In the years from 1832 to 1855, when a disease threatened to reach
epidemic proportions in St. John's, the usual public health
procedure was for the Newfoundland Government to have the streets
cleaned and the houses of the poor limed. This was in keeping with
contemporary British practice. This stress on sanitary measures
reflected the commonly held view of the origin of disease. Disease,
most people then believed, was caused by the decay of vegetable and
animal matter through the action of heat and moisture. This
miasmatic theory contrasted.with the contagion theory, whose
adherents argued that disease was passed on by physical contact
with some article an infected person had touched. (1)
The advocates of public cleanliness could, of course, find support
in either of these views; yet it was one thing to see the advantage
of good sanitation and quite another thing to achieve it -
especially in a rough and ready town like St. John's. When nuisance
regulations were promulgated by the colonial legislature after
1832, they were frequently ignored by residents. (2) Sanitation was
taken more seriously, however, when disease threatened to spread to
St. John's from some foreign port. When this threat arose, the
practice of successive governments, beginning in 1832, was to
appoint an an hoc "board of health" to deal with it. When a board
was not in place, the welfare of St.John's was looked after by a
public salaried medical officer known as the district surgeon, the
first such official, Dr. William Warner, having been appointed in
1826. The duty of the district surgeon was to attend on the sick
poor and government-supported paupers and lunatics both in the St.
John's Hospital and in the town and nearby outports. Under this
responsibility, he commonly provided medicines to needy persons
with communicable diseases such as measles, typhus, diarrhoea,
consumption and smallpox. Considering the general view of the cause
of disease at this time and, after 1834, the smallness of the
salary attached to this office, no general practitioner could be
expected to work at it full time. (3) In any case, the outbreak of
an epidemic disease (or the threat of one) required remedial
expensive measures which could best be provided by both residents
and the government.
The disease that stirred the greatest fear in St.John's - and
evoked the most systematic administrative response - was cholera.
Word that cholera had appeared in Great Britain in 1831 quickly
spread to Newfoundland; but the colonial government did not act
until the following year, when the alarming news was heard in
St.John's that the disease had crossed the Atlantic to Quebec. On
July 2 the High Sheriff, Lieutenant David Buchan, convened a public
meeting to discuss what measures the government should adopt.
Resolutions were unanimously passed at this meeting calling for the
appointment of a Board of Health to advise the government on what
measures to take; at the same time a 40-member committee drawn from
the business community was formed to inspect and clean the town
under the Board's guidance and to raise money by a public
subscription to supplement whatever funds the colonial government
allocated to fight the disease. The meeting also called for the
outfitting of some public building for use as a cholera hospital.
Since Governor Sir Thomas Cochrane was temporarily absent from the
colony, the Administrator of Newfoundland, Chief Justice Richard
Alexander Tucker, (5) answered this appeal, selecting a Board of
Health from among the town's chief professions. All local medical
practitioners, clergymen, and lawyers were named to this body,
which also included Attorney General James Simms, High Sheriff
Buchan, and Stipendiary Magistrates James Blaikie, John Broom, and
Peter Weston Carter. (6) Tucker had acted with dispatch; but he
quickly found his hands tied with regard both to the expenditure of
public funds for cholera prevention and the enforcement of
quarantine regulations. In the case of the former, the colony had
just been granted representative government, but was still
dependent upon the Imperial Government for revenue, a colonial
legislature not yet having been elected. In these circumstances
Tucker had to exert the "most rigid economy in every arrangement"
since the funds were small. (7) He was, for example, able to put
only about £252 at the disposal of the committee that had
undertaken to clean the town. On the other hand the government
undertook to establish a cholera hospital. (8)
With regard to the promulgation of quarantine regulations, Tucker
was unable to apply to Newfoundland the existing Imperial
legislation on the subject. The problem here, of course, was an old
one in Newfoundland: the legal uncertainty about which English
Criminal Laws could be enforced in Newfoundland because of the
vagueness of the Newfoundland Judicature Acts of 1791 and 1824 as
to which laws applied to the colony. Tucker and the Board of Health
he appointed framed quarantine regulations but these did not have
the full backing of law known elsewhere. (9) In adopting such
regulations Tucker was simply following the lead of the other
colonies and of the Imperial Government itself which, in June,
1832, had reluctantly quarantined its ports on the recommendation
of the Royal College of Physicians. The reluctance shown in London
was owing to the great disruption in Imperial shipping that would
naturally follow such a ban. (10) Disruption of shipping was also
a problem for St.John's; but the losses owing to quarantine had to
be balanced against the catastrophic decline in trade a reputation
for cholera would bring. Fortunately for the Water Street
merchants, they had in Tucker a public official who was determined
both to keep the cost of quarantine down and to ensure that the new
regulations would not unduly disrupt commerce. (11)
Central to the quarantine regulations was the establishment of an
inspection station at the Narrows, the entrance to St. John's
harbour. An incoming ship had to anchor here until the Board of
Health gave its captain written permission to enter. While his ship
was at anchor, the captain was queried by a specially appointed
health officer or his assistant from a list of questions compiled
by the Board. In short, the Board wanted to know the ship's last
port of departure and whether cholera was prevalent there, the
passage time to reach St. John's, and the general state of health
of all crew members and passengers. Each morning one of the two
health officers - either Frederick Elliott or George Gaden -
reported to the Board of Health on all vessels arriving the
previous day. In general, if a ship had been 14 days out from an
infected port, it was subject to at least six days quarantine. If
no disease had appeared on the ship by the end of this time, the
Board gave the vessel a clean bill of health. All ships placed in
quarantine were charged a tonnage fee to pay for the new medical
service. In September, with the busiest shipping months of the year
approaching, Tucker altered this scheme at the behest of the town's
merchants. Henceforth, all vessels with 30 or more days passage
from an infected port were to be quarantined for only 48 hours.
In December, with no sign of the disease in the colony, Governor
Cochrane reduced the size of the quarantine establishment and
dismissed the two health officers and the medical officer, Dr.
Joseph Shea, whose duty it was to examine anyone on board an
incoming vessel whose health was suspect. With fewer ships also
visiting St. John's and the filth and nuisance lying in the streets
now covered with snow, Cochrane believed the community was safe
from cholera. In January, 1833, he approached the town cleaning
committee for the balance of the public grant Tucker had given it;
this money he now prepared to use to relieve distress in other
parts of the island. (13)
The spring of 1833, however, brought another burst of quarantine
activity. When the legislature met for its first session, Cochrane
had a quarantine law passed which was modelled on that of Nova
Scotia, an act founded in turn on the Imperial quarantine
legislation. (14) The new legislation gave the stipendiary
magistrates the authority to impose penalties, forfeitures, and
punishments for violations of quarantine and for regulations
approved by the governor regarding the throwing of garbage into the
streets. These regulations were in addition to a general act the
legislature passed in the same session for the regulation of waste
disposal in the colony. A weakness in the 1833 quarantine
legislation was that it was effective for only one year. With
cholera persisting overseas in 1834, the legislation was renewed
for another year but, although St. John's successfully evaded the
cholera scourge during the 1830s, situations eventually arose when
quarantine could not be put into effect because the legislature was
not sitting. (15) Accordingly, Governor Sir John Harvey had the Act
made permanent in 1843. Thereafter, the governor could enforce
quarantine by simply issuing a proclamation. (16)
The advantages of having a permanent quarantine law were made
apparent by a mid-1847 incident which one newspaper labelled the
"Quarantine Burlesque". (17) On this occasion, typhus fever, which
had broken out at sea on Irish immigrant ships, was the main
concern of Newfoundland officials. In May, in anticipation of the
arrival of several ships from Ireland, Governor Sir Gaspard Le
Marchant, a keen supporter of sanitary reform, who had arrived in
the colony the previous month, acted on the recommendation of
District Surgeon Samuel Carson and appointed a medical health
officer for the port. Unfortunately, no one felt that it was
necessary to proclaim quarantine, and this proved a serious
mistake. When the Margaret Parker arrived towards the end of May,
not only did some residents board her before the medical of firer
arrived but some passengers were allowed to disembark. When several
cases of typhus fever subsequently appeared in the town, the whole
community was thrown into a panic. (18)
Le Marchant immediately quarantined the port and appointed a Board
of Health consisting of five Executive Councillors, the leader of
the Liberal Party, five clergymen, and three members of the Chamber
of Commerce. There was no medical representation on the Board but
a number of practitioners were employed to look after the fever
patients, who were placed either in the St. John's Hospital or in
an auxiliary fever hospital, a farmhouse also located on the
western outskirts of the town. Le Marchant had acquired the latter
facility some time before to relieve the overcrowding in the main
Hospital. (19) The new Board of Health under its Chairman, Patrick
Morris, now appointed Health Wardens whose duty it was to clean the
streets. Under the supervision of Stipendiary Magistrates Carter,
Patrick Doyle, and Charles Simms, St. John's was divided into three
wards and each was inspected by the police constables familiar with
its neighbourhoods.The Health Wardens built pounds to receive filth
and rubbish and hired contractors to cart it away. (20)
On the whole, the government's efforts appear to have been
successful; by the end of September the epidemic had subsided and
the auxiliary hospital could be closed. Although the number of
deaths from the outbreak is not known, the figures for the fever
hospital shows that 23 of a total of 126 patients admitted during
the months of of June, July and August died. (21) Not surprisingly,
the epidemic spurred Le Marchant to greater efforts on behalf of
The governor was dismayed at how little interest the residents of
St.John's had shown in regard to waste disposal. The coincidence of
his governorship with the rebuilding of the town after the great
fire of 1846 offered, he thought a superb opportunity for a new
beginning. Accordingly, one of his first acts in Newfoundland was
the nomination of a two man commission, consisting of Surveyor
General Joseph Noad and St. John's District Road Board Chairman
James Douglas, to devise a sewerage and drainage system for the
capital. As things stood, St. John's had no underdrains and sewers,
and residents threw all their filth and garbage into surface drains
that flowed down the slope of the hill to the harbour. What Le
Marchant envisaged was a system which would give St. John's
residents the same benefits which urban reformers had already
brought to the larger towns in England. (22) In 1848 the English
reform movement secured a new Public Health Act which empowered
local boards to pave streets and install whatever sewers were
needed to maintain public health. (23)
But this approach was impossible in St. John's because of a
longstanding opposition by residents to the imposition of any
property assessment. (24) In June the commission he had appointed
put before the Executive Council an elaborate plan for the
construction of drains and sewers to be paid for by a property
assessment to be administered by a local governing body. This
scheme was rejected by the Council on the grounds that St. John's
residents could not afford the burden of direct taxation in the
existing depressed economic state of the town following the 1846
fire. Le Marchant subsequently used funds both from the general
revenue, and from the funds the colonial government had received
from Imperial authorities to assist victims of the fire, to build
sewers; but he was unable to effect the systematic reform program
he had envisaged. (25) The consequences of this were made clear in
1854 when cholera finally reached St. John's.
The progress of the new outbreak elsewhere in North America and in
the West Indies was followed closely by the St. John's newspapers
and in July, 1854, the Newfoundland Government imposed a quarantine
on all ships arriving in the harbour from infected regions.
District Surgeon Samuel Carson was named quarantine health officer.
(26) Under the supervision of the six medical practitioners
comprising the Board of Health, which had been appointed on May 23
together with a committee of Health Wardens consisting of the
stipendiary magistrates and local merchants, new drains were made,
old drains were cleaned, and scavengers were hired to collect the
night-soil from homes, residents being forbidden to throw any
garbage into the streets. (27)
Several deaths were reported in August; then there was no sign of
the disease for about six weeks. Suddenly the full fury of the
epidemic broke. In this period of remission preventative work being
undertaken was viewed with some suspicion by some local residents,
one prominent citizen writing in his diary that it was widely
believed the doctors wanted to keep the Board of Health alive for
their own financial gain. (28) While some of the cholera patients
were treated in their homes, others were sent to a hospital
facility quickly established near Fort Townshend. When the military
objected to their presence, they were transferred to the St. John's
Hospital, where many died within hours of admission. During the
months of October, November and December, 212 patients were admitted
to the Hospital, 88 of whom died. By the end of December the
epidemic had run its course, leaving in its wake, according to
Governor Ker Baillie Hamilton, about 500 deaths. (29)
The cholera experience demonstrated for all to see that the
colonial government would have to take sterner public health
measures. A study of the town undertaken by the 1854 Board of
Health showed that cholera prevailed only in areas "already
pestilent with 'foul air' arising from sewers or stagnant filth";
in such localities the epidemic had spread "as a fire would do in
the midst of fuel." (30) On the basis of his experience in fighting
cholera, District Surgeon Carson urged several reforms on the new
Liberal Government of Premier Philip Little in July, 1855, the
first ministry under the recently instituted responsible system of
government. The first of these was the appointment of a permanent
Board of Health or a health officer, with authority to have
patients afflicted with serious disease removed to the Hospital if
the attending medical practitioner recommended such action. During
the cholera epidemic, the inability of the Board of Health to do
this resulted in a further spreading of the disease; for many
sufferers had refused to go to the Hospital, knowing how many
deaths were occurring there.
The government did not act on Carson's suggestion; however, in 1856
the Liberal Government did increase the number of district surgeons
from one to four in order to improve medical attendance on the sick
poor. (31) Carson's other recommendations simply reiterated what
Governor Le Marchant had earlier attempted to achieve by way of
sanitary reform. The needs of St. John's were manifold: building
regulations to prevent overcrowding; the construction of a sewerage
system; a system for removing night-soil from streets; and the
development of a larger and cleaner water supply. (32) The agenda
put forward by Carson would occupy the attention of the capital's
politicians long after Little left the Newfoundland political scene
1. M. W. Flinn, ed., Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain by Edwin Chadwick, 1842 (Edinburgh, 1965), 16-7, 62-3; Norman Longmate, King Cholera: The Biography of a Disease (London, 1966), 67; and Geoffrey Bilson, "Canadian Doctors and the Cholera," Canadian Historical Association, Historical Papers, 1977, 105-19.
2. See, for instance, Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, hereafter PANL, GN2/2, incoming correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Stipendiary Magistrates Blaikie and Carter to Colonial Secretary James Crowdy, December 23, 1833.
3. PANL, Blue Book, 1826, 42, 64; "District Hospital Report" in Gazette, February 5, 1839; and "Report of the Surgeon for the District of St. John's, 1842," in Journal of the House of Assembly, hereafter JHA, 1843, Appendix, 377-78.
4. Gazette, July 10, 1832.
5. Leslie Harris and P. G. Cornell, "Richard Alexander Tucker," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, 794-95.
6. PANL, GN2/17, Quarantine Books, 1832-1836, Crowdy to High Sheriff Buchan, July 5, 1832, and to Aaron Hogsett, Secretary to Board of Health, July 24, 1832. For the proceedings of the Board of Health, see GN2/2 for July, August and September, 1832.
7. "Memoranda on the Judicature of Newfoundlnd and on other subjects connected with that Colony" by Governor Cochrane, printed in the Gazette, January 22, 1833; and PANL, GN2/17, Crowdy to Hogsett, July 24, 1832.
8. PANL, GN2/17, Crowdy to N. W. Hoyles, Chairman of Town Committee, August 16, 1832, and to Buchan, July 5, 1832.
9. E. M. Archibald, Digest of the Laws of Newfoundland (1847), 66; "First Report of the Commissioners for adapting the Criminal Law of England to this Colony," JHA, 1843, Appendix, 444-51; PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, March 29, 1832; and GN2/17, Crowdy to Hogsett, July 24, 1832.
10. Longmate, King Cholera, 7.
11. PANL, GN2/17, Crowdy to Hoyles, August 21, 1832.
12. Ibid., instructions to the Health Officers for St. John's, August 9, 10, 1832, April 20, 1833, June 30, 1834. See also GN2/17, Crowdy to Buchan, July 5, 1832; GN2/2, Town Committee to Crowdy, August 10, 1832, and Hogsett to Crowdy, July 18, August 14, September 17, 1832; public proclamation issued by Administrator Tucker, July 4, 1832, printed in Gazette, July 10, 1832; and John Joy, "Survey of Newfoundland Health Services until the beginning of the 20th Century" (paper prepared for the Department of Health, Newfoundland, 1971), 35-41.
13. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, December 10, 1832; and GN2/17, Crowdy to Joseph Shea, Frederick Elliott, and George Gaden, December 10, 1832. See also Crowdy to Hoyles, January 31, 1832.
14. N. W. Hoyles in Assembly Debates, January 12, 1833, in Ledger, January 15, 1833.
15. PANL, GN2/17, quarantine proclamation, April 10, 1833; 1833 Quarantine Act printed in Archibald, Digest, 198-201; 1834 Quarantine Act published in Gazette, September 30, 1834; and public notice issued by stipendiary magistrates, August 22,1834, printed in ibid. See also the 1833 Nuisances Act published in ibid., June 18, 1833.
16. 1841 Throne Speech as reported in Ledger, January 5, 1841; 1843 Quarantine Perpetuation Act printed in Gazette, June 20, 1843; and Newfoundlander, May 27, 1847.
17. Newfoundlander, May 27, 1847.
18. Ibid., May 13, 20, 27, 1847. See also PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, April 17, May 20, 1847. For Le Marchant's views on the sanitary condition of St. John's see Irish University Press Series of British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Canada, vol. 19 (Shannon, 1971), 343-47, 353-57, Le Marchant to Earl Grey, May 10, June 24, 1847, hereafter cited as British Parliamentary Papers.
19. Gazette, May 21, 1847; Newfoundlander, May 27,1847; PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, June 5, October 14, December 11, 1847; and GN2/2, Dr. Rochfort to Crowdy, November 1, 1847, and Drs. Tullidge and Walsh to Crowdy, October 13, 1847.
20. PANL, GN2/2, Proceedings from the Journal of the Board of Health, May 22, 1847, to September 15, 1847, and Stipendiary Magistrates Simms, Doyle, and Carter to Crowdy, May 24, June 1, 1847.
21. Ledger, August 6, 1847; British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol. 4, 435, Le Marchant to Earl Grey, May 4, 1848; and PANL, GN2/2, Dr. Rochfort to Crowdy, November I, 1847, with accompanying statement showing the number of typhus fever patients in the auxiliary hospital from June 4 to September 30, 1847.
22. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Canada, vol. 19, 344-47, LeMarchant to Earl Grey, May 10, 1847; and "Letter from James Douglas in reference to Drains, Sewers, Wells, and Tanks in St. John's," JHA, 1851, Appendix, 244-46.
23. Flinn, ed., Report on the Sanitary Condition, 70-3.
24. For more detail on the difficulties of imposing a property assessment on St. John's residents, see Melvin Baker, "The Government of St.John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921"(Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980).
25. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, June 5, 1847; British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol.5, 94, Le Marchant to Earl Grey, April 28, 1849; Gertrude Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, 1832-1864 (Toronto, 1966), 105-07; and "Letter from James Douglas in reference to Drains, Sewers, Wells, and Tanks in St. John's," 244-46.
26. Gazette, July 25, 1854; and Express, July 27, 1854.
27. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, May 23, 1854; GN2/2, Reports of Health Wardens on the State of sanitary conditions in St. John's, July 12, 13, 14, 1854; rules and regulations of the Board of Health printed in the Express, July 13, 1854; Newfoundlander, August 31, 1854; and reports of the Board of Health published in the Express, January 2, 18, 1855.
28. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol. 8, 35, Hamilton to Lord John Russell, April 26, 1855; and Edward Morris Diary, September 9, 1854 (transcript in the possession of Professor James Hiller, Memorial University).
29. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol. 8, 35, Hamilton to Lord John Russell, April 26,1855; Newfoundlander, December 11, 1854; PANL, GN2/1, outgoing correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Crowdy to Board of Health, October 14, 1854; 1854 Hospital Report in JHA, 1855, 180-81; and "Report of the District Surgeon, St. John's, for the year ending Ist July, 1855," ibid., 1855, Appendix, 192-94.
30. Dr. Henry Stabb to Times, January 12, 1861.
31. The new district surgeons were Charles Crowdy and Charles Renouf in St. John's East and Henry H. Stabb and James N. Fraser in St. John's West. See PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, July 27, 1856; and Express, March 5, 1856.
32. "Report of the District Surgeon, St. John's, for the year
ending 1st July, 1855," 192-94.