The Colonial Building

(From the Women's History Walking Tour Booklet)

The Colonial Building has a long and important history in the political life of the colony and province. Until 1960, the building was the seat of government where legislation was passed, some of which impacted particularly on women.

The Colonial Building
The Colonial Building
Military Road, St. John's, NL
Photo by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1998.


In March 1891, fifty St. John's women donned white ribbons symbolizing purity and marched to the Colonial Building to petition Government members for the right to vote in local option contests. While this group of women, affiliated with the International Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), did not ask for universal female suffrage, their demands ultimately addressed the principle of women's suffrage and of women's roles in societies. It would take another thirty-four years before Newfoundland women won the right to vote and to be elected.

The second campaign of the suffrage movement, under the banner of the Women's Franchise League, took its energy from the successful work of the Women's Patriotic Association, in which many suffragists held leadership positions.

1920s Women's suffrage supporters
1920s Women's suffrage supporters
This photograph of the Women's Franchise League was taken ca. 1920, probably in Carbonear. Standing second from left, Fannie McNeil; seated left, Agnes Ayre; seated right, Janet Ayre.
Courtesy of Gertrude Crosbie. From Archives and Special Collections (Collection 158), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Better educated and more affluent, these women had to bridge class, geographic and religious differences to gain the support of the mass of women. The campaign began in May 1920 and included articles to the papers, letters to the editor, public canvassing, signing of petitions, as well as advertising on the movie picture screens. They were unsuccessful in getting the legislation passed in the 1921 session, and the campaign continued quietly in the background for the next few years.

Letter to Richard Squires in the handwriting of M. Macpherson, 1920
Suffrage supporters asking for government support for enfranchisement of women
The text of the letter reads:
Sir- The promoters of the Woman's Suffrage movement beg to draw the attention of the Premier to the incomprehensible attitude of the government towards the question of the enfranchisement of women, as evidenced in the failure of the two Government members to table the Bill after having pledged themselves to do so. The women interested would infinitely prefer that the Bill should be made a Government measure during the present session of the House; but they are determined that it shall be presented this year and if the Government does not see its way to meeting their views in this respect, the Women's Party will see that it is presented by a member of the opposition on Friday June 4th.
St. John's, June 2nd, 1920
AN Gosling, M. Macpherson, Janet Ayre, Mary Kennedy, Fannie McNeil, M. Rennie, Agnes M. Ayre, Helen M Baird, Anna M. Mitchell, Madeline E. Bowering.
Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Collection MF-137), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

By 1925, with the support of the Prime Minister, leading members of the cabinet, and a number of outport members of Government, the franchise bill passed through the Assembly and the Legislative Council. The suffragists celebrated their newly won rights on April 21, 1925 with a women-only Victory Banquet.


In 1906, a head tax of three hundred dollars, as legislated in "An Act Respecting the Immigration of Chinese Persons", was adopted by the House of Assembly in the Colonial Building. It undoubtedly restricted the immigration of Chinese women and children who might have joined the male members of their families in Newfoundland. Most of the Chinese immigrants to Newfoundland were too poor to pay the tax.

Though the earliest documentation of the Chinese in Newfoundland dates to 1895 (an advertisement for the opening of a laundry appeared on August 24, 1895 in the newspapers The Evening Telegram and The Evening Herald) evidence of the first Chinese woman living in the colony does not occur until 1927. It was reported that Mrs. Lee, wife to Au Kim Lee, a Chinese naturalized British, did not stay long but returned to China while pregnant and gave birth on the journey.

After Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949 the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947 immediately applied to Newfoundland, resulting in an abolition of the head tax. Wives and children under twenty-one were eligible for sponsorship to enter Canada. In 1950 three Chinese women immigrated and joined their husbands here.

Bella 'Bobbie' Robertson (1892-1992)

Bobbie Robertson came to Newfoundland from Scotland with her husband in 1923. In 1951, she was made Newfoundland representative for the Department of Trade and Commerce, the only female Trade Commissioner in Canada at the time. Upon her retirement in 1966, she went to work with the Newfoundland Historical Society in the Colonial Building.

Bobbie Robertson
Bobbie Robertson, 1992
Photo taken on her 100th birthday.
Reproduced by permission of Ned Pratt.

Bobbie was a colourful and interesting character who maintained a wide circle of friends in the city and around the world. She was noted for her direct speech and firm opinions, as well as her tremendous ability to locate historical information for those who sought her help. In 1976 she was presented with the first Newfoundland Historical Society Heritage Award for her unique contribution to the preservation of Newfoundland culture. Bobbie was also awarded an Honorary LL.D. by Memorial University in 1984.

Version française