The mob de­stroys a gov­ern­ment


There have been many tu­mul­tuous po­lit­i­cal meet­ings in New­found­land over the years, but only one that can rightly claim to have driven a gov­ern­ment from of­fice.

The throng of an­gry cit­i­zens who crowded into the Ma­jes­tic Theatre in St. John’s on April 4, 1932 were look­ing for Sir Richard Squires’s po­lit­i­cal scalp. They got it.

The Great De­pres­sion of the 1930’s struck New­found­land hard. The fish­ery was by far and away the largest em­ployer and salt fish was New­found­land’s most im­por­tant ex­port.

Al­most all of New­found­land’s salt fish was ex­ported to Europe, the West Indies and Brazil. Those mar­kets col­lapsed, slash­ing the in­come of ev­ery fish­er­man in the Do­min­ion.

The mines and the two pulp and pa­per mills, the only other sig­nif­i­cant ex­port in­dus­tries, were hit nearly as badly. By 1932, thou­sands of men through­out the is­land and Labrador were forced to look to the dole — the hated “six cents a day” — to keep them­selves and their fam­i­lies alive. New­found­land’s gov­ern­ment, on the verge of fi­nan­cial col­lapse, could do lit­tle to help. Pleas for help, pe­ti­tions to the House of Assem­bly and po­lit­i­cal speeches pro­duced noth­ing but empty prom­ises.

Mat­ters came to a head early in 1932. The feisty and fiery Peter Cashin, who had been min­is­ter of fi­nance in the Squires cabi­net since 1928, re­signed on Feb. 1.

He charged that Squires had fal­si­fied Or­ders in Coun­cil to put money into his own pocket and those of sev­eral of his friends. A few days later, a crowd of an­gry unem­ployed men gath­ered at the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice, in the court house on Duck­worth Street, to de­mand help.

When Squires re­fused to meet a spokesman for the crowd, sev­eral men rushed into the build­ing to con­front him. Squires was struck in the melée, and threat­ened with fur­ther vi­o­lence if he didn’t au­tho­rize an in­crease in the dole. He is­sued an or­der to do so.

Cashin, who had taken no part in the near-riot, re­turned to the at­tack in the House of Assem­bly a few days later, on Feb. 16. He named names, and gave de­tails: in all, he made 11 sep­a­rate charges against Squires.

The Op­po­si­tion Leader, Fred­er­ick Alderdice, moved that a com­mit­tee of the House be named to in­ves­ti­gate these. Squires was able to ad­journ the House for sev­eral days. When it met again, Squires put for­ward his own mo­tion, ask­ing the gov­er­nor, Sir John Mid­dle­ton, to con­duct an in­quiry.

The Lib­eral ma­jor­ity voted to sup­port the res­o­lu­tion. A month later, the gov­er­nor said Cashin’s charges were with­out foun­da­tion.

Cashin, in fact, was cor­rect. Mid­dle­ton had been mis­led by Squires. His re­port sat­is­fied no­body but Squires.

A pub­lic meet­ing was called for the evening of April 4. Al­though there is still some con­tro­versy as to who called it, the great and the good of St. John’s were there.

C.P. Ayre, a St. John’s city coun­cil­lor; Arthur Mon­roe, prime min­is­ter from 1924 to 1928, and Harry A. Win­ter, a for­mer speaker of the House, were among a pha­lanx of clergy and other lead­ing fig­ures in the com­mu­nity who took their place on the plat­form.

Speaker af­ter speaker de­nounced Squires and the gov­ern­ment. The only con­trary voice was that of young Joe Small­wood. He ap­pealed to Eric Bowring, the meet­ing’s chair, to be al­lowed to ad­dress the crowd.

Small­wood, who re­called in his memoirs that “Bowring him­self reached down to help me onto the plat­form,” launched into a bit­ter de­nun­ci­a­tion of the Wa­ter Street mer­chants.

He did not get very far, be­cause he was as­saulted by two men who “took turns hold­ing and punch­ing me, and fi­nally threw me bod­ily into the street.” The meet­ing ended with the an­nounce­ment that all who sup­ported the cause of the work­ers and those in need would march on the House of Assem­bly the next af­ter­noon.

Sev­eral thou­sand men turned up at the Ma­jes­tic the next af­ter­noon. They marched up Theatre Hill and along Queen’s Road and Mil­i­tary Road to the Colo­nial Build­ing. By then, The Evening Tele­gram re­ported the next day, the crowd had swelled to 8,000 to 10,000.

A small del­e­ga­tion was al­lowed into the House, to present a pe­ti­tion. A pro­ce­dural de­bate broke out, and the af­ter­noon session soon “ter­mi­nated in an up­roar,” in The Tele­gram’s phrase.

The crowd gath­ered out­side the build­ing soon de­gen­er­ated into a mob. The Con­stab­u­lary’s mounted po­lice tried to con­trol them, only to be knocked from their horses. The mob then rushed up the front steps and into the Colo­nial Build­ing.

The po­lice suc­ceeded in keep­ing them out of the Assem­bly cham­ber it­self, but they rum­maged and rav­aged the rest of the build­ing. The leg­isla­tive li­brary was trashed, a piano was dragged out into Ban­ner­man Park, and win­dow af­ter win­dow was bro­ken.

Squires, to­gether with his wife He­lena (also a Mem­ber of the House of Assem­bly), Small­wood and one or two oth­ers, had taken refuge in the base­ment.

They es­caped later that evening. By then, some of the demon­stra­tors had bro­ken into the liquor stores and, some­what the worse for wear, were roam­ing through­out St. John’s. Vet­er­ans of the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment, led by Ma­jor Wes­ley March, or­ga­nized them­selves into an im­promptu po­lice force, and as­sisted the Con­stab­u­lary to re­store or­der. The 1932 riot ended with­out blood­shed. The end came very quickly. The House meet briefly on April 19, a fort­night af­ter the riot. Sev­eral ur­gent fi­nan­cial bills were passed. Squires then called for a gen­eral elec­tion.

Only two Lib­er­als — Gor­don Bradley and Roland Starkes — were re­turned to the House of Assem­bly on vot­ing day, June 11. Fred­er­ick Alderdice and his United New­found­land Party won an over­whelm­ing vic­tory. Squires him­self and Small­wood were among those de­feated at the polls.

The mob had de­stroyed a gov­ern­ment.

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