The Role of the Garrison, 1815-1870

Detachments of British regulars continued to serve in Newfoundland until 1825. Then the Royal Veteran Companies took over, made up of former servicemen. There were originally three of these companies, later reduced to two. In 1827 they were re-named the Royal Newfoundland Veteran Companies, and in 1843 they became the Royal Newfoundland Companies. Finally, in 1861, they were absorbed into the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment which supplied the St. John's garrison with two companies of infantry until 1870, when the garrison was withdrawn.

Maintaining Order Within the Colony

The garrison's role was very different in this period from what it had been earlier. After 1815, the North Atlantic region enjoyed nearly a century of relative peace, and Newfoundland was transformed from a fishery into a colony. This transformation was characterized by rapid population growth, the development of political institutions, strong sectarian rivalries, class tensions and economic uncertainty; all caused strains which occasionally surfaced in civil disorder. The role of the military garrison changed from that of defence and security against foreign attack to that of supporting the civil authorities in their efforts to maintain order within the colony itself.

This was not an easy task. Normally, the magistrates relied on public respect for the law to maintain order. When that failed, the magistrate could, quite literally, read the Riot Act and rely on his constables to disperse a crowd. Only if that failed and there was a clear danger to life and property, could the magistrate request the assistance of the garrison. Even then, the troops were severely constrained in their conduct. Weapons could be fired only in self-defence, and soldiers could be prosecuted if the action was later determined by the courts to be unjustified.

Civil unrest occurred usually during elections, when public passions were often at their highest and the enthusiasm of critics to challenge and undermine the authority of the government was greatest. Troops were called out to maintain order during several elections between 1832 and 1861. The most serious incident occurred in 1861, when a disputed election generated a mob that attempted to break into the legislature, causing considerable property damage. The troops were called out, only to face resistance from the crowd. Eventually, after several hours during which the soldiers were pelted with stones, shots were fired; three people were killed and 20 wounded.

Colonial Building, 1879
Colonial Building, 1879
A detail from "Panoramic View of St. John's, 1879." The Colonial Building was the site of several riots, including the riot of 1861.
Courtesy of the Association of Canadian Maps and Archives, Ottawa, Ontario.

Troops were used most frequently in St. John's, the only town with a garrison, though detachments were sometimes sent to Conception Bay communities. The British authorities refused to station troops anywhere else. As early as 1840 the Colonial Office tried to persuade the Newfoundland government that it should establish (and pay for) a proper police force or a militia. However, no action was taken until the imperial government decided to withdraw the garrison in 1870 as part of an empire-wide reduction of the military establishment (not, as some have asserted, to punish the colony for not joining the Canadian confederation). The Newfoundland Constabulary was then formed.

Economic and Social Benefits of the Garrison

The use of the garrison to keep the peace was infrequent. For the most part, the community valued the presence of the garrison for its economic and social benefits. Thus, the garrison built the wooden sheds on land near Fort Townshend which provided temporary shelter for thousands who lost their homes during the great fire which swept through St. John's in 1846. The officers contributed to the quality of life in St. John's through membership in organizations like the Agricultural Society and the Mechanics' Society which were dedicated to local improvement. They were active in local theatre, with the proceeds of productions often going to the poor. The military community played a formative role in the development of local sports, including the regatta, cricket, and horse racing. The garrison was very much missed as a result. When the troopship Tamar carried off the last soldiers in November 1870, and the military works and buildings were handed over to the colony, a significant chapter in Newfoundland history had come to a close. For the first time in over 200 years, and until 1914, there was no military organization in Newfoundland.