Policing in St. John's, 1806-1871


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)

One area of local administration in St. John's for which the colonial government assumed direct administrative and financial responsibility was policing. When the legislature met for the first time in 1833 it continued the longstanding policy of the governors of providing for the cost of the police establishment from general revenue. In 1806 Governor Sir Erasmus Gower had placed the three magistrates then in the town under permanent salary (or stipend) to enable them to be independent of any private or professional interest. Previously, their salaries had been derived in part from the annual licensing of taverns and from the fines they collected in their courts; but half of the money they had collected had gone into the Imperial Treasury. (1)

After 1833 the work load of the magistrates steadily increased with practically every new statute enacted by the legislature giving them new duties. (2) When presiding over Quarter Sessions the Newfoundland magistrates had the same powers as the Justices of the Peace in England with regard to the Common Law; but until 1837 they had no right of summary adjudication of minor crimes and misdemeanours. This lack of authority resulted from confusion over which of the criminal laws of England applied to Newfoundland - a confusion that persisted even though the Judicature Acts of 1791 and 1824 gave the Supreme Court of Newfoundland authority to hear all crimes and misdemeanours. Accordingly, many crimes of a minor nature could be dealt with only by indictments in the Supreme Court, and the delay involved in this costly procedure let miscreants escape. In practice the Judges of the Supreme Court relied upon the whole body of English Common and Criminal Law in deciding the cases brought before them. When the legislature in 1837 adopted the Criminal Law of England effective June 20, the magistrates received the right of summary adjudication of crimes and misdemeanours. (3)

The magistrates were responsible for controlling the appointment and regulation of the constabulary. (4) There had been paid police in St. John's since 1812 when Governor Sir John Duckworth had hired 12 constables out of the proceeds of the annual licensing of the town's taverns. Before this change publicans had occasionally acted as constables and in 1806 this service had been made the condition of obtaining a license. The publicians had opposed this measure, their interest favouring leniency. (5) Opposition from the publicians arose again in 1822 when they rebelled against the charges being levied on them for the maintenance of the constabulary. Their protest took the form of an appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favour, stating that the magistrates in sessions could not allocate the license funds to pay the constables. This decision was based on the argument that the English laws by which the magistrates had imposed the license fees were inapplicable to Newfoundland. (6) For a time, therefore, the only funds available to pay the constables were those they collected themselves. (7)

The legal impediment which the publicans had taken advantage of in 1822 was removed by Section 34 of the 1824 Judicature Act. Governor Sir Thomas Cochrane again applied the 8 pound annual tavern license to the salaries of the constables. After 1833 the legislature continued the salaries of magistrates and constables from the general revenue in St. John's as well as in the larger outports. (8) As organized by Governor Cochrane, the St. John's constabulary consisted of a senior stipendiary magistrate, a High Constable, and eight constables. This remained the size of the force until the mid-1830s when, for reasons of economy, the legislature reduced the number of constables by two. (9)

In St.John's at this time, as was generally the case in Britain, the chief responsibility for the detection and prosecution of crime belonged to the private citizen. An arrest was made when a citizen came forward to the magistrates and gave the necessary facts with regard to the alleged crime. Once the plaintiff paid the constable a fee, a warrant was executed for the arrest of the offender. (10) The duties of the constables themselves consisted of patrolling the main streets from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. They were expected to be on the alert for breaches of the peace and petty thefts, and to prevent the throwing of nuisance into the streets. They were also to ensure that the taverns closed on time. (11) In the spring and autumn the constables had to forego their normal duties and attend (under penalty) the daily sessions of the Supreme and District Circuit Courts. (12) Their presence was hardly missed for in reality it was the presence of the military garrison and the pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic clergy which kept the citizenry of St. John's under control.

The ineffectiveness of magistrates and constables in dispensing crowds was demonstrated again and again in election contests, when physical intimidation was frequently the best weapon political parties had to guarantee the victory of their candidates. The only security the magistrates could offer to political candidates was to be found in the hiring of extra special constables or the calling out of the troops. (13)

In the 1840s, however, the constabulary gradually became important, taking on both detective and preventive work. In this it mirrored changes that had been in progress in British police forces since the 1829 establishment of a paid, uniformed police in London. (14) The impetus for reform in St. John's came from Governor Sir John Harvey, who in the mid-1830s had been the Inspector of Police in Ireland. Harvey appointed an Irish protege, Thomas Mitchell, to the local force in 1844. Thirty-one years old at the time of his appointment, the Roman Catholic Mitchell had served under Harvey first in the Irish Constabulary and then in the New Brunswick police force when Harvey had been governor of New Brunswick before coming in 1841 to Newfoundland. (15) Mitchell's selection foreshadowed the future course of the constabulary, which would gradually be modelled on its Irish counterpart.

Additional responsibility for the constabulary developed as a result of the formation in the late 1840s of a night watch for the town. Organized in January, 1848, and paid for by a warrant on the colonial treasury, the Watch consisted of 20 special constables, who patrolled at night once the regulars went off duty. (16) Governor Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant intended the Watch as a temporary arrangement, to last only during the winter, when a sizable portion of the population was unemployed and idle. The Watch was to arrest persons for drunken and rowdy behaviour, and to be on constant alert for fires which, during November and December of 1847, were very numerous and generally believed to be the work of incendiaries. The new special constables proved immensely popular with merchants and other property owners, although there was considerable resentment from the citizens at first because of the sometimes zealous manner in which they arrested individuals on the spot for alleged breaches of the peace. The Watch also took on a detective role, as evidenced by its successful confiscation in its first month of its operations of a sizable amount of contraband goods. (17) Despite these successes, in April, 1848, the size of the Watch was reduced by half, but it was subsequently maintained by Governor Le Marchant at this strength. (18) Beginning in 1849 the legislature agreed to pay for a Watch, but only to the extent of equaling the funds the stipendiary magistrates could raise through voluntary subscriptions. Since enough funds could not be raised by this means to support a year round operation, the Watch now became a winter force which functioned generally between November and May. (19) Nor was its effectiveness limited only by lack of money. Because members had to be recruited annually the force was often hindered by its lack of discipline. (20) What was obviously needed was the enlargement of the existing regular paid constabulary to allow it to patrol at night.

A small step towards the improvement of the regular force was taken in December, 1853, when Governor Ker Baillie Hamilton, in response to Grand Jury criticism of the constables, (21) appointed two more policemen. To improve the internal organization of the force, Hamilton promoted constable Timothy Mitchell to the newly created position of Superintendent and Inspector of the town's police. Mitchell was instructed to carry out the duties of his office according to the practice of his counterparts in the Dublin and London forces. (22)

Mitchell had great difficulty asserting his control over the constables, facing great opposition from stipendiary magistrate Peter Weston Carter, who had held that position since 1818 and who resented the apparent reduction in his own authority. Carter encouraged the High Constable, John Toor, a member of the constabulary since 1826, not to acknowledge Mitchell as his superior. What Carter wanted Mitchell to do was to confine himself to ensuring that the constables carried out the duties given to them by the High Constable, who, in turn, would continue to act on the orders of the magistrates. The not surprising result was general confusion among the constables as to who was really in command - Toor or Mitchell. The matter came to a head late in 1855, when Mitchell decided to seek a clearer definition of his office after Toor had not only questioned his orders but his character. After a careful review of Mitchell's appointment, the Liberal Government of Philip Little (1855-1858) supported the Superintendent's position, giving him firm control of the constables under the continued direction of the magistrates. (23)

Another controversy between Mitchell and Carter erupted the following year. On this occasion Carter dismissed a constable whose wife complained that she had been assaulted by her husband. Some time later the angry drunken ex-constable visited the police station where he insulted Mitchell and several of his colleagues. Three days later, to the great dismay of the constabulary, the dismissed man was reinstated by Carter without a word of explanation. Mitchell now issued what was, in effect, an ultimatum to the government; either he or the man who had insulted him and had been reinstated by Carter must go. (24) The Liberal Government again chose in Mitchell's favour. Toor was subsequently dismissed and Mitchell made responsible directly to the Executive Council. In future the magistrates were to direct the constables only with the permission of the Superintendent and Inspector of Police. (25)

The government also decided at this time to increase the size of the constabulary to 16 and to have it carry out the work done by the Night Watch. On the other hand, since this was a change clearly for the benefit of St. John's, the government did not want to bear all the expense itself. Accordingly, on July 4, 1856, it approached the merchants, through their Chamber of Commerce, for a permanent financial contribution in lieu of the voluntary subscriptions of former years. The merchants rejected this request on the grounds that policing was a responsibility the government alone should bear. (26) In the face of this refusal the Liberal Government assumed the whole burden of the increased cost and fitted out the entire constabulary with uniforms. (27) Despite this additional police expenditure, there was a limit to what the government was willing to afford for improved policing. In 1857 Governor Alexander Bannerman tried to strengthen further the number and quality of the constables serving in St.John's and the larger outports. His proposal was to bring 15 or 20 men from the London police force, but his suggestion was rejected by his Liberal Executive Council because of its great expense. (28)

The reason why Bannerman sought this improvement in the police force was to lessen the dependency of the government on the availability of the garrison in St. John's for the maintenance of law and order in both the capital and the outports. Indeed, the presence of the garrison, which in 1862 numbered approximately 300 men and cost the imperial Government 20,000 pounds annually, relieved Newfoundland of the full cost of maintaining law and order. (29) Several governors had tried, at the urging of the Imperial Government, to persuade local politicians to form a colonial militia; but for various financial and religious reasons this force had never been mustered. (30) In 1870 the colonial government was finally forced to assume full responsibility for policing when the Imperial Government announced that its garrison in Newfoundland would be withdrawn.

When the last troops were withdrawn in November, 1870, the Anti-Confederate Government of Charles Fox Bennett (1869-1874) organized a special force to complement the existing constabulary in anticipation of any possible increase in crime during the forthcoming winter. This force numbered 17 and was organized by Stipendiary Magistrate Daniel Prowse. (31) The long term solution proposed by the Bennett Government was the reorganization and expansion of the colonial and St. John's police under the leadership of an officer of the English or Irish police. In 1871 legislation was passed allocating $20,000 for the new force. Initially, this legislation was strongly criticized by outport opposition members who believed that only the capital would benefit from it. They desisted, however, when Bennett assured them that the force would police the whole island. On the recommendation of the Imperial Government, Thomas Foley, an Irish Protestant and former constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary, was appointed to head the Terra Nova Constabulary, which had its headquarters in St. John's. Foley retained the recently retired Timothy Mitchell's title of Inspector and General Superintendent of the Constabulary, but was given responsibility for all police constables in the colony, subject to the direction of the Executive Council. (32) By 1880 the new force numbered 100 men, half of whom were stationed in St. John's. The force was maintained by an annual vote of the legislature, while its internal organization and discipline were modelled on the practices of the Royal Irish Constabulary. (33)


1. D. W. Prowse, History of Newfoundland (London, 1895), 356-58, 383.

2. E. M. Archibald, Digest of the Laws of Newfoundland (1847), 66.

3. Ibid. See also Statutes of Newfoundland, 1 Victoria, Cap. 6; Journal of the House of Assembly (JHA), 1843, Appendix, 444-51; Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL), GN2/2, Incoming Correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Stipendiary Magistrates Blaikie and Carter to Colonial Secretary James Crowdy, May 17, 1838; and Gazette, January 15, 29, 1833.

4. PANL, GN2/2, Stipendiary Magistrates Carter and Simms to Colonial Secretary Crowdy, July 1, 1844;and JHA, 1857, Appendix, 476-77.

5. Prowse, History of Newfoundland, 381-86; Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's (Erie, Ontario, 1976), 573-74; Charles Pedley, History of Newfoundland (London, 1863), 280; and Arthur Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary (St. John's, 1971), 21.

6. Newfoundland Law Reports, 1817-1828, "R. Young v. James Blaikie, March, 1822", 277-84.

7. Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University, D'Alberti Transcripts, Correspondence with Governor's Office in Newfoundland, vol. 32, 1822, Governor Hamilton to the Justices in Sessions, April 1, 1822.

8. Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 22-8; and 5 George IV, Cap. 67 (Imperial).

9. D'Alberti Transcripts, Correspondence with Governor's Office in Newfoundland, vol. 34, 1825, E.B. Brenton to John Broom, November 28, 1825; and JHA, February 10, 1835.

10. Roger Lane, Policing the City: Boston, 1822-1885 (New York, 1975), 70; and Archibald, Digest of the Laws of Newfoundland, 197-98.

11. D'Alberti Transcripts, Correspondence with Governor's Office in Newfoundland, vol: 34, 1825, E. B. Brenton to John Broom, November 28, 1825; and PANL, GN2/2, High Constable James Findlay to the Stipendiary Magistrates, September 24, 1844.

12. PANL, GN2/2, Stipendiary Magistrates to the Colonial Secretary Crowdy, June 30, 1835, November 25, 1836; Thomas Morton to Acting Colonial Secretary Joseph Templeman,July 27,1841; and Stipendiary Magistrates to Templeman, October 21, 1841.

13. PANL, GN2/1, Outgoing Correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Colonial Secretary Crowdy to William Carson, January 8, 1834; GN2/2, Chief Justice Boulton to Governor Prescott, January 25, 1837, and Stipendiary Magistrates to Colonial Secretary Crowdy, May 21, 28, June 10,1840. See also Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 29-36.

14. On the English police force, see David Philips, Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country, 1835-1860 (London, 1977), 53-82.

15. Prowse, History of Newfoundland, 462; O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy, 574-75; and Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 44-6.

16. Gazette, January 11, 1848.

17. PANL, GN2/2, Stipendiary Magistrates Carter, Bennett, and Doyle to Colonial Secretary Crowdy, March 9, 1850; Newfoundlander, November 4, 18, December 30, 1847, February 3, December 4, 1848; and JHA, April 2, 1849.

18. JHA, January 17, 1849; and PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, April 8, 1848.

19. PANL, GN2/1, Colonial Secretary John Kent to Walter Grieve, July 4, 1856; GN2/2, Stipendiary Magistrates Carter and Simms to Colonial Secretary Crowdy, January 27, 1851; JHA, February 22, 1850, May 15, 1851; Public Ledger, March 26, August 30, 1850; and Express, January 18, 1855.

20. PANL, Colonial Secretary John Kent to Walter Grieve,July 4, 1856.

21. See PANL, ON 5121AI 11, Grand Jury Presentments, 1848-73.

22. PANL, GN2/1, Colonial Secretary Crowdy to the Stipendiary Magistrates, December 6,14,1853; and JHA, 1857, Appendix, 478.

23. JHA, 1857, Appendix, 474-91.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid. See also PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, May 25, July 7, 1856.

26. PANL, GN2/ 1, Colonial Secretary John Kent to Walter Grieve, July 4, 1856; and GN2/2, Grieve to Kent, July 7, 1856.

27. PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, May 25, July 7, 1856; and Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 27.

28. Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 27.

29. Ibid., 37, 47.

30. Gertrude E. Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland (Toronto, 1966), 92, 101-02, 154, 166; and PANL, GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, October 26, November 9, 1861.

31. On the organization of this special force, see PANL, GN2/2, 1870 for letters to the Colonial Secretary from Prowse for November 28, December 3, 8, 15, 1870. See also Gazette, February 28, 1871.

32. Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary, 46-58; and Statutes of Newfoundland, 35 Victoria, Cap. 6.

33. PANL, GNI/3A/folder 12/1880, Governor's Office, Inspector Carty to Attorney General Whiteway, April 12, 1880, and folder 7/1881, "list of Constabulary Members for January 6, 1881 "; and Gazette, January 20, 1874.