Patrick Thomas McGrath


Melvin Baker (c) 1993

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol.LXXXVII, no. 4 (Winter 1992-93)


Patrick Thomas McGrath was born in St. John's on 16 December 1868, the oldest son of William and Mary (Birmingham) McGrath. He received his early education at the Christian Brothers schools in the city and at the age of 14 was apprenticed to the druggists McMurdo & Co. Ill health led him to seek out outdoor employment and in 1891 he began work as a reporter for the Evening Herald. McGrath's series of articles for foreign newspapers on the St. John's fire of 1892 brought him to the attention of the London Times and he subsequently became Newfoundland correspondent for this and other newspapers and magazines in England, Canada and the United States.

The path to a successful career in Newfoundland journalism, however, lay in being a spokesman for local politicians and in this field McGrath proved himself most adept. In 1893 he served as interim editor of the Herald during the general election, when the paper supported the Tory opposition led by Moses Monroe and Walter Baines Grieve. The following year McGrath took over the editorship and played a prominent role in helping Conservative leader James Winter defeat William Whiteway in the 1897 general election. In 1900 he supported Liberal leader Robert Bond and his co-lieutenant, St. John's West MHA, Edward Patrick Morris. From 1901 to 1911 he served as clerk of the House of Assembly.

When Morris split with Bond in 1907 McGrath resigned from the Herald in order to start the Evening Chronicle in support of Morris and the People's Party. In the 1908 general election, which resulted in a tie, he did yeoman service as chief propagandist for Morris and again provided advice and editorial support when Morris won a clear victory in 1909. In 1911 he published Newfoundland in 1911, an optimistic book surveying political, social, and economic conditions in Newfoundland.

When Prime Minister Morris was absent from Newfoundland on government business, McGrath kept him informed regularly of local happenings. For the period 1911 to 1914, in particular, his letters to Morris have survived and they provide valuable insights into the political and social life of Newfoundland. For instance, for June and July 1911, McGrath informed the prime minister of fishery conditions, progress reports on the construction of branch railways by the Reid Newfoundland Company, the latest activities of William and Harry Reid to develop their land holdings, a dispute over who should captain the Stella Maris (a Labrador coastal steamer) -- George Barbour or Edgar Hann -- and local coronation preparations and a dispute among the local church brigades in St. John's over whether they should all march together or separately.

In April 1914 McGrath informed Morris of the Newfoundland sealing disaster. With Morris out of Newfoundland, McGrath advised the government on what to do for the victims of the Newfoundland disaster. He wrote Morris on April 14, 1914: "As soon as the first news came in at noon on Thursday, I advised him [Colonial Secretary John Bennett] to hold an emergency meeting of the Executive Council at once and he adopted this advice and called them together at 4:30 [pm]. They appointed himself [Bennett], [Michael] Cashin, [Sidney] Blandford, and [A.W.] Piccott a committee to handle matters and they got to work promptly. Cashin came to see me in the afternoon to discuss matters and I advised him to take over the Grenfell Institute and use it for both the living and the dead and this was done. The Hospital was also cleared of the patients who could be moved and provision made there for the severe cases."

In 1912 Morris had appointed McGrath to the Legislative Council, where he proved an able debater of public issues. He also took an active part in helping administrations he supported and was frequently called upon to write budget speeches. Noted historian and fellow journalist Daniel Prowse wrote of McGrath in 1913 that "in our public life he has shown rare political sagacity, and a remarkable foreknowledge of events and changes" in the social and political life of Newfoundland.

During World War I McGrath served as honorary secretary of the Newfoundland Patriotic Fund and finance secretary of the Newfoundland Regiment. He helped to organize the War Pensions Board and was its first chairman; he also served on a government commission which investigated the high cost of living conditions.

In 1918 he received a knighthood for his contributions to Newfoundland's war effort. McGrath found the local response to his knighthood and the 1918 elevation of his former political boss, Morris to the House of Lords, disheartening. In a letter to a friend in England, McGrath observed concerning Lord Morris that "a prophet is without honour in his own country and it is only outsiders who see him in a true perspective. I am experiencing something of the same kind of thing myself these days, but one has to be big enough to disregard these 'flea-bites' to use Sir Edward's own term." Similar views were expressed in a letter he wrote to Dr. William Morris in 1918, a brother of the former prime minister practising medicine in the Dominican Republic. McGrath wrote that "your brother's unique honour rather paralysed some of our people here, and I am afraid was not any more pleasing to some of them than my own recently. You will understand what I mean when I say that there is an impression in some quarters in this country that all these things should only be for a certain class or section of the community, and that others, however much brains, ability or determination that they may have, ought never be advanced beyond the scale of hewers of wood and drawers of water. However, the day is past for that sort of thing, and I look to see your brother make his mark in the House of Lords, as he made it in this country, a circumstance which I think will further confound his critics."

Public honours justifiably did eventually come to "PT" for his historical research for Newfoundland in its legal dispute with Canada over the location of the boundary between Quebec and Labrador. He extensively researched Newfoundland's case in British, Canadian and American archives and played a key role in forming the legal case which resulted in the dispute being decided in Newfoundland's favour by the British Privy Council. McGrath died at John's on 14 June 1929.


(The author would like to thank Francis J. Ryan, Q.C., and Jane Pippy for help in the preparation of this biography)

1. P.T. McGrath Papers (in the possession of Mr. Francis Ryan), P.T. McGrath to E.P. Morris, June 13, 20, 28, July 4, 13, 1911.

2. McGrath Papers, P.T. McGrath to E.P. Morris, April 14, 1914.

3. McGrath Papers, newspaper clipping from the British newspaper World.

4. McGrath Papers, P.T. McGrath to J.E.J. Fox, April 8, 1918.

5. McGrath Papers, P.T. McGrath to Dr. W.A. Morris, May 28, 1918.