William Gilbert Gosling and the Establishment of the Child Welfare Association, 1917-1921


Melvin Baker (c)1982

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXVII, no. 4 (Winter 1981-82)

One major public health problem St. John's citizens experienced in the early twentieth century was high infant and child mortality. In 1906 for instance, the town's newly appointed Medical Health Officer, Dr. Robert Almon Brehm, noted in a survey of health conditions in St. John's that, out of 624 deaths in the town for the year ending September 30, 1905, 208 of them had occurred among children under the age of one year. The total number for all children under the age of five years was 408. Among the causes Brehm and other local authorities advanced for this problem were the ignorant and careless methods of feeding among the poor, the lack of proper sanitation and shelter among the homes of the poor, and the inadequacy of a good milk supply.(1)

Improvements in the public health field were eventually addressed as part of a St.John's civic reform movement organized in December, 1913, by the Board of Trade and its President, William Gilbert Gosling. Born in Bermuda to a leading colonial family in 1863, Gosling had come to Newfoundland in 1881 as a clerk with the fish exporting firm of Harvey & Co., a firm of which he became a director in 1913. Well-known for his literary and historical interests, he had not previously been active in politics. His first book, published in 1910, was a history of Labrador; it stands to this day as the most comprehensive work on its subject. In 1911 he published a biography of the sixteenth century adventurer, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. The same zeal for detail Gosling demonstrated in his business and literary careers was now to be applied to the town's problems.

The result of Gosling's work was the drafting by 1916 of a new municipal charter for St. John's which would give the Municipal Council greater administrative and financial authority than that possessed under the 1902 Municipal Act and its subsequent legislative amendments. When the government in 1916 refused for political reasons to pass the main provisions of the Charter drawn up by Gosling and his reform colleagues, Gosling ran for mayor in the municipal election held later in that year and was successful. With the government after 1916 still unwilling to act on passing the Charter in its entirety, the Charter did not become law until 1921 - Gosling was now able to use his new office to have some sections of the Charter enacted by the legislature in a piecemeal manner. With regard to Council's responsibility in the area of child welfare, Gosling had little success. Consequently, he decided to take matters into his own hands concerning the establishment of a community nursing service for St. John's to look after infants and children, a service provided for in the Charter, but for which Council had no authority under the 1902 Municipal Act to spend money. (2)

In July, 1917, when the legislature had postponed action on the Charter for the second time, Gosling decided to start the new service at his own expense. With the help of his sister-in-law, Adelaide Nutting, a Professor of Nursing at Teachers College, Columbia University, Gosling arranged for Miss Hudson, a New York public health nurse, to visit St. John's in August, 1917. (3) During her month-long stay Miss Hudson gave public lectures and advised mothers on baby care. What was needed in St. John's, she told Gosling, was the establishment of a Maternity Home for the reception of pregnant women, in order that they could have proper medical care. Newly born and sick children, she suggested, should be visited at home by community nurses, who would offer whatever advice and assistance might be needed. Finally, a children's hospital with surgical facilities should be set up to give seriously ill children the special attention they needed. (4)

Through negotiations with the government in January, 1918, Gosling was finally able to achieve agreement for the establishment of a community nursing service. The government agreed to donate $450 towards the cost of the service for 1918, and Gosling contributed his salary of $600 as mayor. (5) In May, working through his sister-in-law, Gosling arranged for another nurse to come to St. John's to get the service started and to train local nurses to work in it. The nurse who came to St. John's this time was Miss J. Rogers, who arrived in July. She immediately began a round of visits to the houses of the working poor. (6) These she described as "wretched" and an important factor in the town's continuing high mortality rate, which in 1916 had stood at 185.25 deaths per thousand births. (7)

Miss Rogers reserved her greatest criticism for the local midwifes, to whom expectant mothers turned because of the low cost of their services. Not bound by any licensing system, the midwifes varied in their knowledge of obstetrics; some of them, Rogers discovered, were "grossly ignorant, personally untidy, (and) even dirty in appearance" and had "teachings and practices ... altogether questionable and disgusting." In one situation Rogers found a "young mother ... weak and thirsty" on the third day after the birth of her first baby. The midwife had told this mother "not to eat anything and to drink very little for the first few days" lest she contact "milk fever."

Rogers was also appalled by the fatalistic attitude of many parents towards infant mortality, which was often regarded as an act of Providence. One mother told her: "I have 'borned' eleven children, but praise God, seven of them are in Heaven." In the same vein, a grandmother spoke as follows: "It is trying to save the Babies you are. Well, its Almighty God takes 'em or leaves 'em, and you can't help it or I can't help it." (8)

If the nascent community nursing service faced attitudinal problems in St. John's, its greatest difficulty remained financial. (9) The arrangements Gosling had made with the government was for one year only; in 1919 no grant was forthcoming from the colony. (10) The reason for this lack of support is unclear; but the government may have been reluctant to commit itself to the whole scheme of child welfare as proposed by Hudson in 1917. In the circumstances Gosling was left to pay the $3,500 in salaries required by the three local nurses who were to take over from nurse Rogers out of his own salary of $600. Fortunately, his cause was taken up by the Women's Patriotic Association which had been established in 1914 to provide funds for servicemen and their families." In June, 1919, the Women's Patriotic Association established a child welfare committee to support the new nursing service. The prime mover here was, no doubt, Gosling's wife, Armine, a member of the Women's Patriotic Association executive. Through house-to-house canvassing and several large private donations, the Child Welfare Committee collected over $6,000 in mid-1919 for the payment of the nurses' salaries, the establishment of milk stations, and the distribution of clothing by the Association to needy families. (12)

In May, 1920, a small children's hospital was opened by the Association, but this had to be closed a few months later for financial reasons. It bore fruit, however, when the government a year later opened a children's ward in the General Hospital. During 1920 the Child Welfare Committee raised more money itself and received contributions from both Gosling and the government. (13) The government agreed on February 28, 1920, to make available an annual grant of $700 to the Committee. Gosling's contribution of $1,000 was equal to the amount the Municipal Council itself would contribute to child welfare once the Charter became law. (14) In January, 1921, the Women's Patriotic Association disbanded only to be reorganized in May as the Child Welfare Association under the honorary presidency of Armine Gosling. The new Association built on the work of its predecessor, cooperating closely with Council's Medical Health Officer and government authorities in combatting infant mortality in the town. (15)


1.Evening Telegram, June 16, 1906. See also "Report of the Commission on Public Health, 1910," in Journal of the House of Assembly, 1911, 594-604 and "Report of the Public Health Department for the Year 1916," in Ibid, 1917, 510-25.

2. On Gosling's career in municipal politics, see Melvin Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980), 332-79.

3. William Gosling to the Daily News, July 26, 1917.

4. A. N. Gosling, William Gilbert Gosling: A Tribute (New York, n.d.), 88-92. See also William Gosling to the Daily News, April 9, 1919.

5. Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, hereafter PANL, GN2/5, Special File of the Colonial Secretary, file 27-K, Colonial Secretary Halfyard to Municipal Council Secretary-Treasurer Slattery, January 22, 1918; and St.John's Municipal Council Minute Book, November 22, 1917.

6. PANL, GN2/5, file 27-K, William Gosling to Colonial Secretary Halfyard, May 31, 1918; and St. John's Municipal Council Minute Book, July 4, 1918.

7. William Gosling to the Daily News, July 26, 1917.

8. "Child Welfare Report of Community Nurse Rogers" published in the Daily News, September 14, 1918.

9. Gosling, William Gilbert Gosling, 93; and William Gosling to the Daily News, November 26, 1918.

10. PANL, GN2/5, file 27-K, R. A. Brehm to Prime Minister Squires, February 21, 1920.

11. Joyce Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands: Nursing in Newfoundland to 1934 (St. John's 1978), 111.

12. Armine Gosling to the Daily News, June 17, 1919; and Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 121-22. See also the address Armine Gosling presented to the Ladies' Reading Room on the St. John's child welfare movement and published in the Daily News, December 2, 1920.

13. Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 124, 265; and Daily News, December 2, 1920.

14. PANL, GN2/5, file 27-K, Deputy Colonial Secretary Mews to R. H. O'Dwyer, March 2, 1920; Daily News, December 2, 1920; and Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 124.

15. Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 124-25; and PANL, GN2/5, file 27-K, George Cake to Deputy Colonial Secretary Mews, May 7, 1920.