At 8:30 in the morning of June 9, 1846, a glue pot boiled over in Hamlin’s cabinet-making shop on George Street and started a devastating fire that reduced most of St. John’s to rubble and ashes.
More than 12,000 people were instantly homeless. Among the ecclesiastical edifices that remained standing were the Roman Catholic Cathedral, then under construction, and St. Thomas,’ the garrison church, but the Anglican Church of St. John the Baptist fell to the consuming flames. After the fire, Gov. Sir John Harvey struck a committee and instituted a commission that oversaw the distribution of relief funds sent from England and elsewhere to help the victims of fire.
Many people and institutions from outside the colony came to the aid of Newfoundland. Among them was the lord mayor of London, who asked Queen Victoria to write a so-called “Queen’s Letter” to Anglican parishes. The letter, drafted by the home secretary, Sir George Grey, was supposed to ask fellow Anglicans to collect funds for the victims and to help in rebuilding the Anglican church in St. John’s.
From Anglicans, for Anglicans
The collection that followed the Queen’s Letter became a great bone of contention in a deeply divided colony, when Anglican Bishop Edward Feild requested and received a sizeable chunk from the relief money for the rebuilding of the church of St. John the Baptist into a new cathedral.
Roman Catholics and Methodists saw themselves once again disadvantaged by Tory Anglicans and their governor. They interpreted the bishop’s support for the building of his new cathedral as yet another ideologically and politically inspired misappropriation of money in a time of great distress.
Frederick Jones, in his 1983 study about the political consequences of the Great Fire of 1846 — and, more recently, Peter Coffman, in his beautiful, award-winning 2008 book on Newfoundland Anglican Gothic architecture — have shed some light on a controversy that, from the beginning, was plagued by miscommunication and an all-too-quick assigning of motives in the highly charged political atmosphere.
Well before the fire of 1846, Bishop Feild had intended to obtain funds for a new cathedral, a project he inherited from his predecessor, Bishop Aubrey George Spencer. The Queen’s Letter, so Archdeacon T.F.H. Bridge hoped, would make it possible to build a new church in the place of its burned-down predecessor.
“In short,” writes Peter Coffman, “this was Anglican money, and there was a limit to how much of it should go to Roman Catholics, however destitute.”
According to historian Frederick Jones, the lord mayor, who had requested a Queen’s Letter for relief, had promised the Bishop of London that a substantial amount of this money would go to the building of the new cathedral in St. John’s. As written, however, the Queen’s Letter did not mention any funding for the cathedral.
The home secretary, who had drafted the letter, felt that since the lord mayor and his committee were in charge, they should be able to distribute the funds as intended.
Bishop Feild feared that once the money came to Newfoundland, the Newfoundland commission overseeing fire relief would not direct the earmarked portion to his building project, since only one Anglican, Robert Prowse, was a member of the commission. So, the bishop braved a hurricane crossing to London, where he successfully obtained from the Colonial Office £14,000 from the relief fund for his cathedral.
Jones exculpates Feild entirely from any wrongdoing in the affair, stating that “the blame for the confusion must rest squarely upon the politicians in London.”
“The Lord Mayor’s committee,” he writes, “had clearly asked for the cathedral to be included in the Queen’s letter and when this had not been done they had been mollified by promises that they would administer the money.”
In Newfoundland, where people were unaware of these governmental intentions and promises and saw no financial support of a cathedral mentioned in the Queen’s Letter, “it looked like as if Feild had obtained from the British government money which had been collected only for the relief of sufferers from the fire.”
Model of agitation
Consequently, tempers flared and the bishop was charged with acting dishonourably by his Protestant and Roman Catholic opponents, one of whom accused him of building the Anglican cathedral “upon the moans and blood of the suffering poor.”
Such accusations appeared all the more plausible since the vast majority of the people afflicted by the fire had been Roman Catholics and Methodists of little means.
Thus, a well-intentioned relief initiative under the name of Queen Victoria had become an explosive political controversy in the wake of great human tragedy.
Jones goes so far as to suggest that the protest of the relief fund became a “model of agitation” in rallying diverse factions around a common cause, later appropriated during the educational controversy that led eventually to Responsible Government.
Hans J. Rollmann is professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.