J.R. Smallwood - labour and socialist leader


Melvin Baker (c)1999

(Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly vol. XCII1, no. 1 (Fall 1999), 23-8.

Most Newfoundlanders today know Joseph Roberts Smallwood as the leader in the late 1940s of the political movement which brought Newfoundland in 1949 into the Canadian Confederation and as premier of Newfoundland from 1949 to 1972. (1)There is another aspect of Smallwood that is little known, the Smallwood of the 1920s, an idealistic journalist and self-educated socialist whose loyalty to William Ford Coaker (2), and the Fishermen's Protective Union (FPU) he formed in 1908, was unswerving. He idolized Coaker and the FPU for their attempts to bring social, economic, and political reforms to Newfoundland and his early career in the 1920s was shaped by what Smallwood believed Coaker would approve.

Smallwood was born on 24 December 1900, at Gambo where his father, Charles, was working temporarily as a woods surveyor at Mint Brook. Soon after Smallwood's birth, the family moved back to St. John's. His childhood, in rented properties, was marked by poverty. After he had attended a number of schools in the city, in 1910, with the help of his uncle Fred, a prosperous city shoe manufacturer, he became a boarding student at Bishop Feild College. An avid reader and idealist, at the college he established a lending library of juvenile books, and also led a successful "strike'' to protest the food served in the college dining room.

In 1915 Smallwood, having run afoul of the rules of the college, left to work as a "printer's devil'' (or apprentice) with the city newspaper Plaindealer and, six months later, as a hand typesetter with the Spectator. In 1915 he also became a socialist following a chance meeting at a dentist's office with George Grimes, (3) the socialist Unionist representative for Port de Grave. "A precocious youth," as he later described himself to a friend, Smallwood was "deeply concerned with the question of labour, and I read avidly on the subject." (4)

He later joined the St. John's Daily News, working as a circulation clerk for the next two years. During this time he regularly attended the House of Assembly to hear political debate in general and FPU President William Coaker in particular. He also wrote anonymous letters of support to the FPU newspaper under the pen name "Avalond." In a 18 January 1918 article in the Advocate, Smallwood boldly asserted his admiration for Coaker, "he is a man amongst men! He is a noble man, Mr. Coaker,... the super genius, the man who directed the fishermen's efforts." (5)

Beginning in 1918 he spent two years as a reporter with the Evening Telegram. During the 1919 general election Smallwood became immersed in politics for the first time. In the election an electoral alliance formed of Liberals led by Richard Squires (6) and the Unionists led by Coaker won 24 of 36 seats with the Unionists holding 12 of the 24 seats. The alliance was a marriage of convenience between the two leaders who mistrusted each other. Yet, each man needed each other to achieve their goals - Squires to attain the prime ministership and Coaker to achieve political power to implement the various fisheries reforms long sought by the FPU. During the election Smallwood wrote editorial copy (but nothing political) for the Telegram, which endorsed the Squires Liberals, while helping to produce the Industrial Worker, a labour paper that supported three "Workingman's'' candidates opposed to Squires. During the campaign, Smallwood wrote for the labour newspaper and pasted the front pages of the Industrial Worker on utility poles and fences in St. John's. (7)

His failure to support the Telegram's political position led to his dismissal from the newspaper in June 1920 and his decision to seek employment as a journalist in the United States. He worked for two months in Halifax for the Halifax Herald. While he was in Nova Scotia, there was a general provincial election and he wrote articles for the Halifax Citizen, a local labour newspaper and never received any remuneration, a practice he would continue for the next few years in writing for for labour newspapers. (8) Smallwood then moved to Boston, where he worked for another few months for the Boston Herald-Traveler, before moving to New York where he found employment as a reporter on the socialist newspaper Call. His love of his native land and fellow compatriots remained strong. (9)

By January 1921 he had returned home and found work as a reporter, covering the House of Assembly for the Daily Star, a newspaper edited by former Advocate editor Harris Mosdell, (10) and which supported Prime Minister Squires. After the Daily Star ceased business in March, he joined the FPU newspaper, The Evening Advocate as a reporter.

In May 1922 Smallwood returned to New York where, his biographer Richard Gwyn wrote, Smallwood "trained himself to be a missionary for Coaker and regaled everyone who would listen with tales of his idol. When New York friends questioned him about his future, he would say: 'It depends on what Coaker wants me to do.'" (11) He secured a reporter's position with the New York Times, using a letter of introduction he had secured from the editor of the Times, Charles Miller, whom Smallwood had interviewed the previous year in the Advocate when Miller had been visiting St. John's. While he had obtained a position with a prestigious newspaper, Smallwood resigned to work for Ernest Shipman, a Canadian-born film maker living in New York who was interested in making a film on Newfoundland. He returned to Newfoundland on 20 July 1922 followed later by Shipman to secure funding from local businessmen for the proposed film. (12) Although they met with some success, Shipman did not make the promised film and Smallwood eventually returned to New York where he continued his journalistic career. Employment this time consisted of casual work as a labourer and writing for trade magazines. He also wrote articles for a newspaper syndicate, which supplied materials for American and Canadian newspapers. (13)

In early 1924 he found employment with the New York Leader ( the successor to the bankrupt Call), where he remained until 1925. As one contemporary later recalled, Smallwood was "rather quiet and retiring, and when art and literature were being discussed he hardly spoke at all. But when he got warmed up and started off about Newfoundland and Coaker, he could be quite aggressive." (14) He attended public lectures and again became active in the Socialist Party of America as a speaker during the 1924 presidential election campaign.

Smallwood regarded his time in the United States as only temporary and part of his plan to become better educated in labour politics in preparation for the formation of a Newfoundland Labour Party modeled on the British Labour Party that he hoped to help establish in Newfoundland. (15) He wrote to a friend in St. John's on 23 March 1924, that

every month spent out of Newfoundland is punishment for me. My whole heart is in Newfoundland, and my interests are centered there. I regard my time spent out of Newfoundland in the light of training and experience, a period of broadening and the absorption of a cosmopolitan spirit if possible... My idea is and has been for years been that of equipping myself to be useful to the labour movement that know should someday come to Newfoundland... and devote myself entirely to it for the rest of my life. (16)
From New York in 1924 Smallwood carefully monitored the Newfoundland political events of 1923-24. Having won a general election in 1923 Prime Minister Squires subsequently resigned after charges of political corruption had been laid against his government. A series of coalition governments followed over the next year as politicians jockeyed for support and a general election in 1924 resulted in the election of a majority government led by conservative businessman Walter Monroe. Meanwhile, Smallwood prepared himself for a return to Newfoundland to help form the Newfoundland Labour Party (NLP). His observations and criticisms of the political situation are documented in great detail in a number of letters he wrote in 1924 to St. John's labour leader George Tucker, vice-president of the Newfoundland Industrial Workers' Association (NIWA). The letters also discuss how a labour party could be formed in Newfoundland through careful planning, a program of public education to educate workers in the principles of unionism, and the bringing together of a small group of individuals who were sincere and loyal to the cause of the proposed labour party.

The political events of 1923 and 1924 demonstrated that the FPU was no longer a political force in Newfoundland, although it had with all its defects "undoubtedly given fishermen an attitude of independent-mindedness, and a keen interest in their economic conditions, that constitutes excellent material with which to work." The proposed NLP would be the successor of the FPU in the FPU districts, but would not become part of the FPU nor would the FPU become part of the NLP. In a February 17, 1924, letter to Tucker, Smallwood observed that the main work of the FPU had been performed and was not "making new progress. It is more or less resting on its oars. Coaker is no longer as young as he was, and from what I can see he is not equal to the task of reorganizing and revitalizing the FPU, much as perhaps he knows that needs to be done." Smallwood predicted that one of three things will happen to the FPU - "it will die a natural and unspectacular death; it will be reorganized anew and rededicated to fresh ideas and committed to a new program; or some opportunist adventurer will supplant it in the North, but will inevitably come to failure." While the FPU may die out, Smallwood acknowledged that its heritage was the "enlightened independence of the fishermen." (17) As it existed in 1924, the FPU had run out of passion and idealism; the moment it had joined with other parties to form a government, it had compromised its principles and policies. (18)

The major problem of the FPU was that Coaker had his definite objectives but there was no "general philosophy or attitude behind them." "In other words, he had only his cut and dried proposals which were purely topical and temporary," Smallwood wrote Tucker on 5 April 1924, which "soon grew out of date, leaving him more or less high and dry without definite principles. That is why you never see the FPU these days agitating for a specific program, with the exception of fish. Instead, it recounts to the point of extreme weariness, its past achievements." The FPU now had no

passionate ideals, little fight, less enthusiasm, no policies, and therefore has no mission, and is failing to lead the democracy in our country. This is due largely to the psychological and other changes that have occurred to Coaker. He has burned himself out, he has run out of policies, he is largely disillusioned, and he is tied down to the commercial wing that has, Frankenstein like, arisen to proportions that demand all of his time... It has ceased to be a movement, and degenerated into a party. It is not extending the union, holding very few meetings,... The fishermen are really leaderless." (19)
Smallwood's return to Newfoundland on 26 January 1925 (20) had been to work as a paid organizer for John Burke, an American labour leader and socialist friend. Burke had persuaded him to reorganize branch Local 63 of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers at Grand Falls. Smallwood found at Grand Falls a local that once had 1700 members; now it had only about 100 and was declining further. He built the membership rolls up to over 900 within a few months. Besides his efforts on behalf of Burke's International, Smallwood also had plans to establish a national union organization in Newfoundland. On 5 April 1925, he founded at Grand Falls the Newfoundland Federation of Labour, consisting of the major trade unions from that town. In late April Smallwood visited St. John's and over the next few weeks secured the affiliation of the major city unions with the nascent federation. Blacksmiths, typographers, boilermakers and carpenters all joined the "united front," as did both men's and ladies' branches of the NIWA.

In the summer of 1925 Smallwood moved to the frontier town of Corner Brook (the site of Newfoundland's new paper mill) and organized Local 64 of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers. Smallwood's next effort was to organize the 600 section-men who worked for the publicly-owned Newfoundland Railway and who had been threatened with a wage cut. Moving along the tracks on foot, by hand trolley, and by train, during September and October he signed the men up in their homes and at work; he had reached Avondale, approximately 30 miles from the capital, when he met a train going in the opposite direction, carrying officials of the railway. Threatening to close the railway down, Smallwood convinced the officials not to implement the proposed wage cut. This work accomplished, he moved to St. John's and published a weekly newspaper, the Labour Outlook (whose motto was "Fearless and Free"), for the members of the railway union and continued his work for the Newfoundland Federation of Labour.

During 1925 and early 1926 Smallwood established himself as one of the leading lights of the Newfoundland labour movement. In his capacity as head of the Federation of Labour, he bombarded the press with correspondence on a wide range of labour-related issues. He outlined the position of the Federation of Labour, arguing for, among other things, an unemployment insurance act, a national health bill, and laws dealing with child labour and collective bargaining. He also suggested an insurance bill for fishermen. He investigated working conditions in the mines on Bell Island.

In early January, 1926, Smallwood gave the first lecture of a series organized by Dr. James Tait (21) for city labourers. Smallwood spoke on the Newfoundland labour movement, asserting that workers required their own labour party like their counterparts in Britain. He said that the Liberal Party had once fulfilled this role, but that it was no longer doing so, having become indistinguishable from the Tory party. Smallwood's lecture impressed lawyer George Ayre (22), who described him as "probably one of the best informed men on labour matters that there is in the country." (23) Ayre wrote to the press taking issue with Smallwood's position while acknowledging his considerable oratorical skills:

Mr. Smallwood, if he plays his cards well,... has a great opportunity for good. He has already shown his rare organizing ability, his capacity for leadership, his ability as a speaker, a debater. He is young and wonderfully energetic. He seems to have all the qualifications for one who in time will become one of the leading men of the country. What a glorious prospect. 
Ayre himself argued that the Liberal party could best serve the workingman's purpose. Smallwood's response was that if the "Liberal Party will pull itself together, take earnest stock of the situation, and formulate and commit itself to principles and policies of social reform nature; and genuinely advocate them, there need never be a Labour Party in Newfoundland.'' (24) The socialist idealism of 1924 had given way to political pragmatism in 1926. 

In 1926 Smallwood set forth an extensive political manifesto to reinvigorate the Liberal Party so that it would position itself as the champion of the working man of Newfoundland - to become for Newfoundland what the Labour Party was for Great Britain, the defender of labour. Newfoundland in 1926 provided Smallwood with an opportunity to use the political, social and economic ideas that had been shaped by several years of study of society's problems, by his experience as a socialist journalist on newspapers in New York, and by his experience as a public speaker on behalf of the Socialist Party of America. As such, his views represent a mixture of Christian socialist and liberal thinking current in American and British circles at the time. In 1925 correspondence with the St. John's Daily News, Smallwood declared himself a Christian socialist who had attended lectures in New York at the Labour Temple school run by the Presbyterian Church, and at the union-operated Rand School of Social Science, which had been established in 1906 to provide general public facilities for studying aspects of socialism. (25) The subjects he studied included "literature, philosophy, biology, history, unionism, economics, psychology, theory of government, history, constitutionalism, etc.," areas which gave Smallwood the benefits of a post-secondary education which he never obtained in the traditional institutional sense. He had also read, Smallwood informed the Newfoundland public in 1925, "countless books and newspaper articles, on many dozens of subjects; I used to read at an average of a book a day, and so that my reading wouldn't be one-sided, I varied the subjects. I have some knowledge of every political philosophy or doctrine that is expounded... My temperament runs along the line of political philosophy and economics, and naturally I have read widely on them." (26)

Ayre argued that the local Liberal party would meet the needs of labour. Smallwood's responded by asking if "is Liberalism a mere name, a mere tradition, a mere will-of-the-wisp, something intangible, elusive, or is it something definite, concrete and apparent? Isn't it time that Liberalism answered that question?" Ayre challenged Smallwood to define Liberalism for Newfoundland. Smallwood took up the challenge. He wrote a series of letters to the St. John'sGlobe, showing how a revived Liberal Party should act on a number of issues such as Newfoundland's pressing financial and debt situation, its agriculture and fisheries, reforms in the civil service, and education. In these letters we see Smallwood trying to reconcile socialism with the pragmatism of local politics; as he later recalled in his autobiography, "Liberalism ... with its roots set deeply down in the fishing and working classes generally, and its honorable record of taking always the side of the people, was as close as it was reasonable or practical to think the Island could get to Socialism." (27) The basis for the articles on a new Liberalism for Newfoundland was the program he had devised in 1924 for the proposed Newfoundland Labour Party. (28)

In 1926 Smallwood became the editor of a newspaper published by his friend, Richard Hibbs. (29) Hibbs published the Globe, whose editor, Harris Mosdell had been dismissed. TheGlobe was the voice of the opposition Liberal Party leader, Albert Hickman. This period of his life, which included his marriage to Clara Oates, Smallwood later recalled in his autobiography, was one of "personal happiness and strong political discontent." (30)As editor Smallwood enjoyed his criticisms of the conservative pro-business policies of Prime Minister Monroe during the 1926 legislative session.

To supplement his income, he commenced work on a Newfoundland Who's Who, a volume containing short biographies of prominent public figures who paid for their inclusion in the prospective book. Hibbs agreed to print the book and share the book's profits on an equal basis with Smallwood, with whom he formed a partnership for the project. Financial difficulties in maintaining his paper forced Hibbs to stop publishing the Globe in 1926 and Smallwood, now without employment, at first valiantly attempted to continue the biographical project, but sold his interest in the project to Hibbs when the latter was in no hurry to complete it. 

Growing restless and wishing to experience the intellectual life of English socialism, in late 1926 Smallwood left for England using funds he received from Hibbs and from the sale of a library of books he had been accumulating for the past few years. His wife, Clara, went to live with her parents in Carbonear during his six-month English stay. In London Smallwood threw himself wholeheartedly into Labour Party politics, campaigning for the party in a North Southwark by-election and writing for its official newspaper, the Labour Magazine, including an explanation of "Why America has no Labour Party." (31) He also went to "every Socialist, Communist, Liberal, Tory, philosophical, and religious meeting that it was practically possible for me to attend.'' (32)

Before he left Newfoundland, Smallwood had discussed with Coaker the possibility of his writing a "history of the FPU and the story" of Coaker's career. On 30 December 1926 Smallwood wrote Coaker seeking financial support to help publish the proposed book by agreeing to purchase copies for distribution by Coaker to his friends in Newfoundland. A publishing house became interested in the book following Smallwood's introduction to the publisher through a mutual friend. "I need not point out to you the excellent propaganda purposes which could be served by such a book as I can write," Smallwood wrote. The publisher wanted Smallwood to commence writing right away and "I am going to begin today. I can finish it inside of a week, so that it can be published within two months or even less. The company has loaned me a typewriter to do the book." Upon receipt of a cable from Coaker, Smallwood would finalize arrangements for the book's publication. (33) Coaker apparently agreed to this proposal and the book was published in mid-1927 by the Labour Publishing Company.

Smallwood returned to Newfoundland on 14 April 1927, aboard the Furness linerNewfoundland and immediately thrust himself into the foray of St. John's labour politics. (34) The following month he was secretary of the Unemployed Workers' Committee, chaired by James McGrath, a former president of the Longshoremen's Protective Union. (35) A few weeks later he gave up labour politics when he took a temporary assignment as a correspondent for several foreign newspapers in covering the landing at Trepassey of an Italian aviator, Francesco De Pinedo, who was attempting a trans-Atlantic flight. (36) Later in the year Smallwood moved to Corner Brook and found work with a surveyor's team on the Gander River watershed (touted as the site of a new paper mill). Later he established the Humber Herald in Corner Brook. Meanwhile, he had set his sights on becoming the Liberal candidate for Humber district in the next general election, due in late 1928 and won by the Liberal party led by Richard Squires. But when Squires decided that he himself would run in the district Smallwood had to console himself with being district campaign manager. As his reward for helping the victorious Squires, Smallwood was appointed a justice of the peace. 

Business acumen was not Smallwood's greatest strength and by 1929 majority control of the Humber Herald was in the hands of a shareholder, who increasingly interfered with Smallwood's editorial freedom. He soon severed his connection with the paper. Early in 1930 he was summoned to St. John's by Prime Minister Squires and informed that he was to buy the printing plant that had published the opposition newspaper Watchman. This was replaced by a new Liberal paper, which Smallwood coyly named the Watchdog. He now became a confidant of Squires, helping him to prepare speeches and policy statements (and was at the Prime Minister's side in April 1932 when a mob stormed the Colonial Building). The labour and socialist leader of the 1920s was now a seasoned Liberal party organizer and political confidant with an eye to elective politics at the next general election.

1. For details on Smallwood, see the following sources: Joseph R. Smallwood, I Chose Canada, Toronto 1973; Richard Gwyn, Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary, Toronto 1968; Harold Horwood, Joey: The Life and Political Times of Joey Smallwood, Toronto 1989; Melvin Baker, "Joseph Roberts Smallwood," in Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, vol. 5, St. John's 1994, pp. 208-25; Melvin Baker and Hans Rollmann, "Joey Smallwood -- He didn't see Confederation, but ... he did see a 'socialist' utopia by 1971!" in James R. Thoms, ed., Fifty Golden Years: The Illustrated Story of Newfoundland and Labrador's Union with Canada, St. John's 1999, 78-79; and the 1998 Advocate Press reprint of Smallwood's Coaker of Newfoundland, pp. 1-31. 

2. See Ian D.H. McDonald, "To Each His Own": William Coaker and the Fishermen's P rotective Union in Newfoundland Politics, 1908-1925, St. John's 1987, and Robert Cuff, ed. A Coaker Anthology, St. John's 1986.

3. George Grimes (1877-1929); retail clerk and politician, who was the socialist conscience of the FPU. See Robert H. Cuff, Melvin Baker, and Robert D.W. Pitt, eds., Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, St. John's 1990, pp. 135-36.

4. Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (CNSA), Coll-213, Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 25 April 1924.

5. Evening Advocate, 18 January 1918.

6. Richard Squires (1880-1940); lawyer, politician, and prime minister of Newfoundland, 1919-23, and 1928-32. See Cuff et al, Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, pp. 323-24.

7. CNSA, Coll-213, Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 25 April 1924.

8.  Ibid.

9. Writing to William Coaker's daughter on 14 October 1922, from New York, Smallwood envied the fact that she was attending Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, because she had the "privilege of being with Newfoundlanders most of the time." Mount Allison in the 1920s was a popular destination for Newfoundlanders wishing to pursue a post-secondary education. See Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL), MG 374, Box 2, Camilla Coaker Scrapbook, Joseph Smallwood to Camilla Coaker, 14 October 1922.

10. Harris Mosdell (1883-1944); journalist, physician, politician, and civil servant. See Cuff et al,Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, p. 236.

11. Gwyn, Smallwood, p. 25; and Evening Telegram 20 July 1922.

12. Evening Telegram 20 July 1922.

13. CNSA, Coll-213, Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 23 March 1924.

14. Gwyn, Smallwood, p. 26.

15. His admiration for the British Labour Party can be seen in a number of articles he wrote for the St. John's press. For instance, see the Evening Advocate, 11, 12, and 13 September 1924, and theDaily News, 5, 15 September 1925.

16. CNSA, Coll-213, Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 23 March 1924.

17. Ibid., Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 17 February 1924.

18. Ibid., Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 23 March 1924.

19. Ibid., Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 5 April 1924.

20. Daily Globe 29 January 1925.

21. James Sinclair Tait (1849-1928); physician. See Cuff et al, Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, p. 334.

22. George W.B. Ayre (1879-1945); lawyer. See ibid., p. 8.

23. Daily Globe, 14 January 1926.

24. Ibid., 18 January 1926.

25. Melvin Baker and James Overton, "J.R. Smallwood on Liberalism in 1926: Document" inNewfoundland Studies, 11, no. 1 (1995), pp. 75-126.

26. Daily News, 8 May 1925.

27. Baker and Overton, "J.R. Smallwood,", pp. 78-9; and Smallwood, I Chose Canada, p. 164.

28. CNSA, Coll-213, Joseph Smallwood to George Tucker, 17 April 1924.

29. Richard Hibbs (1876-1940); farmer, politician and journalist, who helped William Coaker to organize the FPU in Conception Bay. See Cuff et al., Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, p. 151.

30. Smallwood, I Chose Canada, p. 164.

31. Baker and Overton, "J.R. Smallwood,", pp. 79-80.

32. Smallwood, I Chose Canada, pp. 167-69.

33. CNSA, Coll-9, microfilm of general correspondence, Joseph Smallwood to William Coaker, 30 December 1926.

34. Daily News, 14 April 1927.

35. See PANL, GN2/5, Special file of the Colonial Secretary's Office, file 485, "Unemployment 1927," Colonial Secretary J.R. Bennett to James McGrath and J.R. Smallwood, 19 May 1927; and Daily News, 11, 13 May 1927. On McGrath, see Cuff et al., Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, p. 209.

36. Daily News, 26 May 1927. The newspapers were the United Press, New York World, Boston Post, Montreal Star, and the London Daily Express.