Voluntarism and the Fire Service in Nineteenth Century St. John's, Newfoundland


Melvin Baker (c)1992

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXVII, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring & Summer 1992), 24-8

Before the establishment in 1832 of a colonial legislature for Newfoundland, the voluntarist principle served as the basis for the town's fire service. Three voluntary fire companies were formed in St. John's in the 1820s - all of them by Water Street business interests. These companies were maintained through public subscription and existed mainly for the security of those who supported them. (1) In 1833, however, the newly constituted legislature established compulsory fire organizations. Under the new system, St. John's was divided into four wards and a fire company subsequently appointed for each. Membership in these companies was compulsory and included every householder; only public officials, clergymen, and medical practitioners were exempt.

The wardens and officers of the new companies were to be elected on a household franchise at general meetings to be held on the first Wednesday of each July. The wardens and offices were, in turn, to form a general management committee to be headed by a chairman, appointed from among their number. This committee was given authority to make rules and regulations for all the companies, to fine members for negligence in their duties, and to regulate the inspection of all chimneys in the town. The new companies were to be financed by a property assessment. After appraising the rental value of all houses, stores, and other buildings situated in St. John's (except those belonging to the government and to charitable institutions) the stipendiary magistrates in Quarter Sessions were to set a rate based on the total amount of rents landlords and lessees earned from their property. (2)

In practice the new fire companies did not live up to expectations, and the town often found itself depending for fire protection on assistance from the local Imperial garrison as was the case in so many other colonial towns. The main reason for the incapacity of the fire service lay in its financial condition, the four companies established in 1833 were driven further and further into debt when many householders defaulted on their assessments. Again, the Act establishing the companies had not provided any penalty for householders who refused to join them. The result was an almost continuous manpower problem, which persisted despite the legislature's decision in 1835 to pay those who worked to put out a fire. Undoubtedly, the hostile feeling of the town's poor towards its merchants accounted for some of the resistance the new companies encountered. Yet the manpower problem was a function too of the absence of so many men from St. John's during the fishery season. (3) Fortunately, the military, with its engines, was always present and ready to assist the fire wardens. When a fire occurred, the military fired two guns from Signal Hill to sound the alarm. Their assistance often proved crucial, especially in the major Water Street fires of July, 1833, and May, 1839; without the troops the amount of damage done by those fires would have been much greater. (4)

Working together, then, the civilian and military companies gave St. John's a rudimentary fire service; but it was clear their best efforts could not contain a major blaze. (5) This fact was clearly demonstrated by the conflagration on June 9, 1846, which burnt over 2,000 buildings in the town and left homeless about 12,000 people or 57% of the town's total population. As a result of this fire, legislation was passed at a special session of the legislature, convened later that month to consider the town's rebuilding, to repeal the 1833 St. John's Fire Companies Act. (6) Hence, there was to be a return to the voluntary system of the pre-1833 period. The first of such new companies to be set up was the Phoenix Fire Brigade in January, 1847, with the assistance of the Phoenix Assurance Office of London, England, it having donated a new engine to the Brigade. Other voluntary fire companies were formed in the 1850s, with the St. John's Water Company Fire Brigade, the Sons of Temperance Brigade, and the Cathedral Voluntary Fire Brigade in 1860 being the most prominent. (7)

It is not known to what extent the above brigades were sectarian in nature from the start, but by the early 1860s at least, it does appear that the Phoenix was Protestant, the Cathedral Roman Catholic. In fact, the Cathedral's organization was mainly the work of John Thomas Mullock, who in 1850 became Roman Catholic Bishop of St. John's. In particular, he gave the Brigade a valuable piece of land in the town for the erection of an engine house, funds for which came from donations made by the St. John's agents of foreign insurance companies doing business in St. John's. (8) All of the fire brigades were dependent for operating expenses on public and business donations to supplement grants given to them periodically after 1846 by the colonial legislature. (9) As was the case before the 1846 fire, however, the fire service was found to be still wanting in both revenue and equipment.

To ameliorate the financial woes of the fire service, in 1863 the legislature once again moved to reorganize the various fire brigades to put them on a sounder footing. This goal was now to be achieved by giving the General Water Company the right to organize and pay for a new Brigade. This private joint stock company itself had been established in 1859 by the local business community to provide the town with a larger water supply than that available from the St. John's Water Company, formed in 1846. Funds for the General Water Company came mainly from a rental assessment on property in St. John's, a duty levied on coal imported into the town, and a legislative grant which enabled the Company to provide water to those who could not afford to pay the assessment. (10) Under the 1863 Fire Brigade Act, the new Brigade was based on the main volunteer companies in the town - the Phoenix and the Cathedral. These retained their identities in the new arrangement; and each managed its own internal affairs. The rules and regulations made by the captains, however, had to be approved by the three Directors of the Water Company, two of whom were government appointees whose representations on the Company's directorate had been insisted upon in 1863 by the government in return for the latter's guarantee on the annual interest payment of the Company's capital stock. (11)

A committee of fire wardens was now formed and included the Directors of the Company, the Brigade captains, and the Inspector of Police. A seniority system was now also established among the wardens, who were to have charge of the Brigade in fighting fires. Brigade members were not paid and provided their own dress uniforms, the Phoenix wearing a blue outfit and the Cathedral a green-trimmed red one. The Water Company provided all fire fighting apparatus but the firemen were not issued work clothes. The two volunteer companies drew their members from among the town's tradesmen and mechanics who, like their wealthier mercantile fellow citizens on the south side of Water Street, had an obvious interest in the safety of St. John's.(12) With the departure of the Imperial garrison in 1870, the importance of the protection offered by the New Brigade was now even more vital to the general safety of St. John's from fire.

In mid-1876 a crisis was precipitated in the fire service when the two companies decided to cease operations on July 1 unless their demands for financial compensation to brigade members who suffered serious injury while fighting fire were met. (13) This step was taken by the companies after the legislature had failed to move on a petition they had presented to the Assembly earlier in the year. While acknowledging the good work the companies performed, Assembly members were reluctant to commit the general revenue of the colony to this specific purpose, preferring instead that the Water Company and the fire insurance companies doing business in St. John's, which in the past had objected to such support, find the funds required. (14)

Unfortunately, the Water Company was unwilling to assume a further financial responsibility; indeed, the cost of providing for the brigade had been for several years a financial strain on Company revenues.(15) The Water Company reacted to the firemen's threat to disband by suspending both companies and threatening to organize a new brigade under the supervision of the Inspector of Police. This brought the Phoenix back to work but the Cathedral Company remained defiant. (16) The whole episode brought to the fore, the issue of establishing a paid fire service, something many Canadian and American cities were in the process of doing at the time, but which had been avoided in St. John's because of its great expense. (17)

In 1877 a select committee of the legislature was formed to investigate fire protection in St. John's. Arguments for and against a paid fire department were made before this committee - from the town's merchants, local agents of foreign insurance companies, and the firemen themselves. Information was also presented on the workings of the paid fire department in Saint John, New Brunswick, which cost the Council in that city approximately $16,000 annually to maintain. In the end the legislature rejected, for reasons of economy and despite an offer of help from the insurance companies, both the introduction of a paid fire service and the acquisition of a steam engine. On the latter point the general feeling was that St. John's was already well protected through its abundant water supply. (18)

New legislation was passed, however, which gave the government itself and the General Water Company greater control over three new companies which were to comprise the "St. John's Voluntary Fire Brigade." The new Brigade was placed under the control of a superintendent to be appointed by the Governor-in-Council, which was also to approve all regulations the Water Company might prescribe for the governance of the fire fighters. The old committee of fire wardens was retained, but the Water Company's engineer was added to its ranks. The operating expense of the Brigade and a firemen's accident relief fund were to be paid out of the Company's annual revenues to a maximum of $3,000. Additional revenue was to come from the fire insurance companies, which were to be assessed by the Water Company an amount equal to one-sixth of its own annual contribution. For any given company this assessment was to be based on the annual volume of its business in St. John's. (19) With these changes the colonial government and St. John's merchants had found a way around what would have been otherwise a costly local improvement.

This administrative system of the fire service lasted until 1888 when in that year, in order to undertake an expensive sewerage system and other costly street improvements, the colony was forced to impose a limited form of self-rule on St. John's. The Municipal Council elected in August, 1888, received authority over the sewerage system, water supply, streets, parks, building regulations, and the fire brigade only. (20) With a weak revenue base from its inception, there was little Council could do to greatly improve the fire department under its control; in any case, there was considerable public confidence in the ability of the voluntary fire brigade, which dealt efficiently with many small fires. Indeed, the provision of a large water supply in the early 1860s and the subsequent purchase in 1885 of a steam engine by the General Water Company had lulled many St. John's residents into a false sense of security about the safety of their town. (21)

Yet there were many weaknesses in the fire service, as Magistrate Daniel Prowse pointed out in 1890 in a report to Council. In January, 1890, the brigade was slow in responding to a fire in which a man named Gourley was killed while trying to save his children. The firemen not only had difficulty in locating the fire, but experienced problems in turning the water on from the hydrants. Moreover, they did not have enough ladders and other equipment to effect a rescue and fight the fire successfully. (22) Commissioned to enquire into this tragedy, Prowse recommended a complete reorganization of the brigade, calling for the formation of a small, paid corps headed by a trained fire officer. Recognizing that Council's funds were limited, Prowse suggested that the members of this new force be drawn from the ranks of the police, whose members were managed and paid for by the colonial government. Those policemen chosen to be trained as firemen would form the nucleus of the new brigade and be paid for their fire work. If these changes were not made, Prowse warned, the next fire in St. John's could be a "terrible calamity." (23)

Unfortunately, Council did not act on Prowse's report for both political and economy reasons. The result was that the only action taken to improve the fire service was the ordering of some new hose for the existing brigade. The history of fire protection in St. John's after 1890 was thus one of economy with the brigade's equipment - consisting of one steam engine, two hand engines, ladders and hose - all in need of replacement. (24) The equipment problem, moreover, was compounded by inadequate water pressure. For all this inadequacy and neglect St. John's paid dearly on July 8, 1892, when a large portion of the town was again devastated by fire. (25)

"Every circumstance," Moses Harvey, a prominent St. John's Presbyterian minister and writer, wrote to the Montreal Gazette six days after the blaze, "combined to favour the progress of the destroyer." For a month prior to July 8, St. John's had received little rain, and its many shingled roofs became dry as tinder. On the day of the fire the temperature reached an unusual 85 degrees farenheit, with a strong wind blowing from the northwest. The fire began about 4:30 p.m. in a stable on Freshwater Road, a street on the top of the hill overlooking the center of the town. The spark was evidentally provided by Thomas Fitzpatrick, who in stumbling in the stable, dropped his pipe and lit some hay. The building was quickly enveloped and the alarm immediately sounded, the message being sent either by telephone or by person to the three fire stations.

It took 30 minutes for the firemen and their steam engine to arrive at the scene of the fire, and even then, efforts proved futile; they forgot some necessary equipment and there was an insufficient water supply. A water tank, located opposite the stable and placed there to protect the neighbourhood, was almost empty because the firemen had forgotten to fill it after a recent fire drill. The town's hydrants were also useless because of the low water pressure in the mains. At 9:00 a.m. Council Chairman Thomas Mitchell, without consulting his fellow councillors, had turned off the water in the Freshwater Road area to add new pipes to the system. The water had been turned back on at 3:00 p.m. but it took three hours to fill the local mains at this high level in the town. The firemen's difficulties were further complicated by their inability to tear down houses in the area to make firebreaks; they had not brought hatchets with them and the rope they had on hand was rotten and quickly broke when used.

While this comic opera, so typical of the beginning of most conflagrations, proceeded, the strong winds were carrying burning fragments to the roofs of houses and buildings in the center and east end of the town igniting buildings scattered through these areas. (26) By the time the fire subsided the next morning, much of St. John's lay in ruins. Some 11,000 persons were directly affected by the fire and many of the town's finest buildings burnt. Property loss was estimated at $13,000,000 with only $4,800,000 being covered by insurance. (27) Fortunately, the loss of life was small; this was probably because disaster struck by day rather than by night. The only victims were a widow named Mrs. Stevens, her invalid daughter, and their servant. (28)

Once again, Magistrate Prowse was asked by the government to examine the fire service in the wake of the recent July 8 fire. His report in late 1892 bluntly accused Council Chairman Mitchell of "criminal lawlessness" for turning off the water, describing the fire brigade as a "starved, mismanaged, rotten institution." Noting that it was "the imperative duty of the government to protect St. John's from the ever-present danger of another big fire," he appealed to the colonial government to assume control of the brigade and not leave such an important task to a "poor, impoverished body like the Council." The reorganization of the fire service he had in mind was that along the lines he had recommended in 1890 to both government and Council following his investigation into the Gourley fire. (29) With Council unwilling for financial reasons to reorganize the fire brigade, (30) the initiative now lay clearly in the hands of the Government and it finally decided to act on Prowse's suggestions.

In November, 1892, the Liberal Government of Sir William Whiteway (1889-1894, 1895-1897) sent Penitenitary Superintendent John McCowen on a tour of Canadian and American cities to visit their fire departments. (31) His report to the government on January 16, 1893, offered three plans for reorganizing the brigade. The first involved merely the improvement of the existing voluntary system. This, McCowen noted, was a system which had been long abandoned by most cities and towns. His own preference was for either a paid force or one that combined paid police and paid firemen, a system found in many English towns. A paid force of 35 men, he wrote, would require an annual budget of $26,000; a combined force of police and firemen would reduce this figure to $14,000. McCowen's report also called for the expenditure of at least $44,000 on the building of new fire halls, the installation of hydrants: and a telegraphic alarm system, and the purchase of new steam engines and other equipment. (32)

Acting on this advice the government sent Sub-Inspector John Sullivan of the Newfoundland Constabulary to Montreal in March, 1893, to purchase the equipment that would be needed by the proposed new brigade. (33) However, in the legislation it subsequently passed to create the new force, the government did not specify how it should be organized. This matter was to be left to a board of five commissioners whose recommendations were to be subject to the approval of the Governor-in-Council. The five commissioners were to organize the new brigade and appoint a fire chief to manage it. The five were also to make all rules for the governance of the brigade, which would control the fire hydrants and the Council's water supply during the fighting of a fire. Council would have no direct voice in the brigade's operations but would, nevertheless, be required to pay $5,000 to the colonial government for its maintenance. (34) Council was being denied control, a government spokesman asserted, because the government did not want the new brigade subject to a "changeable, variable body, here today and gone tomorrow," a body which would be more concerned with expense than with efficiency. (35)

Until the new brigade was organized, responsibility for protecting St. John's from fire was to remain in the hands of the existing voluntary brigade. In July, 1893, Sub-Inspector John Sullivan was appointed head of this force, bringing to it the lessons in fire fighting he had learned on his recent trip to Montreal. (36) In June, 1893, the government appointed the Board of Fire Commissioners who were to oversee the new brigade. (37) Having completed three new fire stations by April, 1894, (38) the Board under the chairmanship of John McCowen next turned its attention to the organization of the brigade itself. One important matter facing McCowen was the selection of a superintendent and to this end in August he travelled to Montreal and Toronto to interview potential candidates in the fire departments of both cities. In the end McCowen decided to offer the position to Captain Daniel Guthrie, a single 32 year-old in the Montreal Department. As was the case with several other candidates, Guthrie ultimately declined the offer on the grounds that the opportunities for advancement were great in his present position. (39)

With regard to the proposed constitution of the new brigade, McCowen and his fellow Commissioners had given serious consideration to an all paid force but this scheme was rejected eventually because of its great expense. To adopt it would have meant that between $25,000 and $30,000 would be needed annually to maintain such a service. What the Commissioners decided upon as an alternative was the scheme strongly favoured by McCowen: a force which mixed policemen with paid firemen. (40) McCowen saw his ideas prevail under the 1895 Fire Department Act which placed the proposed new force under the control of the Inspector-General of the Constabulary. The legislation also divided St. John's into three wards, each of which contained one of the new fire stations.

These arrangements in turn necessitated a reorganization of the Constabulary, which before 1895, had been operating out of the old Imperial Garrison at Fort Townshend, with constables serving in different parts of the town on a day to day basis. The constables were now attached to one of the three fire stations, which contained living quarters for them. Attached to each station also were several permanent paid firemen who were to be assisted in fighting fire both by the policemen assigned to the ward in which the fire was located and by a force of civilian reserves who would be paid whenever their services were sought. To oversee this new policing and fire fighting arrangement, John McCowen, a policeman who had been serving since 1879 as Superintendent of the Penitentiary, was in 1895 appointed Inspector-General of the Constabulary, while John Sullivan was promoted to be his assistant. To help pay for the new fire department the 1895 Act required the St. John's Municipal Council to contribute $7,000 annually, $2,000 more than the amount stipulated in the 1893 Act. (41) The remaining operating expenses of the fire service were to be provided by the government out of general revenue. With this 1895 change the St. John's fire department became a colonial rather than a municipal administrative responsibility, a system that remains to this day.


1. Arthur Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary (St. John's, 1971), 99-100; D.W. Prowse, History of Newfoundland (London 1895), 421; Gazette, April 22, 1828, April 14, May 5, 1829; and Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, hereafter PANL, GN2/2, Incoming Correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Middle Ward Fire Wardens to Colonial Secretary James Crowdy, May 31, 1832.

2. The 1833 Fire Companies Act was printed in the Newfoundlander, July 18, 1833. See also the rules and regulations governing the operation of the Fire Companies from 1833 to 1846, published in the Gazette, August 6, 1833, February 11, 1834, July 7, 1835, October 23, 1838, August 10, 1841.

3. Laurence O'Brien in Assembly Debates, February 16, 1846, in Newfoundlander, February 19, 1846; Fire Companies notices in Gazette, September 19, 1837, September 4, 1838; 1835 Fire Companies Act printed in ibid., May 26, 1835; and C.F. Bennett in Assembly Debates, March 23, 1846, in Newfoundlander, March 30, 1846.

4. PANL, GN2/2, General Military Order, September 27, 1845, concerning the use of the garrison in case of fire in St. John's; P8/B/10, Chamber of Commerce Minute Book, September 30, 835; General Military Order printed in the Gazette, October 24, 1843; 1843 Throne Speech as reported in the Public Ledger, January 5, 1841; Gazette, July 19, 1833, May 14,1839, October 6, 1840; and Newfoundlander, October 8, 15, 1840.

5. On the difficulties encountered by firemen in containing a major conflagration, see Frederick H. Armstrong, "The Second Great Fire of Toronto, 19-20 April, 1904," Ontario History, vol. 70 (1978), 3-38, and John C. Weaver and Peter DeLottinville, "The Conflagration and the City: Disaster and Progress in British North America during the Nineteenth Century." Social History, vol. Xl (November, 1980), 417-49.

6. For an account of the 1846 fire and the subsequent rebuilding of St. John's, see Melvin Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980), 157-70.

7. "Offbeat History - Early firefighting in St. John's," in Evening Telegram, March 24, 1977.

8. Newfoundlander, January 15, 1862.

9. General Water Company Annual Report in Journal of the House of Assembly, hereafter JHA, 1867, Appendix, 883.

10. Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921," 184-99.

11. 1863 Fire Brigade printed in the Gazette, March 31, 1863.

12. Newfoundlander, February 5, 1875; and Assembly Debates, April 2, 1876, in Public Ledger, April 22, 1876.

13. PANL, GN2/1/1A, Incoming Correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, James Clift, Secretary, General Water Company, to Colonial Secretary E. D. Shea, May 10, 1876.

14. JHA, April 6, 1876; and Assembly Debates, April 6,7, 1876, in Public Ledger, April 22, 1876.

15. Annual Reports of the General Water Company in JHA, Appendix for 1870-76.

16. Annual Report of General Water Company for 1876 in JHA, 1877, Appendix, 1047; and PANL, GN2/22/A, James Clift to E.D. Shea, June 19, 1876.

17. Weaver and De Lottinville, "The Conflagration and the City," 427-34 and Table 3.

18. "Report of Select Committee on the revision of laws respecting the St. John's fire Brigade," JHA, April 17, 1877, 153-54; and "Evidence of Select Committee on Fire Brigades," ibid., 1877, Appendix, 1163-90.

19. Statutes of Newfoundland, 40 Victoria, Cap. 15; and "Rules prescribed by the Directory of the General Water Company for the Government of the St. John's Fire Brigade," published in the Gazette, June 26, 1877.

20. On the incorporation of St. John's in 1888, see Melvin Baker, "The Politics of Municipal Reform in St. John's, Newfoundland, 1888-1892," Urban History Review, no. 2-76 (October, 1976), 12-29.

21. PANL, PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-1898, 4.

22. Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 93.

23. Daniel Prowse to the Evening Telegram, October 8, 1892; and Report of Judge Prowse on the Fire of 8th and 9th July, 1892 (St. John's 1892), 5-6.

24. Ibid.

25. A description of the fire is Moses Harvey, "The Great Fire of 8 July, 1892," in Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, eds., By Great Waters: A Newfoundland and Labrador Anthology (Toronto, 1974), 114-18.

26. Ibid. See also PANL, PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-1898, 1-5.

27. "Report, Fire Department, 1895-1896," JHA, 1896, Appendix, 330.

28. PANL, PB/A/17, Moses Harvey Scrapbooks, 1892-1898, 3.

29. Report of Judge Prowse on the fire of 8th and 9th July, 1892, 4, and Prowse to the Evening Telegram, October 8, 1892.

30. St. John's Municipal Council Letter Book, Council Secretary P. W. Kelly to Colonial Secretary Robert Bond, February 7,1893.

31. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, November 1, 1892.

32. Assembly Debates, May 22,1893, in Evening Telegram, July 8, 1893; "Report, Fire Department," JHA, 1893, Appendix, 265-78; and PANL, GN2/21, Letters Police and Fire Department, 1893- 1896, John McCowen to Colonial Secretary Bond, April 9, 1894.

33. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, April 20, 1893; and GN2/21, John Sullivan to Colonial Secretary Bond, March 26, April 10,1893.

34. Statutes of Newfoundland, 56 Victoria, Cap. 5.

35. Edward Morris in Assembly Debates, May 22,1893, in Evening Telegram, July 10, 1893.

36. PANL,GN2/21, McCowen to Colonial Secretary Bond, April 9, 1894; GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, July 4, 1893; and Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 93-4.

37. PANL, GN2/1, Berteau to Edward Morris, William C. Job, John McCowen, Edward Jackman, and Charles Steer, June 20, 1893.

38. Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 93-4.

39. PAN L, GN2/21, McCowen to the Colonial Secretary, September 5, 15, 1894.

40. Assembly Debates, June 19, 1895, in Evening Telegram, June 25, 1895; and PANL, GN2/21, McCowen to Colonial Secretary A.B. Morine, July 4, 1894.

41. Statutes of Newfoundland, 59 Victoria, Cap. 16; Assembly Debates, June 19, 1895~in Evening Telegram, June 25, 1895; and Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 76-7, 95-8.