained in the December 9, 1929, election strong allies in the persons of a new mayor and five of six councillors who were all dedicated to extensive civic improvements. New Mayor Dr. Charles Howlett, a 46 year-old dentist, had campaigned on a strong anti-government platform and decried the close relationship which in the past had often existed between colonial and municipal politicians. The outgoing mayor had been a case in point; Cook's having held office as a minister without portfolio since 1928 in the unpopular Squires Government had been a significant factor in his defeat by Howlett. This relationship, Howlett asserted, was typical of how St. John's had been the "football of politicians for years." In particular, he was critical of the fact that the government refused to permit Council to borrow money in the open market. Rather, the government itself borrowed the money and charged the municipality a higher rate of interest than Council would have paid had it borrowed directly. This situation had existed, he believed, because Cook and other municipal politicians had not demanded financial independence. This, he proposed to change, since independence was necessary if a comprehensive town planning and slum clearance program were to be implemented. (24)

After assuming office, Howlett and his fellow Councillors set out to seek a readjustment of Council's financial arrangements with government. Howlett proposed complete financial freedom for the city and, in effect, full incorporation. This was to be achieved by the city raising a loan of $3,000,000 from Canadian financial houses. With a civic debt smaller in comparison to Canadian cities of a similar size, Howlett had found during a visit to Canada in 1930 that St. John's could get this loan without a government guarantee if it were to establish a sinking fund for its repayment. From the proposed loan council would reduce its funded debt to the government of approximately $1,600,000 by the payment of $1,000,000 and would spend the remaining $2,000,000 on civic improvements. In particular, Howlett proposed to use $500,000 for the paving of Duckworth Street and another $500,000 for town planning and housing purposes. (25) Later in June, Howlett had a municipal bill prepared and presented to the legislature authorizing the city to raise this loan. However, the Squires Government did not take the bill seriously, considering the proposal ridiculous and the loan beyond the city's means. Given Howlett's past vocal criticisms of the Government, it is not surprising that Squires failed to act on Council's request. (26)

Nevertheless, Howlett pressed forward with his quest for full incorporation. In February, 1931, he finally achieved some measure of independence when the Squires Government agreed to allow Council without any government guarantee to float a bond issue of $250,000 in the Canadian financial market and to establish a sinking fund to repay the bond. The proposed loan would be used to pave Duckworth and New Gower Streets and to build a street northwest of Merrymeeting Road to open a new area for house construction. (27) Nevertheless, Council did not act immediately to raise the bond because the government had offered the municipality another financial proposal. Under a loan act the legislature passed on May 15, Squires proposed to raise a total of $8,000,000 which was to be used to redeem government loans and to give Council $1,000,000 for civic improvements. Out of this loan from government, Council had proposed to spend $250,000 for water and sewerage extension, $300,000 for paving Water, Duckworth and New Gower Streets, and $150,000 for town planning and housing schemes. (28) To enable Council to carry out this work, separate legislation was passed empowering the Town Planning Commission to prepare an official plan of the city and of the area one mile outside the city limits. (29)

By the end of May, it was clear that the government would be unable to raise the loan because of the effects of the international depression on the Newfoundland economy. With the Island unable to sell its fish in the world market, by mid-1931 the government's revenue had fallen off drastically and its international credit was almost exhausted. On June 30, 1931, the government's default on its payments on the national debt was narrowly averted by the intervention of the Canadian banks which agreed to advance a loan of $2,000,000. A similar arrangement was negotiated by the government for the interest payment due on December 30, 1931. In return, the bankers extracted from the Squires Government a commitment to strict economy in public expenditure. (30)

With the government unable to provide Council with the necessary funds for municipal improvements, Mayor Howlett on June 30, 1931 asked the Squires Government for authority to raise a bond issue of $500,000 instead of the $250,000 authorized on February 28, 1931. The extra money was requested, Howlett claimed, because investment houses would not be interested in the smaller amount that would entail much trouble and expense on their part. If the loan were raised, he wanted the bond to be made a first charge on the city revenue and the Island's Trustee Act changed in order that the bond be recognized as a legal investment for trust funds. Indeed, Howlett was so confident of the city's credit that he wanted to borrow a total of $3,500,000 from Canadian investors to pay off the civic debt owed the government and to effect needed improvements in the city. Only when the city can use "every dollar it can borrow up to its capacity to provide for interest and sinking fund," he once more informed the government, could the "slum clearance problem, for example, with the resultant necessity of providing new housing . . . be tackled." (31) Since the proposals to make the bond a first charge on the city revenue and to change the Trustee Act would require amending legislation at the 1932 session of the legislature, the Squires Government authorized Howlett to raise only $500,000 under the terms already agreed upon for the $250,000 loan. (32)

In the event, during his visit to Toronto in July, Howlett arranged to raise a loan of $157,000 from the Royal Bank to pay for a paving contract for Duckworth and New Gower Streets. His success in getting this loan approved had been made possible only after the Warren Bituminous Paving Company of Toronto, the contractor Howlett had secured, had agreed to accept $75,000 in municipal bonds if and when they were floated. (33) At this time this Company had also apparently acted as an intermediary for some Toronto financiers who wanted to develop the central slum area of St. John's by spending several million dollars. The exact nature of this development was unknown even to the city's Town Planning Commission (34) but, in any case, the scheme was evidently dropped in 1931 when the Toronto investors backed out on the development because of the worsening Canadian depression. (35)

In anticipation of the improvements Council hoped to make in slum clearance once it had floated its own municipal bonds, Council brought Montreal town planner Frederick G. Todd to St. John's in late 1931 to help with the preparation of an official plan as provided for under the 1931 Municipal Act. During his two week visit, Todd made plans for the realignment of streets in the central slum area and offered a proposal for its redevelopment. What Todd had in mind was for Council or some public body to purchase the land in the central slum and tear down 490 buildings. In the space thus vacated only 200 buildings could be constructed with the remaining space devoted to street widening and the construction of small parks. The total cost of this development was estimated at $1,732,500, with approximately $400,000 of this cost recoverable from the sale of the proposed 200 buildings. Todd's plan for street realignment was subsequently approved by Council but the ability of the Town Planning Commission in 1932 to carry out any further survey work based on the plan was greatly hindered by insufficient funds. (36)

Indeed, Council's financial problems worsened in 1932 as the Newfoundland Government itself was on the verge of bankruptcy. On June 30, 1932, default had been narrowly averted once more when the Squires Government acquired funds from the Imperial Oil Company in return for a petroleum monopoly on the island. Default on December 31, 1932, was again avoided when the Government of Frederick Alderdice, who had defeated the unpopular Squires Government in a general election held earlier in the year, agreed to accept a joint loan from the British and Canadian governments. In return, Alderdice consented to a British-Canadian inquiry into Newfoundland public affairs. The findings of this inquiry, which reported on October 4, 1933, to the British House of Commons, was that Newfoundland needed a respite from politics for a number of years until the Island became self-supporting again. In the meantime, the legislature would be temporarily replaced by a commission of three representatives from the United Kingdom and three from Newfoundland under the chairmanship of the governor. This Commission of Government took office on February 16, 1934. (37)

In its efforts to maintain financial solvency in 1932, the Squires Government withheld several public grants totalling approximately $60,000 from the City Council. These were the annual legislative subsidies for the upkeep of Bowring Park and the maintenance of the city's lighting and sanitary services, and road and bridge system. In addition, since 1925 Council had received half of the fees collected by the government for motor and driving licenses issued to persons residing in St. John's. In 1932 the government reduced Council's share of this revenue from one-half to one quarter, a move which along with the other actions resulted in Council defaulting on its interest payments to the colony for that year. (38) In an act of desperation at 1932 session of the legislature, the Squires Government in April passed legislation incorporating the plan of debt adjustment proposed by the late mayor, Charles Howlett who had died the previous month. Under this act, Council was empowered to borrow a sum not exceeding $3,500,000 by the issue of municipal bonds, and to make this loan a first charge on the assets and revenue of the city, once Council had repaid the government a total of $2,000,000 it owed the dominion for the funded debt and government guarantees on civic loans. (39)

Despite this additional borrowing authority, Council's financial problems prevented it from raising the full loan. Consequently, in August, 1932, Council floated only the $500,000 bond that had been authorized by the government the previous year, but now under different terms. By the terms of the issue which was guaranteed by the government, Council was required to establish a sinking fund for the repayment of the principal and interest of the bond which was due in 1947. To ensure that there would be sufficient revenue for this sinking fund, Council agreed to turn over to the banks one-half of the monies it received from the government from the duty placed on all coal imported into St. John's. The money from this bond issue was to be used to repay the amount Council owed the Warren Bituminous Paving Company of Toronto for paving St. John's streets and for general municipal improvements. (40) With the money available from this bond issue and with a reduction in January, 1934, in the annual rate of interest the government charged Council for its share of the national debt, (41) Council was able after 1934 to meet its general expenditure through strict economy, so strict in fact that the annual $600 subsidy to the Town Planning Commission (42) was discontinued and the commission consequently went quietly out of operation.

With the establishment of Commission of Government in February, 1934, Council initially found its working relationship with the dominion no improvement over its previous experience. The difficulties between the governments centred on Council's financial affairs, which the Commission considered to be inefficiently managed by an incompetent "road and sewerage board." Noting that Council was the only remaining elected body in Newfoundland, Finance Commissioner E.N.R. Trentham, a British Treasury official, stated in 1936 that the Council and the citizens of St. John's would rather treasure the "illusion of responsible government" than the "improvement in the City's condition which [Council's] removal would produce." (43) In 1934 the Commission offered Council a $500,000 loan for city improvements and a start on a slum clearance program. It was refused by Council on the grounds that the Commission wanted complete jurisdiction over all city expenditure until the loan had been repaid. (44) Two years later the Commission gave serious consideration to the notion of abolishing the Council and appointing in its place a city manager, but shied away from this course of action because of its political unpopularity. (45)

Council's hostility towards the Commission was in part the result of its reaction to the latter's disdain for it. Furthermore, Council believing as it did that the city's past and present financial problems were caused by government interference, felt that it had a legitimate grievance the Commission should address. Indeed, much of the city's debt, argued Mayor Andrew Carnell, an undertaker and populist politician who had replaced Howlett in 1932 and had been returned by acclamation in the 1933 municipal election, had been accumulated because St. John's was made the "victim of political intrigue and gross injustice" by past governments. Hence, Council pressed the Commission to have the city's funded debt of $1,648,904.54 owed to the Dominion reduced. Of this debt, $607,000 represented the purchase price of the privately owned General Water Company which had supplied St. John's with water before 1888. Council now asserted not only that it should never have been made responsible for this purchase, but that in any case much of what had been purchased had been in poor shape and had subsequently cost a lot of money to improve. Another portion of the debt had arisen because of government expenditure made after the great fire in July, 1892 when the government of the day was in charge of the rebuilding and spent money needlessly for its own political purposes, including providing relief work for outport residents. Moreover, Council claimed that between 1900 and 1930 successive governments had retained for themselves over $ 1,000,000 in road grants which properly should have been spent by Council. Finally, Council wanted the Commission to restore the several legislative grants the Squires Government in 1932 had taken away from the city. (46) With Council remaining steadfast in its position, the Commission decided in June 1937 to encourage a better working relationship with Council by making the city an annual grant and by reducing the funded debt to $1,000,000. (47)

While the Commission of Government by 1937 had been unable to promote a housing scheme for St. John's through the City Council, it did have some success in the housing field through the activities of the Railway Employees' Welfare Association. Formed on March 12, 1927, by the employees of the publicly owned Newfoundland Railway, the aims of the Association were to provide for its members both social and athletic activities and welfare, health, educational, and financial benefits. With regard to housing assistance, the association decided to establish a savings and provident fund to enable members to "borrow money at reasonable rates of interest and on easy terms of repayment for the purpose of acquiring homes." A rental purchase plan was subsequently set up which saw the Association take over the mortgages held by its members and charge them a lower annual interest rate. In 1931 this scheme was augmented by an "Own Your Own Home" Fund. Under this scheme, the Association purchased a number of houses for rental to members at a low annual payment that would eventually lead to ownership. (48)

The success of this scheme by 1934 prompted the Association to adopt a more ambitious housing scheme. In August of that year it bought a large tract of land just outside the city's western limits on Craigmillar Avenue and Topsail Road. With loans of $235,000 from the Commission of Government and $50,000 from the Bank of Montreal, the Association had constructed, by the end of 1935, 123 houses that were available to its members for rental monthly payments of between $15 and $30 over a ten-year period. Since the development was outside the city limits, the St. John's City Council extended water and sewerage mains to the area only after the Association agreed to pay the cost of the work. In November, 1935, the Association opened a co-operative store for the residents of the Railway Houses where they could purchase food supplies at a reasonable price. (49) Despite the success of this housing scheme, the Association did not pursue any further large development, presumably because of a change in 1937 in the composition of the Commission of Government. The new Commissioner evidently was simply not as symptheticas his predecessor to public assistance for such schemes. (50 )

This reluctance to provide government money in the housing field was critical to the failure of a housing scheme put forward by the City Council in May, 1939. In a resolution approved on May 4, Councillor John Meaney called on the co-operation of both the Commission of Government and Council in the formation of a building organization to provide houses for the working poor. Since it was not profitable for private investors to build such houses and since Council was not in a financial position to do so, Meaney called on the Commission to raise the necessary capital outlay of $1,250,000. This money would be spent within a period of two years for the construction of 500 houses that would range in cost from $1,800 to $3,600 each. A resident of this housing estate, which was to be built within city limits, could own his own house and land on which it stood after a period of 15 years in return for a monthly rental payment to the building organization of an amount between $16 and $36. The construction of the houses and the management of their operations to the end of the 15 year amortization period, Meaney proposed, should be carried out by some form of a public or semi-public organization which would be greatly assisted in its management by the small building societies already existing in St. John's. (51)

Besides raising the necessary capital for the housing scheme, Meaney also wanted the Commission of Government to provide this money to the building organization at an annual interest rate of 3 per cent, a rate which was necessary for the scheme to be economically viable. If the government could not provide the 3 per cent rate, then Meaney wanted it to assume responsibility for the payment of interest over and above the rate of 3 per cent per annum. For its part, Council would be asked to levy a lower rate of taxation on the proposed houses than that placed on a similar class of low income housing already existing in the city. (52)

The Commission's response to this housing scheme on May 12 was to refer it to a committee of three of its members who subsequently raised serious objections to the plan. (53) What the Commissioners found most difficult to accept was the large financial commitment the government would be asked to undertake while Council's responsibility was minimal. The Commissioner for Finance, J. H. Penson, informed his colleagues on August 1, 1939, that the scheme was impractical financially and took the position outlined ten years earlier by the Town Planning Commission with regard to providing houses for the working poor. That is, such houses could not be constructed unless there was some government or municipal rental subsidy involved. In any case, Penson thought that a thorough study of housing conditions was necessary before an extensive building program should be undertaken. (54) When no reply to the housing scheme was forthcoming from the Commission of Government, on March 7, 1941, the City Council wrote the Commission for an answer to its May 4, 1939, proposal. (55) On this occasion the Commission simply informed Council that it could not assume the responsibility for finding the money to finance the scheme. (56)

With the two levels of government unable to agree upon an acceptable housing scheme, the matter was taken up in November, 1941, by a recently formed Citizens' Committee with Eric Cook, a lawyer and a son of a former mayor, as one of its main organizers. Supported by both business and labour, this Committee wanted a slum clearance scheme immediately undertaken under the direction of a city-wide master plan and a housing program started with the help of money from the government along the lines of the 1938 Canadian National Housing Act. (57) Under this Act, a prospective house owner was generally required to put up 20 per cent of the cost of the house, while the remaining 80 per cent would be provided by a financial lending institution and guaranteed by the Government. (58) If such a plan were adopted for St. John's Cook and his associates confidently predicted that some 50 to 100 houses could be constructed each year. (59)

No doubt, the Committee was formed to press for the election of candidates sympathetic to this housing proposal in the municipal election to be held on December 15, 1941. In the event, Cook was a candidate and polled the highest votes among those running for one of the six Council positions and became the city's new Deputy Mayor. (60) In the mayoralty race, Mayor Carnell was easily returned by a sizable majority over his opponent, businessman P. R. McCormac, who had promised to carry out the recommendations of the 1927 Dalzell Report and implement a 15-year housing program. By contrast, Carnell declared that he, too was in support of a housing scheme, including one that would erect homes for the working poor, but noted that any scheme must be financially sound and not discourage citizens from building their own houses. (61)

Soon after the new Council took office in January, 1942, Deputy Mayor Cook moved to have Council act quickly on the housing question. Representatives of various segments of the community were approached to serve on a commission of enquiry into St. John's housing conditions Council proposed to ask the Commission of Government to appoint. After securing the nomination of 12 prominent citizens to represent the city's Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Church, and Salvation Army congregations, the Board of Trade, the Child Welfare Association, the Railway Employees' Welfare Association, the Newfoundland Federation of Labour,and the St.John's Longshoremen's Protective Union, on April 11, 1942, Council asked the government to appoint the commission. The terms of reference for this proposed commission, Council suggested, would be to make a thorough survey of the housing situation in St. John's and to devise a system to create better housing for the working poor, the unemployed, and the casually employed. In addition, the commission of enquiry would consider how St. John's could best be planned under an extensive slum clearance and housing program. Moreover, Council wanted this proposed commission's report to be made to it and become the property of the municipality, the government's only involvement being simply to appoint the body of enquiry without delay. (62)

On April 17, 1942, the Commission of Government agreed to appoint the enquiry on the understanding that it report also to the government. When Council agreed to this condition, on May 12 a 13-member commission was appointed by the Governor-in-Commission and consisted of the representative groups suggested earlier by Council in addition to its representative, Deputy Mayor Cook. (63) At the first meeting of the Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning in St. John's held later that month, Supreme Court Justice Brian Dunfield, who had been selected by the Housing Commission as its chairman, put forward a course of action for the enquiry to follow if it were to devise a "sound working scheme for improving the housing situation, a scheme which the Municipal Council and the Government can see their way to adopt and put into operation." Noting that any financing for a housing development probably would not take place until after the war, Dunfield considered the moment opportune to undertake an exhaustive survey of the different forms of housing in the city and of the social and economic condition of their inhabitants. (64)

Between November, 1942, and January, 1944, Dunfield and his associates produced five reports on housing and town planning in St. John's based on a detailed statistical survey of households. Dunfield proposed that the government and Council co-operate in the making of a new planned garden suburb in the valley north of the city. To rebuild on the site of the central slum area, the Housing Commission found, would not be a practical solution to the housing problem. "The elements of the situation," it observed, were that "most of the houses in the older parts of the town need twice the land they have, that a large part of the population needs twice the room-space it has, and that a great part of our houses are of very low grade." The Housing Commission, therefore, appealed to the community "to look a generation ahead now, make a bold, united effort and lay our plans for more space and better houses once and for all." (65) In their deliberations, Dunfield and his associates were strongly influenced by developments in the town planning field in the United Kingdom where the government since 1937 had conducted extensive studies into urban problems leading in 1943 to the creation of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, which gave local authorities more central control in the reconstruction of cities after the war. (66)

Dunfield proposed an active role for the state in the suburb to be developed. To acquire the necessary land and to build the houses, he suggested that a public housing corporation be formed that would be independent of both levels of government and be managed on strict business principles. While acknowledging the merits of the Canadian housing example where the Government made mortgage financing more readily available to its citizens, Dunfield believed that a public corporation would be more effective in providing new housing for low income groups. By being both the general builder and landlord, a public corporation could ensure the quality of the house to be constructed and prevent its entry into the speculative market, thus probably driving up its price. This corporation would be able to sell its houses to prospective home owners at a price they could afford. Once a sufficient number of houses had been constructed in this northern suburb to relieve the pressure on housing in the city, the public housing corporation would then turn its attention, the Housing Commission noted in its Third Interim Report in June, 1943, to a possible program of slum clearance. This would be achieved by demolishing the most dilapidated houses and erecting a better class of buildings in their place. To pay for this large housing scheme, the Housing Commision suggested that the necessary funds be obtained from the Commission of Government and the City Council. (67)

By early 1944 Council's ability to contribute to this program depended to a great extent on its efforts since August, 1942, to have the city's funded debt to the dominion of $1,000,000 readjusted and if possible abolished. Council's view in part was the same it had taken in the mid-1930s, but its resolve was also strengthened by the rapid deterioration that was taking place in its streets. This deterioration was being caused by the heavy motor traffic on city streets resulting from the large number of American and Canadian armed forces personnel stationed in St. John's because of the war. Consequently, Council asked the government for a road grant large enough to cover the increased cost of maintaining the streets. Because the government had been taking in each year an ever increasing amount of revenue from license fees and its duty on gasoline, Council also wanted part of this additional revenue. It proposed, moreover, to increase the property assessment of 5 per cent it levied on government property in the city, a rate 11 per cent lower than that levied on private property. Although Council was in no pressing need for this additional revenue, it, nonetheless, argued that more revenue was critical for the city to undertake further borrowings for capital improvements once the war had ended. Only in this way, Council declared, would St. John's be able to extend water and sewerage service to the proposed new northern suburb and to give financial assistance to the new housing corporation to be set up. (68)

The government's initial response to Council's demand for more revenue was that the 1937 readjustment in the city's funded debt was a final settlement to its claims against the dominion. If the Commission of Government could not find its way to provide this revenue, then Council subsequently suggested that the city's funded debt of $1,000,000 be waived, thus saving the city $30,000 in annual interest payments to the dominion. Because the government had not established a sinking fund for the repayment of the civic funded debt, this $30,000 represented in effect a perpetual payment on Council's part to the Newfoundland Government. In the end, spurred on by a recent recommendation of the Fifth Report of the Housing Commission that the debt be cancelled, on March 3, 1944, (70) the Commission of Government agreed to waive the debt in order that Council's borrowing power could be greatly enhanced for the financing of the housing scheme and other capital works. This cancellation was to take the place of the revenue Council had sought from the government. (71) As part of the agreement, Council consented not to raise the property assessment on government property in the city. (72)

With the question of the readjustment of the debt finally resolved to Council's satisfaction, in November, 1944, the city secured legislation authorizing it to issue bonds on the credit of the city for an amount not exceeding $3,000,000. The money from the sale of these bonds, which were repayable within 25 years, was to be used to repay the city's outstanding indebtedness to the banks for past civic improvements and to pay for future municipal projects. Of this $3,000,000 loan, $1,200,000 was to be lent to the St. John's Housing Corporation, set up in July, 1944, by the Commission of Government, to undertake the housing scheme proposed by the Housing Commission. (73)

In addition to the money received from Council, the newly established Housing Corporation was given a total of $5,338,939 between 1944 and 1949 from the Commission of Government for the development of the northern suburb. (74) Consisting of nine members appointed by the Governor-in-Commission and approved by the City Council, the Housing Corporation was an independent body with legal authority to purchase land for development and to build houses for sale. (75) With Brian Dunfield as its first chairman, the Corporation was able to commence operations in October, 1944, with the construction of a road system in the proposed new suburb, which became known as Churchill Park. Having laid the foundation of its first house on July 6, 1945, in the next five years the St. John's Housing Corporation constructed 239 houses and 92 apartment units in addition to major streets, water and sewer works. (76) From the beginning of the Corporation's work, the public body was faced with the difficult task of convincing citizens that Churchill Park was not too far from the city's harbourfront and the nearby commercial area. With little public transportation available to the area until the suburb was substantially built up, the new suburb was often referred to by citizens as the "New Jerusalem." (77)

However, Churchill Park was not to be the answer to the city's continuing slum problem. Indeed, the houses constructed by the Corporation were designed for use by the city's returning war veterans and middle class whose vacated homes in the city, corporation Chairman Dunfield had hoped, would be taken over by lower income groups. With regard to the city's slum problem, Dunfield and the Corporation had subsequently decided that it was first necessary to build a sufficient number of new houses in order to ensure that the total number available both in the city and the northern suburb would exceed the total number of families. Only then, Dunfield believed, could the Corporation start to pull down one slum house for each new house built and also address the question of reconditioning substandard houses. In any case, Dunfield noted in 1947 that the Corporation could only provide housing for the poor, if the government made available a subsidy equal to approximately 50 per cent of the monthly rent. (78)

While the St. John's City Council after 1945 was unwilling to commit further city revenue to a slum clearance scheme because of its large financial involvement in the St. John's Housing Corporation, the Commission of Government, too, was reluctant to act on its own, taking the view that the issue of slum clearance was strictly a municipal responsibility which the Island should not be asked to finance on its own. (79) Consequently, any future concerted effort to rid St. John's of its slums had to await Newfoundland's entry in 1949 into the Canadian Confederation and the subsequent infusion in the 1950s and 1960s of Federal funds. This new funding resulted in the demolition of much of the central slum area and the resettlement of its residents to government supported housing projects in the suburbs.


1. On the incorporation of St. Iohn's in 1888, see Melvin Baker, Aspects of Nineteenth Century St. John's Municipal History (St. John's 1982), 48-63.

2. Trade Review Commercial Annual, March 26, 1910.

3. St.John's Rotary Club Minute Book, 1922-1923, and "History of the Rotary Club," 7-11 (records in the possession of St. John's Mayor John J. Murphy); and Charles E. Hunt,"The Rotary Club," in J. R. Smallwood, ed., The Book of Newfoundland, vol. 2 (St. John's 1937), 91.

4. Evening Telegram July 23, 1926.

5. Daily News, September 30, 1941.

6. Ibid. See also Evening Telegram, July 23, 1926, and Journal of the Town Planning Institute (October 1926), 6-7.

7. Arthur Dalzell, To the Citizens of St. John's, Newfoundland, Is All Well? (Toronto 1926), 10.

8. Statutes of Newfoundland, 12 George V, Cap. 13.

9. Evening Telegram, March, 7, December 2, 8, 1925, November 27, 1929.

10. Dalzell, To the Citizens of St. John's, Newfoundland, Is All Well? 10-6.

11. Ibid.

12. Evening Telegram, August 4, 5, 1922.

13. Ibid., March 7, 1925.

14. Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, hereafter PANL, Minute of Executive Council, April 21, 1928; and GN2/5, Special File of the Colonial Secretary's Office, City Clerk J.J. Mahoney to Colonial Secretary John R. Bennett, May 6, 1927.

15. Newfoundland Who's Who, 1930 109, 167; and Newfoundland Who's Who, 1937 237.

16. A plan of Todd's design for Bowring Park is available at St. John's City Hall.

17. Newfoundland Who's Who, 1927 145-46.

18. Evening Telegram, January 27, 1927.

19. PANL, S5-2-1, Commission of Government, 1934-1948, Public Utilities, Engineering and Building Division, file "St. John's Housing Scheme," newspaper articles on the disappearance of the records of the Town Planning Commission.

20. Evening Telegram, June 20, 1928; and Public Archives of Canada, hereafter PAC, MG 30, E 82, vol. 17, C.A. Magrath Papers, file 61-80, "Evidence of Andrew Carnell, #80," 16.

21. PAC, MG 30, E 82, vol. 18, "Evidence of the Town Planning Commission, # 112," 2-13.

22. PANL, S5-2-1, file "St. John's Housing Scheme, 1941," J. H. Penson to J. C. Puddester, August 1, 1939.

23. Ibid. See also PAC, MG 30, E 82, vol. 18, "Evidence of the Town Planning Commission, # 112," 3-4; and PANL, GN2/5, file 504, J. F. Downey to Arthur Mews, October 16, 1929.

24. Evening Telegram, November 2, 9, 25, December 6, 11, 1929; and William J. Browne, Eighty-four Years a Newfoundlander: Vol. 1, 1897-1949 (St. John's 1981), 167, 180.

25. Evening Telegram, June 20, 21, 1930.

26. Ibid., July 3, 14, 1930.

27. PANL, GN2/5, file 550, 1931-1936, Mayor Charles Howlett to Prime Minister Richard Squires, January 9, 1931, and to Colonial Secretary Arthur Barnes, February 20, 1931; and GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, February 28, 1931.

28. Statutes of Newfoundland, 22 George V, Cap.33; and Proceedings of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, 1931, 387.

29. Statutes of Newfoundland, 22 George V, Cap. 9.

30. S.J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (Toronto 1971), 186-203.

31. PANL, GN2/5, file 550, 1931-1936, Mayor Howlett to Secretary of State Barnes, June 30, 1931.

32. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, July 14, 1931.

33. Daily News, September 25, 1931.

34. It is also not possible to know what this proposed development was from a search of City Council records. Under a 1976 amendment to the 1921 City Act, Council may "impose, grant permission to any person to view for historic or academic reasons any minutes of any special or privileged meeting of Council held prior to 1925." For the public minutes of Council held after 1925, Council does not permit public access to them for research purposes on the grounds that the regular and private minutes are filed together.

35. Daily News, September 25, 1931; and PAC, MG30, E82, vol.18, "Evidence of the Town Planning Commission, #112," 4.

36. PANL, S5-2-1, file "St. John's Housing Scheme, 1941," J. C. Puddester to W. W. Woods, April, 1941, and enclosure from Frederick G. Todd, GN2/5, file 550, 1931-1936, "Todd's Slum Plan"; PAC, MG 30, E 82, vol. 18, "Evidence of the Town Planning Commission, # 112," 1-8; and Andrew Carnell's election manifesto in Evening Telegram, December 12, 1941.

37. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, 204-43.

38. Evening Telegram, March 11, 1932; PANL, GN2/5, file 550, 1937, Finance memorandum 4-37, January 11, 1937.

39 Statutes of Newfoundland, 22 George V, Cap. 5.

40. "City of St. John's Bond Issue" advertisement in the Newfoundland Quarterly (Summer 1933); PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, July 29, August 13, October 28, 1932; and

Statutes of Newfoundland, 23 & 24 George V, Cap. 14.

41. PANL, GN2/5, file 1931-1936, Minute of Executive Council, January, 1934.

42. Accounts of the St. John's Municipal Council, 1935-1945.

43. PANL, GN 1/31A, Governor's Office, Box #202-237, Municipal Council, file 237/36, Thomas Lodge to Captain Schwerdt, July 3, 1936, and E.N.R. Trentham to Thomas Lodge, June 30, 1936.

44. PANL, GN2/5, file 1931-1936, Natural Resources Department memorandum 102, Mayor Andrew Carnell to Sir John Hope Simpson, October 9, 1934, and Simpson to Carnell, October 10, 1934; and S5-2-1, file "St. John's Housing Scheme, 1941," newspaper article entitled "Housing Scheme."

45. PANL, GN 1/3/A, Box #202-237, file 237/36, E. J. Harding to Vice Admiral Sir Humphrey Walwyn, May 20, 1936.

46. Ibid., Mayor Carnell to Governor Walwyn, September 12, 1936 and GN2/5, file 550, 1931-1936, Finance memorandum 35-36, November 13, 1936, with enclosure from the City Clerk on the subject of the city debt.

47. PANL, GNI/3/A, Box #202-237, file 237/36, Governor Walwyn to Secretary of State Malcolm Macdonald, June 17, 1937; and GN38, Minute of Commission of of Government, 320-37, June 11, 1937.

48. T.J. Dalton, "The Railway Employees' Welfare Association A Great Achievement," in Smallwood, ed., The Book of Newfoundland, vol. 2, 95-8; and Railway Employees' Welfare Association, hereafter REWA, Minute Book, March 12, 1927 (located in the St. John's headquarters of the REWA, 538 Water Street).

49.Dalton, "The Railway Employees' Welfare Association," 95-8; REWA Tenth Annual Report, 26-7; and The Railway Employees' Welfare Association Limited, 25th Anniversary (1952), n.p.

50.Browne, Eighty-four Years a Newfoundlander, 237.

51. PANL, S5-2-1, file "St. John's Housing Scheme, 1941," Finance memorandum 53-39 J. H. Penson to Commission Secretary W. J. Carew, May 10, 1939, enclosing Meaney's housing proposal.

52. Ibid.

53. PANL, GN38, Minute of Commission of Government, 350-39, May 12, 1939.

54. PANL, S5-2-1, file "St. John's Housing Scheme, 1941," J. H. Penson to J. C. Puddester, August 1, 1939.

55. Ibid., City Clerk J. Mahoney to Commission Secretary W. J. Carew, March 8, 1941.

56. Daily News, May 15, 1941.

57. Evening Telgram, November 1, 7, 19, 20, 1941.

58. David G. Bettison, The Politics of Canadian Urban Development (Edmonton, 1975), 69-81.

59. Evening Telgram, November 19, 1941.

60. Ibid., December 18, 1941.

61. Ibid., December 6, 12, 16, 1941.

62. PANL, S3-1-2, Commission of Government, 1934-1948, Home Affairs and Education, memorandum 16-42, Mayor Carnell to H. A. Winter, April 11, 1942.

63. PANL, GN38, Minute of Commission of Government, 230-42, April 17, 1942; Oliver L. Vardy, "The Housing Corporation Success Story," in J. R. Smallwood, ed., The Book of Newfoundland, vol. 4 (St. John"s, 1967), 392; and First Interim Report of the Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning in St. John's (St. John's, 1943), 3.

64. Evening Telegram, May 21, 1942.

65. Third Interim Report of the Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning in St. John's (St. John's, 1944), 110-12.

66. Ibid, 6-9, 87-96. See also PANL, GN2/5, file 550, "St. John's Slum Clearance," Brian Dunfield to Governor Sir Gordon Macdonald, November 28, 1947; and Gordon Cherry, The Evolution of British Town Planning (New York, 1974), 120-25.

67. Third Interim Report of the Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning in St. John's, 60-1, 102, 114.

68. PANL, GN 1/3/A, Box #299-677, 1943, file 658/43, Governor Walwyn, to Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Viscount Cranborne, December 13, 1943, and Despatch No. 71, February 12, 1944, Walwyn to Cranborne.

69. Ibid.

70. Fifth Interim Report of the Commission on Housing and Town Planning in St. John's (St. John's, 1944), 36-1.

71. PANL, GN38, Minute of Commission of Government, 186-44, March 3, 1944; GN 1/3/A, Box #299-677, file 658/43, I. Wild, Commissioner for Finance, to Mayor Carnell, March 4, 1944 and Evening Telegram, March 6, 7, 10, 1944.

72. Statutes of Newfoundland, Act No. 50 of 1944.

73. Ibid., Act No. 51 of 1944.

74. St. John's Housing Corporation, An Era of Progress. A Review of the St. John's Housing Corporation Activities from July 1944 to December 1961 (St. John's, 1961), 2-3.

75. Statutes of Newfoundland, Act No. 36 of 1944. 76. Report of St. John's Housing Corporation, 1944-1950, n.p.

77. Vardy, "The Housing Corporation Success Story," 393.

78. See Dunfield's address to Rotary in 1945 published in the Evening Telegram, April 14, 1945; and PAN L, GN2/5, file 550, "St. John's Slum Clearance," Brian Dunfield to Governor Sir Gordon Macdonald, November 28, 1947.

79. Ibid., City Clerk Mahoney to Commission Secretary Carew, April 24, May, 28, 1947, and Carew to Mahoney, May 20, June 7, 1947.