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The mob destroys a government


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Ed Roberts

There have been many tumultuous political meetings in Newfoundland over the years, but only one that can rightly claim to have driven a government from office.

The throng of angry citizens who crowded into the Majestic Theatre in St. John's on April 4, 1932 were looking for Sir Richard Squires's political scalp. They got it.

The Great Depression of the 1930's struck Newfoundland hard. The fishery was by far and away the largest employer and salt fish was Newfoundland's most important export.

Almost all of Newfoundland's salt fish was exported to Europe, the West Indies and Brazil. Those markets collapsed, slashing the income of every fisherman in the Dominion.

The mines and the two pulp and paper mills, the only other significant export industries, were hit nearly as badly. By 1932, thousands of men throughout the island and Labrador were forced to look to the dole - the hated "six cents a day" - to keep themselves and their families alive. Newfoundland's government, on the verge of financial collapse, could do little to help. Pleas for help, petitions to the House of Assembly and political speeches produced nothing but empty promises.

Matters came to a head early in 1932. The feisty and fiery Peter Cashin, who had been minister of finance in the Squires cabinet since 1928, resigned on Feb. 1.

He charged that Squires had falsified Orders in Council to put money into his own pocket and those of several of his friends. A few days later, a crowd of angry unemployed men gathered at the Prime Minister's Office, in the court house on Duckworth Street, to demand help.

When Squires refused to meet a spokesman for the crowd, several men rushed into the building to confront him. Squires was struck in the melée, and threatened with further violence if he didn't authorize an increase in the dole. He issued an order to do so.

Cashin, who had taken no part in the near-riot, returned to the attack in the House of Assembly a few days later, on Feb. 16. He named names, and gave details: in all, he made 11 separate charges against Squires.

The Opposition Leader, Frederick Alderdice, moved that a committee of the House be named to investigate these. Squires was able to adjourn the House for several days. When it met again, Squires put forward his own motion, asking the governor, Sir John Middleton, to conduct an inquiry.

The Liberal majority voted to support the resolution. A month later, the governor said Cashin's charges were without foundation.

Cashin, in fact, was correct. Middleton had been misled by Squires. His report satisfied nobody but Squires.

A public meeting was called for the evening of April 4. Although there is still some controversy as to who called it, the great and the good of St. John's were there.

C.P. Ayre, a St. John's city councillor; Arthur Monroe, prime minister from 1924 to 1928, and Harry A. Winter, a former speaker of the House, were among a phalanx of clergy and other leading figures in the community who took their place on the platform.

Speaker after speaker denounced Squires and the government. The only contrary voice was that of young Joe Smallwood. He appealed to Eric Bowring, the meeting's chair, to be allowed to address the crowd.

Smallwood, who recalled in his memoirs that "Bowring himself reached down to help me onto the platform," launched into a bitter denunciation of the Water Street merchants.

He did not get very far, because he was assaulted by two men who "took turns holding and punching me, and finally threw me bodily into the street." The meeting ended with the announcement that all who supported the cause of the workers and those in need would march on the House of Assembly the next afternoon.

Several thousand men turned up at the Majestic the next afternoon. They marched up Theatre Hill and along Queen's Road and Military Road to the Colonial Building. By then, The Evening Telegram reported the next day, the crowd had swelled to 8,000 to 10,000.

A small delegation was allowed into the House, to present a petition. A procedural debate broke out, and the afternoon session soon "terminated in an uproar," in The Telegram's phrase.

The crowd gathered outside the building soon degenerated into a mob. The Constabulary's mounted police tried to control them, only to be knocked from their horses. The mob then rushed up the front steps and into the Colonial Building.

The police succeeded in keeping them out of the Assembly chamber itself, but they rummaged and ravaged the rest of the building. The legislative library was trashed, a piano was dragged out into Bannerman Park, and window after window was broken.

Squires, together with his wife Helena (also a Member of the House of Assembly), Smallwood and one or two others, had taken refuge in the basement.

They escaped later that evening. By then, some of the demonstrators had broken into the liquor stores and, somewhat the worse for wear, were roaming throughout St. John's. Veterans of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, led by Major Wesley March, organized themselves into an impromptu police force, and assisted the Constabulary to restore order.

The 1932 riot ended without bloodshed.

The end came very quickly. The House meet briefly on April 19, a fortnight after the riot. Several urgent financial bills were passed. Squires then called for a general election.

Only two Liberals — Gordon Bradley and Roland Starkes — were returned to the House of Assembly on voting day, June 11. Frederick Alderdice and his United Newfoundland Party won an overwhelming victory. Squires himself and Smallwood were among those defeated at the polls.

The mob had destroyed a government.

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.

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