The Incorporation of St. John's in 1888


Melvin Baker (c) 1982

Originally published in Melvin Baker, Aspects of Nineteenth Century St. John's Municipal History (St. John's, Harry Cuff Publications, 1982), 48-63

The incorporation of St. John's in 1888 took place during a period of realignment in colonial politics and depression in the colonial economy. (1) Politically, during the 1880s a great difference of opinion arose within the St. John's elite over the course of economic development the Island should follow in order to lessen its dependency on the fishery. In keeping with what was happening elsewhere in North America, the strategy followed by the Protestant Conservative Government of William Whiteway (1878-1885) after 1878 was one of railway construction. Spurred on by the optimistic reports of a recent geological survey of the island, Whiteway was hopeful that a trans-island railway, originating in St. John's, would make great opportunities for mineral and agricultural development in the island's interior and on the west coast available to St. John's businessmen. Legislation was passed in 1880 to get the railway started; the following year an American company was awarded the contract to build and operate the line. This contract was signed in the face of growing Water Street opposition which was heightened by the bold and costly policy. While not opposed in principle to the building of a railway, many Water Street merchants believed that the project should be carried forward with economy, and only as the circumstances of the fishery would permit. Whiteway, however, won the day; in 1882 he was re-elected with the support of the Roman Catholic Liberal Party over a St. John's mercantile opposition group styling itself the New Party. The railway was a central issue in the campaign, with the electorate dividing more along class and economic than religious lines as was the case in past elections. Yet Whiteway's triumph was momentary; by 1885 both his policy and his government lay in ruins. In 1884 the company building the railway went bankrupt after laying track only as far as Harbour Grace in Conception Bay. The railway was not to be completed across the island until 1897.

In the wake of this severe setback the Whiteway Government fell victim in 1885 to a traditional election ploy in Newfoundland politics the sectarian cry. (2) Aided by the sectarian animosity aroused by a violent clash in December, 1883, between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Harbour Grace, the New Party politicians managed to have the 1885 Throne Speech amended so as to place responsibility for the so called "Harbour Grace Affray" on the Roman Catholics. The Liberals immediately withdrew their support from Whiteway, leaving him in a minority position for the remainder of the session. Three parties or factions were now in the field. The Protestants were divided between those who supported the Reform Party (formerly the New Party) and those who remained loyal to Whiteway; the Roman Catholic Party being led by Ambrose Shea. The Reform politicians now made Protestant unity the central issue of politics and gradually nibbled aw ay at Whiteway's support. Finally, a deal was made between the two Protestant factions. In October, 1885, following the dissolution of the House of Assembly, Whiteway, having been promised the Chief Justiceship, retired from politics, only to find later that the promise was not to be fulfilled.

He was succeeded as Premier by Robert Thorburn, who resigned from the Legislative Council to contest Trinity District, Whiteway's old seat. Thorburn led his followers into the campaign under the slogan "No Amalgamation with the Catholics," but let it be known to senior Roman Catholics in St. John's that cooperation would be possible and even desirable after the election. On this basis Thorburn and his Reform supporters won the election handily, taking all the Protestant seats but one, which went to Robert Bond, a Whiteway supporter dissatisfied with the union of the two Protestant groups. The Liberals carried all of the Roman Catholic seats except for one of the three John's West seats, which was won by Edward Patrick Morris. A 26 year St. John's native, Morris was a Roman Catholic independent. (3)

Edward Patrick Morris

In July, 1886, the reconciliation Thorburn had envisaged with the Roman Catholics became a reality when two senior Roman Catholic Liberals joined the the Executive Council: W. J S. Donnelly as Receiver General and Maurice Fenelon as Colonial Secretary. The rump of the Liberal Party, now led by St John's lawyer Patrick Scott, remained in opposition, while generally supporting Thorburn's economic policies. (4) Despite his former advocacy of businesslike administration and the avoidance of any substantial additions to the public debt, Thorburn was forced by widespread distress to embark upon several public works projects. These were favoured by Liberals both to stem the flow of emigration from Newfoundland and to alleviate the unemployment created by the halting of railway construction in 1884. Part of the price Thorburn paid for his deal with the Liberals was to spend at least $ 100,000 on a new sewerage system for St. John's. (5)

There had been two earlier attempts to provide St. John's with better sewerage facilities the first by Whiteway in 1885, the second by Thorburn during the 1886 session before his deal with the Roman Catholics. Whiteway's 1885 effort was undoubtedly made with an eye to recapturing Liberal support; but it also held the promise of pleasing outport supporters by relieving the Board of Works of an increasing annual cost that benefited the capital alone. A more pressing factor, however, was the impending expiration of the $60,000 debentures raised by the government under the 1863 Sewerage Act to provide a sewerage system for St. John's; these were due in 1888 and repayable by assessments on the owners of all land in St. John's. (6) This requirement confronted those landlords, both absentee (non-Newfoundland) and resident, who had given 40-year leases after the 1846 St. John's fire, with the prospect of heavy assessments. Other landlords, who had given longer leases, would for the moment escape, since the collection of the new assessment would not start for any given piece of land until the existing lease ran out. To avoid the problem which such an arbitrary assessment posed and to prevent a great financial strain on St. John's property, Whiteway proposed to pay off the old loan by raising another on the colony's credit. Part of this new loan, moreover, would be used for civic improvement a new sewerage system, better lighting, and street and sidewalk building and maintenance. (7)

To implement and manage these improvements, St. John's was finally to receive its own local government, but that government was not to take the shape of the autonomous corporations found elsewhere. Instead, St. John's was to have a "hybrid system," Whiteway asserted, "having the advantages without the drawbacks of incorporation." (8) A five member municipal board was to be created, consisting of three government appointees and two members elected by St. John's residents on the household franchise by which members were elected to the House of Assembly. Whiteway justified a government majority on the board on the grounds that the colony would have to both raise the proposed loan and guarantee the interest payments on it. The new board would be given the powers with regard to the administration of St. John's which at present resided in the government and the General Water Company, a private utility established in 1859 by St. John's merchants to provide the town with water. Its funds were to come from the general colonial revenue, the rents on all Crown properties in St. John's, and the assessments collected by the Water Company. (9) In the event, Whiteway's bill incorporating this scheme, though it passed second reading, was withdrawn under pressure from St. John's MHAs who were not prepared to accept such major legislation affecting their constituents so late in the session. (10)

Whiteway's bill was re-introduced by Thorburn in 1886. The Liberal opposition again supported second reading, a select committee being appointed to consider the legislation in greater detail. This committee recommended the postponement of further action on the bill to allow it more time for its enquiries and because the cost estimates on the proposed new sewerage system were incomplete. The committee, consisting of government and opposition representatives, was empowered subsequently to sit out of session with authority to expend public funds to enable the necessary surveys, plans, and estimates to be made for the sewerage system and to begin work on the project as soon as the necessary pipes could be obtained. (11) The select committee reported back to the Assembly on March 4, 1887, that it had collected all the information needed to begin work on the sewerage system and that it had already imported a considerable quantity of pipe. With this report in hand, the Assembly agreed to the appointment of a joint committee with the Legislative Council to draft a municipal bill for St. John's. This committee included several members of the Executive Council, two St. John's Liberal MHAs and four members of the Legislative Council. (12)

The bill which emerged differed from the earlier legislation in the membership it proposed for the new municipal board. While there were still to be five members in all, there were now to be three elected members. Two of those would be selected in the manner outlined in the legislation of the previous year. The third elected member was to be chosen by the property owners on the south side of Water Street, the town's main commercial street. (13) This change was rejected by the two St. John's members on the select committee, Patrick Scott and Michael O' Mara, who refused to sign the report. Both men argued for a more representative system. For his part, Attorney General James Winter, the main architect of the new legislation, defended the scheme embodied in the new bill on the grounds that it was necessary to protect property owners against undue taxation. The electoral system being proposed made good sense because the "greater part of the export and import business of the island is done, not merely in St. John's, but in a very small portion of St. John's, the south side of Water Street." Accordingly "property there" was "more valuable than in any other part of the town." If the town were divided into wards on the basis of population, then the owners on the south side of Water Street would be excluded from any effective direct control of the government of the town. There was no "exact precedent" for governing St. John's because "we have to deal here with a very peculiar set of circumstances not analogous to those of any other country or town I know." "Perhaps, too, there may be but few inducements offered us," Winter told his colleagues in the Assembly, "to follow the practice of other countries with regard to the constitution of municipalities." (14)

Property owners with interests outside the south side of Water Street were greatly upset by Winter's bill. Their opposition quickly became centered on the Daily Colonist, a Roman Catholic newspaper established in early 1886 by prominent Liberals and edited by Patrick Bowers, a Newfoundland journalist who had worked for many years in Prince Edward Island. (15) In a May 4 editorial Bowers called on citizens not to consent to "allow themselves to be taxed for civic purposes, except by a body elected by the taxpayers." (16) Rejecting the government's plan to give only the General Water Company's duty placed on all coal imported into St. John's and its assessments to the new municipal board, the Daily Colonist called for a broader revenue base, which would include a poll tax, a personal property tax on all business stock, and a real estate tax. (17) The next day Bowers and his Roman Catholic supporters organized a citizens' committee to pressure the government into deferring its legislation until 1888. Not all property owners outside the south side of Water Street shared Bowers' view on municipal government, but many of them adamantly believed that in view of the depressed state of the St. John's economy any local governing body should be placed in their hands. (18)

On May 11 the government gave way to this pressure and withdrew its bill, (19) attempting the following day to have a temporary sewerage measure passed in one sitting. (20) The passage of this bill was important both to provide employment and to replace part of the funds the government had withdrawn from its Supply Bill for municipal services in St. John's for 1887. Under the new bill the government proposed to raise a loan of $100,000 to commence work on a new sewerage system. The bill also empowered the Water Company to increase its water rate to pay for such essential services as lighting, repairing and cleaning streets, and maintaining sewers and drains. These services were to be managed by five commissioners who were to sit for one year until the opening of the 1888 legislative session; three of these would be drawn from the Assembly and two from the Legislative Council. (21)

The new bill was supported by five of the six St. John's MHAs, the only negative voice from the town being that of Thomas J. Murphy, a lawyer and Whiteway supporter who had been elected for St. John's in a by-election late in 1886. Murphy argued that the citizens should have total charge of any local body for St. John's. With the assistance of the Daily Colonist, Murphy was quickly able to marshal public opinion against what the government was proposing. Petitions of protest were addressed by Murphy and the Bowers faction to the Legislative Council, which responded by blocking the legislation. (22) The argument which prevailed in the Council was that any legislation affecting property in the town should first have the approval of property owners. (23) Premier Thorburn now agreed to defer any further action on the municipal question until 1888, thereby fulfilling the petitioners' request for more time to put forward their own plans for local government.

In January, 1888, the petitioners organized themselves into a Citizens' Committee to draft a new municipal bill which they hoped the government would adopt. (24) The members of this Committee were representative of the town's freeholder and leaseholder class of property owners with the main organizers being two Roman Catholics, Charles Kickham, a builder, and Francis St. John, a baker. Both men owned property beyond the south side of Water Street and had been prominent in the 1887 protest. (25) Under the terms of the bill they and their colleagues had drafted, St. John's was to be governed by a seven-member board wholly elected by ratepayers. The town was to be divided into six wards, with one councillor elected for each. The seventh member of the proposed board, who was also to be chairman, was to be elected at large. The franchise would be given to every male British subject 21 years and over who had resided in any one of the six wards for two years before election day and had paid at least three dollars annually in assessments to the General Water Company. Each ratepayer would be entitled to one vote in each ward where he owned property, but would be allowed only one vote in the election for chairman. (26)

By contrast, the revised bill which the government brought forward on April 10, 1888, denied control of municipal taxation and expenditure to the citizens of St. John's. Attorney General Winter still insisted on two government appointees on the board, which would include three members elected every three years by the citizens. (27) By the time this plan was put before the House, Thorburn had already left for England to negotiate a loan of $607,000, to be used to buy the capital stock of the General Water Company for the proposed municipal board and to pay for needed local improvements. (28) Government representation on the proposed municipal board was essential, Winter argued, to protect the general public interest in this investment. (29) In keeping with this stand the bill Winter introduced stipulated that in its first year of operation the chairman of the new municipal board would have to be one of the government appointees. On the financial side the board was to have the existing revenue of the Water Company and annual legislative grants for street building, lighting, and cleaning.

The property franchise in the new bill differed significantly from that recommended by the Citizens' Committee in that it provided for a cumulative vote. The number of votes an individual ratepayer might cast in each of the three wards into which the town was to be divided would depend directly on the amount of taxes he paid in each of the wards. More taxes meant more votes to an upper limit of six per ward. Absentee landlords and corporations were permitted the vote on the same basis, the former group by proxy. (30) Altogether, the vote was given, Winter said, on the principle that an individual was a "ratepayer or contributor to the taxation in a certain amount, and not on the ground of his being a resident." This approach was an obvious concession to those absentee landlords who would be liable for their own assessments and who would want some voice in how the board's revenues would be spent. Another check Winter placed on the board was to require it to submit an annual financial statement to the legislature, which also had to give prior approval to all municipal expenditure. In its annual statement to the legislature the board was to set out how it proposed to raise revenue for the forthcoming year. New taxation proposals were not to take effect until July 1 of any given year in order to allow those affected to appeal. (31)

The Citizens' Committee objected to these arrangements, but backed down on the understanding that the legislation could be amended during the 1889 session. (32) For its part, the government now withdrew several contentious provisions. The proxy and cumulative voting arrangements were removed, individuals and corporations being left with one vote in each ward where they owned property. A compromise was also reached on the composition of the board, the government retaining its two representatives but increasing the number of elected members and wards from three to five. Again, elections were to be held every three years instead of every four. (33) The title of "Board" was now dropped in favour of "Council" on the grounds that the former name would remind citizens of the other boards and public departments associated with the colonial government. (34) The government's bill passed the Legislative Council with only one significant change, that being the raising of the property qualification for membership on the Municipal Council from $2.75 in assessments paid to annually to the Water Company to $8.25. (35) St. John's was at last ready for its first civic election. The date set for the contest was August 30, 1888, with 3,641 ratepayers being declared eligible to vote. (36)

The main concern of the Citizens Committee during the campaign was to elect a Municipal Council of political independents. To this end, Committee members held a public meeting on July 20 and devised a method whereby suitable candidates could be chosen and public interest stimulated in civic affairs. A committee of two was appointed for each ward with responsibility for convening public meetings to nominate candidates. The civic interest, the Daily Colonist wrote, could only be served by open meetings; it rejected out of hand the traditional selection method of "having cliques of people initiating private or secret methods of calling out candidates." (37) But the intertwining of civic and colonial politics was not long in coming; indeed, the ward meetings themselves proved to be fertile ground for political advancement.

In the event, the Citizens' Committee was successful in having only one of its number nominated in the entire town, Francis St. John being chosen for ward two where he was a large property owner. (38) In wards one and five the nominations at the meetings organized by the Citizens' Committee went respectively to John Carnell, a carriage builder, and T. J. Murphy, a grocer. Each carried the day through his own popularity. (39) Other nominees owed their selection to the intervention of the St. John's MHAs, who used their influence to have their favourites selected. For instance, this was apparently what happened in ward three, where Legislative Councillor and merchant, Moses Monroe, was nominated, and in ward four where Edward Morris had Michael Power, a master cooper, chosen. (40) In the election itself all of the above mentioned nominees except Murphy were successful. Murphy's loss was to a well known government supporter and venerable grocer, William Morison. (41) Another notable feature of the election was the disqualification of over 2,000 Water Company ratepayers whose names mysteriously did not appear on the Company's account books. Elective local government had clearly had a shaky beginning. (42)

The truth was, of course, the creation of the new "board" represented a change more in name than in fact. The continuity in administration was most evident in the selection by the government of two General Water Company directors as its nominees on the Council. These were two merchants, James Goodfellow, who was to be chairman, and James Fox. (43) Moreover, the Council was given only limited authority over those employees transferred to its jurisdiction from the government. The colonial government reserved the right to discipline and dismiss these officials, even though the new Council paid their salaries. (44) In sum, the Municipal council was only responsible for the town's water, street, and sanitary systems, the fire service, and two public parks that it was required to construct under the terms of the 1888 Municipal Act. (45) The subsequent history of Council after 1888 was thus one of limited self-rule characterized by inadequate administrative and legislative power, political interference from the government, and insufficient revenue.


1. The following account of colonial politics in the early 1880s follows from James Hiller, "The Railway and Local Politics in Newfoundland, 1870- 1901, " in James Hiller and Peter Neary, eds., Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation (Toronto, 1980), 123-35.

2. Ibid. See also Hiller, "Whiteway and Progress," Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. 68 (1972), 15-8, and The Newfoundland Railway Contract of 1898 (St. John's, 1973), 1-7.

3. Hiller, "The Railway and Local Politics in Newfoundland, 1870-1901," 133-34, and "The Political Effects of the Harbour Grace Affray, 1883-85" (Paper presented to the Newfoundland Historical Society, 1971).

4. James Hiller, "A History of Newfoundland, 1874- l901" (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1971), 128-29; and Times, January 14, February 4, 29, March 3, 1888.

5. Daily Colonist, July 20, September 4,1886; and Evening Mercury, March 4, 5, 1887.

6. Terra Nova Advocate, June 27, 1885.

7. Ibid. See also Gazette, March 31, 1863.

8. Terra Nova Advocate, June 27, 1885.

9. Evening Mercury, April 21, 22, 1885; and Evening Telegram, April 20, 1885.

10. Ibid., April 24, 1885.

11. Journal of the House of Assembly, hereafter JHA, May 18, 1886.

12. Ibid., March 4, 1887. See also Evening Mercury, March 15, 1887, and Journal of the Legislative Council, March 15,1887.

13. Evening Mercury, May 11, 1887.

14. Ibid., May 11, 12, 1887.

15. Daily Colonist, March 6, 1887; and Daily News, August 19, 1911.

16. Daily Colonist, May 4, 1887.

17. Ibid., March 29, 1887.

18. Evening Mercury, May 6, 1887.

19. Daily Colonist, May 12, 1887.

20. JHA, May 12, 1887.

21. Evening Telegram, June 15, 1887; and Evening Mercury, May 14, 1887, March 1, 1888.

22. Evening Mercury, May 20, 1887; and Daily Colonist, May 13, 1887.

23. Evening Telegram, June 14, 15, 1887.

24. Evening Mercury, Daily Colonist, January 9, 1888.

25. Daily Colonist, January 14, 1888.

26. Ibid., February 24, April 21, 1888.

27. Ibid., April 16, 17, 20, 23, 24, 26, 1888.

28. Evening Mercury, January 20, March 20, 1888.

29. Ibid., April 21, 1888.

30. Ibid., April 24, 1888.

31. Ibid., April 21, 28, 1888.

32. Ibid., April 3, 1889.

33. Daily Colonist, April 21, 1888; Evening Mercury, April 25, 1888; and Statutes of Newfoundland, 51 Victoria, Cap. 5.

34. Evening Mercury, April 25, 1888.

35. Evening Telegram, April 26, May 9, 11, 1888.

36. Ibid., April 26, 1888.

37. Daily Colonist, July 19, 21, 1888.

38. Ibid., August 18, 1888.

39. Ibid., August 4, 17, 1888.

40. Ibid., August 11, 16, 1888.

41. Evening Telegram, August 31, 1888; and PANL, GN2/2, "Report of the Returning Officer for the St. John's Municipal Council, September 1, 1888."

42. Evening Telegram, September 1, October 24, 27, 1888.

43. Ibid., September 5, 1888.

44. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, September 8, 1888; and Statutes of Newfoundland, 51 Victoria, Cap. 5. John Harris, "Three Years of City Government" The Holy Branch (December, 1891), 5-7.