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Four premiers in 12 months


Ed Roberts

Newfoundland's political history has long been filled with turbulence and trouble. But 1923-24 was uniquely tempestuous, even by Newfoundland's standards.

Four men, leading different parties, held the office of prime minister during the 12 months between July 1, 1923 and June 30, 1924.

Richard Squires, leading a coalition between the Liberals and Fishermen's Protective Union, won a smashing victory in the May 1923 general election, taking 23 of the 36 seats in the House of Assembly.

But his triumph soon turned to ashes when it became known that he had been "borrowing" funds from the Board of Liquor Control, replacing them with his personal IOUs.

A cabinet revolt and threatened ministerial resignations led to his relinquishing office at the end of July. William Warren, minister of justice in his cabinet, became prime minister, an office he was to hold for nine months.

Warren moved quickly to set up a public inquiry into the charges against his disgraced predecessor. Thomas Hollis Walker, a British barrister, began hearings in St. John's early in January 1924, and presented his report to the governor in mid-March.

The report, a devastating indictment of Squires, was made public a few days later, on March 21.

Warren and his colleagues decided that criminal charges should be laid against several of those singled out by Hollis Walker for condemnation - Squires himself, his colleague and ally Alexander Campbell, and two civil servants. All were arrested on April 22, and charged with larceny (theft). Squires was released on bail immediately.

The 1924 session of the House of Assembly opened two days later. As soon as the governor had read the Speech from the Throne and left the chamber, the Liberal members moved a motion of non-confidence in the Warren administration, which they had until then supported.

The Opposition members - who called themselves Liberal Labour Progressives, although they were really Conservatives - voted in support of the motion. So did Squires, still an MHA, along with the mover and seconder of the non-confidence motion and two other Liberals.

Warren and his cabinet lost. They were supported by only 15 members, while 16 voted no confidence.

Warren decided not to resign, but instead asked the governor to dissolve the House and order a new general election.

He hastily cobbled together a new cabinet, made up of his former Liberal colleagues together with John R. Bennett, W. J. Higgins and Walter Monroe, all of them prominent Conservatives.

The so-called "four-day ministry," it was soon obvious, would not be able to command the support of the House. Warren resigned finally on May 8. His parting words to the governor, Sir William Allardyce, as he did so were to suggest that William Coaker be asked to take on the job of prime minister.

Coaker declined, and in turn recommended that the governor ask Albert Hickman, a prominent businessman, to form the government.

Allardyce did so, Hickman, who had served in the National Government under Morris and Lloyd, and in Sir Michael Cashin's cabinet in 1919, agreed to do so.

He and his colleagues were sworn in on May 10. Realizing that he had no electoral mandate of any sort, he promptly advised the governor to call an election and prepared to lead his party, now called the Liberal-Progressives, into the fray. Polling day was set for June 2.

The Conservative Opposition had been in disarray for some time. Cashin, briefly prime minister in 1919, had continued as leader of the Opposition until shortly before the 1923 election, when ill health forced him to stand aside.

John R. Bennett, a Tory stalwart with many years service in the House, succeeded him, but failed to win the election.

A public meeting held a day or two later after Hickman became prime minister chose Walter Monroe, another prominent Newfoundland businessman, to oppose Hickman.

To add to the confusion, Monroe renamed his party as the Liberal-Conservatives. It wasn't until 1975 that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians again had to choose between two Liberal parties - the Liberals and the Liberal Reform group led by Joey Smallwood.

Hickman's tenure (May 10 to June 9) was the shortest of any prime minister in Newfoundland's history.

Monroe won a strong mandate on June 2, with 25 seats to Hickman's 10, and became prime minister on the June 9.

The 36th seat was won by William Warren, running as an independent.

Coaker did not contest the election, the first one since 1913 in which he had not been a candidate. But he did stand in the byelection held in Bonavista Bay at the end of October, when Monroe and one of his cabinet colleagues sought re-election after having accepted "offices of profit" under the Crown.

Coaker lost, the first and only time in his life that he did so.

Four prime ministers and five cabinets - Squires's second ministry; Warren's two, Hickman's, and then Monroe's, all within 12 months.

Once again, Newfoundland made parliamentary history.

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. He resides in St. John's.

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