Municipal Democracy on Trial in St. John's, 1888-1898


Melvin Baker (c)1986

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXXII, no. 2 (Fall 1986), 21-28

In March 1898 the Tory Government of Premier James Winter enacted legislation ending 10 controversial years of municipal democracy in St. John's. The elective form of local government was abandoned, Winter asserted, because it had broken under the weight of past government interference, as evidenced by the Municipal Council's financial disarray since 1888. In its place, Winter instituted a municipal commission of three appointees to govern the town and determine how St. John's could be made financially independent of the colonial government. According to the Minister of Finance, Alfred Morine, this commission would ascertain how "taxation could best be raised, as to leave enough money in the hands of whatever body may continue to govern this city as to pay the interest on the debt, which ought to be paid" by St. John's residents. (1) It was ironic that it should have been Winter who proposed the new system, since he had been the architect of the original municipal legislation and the government interference in the affairs of the St. John's municipality owed much to the nature of the municipal government he had helped to shape in 1888.


The First Municipal Council, 1888-1892

Previous to 1888 the Newfoundland Government had provided all the municipal services of St. John's except for water supply and fire protection. These were the preserve of a private utility formed in 1859 and owned by local merchants but greatly assisted financially by the government. (2) The purpose of the 1888 legislation granting the town its own elective government was to justify the raising of a large loan in England. With this loan the government intended to buy out the St. John's General Water Company, in which Premier Robert Thorburn and other prominent government supporters and merchants were shareholders, and to redeem a 25 year 15,000 pound loan, repayable by assessments upon the owners of all land within St; John's, which had fallen due. It was also intended in 1888 to use part of the new loan to construct a better sewerage system and to relieve the general colonial revenue of the increasing burden of maintaining the town's streets, sewers, and drains.

In enacting the 1888 legislation, Thorburn's Government sought, first, to protect property owners from any unnecessary taxation and, second, to give St. John's residents the municipal vote. As the Attorney General, St. John's lawyer James Winter, noted, municipal government was ". . . more in the nature of a joint-stock company, because it is with financial matters the Board had to deal, and property ought to have its fair representation . . . " In shaping the constitution of the proposed municipal council, Winter observed that there was no "exact precedent" for governing St. John's and that there was little reason "to follow the practice of other countries with regard to the constitution of municipalities." Thus, the composition of the new council reflected a compromise between the interests of the south side of Water Street, the historic business district of St. John's which faced over the harbour, and the rest of the community. The result was a hybrid council with two appointees and five members elected through a ward system. The presence of the former on the council was to protect the government's financial interests, since the colony would both raise any necessary civic loans and guarantee interest payments on the civic debt. Both prospective voters and councillors faced stiff property qualifications under the 1888 system, the determining factor in both instances being annual payments to the water company for its services. (3)

During the life of the first Municipal Council from September 1888 to January 1892, government interference and strong partisanship between politicians at the colonial and municipal levels of St. John's urban politics were two characteristics of the civic management of St. John's. Another was inadequate revenue to provide needed improvements and to enable Council to balance its annual budget, which the 1888 Municipal Act required it to do. Part of Council's financial problems could be traced to its complex taxation system, which had been established in the 1860s to provide revenue for the General Water Company. The chief source of revenue was an assessment based on the rental value of property and paid by the owners and occupiers of property. (4) Since any assessment increase would adversely affect the majority of residents who were tenants, politicians proved reluctant to implement any significant increase in this form of taxation. Another source of revenue which Council inherited from the Water Company was a duty on coal imported into St. John's. Since coal was a basic domestic and commercial necessity in late nineteenth century St. John's, the duty on it touched all citizens. In 1891 Edward Patrick Morris, the representative in the House of Assembly for St. John's West and a populist Roman Catholic politician, made this form of indirect taxation the basis for revising the civic franchise. Over the objections of the mercantile-dominated Legislative Council, he reduced the property qualification to include any male householder over 21 years who occupied a house either as owner or tenant or both (no matter what the rent) or who paid water and sewerage assessments to the Municipal Council. In Morris' view, even those who paid little rent and no property assessments still contributed to Council's revenues indirectly either through the purchase of coal or through the taxes of their landlords, who passed their share of taxation on to their tenants in the form of rent. (5)

Edward Patrick Morris

From 1889 onwards Council ran a deficit on its annual budget because of insufficient revenue. The 1889 and 1890 budget deficits were met through the raising of a loan by the legislature and the consolidation of these deficits with the total civic debt. In 1891 the legislature sought to prevent a deficit for that year by giving Council new sources of revenue but, unfortunately, this effort failed. Faulty legislation enabled some tax delinquents to challenge Council's new taxing authority in the courts; for instance, lawyer James Winter, acting on behalf of several cabmen, succeeded in getting a decision from a local magistrate that Council could not license them. The result of all this was an 1891 deficit of $17,308.02 in interest arrears, which Council owed for the last six months of the year on its debt to the colony. This deficit the Council could not have forseen when it had submitted its estimate of expenditure to the legislature. And, when Council did realize what was happening, it was too late to cut back on spending. The first St. John's Municipal Council thus left to its successor a total civic debt on 31 December 1891 of $838,278.27. This compared to a debt of $607,000 when Council had come to office in 1888; that original debt had been created as a result of a loan Premier Thorburn had raised in 1888 to buy the stock of the General Water Company and to provide for municipal improvements. (6)


The Second Municipal Council, 1892-1896

Election for the town's second municipal council took place on 23 January 1892. On the whole, the election campaign maintained the partisanship with which local government in St. John's had been launched. Two councillors, Tories Moses Monroe and William Morison, did not seek re-election, citing business and personal reasons,(7) but Morison's son Donald, a lawyer, won election in ward five. Of the incumbents only Liberals John Carnell and Michael Power were successful, winning in contests along strict party lines. In ward three, ex-chairman James Goodfellow won election, despite having been dismissed in 1890 by the Liberal Government for allegedly mismanaging Council affairs. The ward two campaign was apparently the only one that avoided party labels; here John Southcott Jr., a young builder, defeated Francis St. John by 18 votes. (8) The Liberals thus managed to elect only two members but when the appointed members, Edward Bennett and Thomas Mitchell were added, they seemingly had a majority. (9)

Contrary to widespread rumour, the Tory councillors did not nominate Goodfellow for chairman of the new Council. Instead, they put forward the name of Mitchell, the weaker of the government appointees. Surprised by this move, the Liberals followed through with their original plan to nominate Power. The result was a Tory victory as Mitchell, an avowed advocate of full incorporation and an independent in municipal politics, voted for himself. (10) Mitchell's action thus deprived the Liberals of their expected control of the Council. With his election, the Tories presented themselves as the champions of civic rights and the advocates of full incorporation "free from all political interference", (11) a position the Liberals had adopted in 1889 when the Tories controlled both the government and the council. Mitchell subsequently acknowledged his political benefactors by generally voting with the Tory councillors, Southcott also doing the same. The Liberal response was to call for the abolition of the Municipal Council because of its spending habits; in the words of the Liberal Evening Telegram after Mitchell's election, the Council was either unable or unwilling to "curb its extravagant expenditures." (12)

It was in this atmosphere that in March 1892 the new Council set about to improve its financial and administrative position. It asked the Liberal Government of Premier William Whiteway to increase the coal duty, to make available a larger annual grant for lighting and cleaning the town, to impose a one dollar poll tax, and to close the loopholes which had led to so much tax avoidance under the 1892 Municipal Act. (13) Council forwarded its requests in the form of draft legislation written by James Winter. Winter's new bill would restrict the civic franchise by only giving it to those who paid property assessments. In view of the fact that Council's funds had, since 1888, been used for partisan purposes by both colonial and municipal politicians, James Murray, speaking in the House of Assembly in support of the proposed new legislation, urged a property franchise instead of the existing liberal household one. "It stood to reason that a man who had no interests at stake," Murray warned, "could not always be relied upon to give a strict conscientious vote . . ." Rather, "he would have nothing to lose by an increase in city taxes . . ., on the contrary, as increased taxes generally meant increased labour, he would be inclined to vote for those who could squander the most money . . ." Murray cited Council's labour practices during the 1890 St. John's East by-election - an incident Morris categorically termed a "coincidence in time" - as one example where labourers received work in return for their electoral support of a government candidate. (14)

The attempt to abolish the household franchise met with strong opposition from the Liberal Government when the bill was put before the Assembly. Morris was especially adamant and emphasized that, although not all citizens paid direct taxation, many still did indirectly through such means as the duty on imported coal. Far from being restricted, he asserted, the franchise should be given to the "very Bohemians" of St. John's. Not surprisingly, the Liberal majority in the Assembly retained the household franchise as well as giving the vote to ally males over the age of 21 years who paid no direct tax to Council but who now would be obligated to pay the proposed poll tax. (15) The Assembly also refused Council's request for an increased coal duty as well as its request for a larger legislative grant. (16) For its part, the Legislative Council restored the property franchise Council wanted and eliminated the poll tax, because it was necessary, one Councillor, Augustus Harvey commented, to keep the affairs of St. John's in the hands "of those who should be responsible for keeping taxation within proper and reasonable limits ...", the property owners of the town. (17) The two Houses eventually worked out a compromise which saw the Assembly's position on the franchise prevail but the poll tax struck down. (18)

Disappointed that the existing household franchise would result in the "anomaly of the affairs of the town... being partially controlled by a class of voters who contribute nothing to the revenue ...", Council Chairman Mitchell on 27 May 1892 warned the Whiteway Government that its recent actions left Council without the means to satisfy "the original and constant requirements of the town to say nothing of much needed improvements." Compounding Council's problems were its poor relations with the Whiteway Government, which now refused to have the 1891 deficit taken out of current account and consolidated with the general civic debt. (19) This in turn forced Council to revise its expenditure estimates for 1892. In May 1892 Council held a special finance meeting to consider how expenditures might be reduced. The decision made was to lower the salaries of Council's officials and to dismiss several municipal servants. (20) This emphasis on economy affected all municipal departments, including, unfortunately, the fire department, which for several years had been living a very impecunious existence. For this, St. John's would pay a terrible price, because the fire department was ill-prepared to deal with the fire on 8 July 1892 which destroyed much of the town. Some l 1,000 persons were directly affected by the fire and many very fine buildings were burnt. Property loss was estimated at approximately $13,000,000 with only about $4,800,000 being covered by insurance. (21)

For the most part, the Whiteway Government assumed direct responsibility for rebuilding the town. It enacted legislation in August 1892 placing Council's authority over the rebuilding and widening of streets in the hands of the Surveyor General's Department. This action it justified on the grounds that the colony would have to raise a rebuilding loan and guarantee its interest; and, further, that the Municipal Council was incompetent to undertake the rebuilding work because it lacked the public's confidence. Several Government members even called for the abolition of the Tory-dominated Council, blaming it for the recent fire through having turned off the water supply for improvement purposes in the Freshwater Road area (where the fire originated) on the fatal day. Their disdain for Council was best expressed by that self-proclaimed champion of municipal democracy, Edward Morris, who in the heat of the moment proclaimed that the "wiping out of the Council would be the most popular measure that could be introduced into the Assembly." Ultimately, the Government did not raise a loan specifically for the rebuilding of St. John's, but rather issued debentures under authority of the new 1892 Rebuilding Act to compensate landowners for street improvements. By the time the rebuilding was nearly completed in 1895, the colonial government had spent a total of $370,786.00, most of it in 1892 and 1893. The government added this amount to Council's consolidated debt, although Council had had no say in its expenditure. (22)

Since the Municipal Council had been virtually ignored in the rebuilding of St. John's, it is not surprising that it received little support from the Government when it attempted to bring some order to the town's finances. The Council's total loss of property and revenue owing to the fire was $40,467.58, $25,967.58 of which was written off as water and sewerage rates owed by persons whose property had been destroyed. The Council's floating debt at the end of the 1891 fiscal year had been $17,308.02; at the close of the 1892 fiscal year it was $52,804.75, the increase being attributable to the loss of assets in the fire. This floating debt, moreover, did not include the interest of $35,549.72 on the debt which Council owed the government for the 1892 fiscal year. Given this financial situation, Council offered the most limited services during the second half of 1892. (23)

Nor did 1893 offer much brighter prospects. Thus, the estimate which Council Chairman Mitchell submitted to the Whiteway Government in January 1893 forecast a deficit of $21,585 to be offset by increased taxation. Specifically, Mitchell suggested the imposition of a poll tax and an increase in the duty on imported coal. This extra taxation could only be avoided, he argued, if the government gave Council part of the surplus revenue now in the colonial treasury. This surplus, he noted, had been attributable largely to the sudden increase in the importation of building supplies which the fire had necessitated. Since St. John's residents had contributed this extra revenue, they should get the benefit of it. (24) The 1893 budget speech estimated the extra revenue Council was claiming at approximately $137,000. (25) With a general election looming, the matter of the disposal of this surplus had quickly become a party question, the Tories lining up on the side of the Council as early as September 1892.

On the 30th of that month Moses Monroe and James Winter convened a public meeting to support Council's stand on the revenue question. The extra money which had accrued to the government, they argued, should be used to compensate Council for the revenue it had lost because of the fire and to help rebuild the town. The alternative of forcing Council to raise another large loan or to raise taxation was both unnecessary and unfair. A committee consisting of mainly prominent Tories was subsequently appointed to draft a petition in support of these demands for presentation to the Assembly at its 1893 session. With the government press still calling for the abolition of the Council for both economy and efficiency reasons, this petition met with considerable success. Over 2,200 persons signed the petition because of its proposal that the surplus revenue be used to replace taxation on property in the burnt out area until the town was rebuilt. When the petition was submitted to the Assembly on 2 May 1893, the Government accepted it in principle, but refused to divert any of the surplus revenue to the purpose demanded. (26) Instead, Whiteway announced, the extra revenue would be used for two purposes: $50,000 would be spent to organize a new fire brigade under the administrative jurisdiction of the colonial government but Council would be required to make annual payments towards its maintenance; and $81,397 would be applied to the interest Council had been unable to pay since 1891 on its debt to the colony. (27) The reorganization of the fire brigade had been considered by Council itself after the 8 July 1892 fire but, because of the financial situation, no action had been taken. The initiative thus fell to the colony, which passed legislation in 1893 putting the fire brigade under its control. (28)

Deprived of control over the fire service and the rebuilding of the town, Council had a limited role from mid-1893 onwards. It maintained the two public parks and the water and sewerage systems and repaired and cleaned streets; even within this limited jurisdiction it was frequently interfered with by the Whiteway Government. In May and June 1893 there were several fruitless meetings between Council delegations and Government representatives over street and sewer improvements. At one meeting Whiteway promised Council approximately $100,000 for needed work but this money was never transferred. Instead, the work was carried out during the summer of 1893 by the Surveyor General's Department and without the permission which by law only Council could give. In September 1893 a compromise was reached whereby the Surveyor General did the work under the supervision of the Council's Engineer. This arrangement left the Government firmly in control of labour supply and wages, in short of patronage.

When a general election was called for 6 November 1893, the importance of this device was soon obvious. According to Governor Sir Terrence O'Brien, public "money was . . . squandered in all directions", over 1500 men and 300 carts being employed on public works in St. John's alone. The chief occupation of these men, he observed, was to "congregate together to talk over the contest when they were not taken off their work to aid in a public procession or demonstration of some Government candidate." In the event, the Whiteway Government easily won re-election, defeating the Tory Party, now led by Moses Monroe, 26 seats to 10. (29)

The Liberal triumph was short-lived for on 6 January 1894 a number of Tories filed petitions in the Supreme Court charging Government members with the illegal use of public funds during the campaign. Several were subsequently unseated by this means, forcing the Government's resignation on 11 April 1894, and its replacement by a Tory ministry led by St. John's merchant Augustus Goodridge. When by-elections were held in these seats later in 1894, Liberals were victorious in every case except one. Faced with a Liberal majority in the Assembly and beset with economic problems arising from the collapse of the colony's two banks on "Black Monday", 10 December 1894, the Goodridge Government resigned on 12 December 1894 in favour of an administration led by a St. John's lawyer, Daniel Joseph Greene. Greene held office only until February 1895, securing legislation which removed the disabilities preventing those unseated the previous year from returning to the House. Both Whiteway and Morris returned to the House, with the former again assuming the Premiership. (30)

Needless to say, the colony's political and financial difficulties left their mark on the already beleagured St. John's Municipal Council. Following the re-election of the Liberals in 1893, they replaced Chairman Mitchell on 30 December with a more loyal government supporter, grocer Thomas Edens. Then, on 4 January 1894 the Liberal majority elected Councillor Power as Council Chairman. When the Tory Goodridge Government assumed office in April 1894, they, in turn, replaced the two Liberal appointees by two Tories, Thomas Mitchell and James Callanan, the latter having sat in the House of Assembly for St. John's West from 1882 to 1889. When the government again changed hands in December 1894, Bennett and Edens regained the Council seats which they had lost. (31)

On the financial side, Council's debt rose from $838,278.27 at the end of 1891 to $1,657,793.75 at the end of 1895. This latter figure included the expenditure on the rebuilding of St. John's as well as accumulated arrears of interest on debt to the colony. The 1893 Liberal promise to forgive the latter was never fulfilled. In 1894, therefore, Council faced the same financial problems as in 1893 and could provide only the same limited services, its problems being compounded because many residents, owing to the bank crash, were unable to pay their taxes. Because many councillors were preoccupied with their own businesses, Council never held a full meeting until 24 January 1895 when it decided to accept payment of property assessments at the note values guaranteed by recent government legislation. That legislation guaranteed Union Bank notes at 80 cents on the dollar and those of the Commercial Bank at 20 cents. The Council also decided not to start legal proceedings against tax defaulters. On 18 April Council reduced the wages paid to its labourers and undertook a thorough review of its expenditures. This review in turn led to the dismissal of several officials and the lowering of the salaries of others. Despite this retrenchment, Council again failed to meet the 1895 interest payments on its debt. In response, the Whiteway Government withheld the annual legislative grants for lighting and cleaning St. John's. Since a municipal election was scheduled to be held in January 1895, both levels of government agreed to postpone this for a year because of the financial crisis in Newfoundland. (32)


The Third Municipal Council, 1896-1898

When the campaign for this election finally did start, two issues dominated the proceedings: the financial state of the municipality and its need for greater autonomy. (33) Of the incumbents only Councillors John Harris (elected to Council in 1894 in a by-election in ward one following the death of Carnell the previous year), Southcott, and Power stood for re-election; but in ward five, James Callanan, one of the Tory appointees in 1894, was a candidate. In contrast to the two previous campaigns, the 1896 contest lacked the partisanship of past elections, though most of the candidates were active in colonial politics. (34) Of the incumbents, Harris and Power were successful, while Southcott lost to a popular publican and political independent, Thomas Keating. Southcott had taken the lead in lowering the wages of Council labourers and undoubtedly paid the price for this in the election. The labour vote was also almost instrumental in defeating Harris in ward one where he triumphed over R. H. Collins, the President of the recently formed Political Reform and Labour Association, by only 35 votes. In ward five, Callanan owed part of his success to his long affiliation with the Mechanics Society, of which he had been its President. Support for Callanan also came from that ward's major brewer and publicans and thus enabled him to defeat James Angel, a prominent temperance leader in the town. Ward three continued its tradition of electing a member of the Water Street merchant community; this time, John V. O'Dea, a commission merchant who had run unsuccessfully for the Tories in the 1894 by-election in St. John's East. He succeeded James Goodfellow, who did not run. (35)

The new Municipal Council held its first meeting on 7 February 1896. The favourite of most councillors for chairman was John Harris but he declined nomination because he could not spare time away from his fish-export business. In the event, Power won re-election, receiving five out of a possible seven votes-the other two councillors voting for themselves. (36) There were four Liberals on the new Council - Power, Harris, and the two appointees, T. J. Edens and R. A. McCoubrey. The other three councillors were the two Tories - O'Dea and Callanan - and the independent, Keating. Despite their obvious political differences, the new councillors unanimously agreed that St. John's should have full incorporation, be put on a sound financial basis, and that there could only be efficient civic government if there were no interference from the colonial government in Council's affairs. The rebuilding of the town after the 1892 fire and the resultant increase in the civic debt was a flagrant example of such interference. This wrong should now be righted, they felt, and the debt readjusted so that the colonial government would shoulder all or part of it. Both the Council and its supporters justified this position on the basis that the outports too had benefited from the expenditures through the employment in St. John's during 1892 and 1893. Outport residents had also benefited from the expenditures of the colonial administration out of the surplus revenue generated by the import boon following the fire. (37)

The Whiteway Government subsequently promised a delegation from Council that legislation would be passed in the forthcoming session of the legislature dealing with the incorporation and debt questions. (38) It never kept this promise but it did pass legislation returning to Council control of the nearly completed rebuilding in St. John's. (39) To have readjusted the debt might have well been construed as an admission by the Government that it indeed had misused large sums of money in the aftermath of the fire for its own political purposes. On the municipal autonomy question, the Whiteway Government pleaded more time to consider the full implications of any constitutional change. (40)

For 1896 Council projected revenue of $65,170 and expenditure of $64,928. The latter figure had been arrived at by dismissing more officials and reducing the salaries of others, thereby creating a saving of $5,000. On the other hand, the expenditure estimate did not include any provision for the 1896 interest owed the colony; this, Council informed the Government in June 1896 could only be met by increased taxation. Specifically, Chairman Power wanted the coal duty raised, the sewerage rate increased from one-fifth to one-third of the water rate paid by residents, and the annual licensing fee paid by publicans turned over to Council. (41)

When this approach failed to move the Whiteway Government, Council defaulted on its 1896 interest payment to the colony. It next failed to meet its annual obligation for the maintenance of the recently formed Fire Department, whereupon the Government withheld the annual $8,000 legislative grant for lighting and sanitation. This ridiculous impasse continued into the following year, despite mounting pressure for the readjustment of the debt in Council's favour. Unfortunately, for Council the debt question had now become a full-fledged party issue with the Tory press calling for a public agitation to make the "colony . . . bear the proportion justly chargeable to it." In April 1897 Council again approached the Government on the issue, with two Tory councillors, O'Dea and Callanan, threatening to resign if the government refused to reduce the debt. At a subsequent conference between the two levels of government, the Government informed the Council that debt adjustment was indeed negotiable and a compromise possible - but not during the current legislative session because the Revenue and Supply bills had already been passed. Whiteway also let it be known that he favoured giving St. John's a full charter of incorporation, but only after a general election. (42)

The election took place on 29 October 1897 and the Tories led by James Winter won 24 of the colony's 36 seats as continuing poor economic conditions in the fishery helped to defeat the Whiteway Liberals. In the three-member electoral districts of St. John's East and St. John's West the Tories had no success, despite a strong campaign to turn the town's large labour vote to their advantage. The Tories criticized Whiteway for having brought large numbers of outport men to St. John's to work and for his not having given sufficient tariff protection to local industry. In St. John's West the Tories ran a straight labour ticket: their three candidates were the presidents of two major labour organizations and a prominent outport fisherman. In St. John's East the Tories ran only one labour candidate, but the other members of their ticket were drawn from prominent St. John's families which had been championing the causes of the poorer classes in the legislature for over half a century. The Liberals relied in St. John's on the vote-getting popularity of Edward Morris. Council members were inevitably drawn into this fight, two of them, Callanan and Keating, seeking election to the Assembly. The former, who had switched party allegiance in early September, was victorious along with Morris in St. John's West. Thomas Keating was not as fortunate in St. John's East, polling poorly as an independent in what was strictly a two party race. In November 1897 the new Tory government replaced Edens and McCoubrey on Council with John Foran, a commission merchant, and John Furneaux, the proprietor of the Tory Evening Herald. (43)

In 1898 the Winter Government offered Council a civic reform deal as part of a retrenchment program which involved selling the newly completed trans-island railway to its Canadian builder, Robert Reid of Montreal. In return for a cash payment of one million dollars Reid would manage the railway for a period of 50 years with the option of becoming the owner at the expiry of that time. Also, the deal proposed would provide Reid with generous land grants and give him control of the colony's telegraph system. In St. John's the railway would be exempt from municipal taxation. Moreover, Reid would be permitted to purchase the St. John's dry dock, operate a street railway, and construct a new railway terminus in the West End of the town. He also would be given a contract to pave Water Street for $140,000. That Reid was able to extract such terms owed much to the dire financial situation of the government; but it must also be noted that several government MHAs were recipients of his patronage. The most notable of these was the influential Minister of Finance Alfred Morine, who was also solicitor for the Reid Company.

Robert Reid

The contract Winter proposed to make with Reid split the Liberal opposition. Whiteway had retired after his defeat in 1897 and had been replaced by the 41 year-old Robert Bond. Bond's view of the Reid Contract was very negative; it would sell Newfoundland assets for much less than their market value and create a monopoly in the colony's economy. James Callanan, who supported Bond, condemned what the Government was proposing because there had been no consultation with the Municipal Council. As a member of both the Council and the Assembly, Callanan spoke loudly in defence of the town's interest. The Government, he claimed, had no right to give Reid the Municipal Basin as a site for a new railway terminus, because the area formed part of the Marine Promenade which Governor Sir John Gaspard LeMarchant had given to the citizens of the town in 1852 as a public park. But not all Bond's followers attacked the Contract. Thus, Edward Morris endorsed the Government's railway plans because they would relieve the financial crisis facing the colony and provide much needed employment, particularly in St. John's. Supported by five colleagues, Morris broke ranks with his party on the issue. (44)

Roman Catholic Basilica in 1900

The apprehension which Council felt about the deal with Reid was heightened by a Government promise at the beginning of the 1898 session to introduce legislation to amend the 1892 Municipal act and to adjust the town's debt. (45) In response to statements in the government press calling for the replacement of elective town government with a commission system, in early March 1898 Council petitioned the Winter Government for full incorporation and a restrictive property franchise: any withdrawal of local government from St. John's, it asserted, would be a "step backward" whereas full incorporation would be "less susceptible to party or private influences than an appointed Commission or Board responsible only to the government, by whom . . . appointed." (46) The Government ignored this advice and later the same month introduced legislation to replace Council with a three-member appointed commission.

Gower Street Methodist Church in 1900

This legislation also dealt with the town's debt problem, providing for a reduction in the amount owed from $1,854,142.33 to $1,210,000.00. This included $410,841.43 which the Whiteway Government had spent on improvements in St. John's after the 1892 fire and paid for by warrants on the general treasury. The reduction also took account of the $200,329.34 in arrears on interest which had been accumulating since 1891. To the new consolidated debt, the Winter Government added the cost of the proposed Water Street paving contract, making the total debt now to stand at $1,350,000.00. (47) With this change the Government hoped that the Council would in future be able to meet all its obligations to the colony.

Presbyterian Kirk in St. John's in 1900

Winter said the Government made the constitutional change because the municipal system, as set up in 1888, had broken down, although he noted that at that time it had been a most "satisfactory arrangement. " If it had not been for partisan politics and government interference, he still believed that the "combination of self-government, the election of councillors by the people to represent them in matters of taxation," and the "restraining, or conservative influence of Government through its appointees . . ." would have worked successfully. Instead, the Council accumulated a large debt, while at the same time raised "only a sufficient amount for the actual requirements of the town itself - its ordinary running expenses - but nothing whatever towards the interest on its public debt . . ." Consequently, the debt had reached a "figure with which it is impossible to deal unless a large amount be wiped off and taken over by the colony. " He promised that the proposed change would not be permanent "if found to be unsuitable or a better arrangement can be made . . . " To ensure the independence of the new commission, the Government said it would appoint as one of the three commissioners an individual known to be politically opposed to it. (48) However, his opponents saw nothing but opportunism in the change Winter was now proposing for St. John's. While Morris observed that St. John's should have full incorporation "free from the central government," (49) generally the commission was seen as a means to brush aside any obstacle the existing Council might have been to the deal made with Robert Reid. (50)

Anglican Cathedral in St. John's in 1900

As might be expected, all the municipal councillors except the Tories O'Dea, Foran, and Furneaux, vigorously protested their removal from office, which was to take effect on 2 May 1898. In a 30 April resolution passed with the votes of Councillors Power, Callanan, Harris, and Keating, Council strongly deplored the withdrawal of elective local government from St. John's, a change for which no "adequate reason" had been given. Noting that citizens would now be taxed by a body not directly responsible to them, the four Councillors blamed the failure of the system on selfish, politically-inspired government interference and stated that the new municipal legislation was but a "continuation of this condition of things." What St. John's needed was full incorporation rather than the "obnoxious commission about to be instituted." (51) But this view received little public support, many property owners apparently welcoming the change in the hope, as the foreman of the Supreme Court Grand Jury observed, that it would reduce taxes. (52)

The Municipal Commission proved controversial in its governance of St. John's to 1902. Despite Winter's declaration to the contrary, the original appointees to the Commission were all government supporters. (53) Two of the Commissioners were former Councillor O'Dea and Thomas White, the latter being President of the Mechanics Society and an unsuccessful Tory candidate in St. John's West in the 1897 general election. (54) The third member of the Commission and its chairman was Herbert Burchell, the Nova Scotian-born Government Engineer. He also accepted an appointment as Deputy Minister of Public Works in the colonial government. Like its predecessors, the Commission was unable to solve the town's financial problems. In 1898 it failed to make the interest payment on the reduced civic debt and the Winter Government the following year again reduced the size of the civic debt, this time at the Commission's insistence to $ 1,000,000. The Commission confidently believed it could meet its obligations on this sum but failed also to meet this limited objective.

Consequently, in 1902 the colony changed again the municipal constitution of St. John's, following the election in 1900 of a Liberal Government led by Robert Bond. Under the 1902 Municipal Act St. John's received elective local government once more, but this time Council would consist of a mayor and six councillors elected every four years on a city-wide basis. The legislature restored the franchise to a household basis, which had existed before 1898. By getting the government out of the Council's day to day affairs, Premier Bond hoped that St. John's could develop efficient and economic local government that would enable the town to meet all of its financial obligations to the colonial government. (55) After 1904 Council was finally able to fulfill these obligations. This would be achieved through increased taxation and the liquidation of outstanding interest arrears from the funds of a $250,000 arbitration award Council received from the colony for the Reid Company's having taken over the Municipal Basin without municipal consent. (56)

Municipal democracy in St. John's was fragile at best, and vulnerable to many factors beyond the grasp of the town's councillors. Government interference in civic affairs for both political and economic reasons was a situation that could be hardly avoided at the best of times in the highly-charged, partisan world of St. John's politics. Indeed, considering the limited resource and revenue base of the Newfoundland Government itself, no colonial politician was prepared to allow municipal politicians too much freedom in the areas of civic borrowing and taxation when the colony itself was strapped for funds. Whether municipal politicians in the 1890s, however, would have made better financial managers of civic affairs than their colonial counterparts is a moot point, given the poor performance of the Newfoundland economy in that decade.


1. Assembly Debates, March 26, 1898, in Evening Herald, April 5, 1898.

2. On the General Water Company, see Melvin Baker "The Politics of Assessment: The Water Question in St. John's, 1844-1864" Acadiensis, vol. XII, No. 1 (Autumn 1982), 59-72.

3. Melvin Baker, Aspects of Nineteenth Century St. John's Municipal History (St. John's 1982), 48-63.

4. Melvin Baker "The Influence of Absentee Landlordism on the Development of Municipal Government in 19th Century St. John's" Newfoundland Quarterly vol. LXXXI, No. 2 (Fall 1985), 19-25.

5. Melvin Baker "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1888-1902" (M.A. thesis, Memorial University, 1976), 89-97.

6. Ibid., 98.

7. Evening Herald, December 1, 1891; and H. Y. Mott, Newfoundland Men: A Collection of Biographical Sketches (Concord, New Hampshire, 1894) 125.

8. Evening Herald, January 25, 26, 28, 1892; Daily Colonist, January 26, 28, 1892; and Evening Telegram, January 27, 29, 1892.

9. Evening Herald, February 24, 1892.

10. Daily Colonist, February 27, 1892.

11. See, for example, Donald Morison to the Evening Herald, April 19, 1892.

12. Evening Telegram, April 11, 1892.

13. "Report-Municipal Council, 1892" Journal of the House of Assembly (hereafter JHA), 1893, Appendix, 216; and Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (hereafter PANL), GN2/22, Reports and Petitions to the Colonial Secretary's Office, Thomas Mitchell to Colonial Secretary Bond, May 27, 1892.

14. Baker "The Government of St. John's, 1888-1902", 107-12.

15. Ibid.

16. Municipal Council Meeting, May 27, 1892, as reported in the Evening Telegram, May 28, 1892; and PANL, GN2/22, Chairman Mitchell to Bond, May 27, 1892.

17. Harvey in Legislative Council Debates, May 31, 1892, in Evening Telegram, June 25, 1892.

18. Baker "The Government of St. John's, 1888-1902", 112-13.

19. PANL, GN2/22, Mitchell to Bond, May 27, 1892. See also GN2/1, Outgoing Correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Bond to Municipal Council Secretary Kelly, April 29, 1892.

20. Evening Herald, Evening Telegram, May 26, 1892.

21. On the 1892 fire, see Melvin Baker "The St. John's Fire of 1892: The Politics of Rebuilding, 1892-1893" Newfoundland Quarterly vol. LXXIX, no. 4 (Winter 1984) 25-30.

22. Ibid., 28-9.

23. "Report-Municipal Council, 1892", 211-29.

24. Ibid., 222.

25. Assembly Debates, April 13, 1893, in Evening Telegram, April 28, 1893.

26. Baker "The St. John's Fire of 1892", 29.

27. Assembly Debates, May 3, 1893, in Evening Telegram, June 9, 10, 1893.

28. Baker, Aspects of Nineteenth Century St. John's Municipal History, 31-47.

29. Baker "The St. John's Fire of 1892", 29.

30. Melvin Baker "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980), 289-291.

31. Ibid., 291.

32. Ibid., 291-92.

33. Evening Herald, December 23, 1895, January 4, 8, 23, 1896; Daily News, December 10, 1895; and Evening Telegram, January 9, 10, 17, 22, 1896.

34. Evening Herald, January 14, 23, 1896; and Daily News, January 22, 1896.

35. Evening Herald, January 13, 24, 25, 1896; and Evening Telegram, January 24, 25, 1896.

36. Municipal Council Meeting, February 7, 1896, as reported in the Daily News, February 7, 1896.

37. Ibid., See also Evening Herald, January 8, February 7, 1896.

38. Municipal Council Meeting, February 7, 1896, as reported in the Daily News, February 7, 1896.

39. Statutes of Newfoundland, 60 Victoria, Cap. 6.

40. Edward Morris in Assembly debates, August 1, 1896, in Evening Telegram, August 15, 1896.

41. "Report-Municipal Council, 1895" JHA, 1896, Appendix, 407-09.

42. Baker "The Government of St. John's, 1800-1921", 295.

43. Ibid., 295-97.

44. Ibid., 297-98.

45. James Winter in Assembly Debates, February 9, 1898, in Evening Herald, February 15, 1898.

46. "The Municipal Council's Annual Report" published in the Daily News, March 5, 1898.

47. Baker "The Government of St. John's, 1800-1921", 299.

48. Assembly Debates, March 26, 1898, in Evening Herald, April 5, 1898.

49. Ibid.

50. John Harris in Legislative Council Debates, March 29, 1898, in Daily News, April 15, 1898.

51. St. John's Municipal Council Minute Book (located at St. John's City Hall), April 30, 1898.

52. PANL, GN2/22, Grand Jury Presentation, June 6, 1898.

53. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, June 4, 1898.

54. Evening Herald, November 13, 1894, July 5, September 29, 1897.

55. Baker "The Government of St. John's, 1800-192", 302-03.

56. Melvin Baker, "St. John's Municipal Politics, 1902-1914", Newfoundland Quarterly vol. LXXX, no. 2 (Fall 1984), 23-30.