General elections in Newfoundland (pre-Confederation)

General elections in Newfoundland (pre-Confederation)

Newfoundland, as a British colony and dominion, held 28 General Elections for its House of Assembly. In 1934 the dominion surrendered its constitution to the Crown and ceased to have a legislature.

The next House of Assembly was not elected until Newfoundland became the tenth province of Canada in 1949.

As much information as is currently available about the dates of election, number of members returned and the result by party is set out below.

Newfoundland's party system was subject to frequent changes so an attempt has been made to explain the relationships between the parties and some brief highlights of political events.


Prior to the province been granted Colonial status in 1832 Newfoundland had no elected form of government. In the early days after discovery the island was divided into colonies and were administered by individuals authorized to govern proprietary colonies and are likewise called Proprietary governors. The first of these were established in 1610 at Cuper’s Cove and was governed by John Guy. Other colonies were soon established and were likewise governed by individuals with keen interest to reap the benefits to its mercantile owners in England. This type of rule had continued until 1728. From 1729 to 1817 Newfoundland was governed by non-resident naval governors. Sir Francis Pickmore became the first resident governor. It was then established that all other governors were required to remain on the island over winter.

In 1824 when Newfoundland was granted Colonial status the then governor Sir Thomas Cochrane appointed an advisory council without any real power. "Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador", ISBN 0-9693422-1-7.] With the arrival of Dr. William Carson to Newfoundland, who was very familiar with British constitutional law, a concerted effort was made to influenced the residents to form Representative Government. Others of prominence such as Patrick Morris, William Thomas, Thomas H. Brooking, Benjamin Bowring, Charles Tricks Bowring and Henry Winton had also joined in to agitate for elected representation with power to govern. Brooking was chosen as chairman of the committee to make representation to the British Parliament in January 1832.

On June 7, 1832 a Bill to grant Representative Assembly to Newfoundland was introduce in the British Parliament. "Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador", ISBN 0-9693422-1-7.] Governor Cochrane returned to Newfoundland in August with the power to call an election and did so on September 25, 1832.

1st General Election: 25th September to 8th December 1832

:Main|Newfoundland general election, 1832Party composition unknown. Total Assembly membership 15.

After many years of agitation the British Parliament provided Newfoundland with a local legislature. It was the last British colony in North America to gain responsible government. Unfortunately the ethnic and religious disagreements in the colony, between the predominantly Irish Catholic and British Protestant inhabitants, caused the system to work even less well than in other parts of British North America.

The Assembly was dominated by reformers, who were mostly Catholic. The appointed Legislative Council was mostly composed of conservative Protestant merchants. The two Houses did not get on.

2nd General Election: November 1836

Party composition unknown. Total Assembly membership 15.

The 2nd Assembly was even more dominated by reformers than the 1st had been. The conservative elements continued to rely on the Legislative Council to block what they did not like. The quarrels got so bad that London had to devise a novel solution.

3rd General Election: December 1842

Party composition unknown. Total membership of the Consolidated Legislature 15 elected and 10 appointed members.

The experiment was tried of combining the Assembly and Council in a unicameral legislature. The British Parliament twice extended the term of this legislature. By 1847 the whole system broke down. A bicameral legislature was restored, which continued until 1932.

4th General Election: November 1848

Party composition unknown but divided between a Liberal majority and a Conservative minority. Total Assembly membership 15.

Support grew for the introduction of a government responsible to the Assembly, which was being introduced elsewhere in British North America about this time.

5th General Election: November 1852

Party composition: Liberal 9, Conservative 6. Total Assembly membership 15.

The campaign for responsible government continued and was accepted by the Colonial Office in London.

6th General Election: 7th May 1855

Party composition unknown but divided between a Liberal majority and a Conservative minority. Total Assembly membership 30.

The Liberal leader, Philip Francis Little, became the first Premier of the Colony. The Liberals were a largely Catholic party, which depended on Methodist support to defeat the mostly Anglican Conservative opposition.

Little became a Judge in 1858 and the Premiership passed to an older Catholic Liberal, John Kent.

7th General Election: 7th November 1859

Party composition: Liberal 18, Conservative 12. Total Assembly membership 30.

Kent's government got in severe difficulties. The Methodists had begun to switch their support to the Conservatives endangering the Liberal majority.

Kent, a man with a fiery temper, was on bad terms with the Governor. In 1861 after the Premier accused the Judges of conspiring against his Government, the Governor was delighted to dismiss him.

The Conservative leader, Hugh Hoyles, was installed as Premier. As he was in a minority in the Assembly the new Premier requested and got a dissolution.

8th General Election: 2nd May 1861

Party composition: Conservative 15, Liberal 13, vacant 2. Total Assembly membership 30.

This was the most violent and sectarian election in Newfoundland's history. In one two member electoral district a party of voters going to the polling place were attacked. A relative of one of the candidates was shot dead. Subsequently there were riots. The returning office later gave sworn evidence that he had only returned two members due to his being threatened. A mob attacked and burnt the returning officers home, a few days later.

The Assembly decided not to seat any claimants from the disputed election, although the Conservatives won the subsequent by-election.

Shortly before the next election Hugh Hoyles was replaced as Premier by a more conciliatory Conservative, Frederick Carter, who was anxious to reduce sectarian strife and bring some Catholics into the cabinet.

9th General Election: 7th May 1865

Party composition unknown but divided between a Conservative majority and a Liberal minority. Total Assembly membership 30.

Carter did acquire some Catholic support as the old sectarian alignments broke down. The issue of whether Newfoundland should become a part of Canada caused a realignment. A new Anti-Confederation Party opposed the mostly pro-Confederation Conservatives. The next General Election would decide the issue.

10th General Election: 13th November 1869

:Main|Newfoundland general election, 1869Party composition: Anti-Confederation 21, Conservative 9. Total Assembly membership 30.

The defeat for the Confederation cause was so complete that the Conservatives soon dropped it. For many years afterwards being called a supporter of Confederation was a political smear.

The new Premier was Charles Bennett, a Protestant leader of a mostly Catholic party. All was well so long as the Confederation issue was still dominant, but there was always a risk of sectarian strife reappearing.

11th General Election: November 1873

Party composition: Anti-Confederation 17, Conservative 13. Total Assembly membership 30.

The Conservatives decided that the way to win the next election was to take up sectarian issues. The tactic worked at some cost to the islands political stability.

12th General Election: 7th November 1874

Party composition: Conservative 17, Anti-Confederation 13. Total Assembly membership 30.

Frederick Carter began another term as Premier. The party system continued to move in the direction of renewed sectarianism. The Anti-Confederation Party faded away and was replaced by a new Liberal Party, as before largely composed of Catholics.

In April 1878 Carter was replaced as Conservative Premier by William Whiteway.

13th General Election: 4th November 1878

Party composition unknown but divided between a Conservative majority and a Liberal minority. Total Assembly membership unknown.

Whiteway continued in office as Premier.

14th General Election: 6th November 1882

Party composition unknown but divided between a Conservative majority and a Liberal minority. Total Assembly membership unknown.

Premier Whiteway’s support began to splinter. A New Party, based on merchant interests in the capital, broke away. The next election was contested by a Reform Party which replaced Whiteway’s Conservatives. Sir Robert Thorburn of the Reform Party took over as Premier. The Reform Party campaigned on a policy of not compromising with Catholics.

15th General Election: 31st October 1885

Party composition unknown but divided between a Reform majority and a Liberal minority. Total Assembly membership unknown.

Thorburn broke his election promise by inviting Catholic Liberals to join his government. The Reform and Liberal parties merged, as a larger Reform Party. Meanwhile William Whiteway, the former Conservative leader, set up a new party. As the name Liberal was not being used, Whiteway adopted it for his new party. It must therefore be appreciated that the Liberal Party which contested the 15th General Election was a different party from the Liberal Party from the 16th General Election onwards.

16th General Election: 6th November 1889

Complete party composition unknown but divided between a Liberal majority and a Reform minority (with 5 seats). Total Assembly membership unknown.

William Whiteway began a new Premiership, but he was not as vigorous as he had been in his previous term of office.

The Reform Party disappeared and a new Tory Party took over as the opposition to the Liberals.

17th General Election: 6th November 1893

Party composition: Liberal 23, Tory 12, Independent 1. Total Assembly membership 36.

Many of the victorious Liberals (and the Independent) had their elections set aside by the Courts. The Premier and his leading supporters were unseated and disqualified from seeking re-election.

The Governor appointed the Tory leader, Augustus F. Goodridge, as Premier in 1894. However as the Liberals kept on winning by-elections Goodridge never had a majority.

In December 1894 the interim Liberal leader, Daniel J. Greene, became Premier. In February 1895 he passed a law to lift the electoral disqualification of Whiteway and then resigned in his favour.

18th General Election: 28th October 1897

Party composition: Tory 23, Liberal 13. Total Assembly membership 36.

The new Premier was Sir James Spearman Winter. By 1900 the Tory Party had faded out in the way Newfoundland parties quite often seemed to do.

19th General Election: 8th November 1900

Party composition: Liberal 32, Opposition 4. Total Assembly membership 36.

Sir Robert Bond of the Liberal Party became Premier. Bond is accounted the best of Newfoundland’s Premiers and the early 20th century was one of the rare periods of prosperity in island history.

20th General Election: 31st October 1904

Party composition: Liberal 30, United Opposition 6. Total Assembly membership 36.

The so called United Opposition Party was reinforced when Edward Patrick Morris resigned from Bond’s government. Morris founded the People’s Party, which became the principal opponent of the Liberals.

Newfoundland was recognized as a Dominion of the British Empire (the same status as that of Canada, Australia and New Zealand) in 1907.

21st General Election: 2nd November 1908

Party composition: Liberal 18, People’s 18. Total Assembly membership 36.

The tied result caused problems. Sir Robert Bond did not feel he could continue with this Assembly, as once his party provided a Speaker they would be in a voting minority. The Governor refused an immediate dissolution, so Bond resigned. Sir Edward Patrick Morris formed a government, but had the same problem as Bond. The Governor granted Morris a dissolution.

22nd General Election: 8th May 1909

Party composition: People’s 26, Liberal 10. Total Assembly membership 36.

The title of Prime Minister replaced Premier in 1909.

During the term of this assembly William Coaker of the Fishermen’s Protection Union decided to set up a political party. The Union (or Unionist) Party entered into an electoral pact with the Liberals.

23rd General Election: 30th October 1913

Party composition: People’s 21, Union 8, Liberal 7. Total Assembly membership 36.

During the First World War, Newfoundland made considerable sacrifices. Newfoundland had no military forces before the War. The islanders built up the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Appalling casualties on the Western Front made conscription a live issue. The People’s Party invited opposition leaders to join a National government.

When Sir Edward Patrick Morris resigned in 1918, the Liberal leader William Lloyd was invited to lead the coalition government.

Before the 1919 election the Liberal and Union parties linked themselves in the Liberal Reform Party. In May 1919 the People’s Party leader, Sir Michael Cashin, moved a motion of no confidence in a ministry he seems to have quit minutes before. The motion passed so Cashin became Prime Minister.

24th General Election: 2nd November 1919

Party composition: Liberal Reform 24, People’s 12. Total Assembly membership 36. The new Liberal Reform Prime Minister was Sir Richard Squires. Before the next election the People’s Party was replaced by the Liberal-Labour-Progressive Party.

25th General Election: 2nd May 1923

Party composition: Liberal Reform 23, Liberal-Labour-Progressive 13. Total Assembly membership 36.

In this Assembly term leading Minister’s were attacked for corruption by a resigning colleague. Squire’s reputation seemed to have been destroyed. William Warren became a Liberal Reform Prime Minister in July 1923. Albert Hickman took over immediately before the 1924 election.

Before the next election the Liberal-Reform Party collapsed. Some of its members joined with Albert Hickman as the Liberal-Progressive Party. William Warren was associated with Tories in forming a replacement for the Liberal-Labour-Progressive Party which was named the Liberal-Conservative-Progressive Party.

26th General Election: 2nd June 1924

Party composition: Liberal-Conservative-Progressive 25, Liberal-Progressive 10, Other 1. Total Assembly membership 36.

The new Prime Minister was Walter Stanley Monroe, a businessman who promoted legislation, which some Newfoundlanders considered unduly benefited the rich. In August 1928 the Prime Ministership was passed to Monroe’s cousin Frederick C. Alderdice.

The plain businessman’s government had become so unpopular that the population was prepared to re-elect Sir Richard Squires, leading the Liberal Party with the support of its Union Party allies.

27th General Election: 29th October 1928

Party composition: Liberal 19, Liberal-Conservative-Progressive 12, Union 9. Total Assembly membership 40.

Sir Richard Squires became Prime Minister for the second time with the support of the Union Party. Frederick C. Alderdice re-organized the opposition as the United Newfoundland Party.

The Great Depression hit Newfoundland hard. The island had not had a budget surplus since 1919 and had been borrowing to cover budget deficits. Cuts in public expenditure and rising unemployment produced political unrest.

In 1932 a demonstration outside the Colonial Building (where the legislature sat) led to a riot. The demonstrators broke into the building. They were prevented from invading the floor of the Assembly, but Squires fled out of a side door and went into hiding for a few days. He lost the General Election which followed.

28th General Election: 11th June 1932

Party composition: United Newfoundland 24, Liberal 2, Other 1. Total Assembly membership 27 (reduced from 40 as an economy measure).

New Prime Minister Frederick C. Alderdice was not able to rescue the public finances. By this time Newfoundlanders despaired of the ability of their politicians to solve the problems. The British government commissioned a report from William Warrender Mackenzie, 1st Baron Amulree which was scathing about the political culture of Newfoundland. For the report see

The price of British government financial aid was the abandonment of responsible and representative government. The legislature was dissolved. The Commission of Government came into operation on 16th February 1934 ending more than a century of legislative democracy in Newfoundland.

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