At the boiling point

Eighty years ago today, a mob demanded the government fix our financial mess

Published on April 5, 2012
Demonstrators outside the Colonial Building in St. John’s before the protest broke down into violence in the late afternoon and early evening of April 5, 1932. — The Rooms Provincial Archives, A 19-22, Demonstrators in front of the Colonial Building, 5, April 1932, Provincial Archives Collection

Eighty years ago today, one of those very rare examples of what happens when Newfoundlanders reach the boiling point occurred in St. John’s.

By the spring of 1932, the Depression, first identified in October of 1929, was making itself felt as hard, cold reality at street level. Not only were jobs as scarce as hens’ teeth, but the jobs that existed were on shaky ground. And, when people are hurting, it doesn’t take much to convince them that their government is doing nothing.

In the middle of March, with an outside authority examining our books (Government by Commission was only two years away) some suggestion had surfaced that we really did not have our financial house in order. No big surprise there, even if the reason was our near-chronic combination of debtload and cash shortfall.

But were our prime minister and his friends playing freely with the kitty?

One St. John’s newspaper had no doubt where the blame belonged:

“The lack of leadership today is Newfoundland’s ghastly tragedy. To what are the people being asked to respond, to the crack of the whip? To the appeal of a man who has shown himself devoid of a sense of shame, who has not even considered it beneath him to allow his friends to grow rich while the destitute have been crying for a crust of bread?”

That is part of an editorial published in mid-March, 1932. The Evening Telegram pulled no punches. It played, like all newspapers, the interpretation game, much of it based on political preferences.

“Is it for one moment to be believed that they could, even if they wished, turn from the fleshpots and give their minds to the public welfare?” the paper asked of the government.

The Newfoundland prime minister then was Sir Richard Squires. As a Jubilee Scholar, his intelligence could be in no doubt; but there turned out to be some reason to doubt his judgment.

The Evening Telegram had little tolerance for the fact that we had voted in this Government four years prior on their promise of new industry, and things turned out to be measurably worse. There was no patience in early 1932 for the possibility that global factors may have stifled whatever enthusiasm there had once been for doing business on this island, or anywhere else for that matter.

“Essential to a move towards recovery,” the newspaper reasoned, “is a Government that the people can trust. … Politics in this country has become degraded into a scheme that encourages graft and personal aggrandisement. That must end. The people, as well as the politicians, have a duty in that matter.”

Following closely upon the heels of that one, another editorial on the same theme was headlined “The Shame to Which We Have Been Brought” — and ended with the challenge, “Let us show that we will not allow the land that we love to be shamed!”

On Monday, April 4, 1932, a big block advertisement appeared on the upper front page of The Evening Telegram:

“A mass meeting will be held in the Majestic Theatre on Monday night, April 4, at 8:00 o’clock for the purpose of discussing matters of vital importance to the whole public of Newfoundland. All citizens interested are cordially invited. The meeting will be broadcast over Station VONA.”

Two pages further in, the day’s editorial was headlined “A Cry Goes Up for Deliverance.”

The next day, with news of the excitement at previous night’s meeting well known, the newspaper’s editorial was “A Voice That Shall be Heard.” In part, the editorial said “clergy and laity, business and professional men, the crafts and labour, men and women — all were as one in supporting resolutions expressing their abhorrence if the manner in which the honour, dignity, welfare and safety of the whole country was threatened.”

The resolutions drawn up essentially asked the legislature to investigate Squires and his secretary of state, Arthur Barnes. There was clearly a belief that they needed to answer to the use of the colony’s money.

Said the newspaper, “if the Government had the audacity to believe that public opinion could be flouted, the results of last night’s meeting should effectively dispel the foolhardy idea.”

This gave credence to the resolutions, whether they deserved it or not. The problem was that on April 5, it took thousands of people to deliver the resolutions, led by the band of the Methodist Guards.

Something like 2,000 people started out from Majestic Theatre just before 2:30 p.m. and attracted another 1,500 en route to Colonial Building. Some reports say 10,000 people milled around the front of the building. At 3:30, a committee selected from among the mass was admitted to present their petition. Here is the point where Sir Richard shows something less than good judgment, as historian Paul O’Neill writes:

“Instead of accepting the document from the committee and having done with it, the Prime Minister perversely requested a legal opinion on the rights of the delegation. This obstinate behaviour was inexplicable with a mob literally howling at the door.”

Several well-meaning people attempted to get the crowd to reverse its steps. They struck up the band and some moved off, but not all. It’s fair to say that those remaining wanted something more than to be stalled while lawyers dissected their legality and the niceties of their petition.

Adults battled police, youths shattered the windows. Several people were rushed to the hospital down by Quidi Vidi Lake. People ripped pickets from the fences of Bannerman Park to use as weapons. Fired by the courage of numbers, men broke in through the doors. They hauled a piano outside and, again, according to O’Neill, someone played military music on it before it was smashed to pieces.

The invaders were eventually pushed outside, but word went around that they should find Squires and hang him. This same word must have reached the prime minister’s ears. He did not pause to study legalities this time.

A car was brought up to the building and he was bundled aboard. At first, he had not been identified. But some rioters spotted him as the car reached nearby Colonial Street.

There was little prime ministerial dignity left. Squires scampered in through the front door of a private home, tore past the startled occupants and bolted out the back as a few friends at the front kept the rioters at bay. Out back, fencing had to be scaled as Sir Richard scrambled for the temporary security of Bannerman Road.

A few yards more and he found a taxi on Cochrane Street. The taxi took him away in a westerly direction to the home of a friend on Waterford Bridge Road — well out of the old city core. The mob, robbed of their prey, turned on a couple of liquor stores.

In order to enter the liquor store at the foot of Springdale Street, the mob first chopped down a light pole and pressed it into a new role as battering ram.

The Evening Telegram’s headline the next day declared: “Colonial Building Wrecked in Wild Demonstration — Prime Minister, Colleagues, Inspector General held inside the building.”

The newspaper’s editorial spoke of “deplorable and tragic occurrences” and in an expansive tone that was probably broad enough to cover itself, suggested that “it will serve no purpose now to attempt to determine responsibility.”

In due course, a new election was called and Sir Richard ran for the district of Trinity South (which he lost).

Whatever credibility he had once possessed as the man who had brought a paper mill to the west coast seemed completely to have deserted him. He quit politics, went back to the practice of law and divided his leisure time between his farm at Midstream, near Bowring Park, and at his home on Rennie’s Mill Road, St. John’s.