Social Changes, 1730-1815

Newfoundland and Labrador experienced numerous social changes during the period of naval government. Its resident population expanded and became more diverse; schools, theatres, and a public hospital opened; newspapers began to circulate; a postal service was established; churches became more widespread; and government policy helped to end religious persecution of Roman Catholics. An emerging seal hunt helped to diversify the economy into areas outside the cod fishery and provide a source of income during the spring and winter. Year-round employment and an economic boom during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) attracted unprecedented numbers of settlers to the colony and helped to transform its migratory fishery into a resident industry.

St. John's and Fort Townsend, 1786
St. John's and Fort Townsend, 1786
Newfoundland and Labrador experienced numerous social changes during the period of naval government (1730-1815).
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Watercolour by James S. Meres. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-002545) Ottawa, Ontario.

Changes to the colony's judicial system also made permanent settlement more attractive. Naval governors established courthouses, jails, and stocks during the 1700s and appointed the island's first constables, coroners, and resident magistrates to enforce laws once the fishing fleet and naval squadron departed in the fall. The Judicature Act of 1792 gave the colony a supreme court for both civil and criminal jurisdiction and helped lay the groundwork for Newfoundland and Labrador's present court system. With a year-round civil government in place, some members of the public campaigned for a legislative assembly that the people could elect; this prompted Britain to grant Newfoundland and Labrador official colonial status in 1825 and representative government in 1832.

Population Growth

Newfoundland and Labrador's population increased dramatically during the period of naval government. Roughly 6,000 year-round residents lived on the island by 1741, with the largest concentrations occurring at Conception Bay, St. John's, and other areas on the Avalon Peninsula. The most dramatic changes occurred during the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when the permanent population jumped from 11,382 in 1797 to 40,568 in 1815. Immigration was an important factor leading to population growth, although climbing birth rates also contributed.

Most migrants arrived from southwest England and southeast Ireland. Both regions participated in the migratory fishery and maintained regular trade routes with Newfoundland and Labrador, making it relatively easy for people from these areas to move across the Atlantic. Many of the colony's early settlers were migratory fishers who decided to stay for a variety or reasons. Some English fish merchants also established premises at St. John's, Harbour Grace, Placentia, Trinity, and other prominent Newfoundland harbours during the 1700s. These premises attracted additional settlers seeking employment as servants, merchants' agents, clerks, carpenters, and sailmakers.

During the French Revolution (1789-1799) and Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), Newfoundland and Labrador's population expanded at an unprecedented rate while its migratory fishery contracted rapidly. Warring nations withdrew from the saltfish trade and allowed the colony to acquire an almost complete monopoly over the lucrative industry. Newfoundland's suddenly booming economy attracted thousands of migrants and caused the island's permanent population to more than triple by the end of hostilities. By then, an expanding resident fishery had largely eclipsed the dwindling migratory fishery. Resident merchants displaced their West Country counterparts and local fishers produced almost all the cod Newfoundland and Labrador exported overseas.

As the colony's population expanded, it became more varied. This was particularly true in St. John's and other large centres, which not only supported fish workers, but also carpenters, bakers, blacksmiths, masons, coopers, tailors, shoemakers, shopkeepers, and other workers by the start of the 19th century. The military presence and growth of a local government and judiciary did much to create jobs for local workers. Naval officers, government officials, magistrates, and other members of the local elite employed servants, physicians, teachers, and other workers to provide both themselves and their families with the same quality of life they enjoyed in Europe.

Fort Frederick, Placentia, 1786
Fort Frederick, Placentia, 1786
The military presence at Newfoundland helped create jobs for residents. Members of the local elite employed servants, physicians, teachers, and other workers.
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Watercolour by James S. Meres. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-002532) Ottawa, Ontario.

New industries also emerged during the period of naval government, which helped to provide year-round employment for workers engaged in the seasonal cod fishery. The spring and winter seal hunt became a particularly important source of supplementary employment, while furring and shipbuilding industries also provided much-needed winter work.

Health, Education, and Religion

Newfoundland and Labrador's growing population fuelled a variety of social changes during the 18th and early-19th centuries. Education made strides in the 18th century, when one of the island's first documented schools opened at Bonavista by 1730. Others followed at St. John's (1744), Harbour Grace (1766), Old Perlican (1774), and Burin (1793). The colony's first grammar school opened at St. John's in 1799 and Governor James Gambier helped establish the St. John's Charity School Society during his 1802-1804 term; the organization opened a charity school by 1804, which taught students reading and other subjects.

Medical services also became more accessible and sophisticated during the early-19th century, as increasing numbers of surgeons and physicians settled on the island. Until 1814, however, the only hospitals in Newfoundland and Labrador belonged to the British military. These institutions accepted civilian patients when time and space allowed, but primarily catered to military personnel. As the island's population grew during the early 1800s, it demanded better medical facilities. This resulted in the opening of the civilian Riverhead Hospital on 7 May 1814 in what is today known as Victoria Park in downtown St. John's.

Locations outside of St. John's also possessed medical resources by the early-19th century, although on a much smaller scale. Most large outport communities like Bonavista, Carbonear, Bay Roberts, and Twillingate had resident doctors for much of the 1800s. Many were British or Irish physicians who settled at Newfoundland and Labrador during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Labrador, however, had far fewer medical resources than the island. Aside from midwives, Moravian missionaries provided the region's only medical services.

Moravian Missionary, ca. 1819
Moravian Missionary, ca. 1819
Watercolour by Maria Spilsbury. "Moravian Missionary Conversing with the Eskimos at Nain, Labrador." Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-124432).

Churches and religion also became more widespread in Newfoundland and Labrador during the period of naval government. The Anglican Church was active on the island for much of the 1700s and received support from all naval governors. It had missionaries at St. John's, Bonavista, Placentia, and Trinity by the 1760s and clergy also travelled to other outports. Although Governor Henry Osborn failed to grant religious liberty to Roman Catholics, the Church's presence on the island became strengthened during the second half of the 18th century by the arrival of Irish immigrants, most of whom practiced Catholicism. Governor John Campbell extended religious freedom to Roman Catholics in 1784, making it possible for followers to worship publicly.

The Moravian Church became active in the colony during the 18th century after Governor Hugh Palliser requested mission stations be erected in Labrador to work with the Inuit population. Palliser hoped a Moravian presence would reduce mounting hostilities between the Inuit and Europeans. The Moravians opened their first station at Nain in 1771 and others followed at Okak (1776), Hopedale (1782), Hebron (1830), Makkovik (1896), and elsewhere.

Other Changes

Agriculture grew in importance after 1775, when the American Revolution (1775-1783) and Napoleonic Wars greatly reduced the number of imports reaching Newfoundland and Labrador. To compensate, settlers at Conception Bay, St. John's and elsewhere cleared land to cultivate vegetables. The military and its officers owned and cultivated much land in St. John's and surrounding areas, but also sold some plots to town residents. Most households grew crops that were easy to care for, preserved well, and were compatible with the colony's poor soil and cold climate. Potatoes were popular, alongside a variety of other root vegetables, including turnip, carrots, parsnip, beets, and onions. Although commercial farming remained limited during the 18th and early-19th centuries, many households maintained private vegetable gardens to supplement their income from the fishery.

As the colony's population expanded, political, philanthropic, and other societies emerged to meet its needs and interests. Many were located at St. John's, which had become the island's administrative and commercial capital; these included the Society of Merchants, the Benevolent Irish Society, and the Society for the Improvement of the Poor. The colony's first newspaper, the Royal Gazette, began circulating in 1807 and the Newfoundland Mercantile Journal followed suit in 1815.

Benevolent Irish Society Seal
Benevolent Irish Society Seal
The Benevolent Irish Society was founded at St. John's in 1806.
From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NF), Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, NL, 1806-1906 (Cork, Ireland: Guy & Co., 1906) 3.

The establishment of a local press and political societies increased the public's awareness of domestic and foreign political issues; they also allowed residents to compare their own government with those present at Nova Scotia and elsewhere. This in turn helped to foster an emerging political movement within the colony during the early-19th century. Dissatisfied with the British-appointed naval government, some prominent citizens called for an elected assembly that could better represent the people. The campaign gained momentum in the coming years and ultimately resulted in the dismantling of naval government in 1825 and the establishment of representative government in 1832.

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