Melvin Baker

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Although Newfoundland was settled from at least the early seventeenth century, its growth, including that of St. John's, was slow until the first quarter of the nineteenth century when the great Irish influx began. With this immigration, demands arose--mainly in St. John's--for political institutions to meet the consequent urban problems. In response, in 1832, the Imperial Government established a colonial legislature at the capital. A St. John's town council was not instituted for several reasons. The most valuable land in the town was largely owned by British absentee landlords, who exercised strong opposition to any municipal taxation to their property through their St. John's agents. Again, the cyclical nature of the capital's fishing economy prevented long-term plans for improvement, St. John's residents being unable to guarantee funding for local services. Thirdly, the merchants, who were predominantly Protestant, were unwilling to allow the town's mainly Roman Catholic population to control local affairs. The merchants felt that the legislature, which they could control, could adequately fulfill the functions of any municipal corporation.;Thus, under the representative system established in 1832, the colonial government continued to hold administrative sway over most of the capital's institutions and services--roads, law and order, poor relief, and medical attendance on the sick poor being examples. By contrast, the local hospital, administered by an elected board of residents, and the town's schools, which were run by appointees of the various religious denominations, were financially assisted by the legislature. Certain other services--fire protection, street lighting, and the water supply--were left to private enterprise.;The coming of responsible government in 1855 further centralized the administrative machinery of both capital and colony. An overall Board of Works was appointed to administer all public buildings, property, roads, and streets in the colony. In 1863 this Board also took over the construction and maintenance of the St. John's sewerage system. Fire protection and water supply remained separate, because of strong outport (away from St. John's) opposition to funding them out of the general colonial revenue. Various attempts were made to meet the municipality's needs in these areas while avoiding the formation of a municipal corporation.;The creation of a more conventional local government was only postponed by these measures: in 1888, in order to undertake an expensive sewerage system and other costly street improvements, the colony was forced to impose a limited form of self-rule on St. John's. The Council elected in that year received authority over the water supply, streets, sewers, parks, the fire brigade, and building regulations only. Its subsequent history to 1921 was characterized by this limited administrative and legislative power and constant government interference in civic affairs. The result was several revisions of the 1888 Municipal Act, and chronically insufficient revenue. These problems were finally addressed by William Gosling, a leading St. John's merchant, during the years 1913-1921 and the final achievement of the Charter can largely be attributed to his efforts.

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