‘Five shillings a day for a smart, active man’

Paul Sparkes
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ST. JOHN’S, Tuesday, May 2, 1882 — “This forenoon the labourers on the Railway threw down “the shovel and the hoe,” and “struck” for better “pay” than the Company, it seems, feel disposed to give them. Five shillings a day is certainly a small amount to offer a smart, active man at the present season of the year, and we are, therefore, not in the least surprised at this action on the part of the employees.”

My source for last week’s column on ice floes and cargo-laden schooners was a collection of pristine copies of this newspaper from 130 years ago. As those papers were saved in daily sequence from March through to May, 1882, I could not help but notice the number of references to the work on our first railway and the turmoil that project often caused. This column gives you a sampling of that.

The first train travelled from Fort William (east end St. John’s) to Topsail in June, 1882. Ultimately a failure, the first railway venture was supplanted by that of Robert G. Reid which went ahead in the 1890s.

Now to return to this newspaper’s report on the railway’s labour problems.

“As several of them (the disgruntled workers) remarked to us this afternoon, on our way from dinner: ‘They want to treat us just as they please. In other countries persons engaged in similar work are getting from a dollar and a half to two dollars a day; and although they admit that we are able to do as much with the pick-axe and shovel as any men living, yet they refuse to give us more than barely enough to keep body and soul together.’ They further complain that ‘the soft jobs are picked up by every Tom, Dick and Harry from Nova Scotia and elsewhere, while our people, who furnish the money, must be the hewers of wood and drawers of water.’ Here again comes in the doctrine of the ‘Agent’ and his masters, ‘Anything is good enough for Newfoundland!’”

The Evening Telegram takes up the cause:

“Now, we want to say a word or two in the interest of our labouring classes. Last year Messrs. Whiteway (prime minister at this time), Shea and company stated through their subsidized newspapers that “remunerative employment, and plenty of it, would be given to our people this spring” and, as a natural consequence, those who knew not the windy nature of political promises, trusted them. But, alas! How cruelly, and treacherously, have they been deceived!! The time for the fulfilment of the pledge has arrived, and what do we find? Why, a paltry dollar is thrown to the expectant crowd, with the hard-hearted alternative — “Take it, or leave it!” just as you like. As a public journalist, we have a duty to perform in this matter, and it is simply to demand from the Government the discharge of their obligations to the people.”

The Railway Strike

Two Men Sent to Prison for Trying to Get an Increase of Wages

St. John’s, Friday, May 5th., 1882 — Two men named Maddigan and Holmes were at the bar today, charged with the offence of trying to get a reasonable price for their labour. Maddigan admitted that he was one of the crowd who had told the men at work to knock off and look for more pay.  He also acknowledged that he carried the flag at the head of the procession. Holmes said he had been appointed a member of the committee nominated to wait on the manager and demand a higher price for their labour. His Worship told them the Railway operatives had a perfect right to look for higher wages.  Nevertheless, he remanded the prisoners for a week.

Police Court

Before His Honor Judge Prowse

St. John’s, Saturday, May 6, 1882 — A Case in Connection with the Railway.

Thomas Holmes, 38 labourer, George Street; Michael Maddigan, 26, labourer, Lazy Bank, and Christopher Neil, 21, labourer, Pokeham Path, were charged with intimidating and unlawfully interfering with the labourers in the employ of the Newfoundland Railway Company. It was proved on the evidence of Police Constable Collins and William O’Grady, foreman carpenter, that on Tuesday, 2nd May, a crowd entered on the Railway premises; that Maddigan, who was carrying the flag, told the labourers at work to knock off; that the crowd pushed the men off the Railway car where they were at work, took possession of the car, and ran it down the line. Both witnesses swore that the mob (as they called them) intimidated the labourers and made them leave off work.

The evidence shows that the prisoners all took a leading part in this intimidation. O’Neil and Maddigan carried the flag, and Holmes was a member of the committee of deputation, and was with the crowd when the intimidation took place. A labourer’s strong arm and his strength are his capital and his merchandise. He may sell that for the best price he can get. He may work or refuse to work just as it suits himself; but he cannot prevent other labourers from working or selling their labour at a different price from him.  To intimidate such other labourers by any of the modes or methods specified in this Act is an offence punishable under summary jurisdiction by a fine not exceeding $96, or imprisonment not exceeding three months, with hard labour.  As I was aware that all the prisoners’ families were in great distress, and as the intimidation had ceased, at the earnest request of Mr. Loomis, Chief Engineer of the Newfoundland Railway Company, I discharged the prisoners before the expiry of their remand; and I trust that illegal acts of this kind may not occur again.”


Another Encounter at Fox Trap Some of the Railway Surveyors Roughly Handled

Saturday, April 13th., 1882 — An encounter took place yesterday between a number of the residents of Fox Trap and a party of Railway Engineers. It seems that as the latter were about to survey a portion of the line which runs through private property, they were confronted by an opposition which threatened their complete demolition if they dared to proceed. Believing that a gentle firmness would enable them to complete their work, the Railwaymen, after a short consultation, pushed forward with the survey. This had the effect of bringing the combatants into closer proximity. One of the residents carried a flag which bore the inscription, “Fox Trap to the front like solid men.” The surveyors were attacked on the right flank with “blubber and pickled water,” and they, in turn, returned the assault with denunciation and snow-balls. The fight lasted with much vigor for half an hour or more, when the Railwayites, without much loss, retreated towards the town. Here they met a reinforcement of policemen at Mrs. Squires’, under the able command of Head Constable Sullivan, and immediately set out, with confidence in their chief, to retrieve their fallen honors. On arriving at the scene of the encounter, they found the enemy had taken to the woods, leaving them masters of the situation, which they had so ably defended. The railway men are still in possession of the camp, and will probably hold it until peace has been proclaimed. We may mention that one little boy of fourteen, who carried the ammunition for the Fox Trap Amazons, was captured and brought on to St. John’s, where he appeared before His Honor Judge Conroy this morning. The little prisoner admitted the offence with which he was charged, viz,: that of impeding the progress of a measure which is said to be the instrument of our civilization, and a cultivator of our dormant resources. His worship let him off on the promise to become a good boy and a railway man in future.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Newfoundland Railway Company, Lazy Bank, Police Constable Collins and William O’Grady

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Fort William, Nova Scotia George Street

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