Before the establishment in 1832 of representative
government in Newfoundland, the citizens of St. John's had two
alternatives for securing the funds necessary to maintain vital
social services. They could get the funds from the governor; or
they could raise them by subscription. Voluntary subscription had
a long history in St. John's. Until the Imperial Government in
1811 leased the remaining vacant public land available in
St.John's, it had allotted no funds for poor relief and residents
were forced to rely on two charities - the Society for Improving
the Condition of the Poor, formed in 1804, and the Benevolent
Irish Society, formed in 1806, both through the initiative of the
merchant, James McBraire. Public response to the fund raising
efforts of these charities was clearly favourable; in 1807, for
instance, they raised and spent over 800 pounds, the money being used
for the relief of the sick, widows, and orphans, and for sending
seamen and immigrants stranded in St. John's back to their homes.
Nevertheless, after 1811 successive governors found themselves
having to draw increasingly larger sums from the public funds for
relief. The distress occasioned by the 1815 depression in the
island's fisheries and the St. John's fires of the 1816-1819
period all contributed to this situation.(1) The magistrates,
Governor Sir Charles Hamilton noted in 1819, had to give relief
or the people would "starve or die in the streets without food or
medical aid." In the early 1820s the public grants generally
equalled the amounts the residents of St. John's were able to
raise themselves, as a rule the whole being dispensed through the
local charities. (2) The demand for relief came not only from the
poor of St. John's, but also from large numbers of destitute
Irish arriving at the port and from the outport fishermen who
flocked to St. John's when the fisheries were bad. (3)
Soon after his arrival in the colony in 1825, Governor Sir Thomas
Cochrane tried to find a way to reduce the cost of poor relief.
But he was unable to change the existing system of outdoor
relief, where assistance was given either in cash or in kind.
Cochrane considered and rejected the idea of establishing
workhouses where the needy could be employed. The approach was
evidentally too expensive, the number of able-bodied poor being
too small to justify the cost. What Cochrane finally decided was
to put as many as possible of those in need of assistance to work
on road building in and around St. John's each autumn, a plan
that would be followed by successive colonial governments
throughout the century. (4)
The establishment of a colonial legislature in 1832 only saw the
government drawn further into assuming greater financial
responsibility for both the permanent and able-bodied poor, funds
for which still came from the colony's duties on all imported
goods and spirits into the island. Not surprisingly, the issue of
who was to administer poor relief in St. John's was a matter of
great debate during the 1830s in both the House of Assembly and
the community at large. The predominantly Protestant and
mercantile Conservatives, who held a majority of seats before
1836, preferred a system whereby the Executive Council through
the magistrates supervised the distribution of relief funds. By
contrast, the Roman Catholic Liberals, who won a majority in the
1837 general election and controlled a majority in the Assembly
until 1841, wanted the Assembly to appoint the poor relief
commissioners and hence decide how relief was to be had.(5) In
1838 the Liberal majority passed a supply bill with this goal in
mind. Under this legislation, which was reluctantly agreed to by
the Conservative Legislative Council, 750 pounds was allocated for
poor relief in the electoral district of St. John's and which was to
be expended by a nine-man commission whose members were named in
the Act. The commission included four clergymen representing the
major denominations, two Executive Councillors, two Liberal
members of the Assembly, and one citizen at large. (6)
The matter of poor relief administration was disputed over
by the Assembly and the Legislative Council until the two bodies
were united in the 1842 Amalgamated Legislature. (7) By this time
the utility of having clergymen rather than the magistrates or
party men as relief commissioners was manifest. Governor Sir John
Harvey (1841-1846) continued this practice, attempting thereby to
raise the administration of assistance to the poor above politics
and to prevent any "possible imputations of partiality or
Neither Harvey nor his new commissioners altered the existing
system of outdoor relief, whereby an annual legislative grant for
the poor supplemented the assistance offered by the town's
religious and social charities. Moreover, the recipients
continued to be divided into two categories: permanent and
casual. The former - the aged, infirm, and blind, together with
the lunatics, widows, and orphans - received a living allowance
of 4d to 6d per person per day. This allowance was paid either
directly to the recipient or to a third party on the recipient's
behalf. The casual poor received provisions, and sometimes
clothing. If sickness was given as the cause of relief, the
applicants might be examined by the district surgeon, a
government medical officer; in other cases a specially appointed
Inspector, John Freeman, visited the applicants to check out
their alleged destitution. (8)
Whatever efficiency and effectiveness there was in this system
was lost following the great fire of June 9, 1846, in St. John's.
The distress occasioned by this disaster was compounded by a gale
in September which destroyed much property in St. John's and the
outports. The years 1846 and 1847 also witnessed a severe potato
blight, which brought many outport residents to a state of near
starvation and pauperism. The result was an unprecedented demand
for poor relief on an already hard pressed colonial treasury. (9)
In St. John's district relief expenditures rose from 1,750 pounds in
1844 to 4,900 pounds in 1848, with 2,000 pounds of the latter sum
being used to pay for a special road and street program in St. John's by
Governor Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant (1847-1852) to employ the
able-bodied poor. (10) This program, which employed over 1,000
men, had been forced on the government by the growing refusal of
the St. John's merchants to advance the customary winter supplies
to the outports. Once the events of 1846-1847, it seems, had put
the government in the relief business on a large scale, there was
no backing out. The problem was that the existing administrative
structure was not designed to accommodate the large number of
able-bodied poor clamouring for help. The situation facing the
government was made even worse by the many outport families who
came to St. John's each autumn looking for public relief, a
practice that had existed only on a small scale before the 1846
Not surprisingly, Le Marchant concluded that the growing cost of
poor relief should be borne by a poor rate, the imposition of
which residents had successfully resisted in the past. When the
legislature met for the first time in December, 1848, under the
restored 1832 constitution which had provided for two separate
legislative bodies, he approached the Liberal majority in the
Assembly to adopt such a measure. (12) The Liberal response was
understandably cautious, given the general apathy of residents to
any form of property assessment. In the first instance, what Le
Marchant got for his efforts was the appointment of a select
committee to examine the existing relief system. This committee
was chaired by a Conservative member, Hugh Hoyles, a St.
John's lawyer who represented Fortune Bay. Its main
recommendation was that a poor asylum and workhouse, similar to
the one in Halifax, be opened in St. John's. By adopting a system
of indoor relief, Hoyles and his associates hoped to save money
and end certain fraudulent practices encouraged by the existing
system. The outport residents, who sought relief in St. John's,
were particularly suspect; the Poor Relief Commissioners could
know neither the exact circumstances of these people nor whether
they had been denied relief in their own home electoral
districts. Under Hoyles' plan, the proposed poor asylum and
workhouse would itself be a "test of destitution," admission to
it being the qualification for relief. The asylum section of the
building would house the permanent poor and the workhouse the
casual poor. As for the financing of the facility, Hoyles'
committee recommended that this be done out of the annual
legislative relief vote. (13)
Led by Ambrose Shea, an aspiring young Roman Catholic merchant
and St. John's resident, who represented Placentia-St. Mary's in
the House of Assembly, the Liberals rejected this plan. The
Liberal argument was that the existing high expenditure on relief
was the result of "peculiar circumstances," which would soon
disappear and which should not be allowed to dictate any radical
change in the relief system. Once prosperity returned, Shea
asserted, the people would make fewer demands on the treasury and
the government's revenue could then be directed more fully to the
purposes of education and natural resource development. (14)
Faced with this attitude on the part of the majority in the
Assembly, Governor Le Marchant turned to other means to reduce
the expenditure on relief in St. John's. If such a reduction was
not effected, the Governor believed, the "whole credit of the
colony must be annihilated." (15)
In May, 1849, a Committee of the Executive Council was appointed
to examine the relief problem. Its report, issued twelve days
later, recommended the abolition of the casual paupers' list. In
the Committee's view the only relief henceforth to be given
gratuitously should go to those who were clearly unable to earn
their own subsistence - the incapacitated, the sick and the
infirm; and even they should be denied if they had relatives or
friends capable of supporting them. All other relief payments
would have to be in return for some form of labour, the most
popular being employment on roads. (16)
The adoption of this plan put the administration of poor relief
on a more centralized footing; but it also represented a return
to the system of the 1830s in that the magistrates were again
called upon to act as commissioners. They were asked to do so
because the Committee of the Executive Council, which drafted the
scheme, felt that the relief work was too "painful and invidious"
for clergymen to carry out. (17) Altogether the new Poor Relief
Commission was to consist of the magistrates and two members of
the Executive Council; it was to be assisted in its work both by
Inspector Freeman and by a salaried clerk who was to look after
its proceedings and accounts. District Surgeon Samuel Carson also
was given an expanded role under the new arrangement. Besides
having to certify all applicants for the permanent pauper list,
Carson was to check regularly all patients in the Hospital and to
recommend for discharge those whom he considered well enough to
In the short run Le Marchant had considerable success with these
regulations, but in the long run relief and road grant
expenditures continued to rise in keeping with the outlook of the
Liberal majority in the Assembly. (19) In 1853 the Executive
Council took steps to curb the continuing flow of outport relief
applicants when it extended the 1849 regulations to the rest of
the island. The outport poor relief commissioners, usually local
magistrates, were now required to report periodically to the
Chairman of the St. John's Poor Relief Commission on the state of
the poor in their areas. Moreover, the St. John's Commissioners
were ordered to deny assistance to any outport applicant who did
not have a certificate from the magistrate nearest his home
stating that such relief was absolutely necessary. To help
administer these changes, the clerk of the St. John's Commission
became a commissioner in his own right on the understanding that
he would work full time examining relief applications. (20)
Liberal criticism of the poor relief system in this period was
expressed most vocally by Philip Little, a lawyer and recent
immigrant from Prince Edward Island, who would be the first prime
minister under responsible government which was attained in 1855,
and by the Irish-born John Thomas Mullock, who became Roman
Catholic Bishop of St. John's in 1850. The Liberals were bitter
about the government's refusal to assist the able-bodied poor,
many of whom they claimed, were greatly destitute. Little
asserted that on one instance a man had died having been denied
such assistance. In another incident, a cooper named Long
inflicted gun shot wounds on Magistrate Peter Carter when the
latter refused his relief application. (21)
Little was also highly critical of the living conditions of the
permanent poor, especially those who had been withdrawn from the
Hospital in 1849 for economy reasons. These patients, who had
nobody to care for them at home, were subsequently housed in
boarding houses, which Little described as "mock hospitals." In
one tenement he found six persons being cared for at public
expense by a woman who, only a few years before, had been
admitted to the Hospital as a lunatic. In an 1851 letter to the
Liberal Patriot, Little wrote indignantly of another boarding
house run by a Mrs. Prowse who was herself in "indigent
circumstances" and had a "crippled and half-blind husband."
Moreover, he was further appalled by the condition of the so
called "Camps" which housed most of the permanent poor. The camps
were long lines of dilapidated wooden sheds, which had been put
up after the 1846 fire as temporary shelter for the homeless.
They were located at Fort Townshend, near where the Roman
Catholic Cathedral was under construction. The Camps were an
extension of the boarding house system, except that the
residents, who rose in number during the winter, were looked
after by a public official and visited by the district surgeon.
In these hovels the often old and enfeebled poor slept in crowded
rooms on beds made of hay and wood shavings, had little heat in
the winter, and ate food consisting of oat and corn meal and
After his election as prime minister in 1855, Little effected
reforms in the distribution of poor relief and made gratuitous
relief more readily available to the able-bodied poor.
Specifically, his Liberal Government gave a Committee of the
Executive Council control of the processing of all relief
applications in the colony. (23) With regard to the accommodation
of the permanent poor, in 1859 his Liberal successor as prime
minister, John Kent, had a legislative vote of 3,639 pounds passed for
the construction of a poor asylum. Opened in October, 1861, the
poor asylum was administered by the Board of Works, which had
been established in 1855 to manage all public buildings and roads
in the colony. The paupers the government had been maintaining in
the Camps were transferred there as a group; others were admitted
by the Chairman of the Board of Works on receipt of a certificate
from the Poor Relief Commissioner. In the new buildings the Board
was able to supervise the relief recipients better and to put
some of them to work to subsidize their stay. (24)
Yet able-bodied pauperism, which cost the government 14,000 pounds in
1860 for the colony as a whole as compared to 8,385 pounds in 1857, had
continued to be a pressing problem. (25) In contrast to its
Liberal predecessors, after 1861 the Conservative Government of
Hugh Hoyles, who had won a majority in the 1861 general election,
tried to reduce relief expenditures by abandoning the Liberal
practice of giving relief gratuitously to the able-bodied. The
latter were now to work for what they got. But work proved no
deterrent, for many persons, Hoyles asserted, who were "ashamed
to accept gratuitous relief" felt" no hesitation in working for
it." Next the government began distributing food rather than
cash, but this scheme also failed to limit the demand. In the
circumstances Hoyles in 1864 came to believe that no alternative
existed to making each electoral district which could afford it
bear half the cost of its own able-bodied poor relief through an
imposition of a local poor rate.
This was not a new principle, Hoyles frustratingly asserted, for
the same "mode of relief had long been followed in other
countries - in England for centuries." In the government's view
the areas of the island which could bear the new rate were St.
John's and the larger Conception Bay outports. (26) Authority to
levy the rate was to be vested in the Grand Jury, which was to
elect from its number three or four persons to serve for three
years to determine the amount of the rate. The rate was to be
levied on the annual rental value of lands and buildings in the
districts affected. (27) The plan was straight forward enough,
but the Hoyles Government was forced to withdraw the bill
embodying it when strong opposition was encountered on both sides
of the House of Assembly from members who believed their
constituents could not afford this new imposition.(28)
This left the colonial government directly responsible for
able-bodied poor relief, though in times of severe economic
distress like the 1860s it was greatly assisted in St. John's by
subscriptions raised by voluntary relief associations. (29) While
this dependency placed great strain on colonial revenue, it
accorded well with the economic realities of Newfoundland life,
the fortunes of the Newfoundland people rising and falling with
the products of the annual cod fishery.
1.H. M. Mosdell, When Was That? (S. John's 1923), 10, 119, 154; "Memoranda on the Judicature of Newfoundland and on other subjects connected with that Colony" by Governor Cochrane, printed in the Gazette, January 22, 1833; and United Kingdom, House of Commons Journal, vol. 59, 1803-1804, 700, and vol. 66, 1810-1811, 535.
2. Colonial Office Records, Newfoundland Correspondence, C.0.194, vols 62-4, 1819-21. Hamilton to Bathurst, November 19, 1821; and Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, hereafter PANL, GN 2/1, Outgoing Correspondence, Colonial Secretary's Office, Bathurst to Hamilton, May 31, 1923.
3. D'Alberti Transcripts, Correspondence with Governor's Office in Newfoundland, vol. 31, 1821, Forbes to Hamilton, October 15, 1821, and enclosures (these records are available at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University).
4. Marjorie Smith, "Newfoundland, 1815-1840: A Study of a Merchantocracy" (M.A. thesis, Memorial University, 1968), 193, Charles Pedley, History of Newfoundland (London 1863), 344-45; D. W. Prowse, History of Newfoundland (London 1895), 424-25; and Stuart R. Godfrey, "Introduction to Social Legislation in Newfoundland" (paper presented to the Newfoundland Historical Society, April, 1979), 10-1.
5. The politics of the 1830s is discussed in Gertrude E. Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, 1832-1864 (Toronto 1966), 14-73.
6. 1838 Supply Act printed in the Gazette, November 13, 1838.
7. Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, 1832-1864, 63-7.
8. PANL, GN2/2, Incoming Correspondence, Colonial Secretary's Office, Stipendiary Magistrates Carter and Simms to Colonial Secretary Crowdy, April 5, 1841, and to Acting Colonial Secretary Joseph Templeman, October 20, 1841; "Report of the Select Committee on St. John's Poor Relief," Journal of the House of Assembly, hereafter JHA, 1848-49, Appendix, 685-92; and Public Ledger, March 2, April 16, 1842.
9. Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, 1832-1864, 104-06; "Report of the Select Committee on St. John's Poor Relief," 686; and "Evidence taken by the Select Committee on Pauperism," JHA, 1855, Appendix, 259-67.
10. "Report of the Select Committee on St. John's Poor Relief," 690-92.
11. Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, 1832-1864, 106; PANL, GN2/2, Reverend Thomas Bridge, Chairman of Poor Relief Commissioners, to Colonial Secretary Crowdy, November 20, 1844; and "Evidence taken by the Select Committee on Pauperism," 259-61.
12. Irish University Press Series of British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol. 5 (Shannon 1971),94, Le Marchant to Earl Grey, April 28, 1849, hereafter cited as British Parliamentary Papers.
13. JHA, January 15, 1849; Assembly Debates, December 22, 1848, in Newfoundlander, January 4, 1849; Hugh Hoyles in Assembly Debates, February 6, 1849, in Public Ledger, February 9, 1849; "Report of Select Committee on St. John's Poor Relief," 685-92; and 1849 Poor Asylum Bill printed in the Public Ledger, January 23, 1849.
14. Ambrose Shea in Assembly Debates, February 6, 1849, in Public Ledger, February 9, 1849.
15. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol. 4, 447, Le Marchant to Earl Grey, May 4, 1848.
16. PANL, GN9/ 1, Minutes of Executive Council, May 18, 30, June 11, July 2, 3, 1849; and "Report of a Committee of her Majesty's Council, upon the expenditure on account of Paupers in the district of St. John's," published in the Public Ledger, July 3, 1849.
17. PANL, GN2/2, St.John's District Poor Relief Commissioners to E. E. Rushworth, Pro-Secretary, Governor's Office, July 4, 1849, Rushworth's reply was printed in the Gazette, July 10, 1849.
18. "Report of a Committee of her Majesty's Council upon the expenditure on account of Paupers in the district of St.John's."
19. British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, General, vol. 5, 563, Le Marchant to Earl Grey, April 22, 1850; and ibid., vol. 8, 36, Hamilton to Lord John Russell, April 26, 1855.
20. "Copy of Instructions to the Poor Relief Commissioners," JHA, 1853, Appendix, 372.
21. PANL, GN2/2, Philip Little to Colonial Secretary Crowdy, January 27, 1853; and Gazette, May 31, 1853.
22. Melvin Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980), 110-11.
23. John P. Greene, "The Influence of Religion in the Politics of Newfoundland, 1850-61" (M.A. thesis, Memorial University, 1970), 124-25; and PANL, GNI/3A, Governor's Office, Miscellaneous Papers and Correspondence, folder 1/1855, "Regulations for the Relief of the Poor."
24.1860 Poor Asylum Act published in the Gazette, June 5, 1860, Supplement; "Evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Petition of Dr. McKen," JHA, 1869, Appendix, 844-48; "Rules and Regulations for the Management of the St. John's Poor Asylum," JHA, 1863, Appendix, 408-12; and Poor Asylum Report for 1862 in JHA, 1863, Appendix, 1097-99.
25. Edward C. Moulton, "The Political History of Newfoundland, 1861-1869" (M.A. thesis, Memorial University, 1960), 18-9.
26. Hugh Hoyles in Assembly Debates, February 23, 1864, in Newfoundlander, March 21, 1864.
27. 1864 Poor Relief Bill printed in The Day-Book, February 26, 1864.
28. Moulton, "The Political History of Newfoundland, 1861-1869," 135-36; and John Kent in Assembly Debates, January 31, 1865, in Newfoundlander, February 9, 1865.
29. Moulton, "The Political History of Newfoundland, 1861-1869,"