Civil Governors, 1825-1854
Although commonly referred to as "Britain's oldest colony," Newfoundland did not receive
official colonial status until 1825, when the British government granted a Royal Charter and
appointed the first civil governor, Sir Thomas Cochrane. This remarkable shift in policy followed
the Judicature Act of 1824, which abolished the surrogate courts and provided the basis for a new
constitution. The governorship was transformed from a professional post within the royal navy to
a political appointment under the purview of the Colonial Office.
Sir Thomas Cochrane
Governor of Newfoundland 1825-1834
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the
English, Colonial, and Foreign Records, 2nd edition (London: Eyre and
Spottiswoode, 1896) 426.
When Governor Cochrane arrived in St. John's he received a warm reception and was lauded in
the local press. In January 1826 he presided over an elaborate public ceremony to mark the
opening of the newly-constituted Supreme Court. With the streets jammed with onlookers, a long
procession of officials and dignitaries marched from the governor's residence to the court house;
an officer in the parade displayed the Royal Charter as salutes were fired by an honour guard and
a warship in the harbour; and, to mark the occasion, the Governor pardoned and released most of
the prisoners from jail.
This marked only one stage in a protracted and difficult transition. From 1825 to 1855, when
responsible government was finally granted, Newfoundland witnessed the beginnings of
nationalism and democracy. While nationhood and democratic government would take another
generation to develop, the foundation of modern politics was laid during Governor Cochrane's
administration. The formal powers Cochrane enjoyed under the Judicature Act were not radically
different from those wielded by his predecessors. Added to the system of government was a
council -- it comprised the chief justice, two assistant judges, and the commander of the army
garrison -- but this was merely an advisory body, appointed by the governor and effectively under
his control. Although Cochrane tried to establish a charter of incorporation for St. John's, the
plan abruptly ground to a halt in 1826 when a group of merchants opposed the introduction of
municipal government, thereby leaving Newfoundland without any form of elected assembly.
Cochrane did not have to share power with a local legislature, but he faced two political forces
which fundamentally altered the governorship. First, by the late-1820s St. John's had a local
press which lay beyond the governor's control. The emergence of independent newspapers --
most notably the Public Ledger and the Newfoundlander -- meant that the governor could no
longer monopolize the creation and public dissemination of political commentary. This did not
mean that the press was necessarily averse to Governor Cochrane, but it created the means
through which political opposition could be mobilized in a manner never before seen in our
Front page heading of The Newfoundlander.
The paper was a strong advocate of constitutional reform in Newfoundland.
Reproduced by permission of the Newfoundland and Labrador
Heritage Web Site © 1997.
Second, a reform movement emerged in St. John's and many of the major outport communities.
Led principally by William Carson and Patrick Morris, this movement demanded that an elected
assembly be established in Newfoundland. Until 1828 the reformers were mostly Irish Catholics
who remained outside the traditional circles of power; like their counterparts in Ireland and
Britain, they wanted the British government to repeal the laws restricting Roman Catholicism. But
when the British government tried to impose new duties on imports into the colony in late 1827,
the fractious merchant interests united against the proposed tax, and a broad coalition of
reformers and merchants emerged to campaign against "taxation without representation." Using
a variety of arguments, the reformers gained support in parliament and eventually undermined
Governor Cochrane, who opposed the creation of a legislative assembly. In 1832 the British
government relented and granted Newfoundland representative government.
William Carson (1770-1843) immigrated to Newfoundland from Scotland in 1808 and became one of
Newfoundland's leading reformers.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL A23-91),
St. John's, Newfoundland.
Under the Newfoundland Act of 1832 the governor retained considerable powers. He could
adjourn, prorogue, or dissolve the elected assembly. His assent was required for all legislation;
bills also had to be sent to London for royal assent. The British government instructed Cochrane
to create a six-man council, which had both executive and legislative functions, and bills had to be
passed by both the council and the assembly. This system contained the basis for a political
deadlock between the elected assembly, on the one hand, and the appointed council and governor,
on the other. Despite the optimism expressed by the reformers, the first taste of electoral politics
soured the consensus that had existed between the island's major political factions.
Patrick Morris (1789-1849), who immigrated to Newfoundland from Ireland in the early 1800s,
was an important figure in support of an elected assembly for Newfoundland.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL C1-97),
St. John's, Newfoundland.
Within a year of the first elections, a combination of factors, fueled by sectarianism, had created a
deep split between two parties which became known as Liberals and Conservatives. Governor
Cochrane aligned himself with the Conservatives, some of whom he appointed to the council, but
the Liberals had a majority in the assembly. Cochrane initiated many civic projects designed to
improve social conditions -- he ordered the building of the island's first lighthouse, for example
-- but his tenure in office was overshadowed by political controversy. A series of legal battles
and outbreaks of violence marred public life, while religious factionalism pervaded the colony's
To be fair to Cochrane, it must be recognized that the problems he encountered were shared by
most of his counterparts in British North America. The system of representative government
never worked according to design. To keep democratic impulses in check, the Colonial Office
limited the powers of the assemblies. Governors were expected to rely heavily upon their
executive and legislative councils, both of which were filled with unelected officials. The
assemblies repeatedly challenged the authority of the appointed councils, however, and dogged
public criticism of the governors' regimes created divisive political climates across North
America. Efforts to curb political opposition in turn undermined the legitimacy of the entire
system, producing a series of crises which in Upper and Lower Canada culminated in the
Rebellion of 1837-38. Newfoundland's turbulent political history is not unique, therefore, and
this era cannot be reduced simply to laying blame at the feet of one faction or another.
The political battles came to a head in 1842, when the British government tried to end the turmoil
by amending Newfoundland's constitution. To quell opposition to the governor and the
Conservative elite, the Colonial Office decided to amalgamate the assembly and council into a
single legislative body. While this significantly restricted the power of the elected members of the
assembly, it failed to bring political peace. A new generation of reformers, led by John Kent and
others, continued to attack what they saw as an authoritarian system of government.
John Kent, Political Activist
Born in Ireland, John Kent (1805-1872) immigrated to Newfoundland in the
early 1820s. He was elected in 1832 to the House of Assembly under
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and
Foreign Records, 2nd edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896) 486.
While some of the governors were ill suited for their office -- many of them were former military
officers who had little experience in colonial politics -- others enjoyed a degree of success. For
example, Governor John Harvey managed to bridge the sectarian divide somewhat by winning a
measure of support from Michael Anthony Fleming, the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church.
Governor Harvey oversaw a number of administrative initiatives in areas such as postal services
and road construction. Governor John LeMarchant also tried to alleviate the colony's social and
economic problems, but he steadfastly opposed the reformers who campaigned for responsible
government. Like the naval governors who preceded them, the colonial governors were products
of their age. The governorship played a key role not only in colonial government, but also in the
tempestuous world of politics.