The Politics of Poverty: Providing Public Poor Relief in Nineteenth Century St. John's, Newfoundland


Melvin Baker (c)1982

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXVIII, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring & Summer 1982), 20-3

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 prejudice."

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 fire. (11)

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 leave. (18)

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 molasses. (22)

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," 221.