With all the glasses raised on George Street on a Friday night, all the beer caps twisted during “Hockey Night in Canada” on a Saturday evening, and all the vino consumed during an NLC wine show, it can be hard to fathom booze was once banned in Newfoundland.
But there was a time when prohibition was taken so seriously by some that a British navy ship was deployed to bring order to moonshiners on Flat Island, Bonavista Bay.
“I don’t know what they thought was going on out there,” says Mark Hunter, an independent historian who has researched and written on the topic.
Newfoundland was under prohibition from 1917 to 1924.
It was spearheaded by the upper class, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Methodist Church.
“Many people thought turning a region dry might cure society’s ills, if you will,” Hunter says.
William Coaker and the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) originally supported prohibition, too.
They hoped it would show the union was not a threat like some feared, and that it was a way of increasing FPU support.
Under the booze ban, Hunter continues, the only way to legally acquire alcohol was with a doctor’s prescription.
With few physicians in rural areas, many in the outports obtained liquor from illegal stills or from smugglers who had gotten it from St-Pierre-Miquelon.
According to Hunter, with limited resources and a public thirst for liquor, policing prohibition was next to impossible, especially in rural regions where there were few officers.
Still, those in power tried.
As Hunter explains, some of them considered Flat Island an important cog in moonshine operations in Bonavista Bay, and in the week before Memorial Day 1919, they sent police there to search for stills.
The officers were met with some resistance, and that riled the island’s member of the legislative assembly, Alfred Morine, a conservative who also happened to be minister of justice.
Thinking the people needed to be controlled and a crackdown was in order, he requested that the HMS Cornwall escort the Constabulary to arrest those who had resisted the police.
The ship, along with 48 marines, was dispatched.
Ten men went ashore and arrested the moonshiners and insurgents, many of whom were FPU supporters.
Among those charged was Fred Deckers, the school master who was suspected of being the ring leader.
The whole thing was covered by newspaper reporters — including a young Joey Smallwood — who had also been onboard the Cornwall.
The Daily News said it was an indication of what the public could expect if Coaker and his followers gained control.
It was just a few years after Bolshevik Party revolutionaries overthrew the Russian government, and some, such as Morine, feared Bolshevism here. He thought Coaker was a Bolshevik.
“It becomes more than embroiled in an ideal, with a crackdown on liquor in trying to solve the ills of society, and starts to be embroiled in the ideology of the times (and) the suspicions of the upper and lower class,” Hunter says.
Those arrested on Flat Island, defended by lawyer Richard Squires, were released on bail pending trial. However, the case was never called again.
Squires became prime minister a few months later and eventually realized prohibition was taxing on the police.
A royal commission was struck, and in May 1921, recommended relaxing the liquor laws.
And while it had originally supported prohibition, the FPU changed its tune, because the membership thought it violated their rights.
Prohibition became an election issue in 1924, when Squires was embroiled in controversy after accusations he used funds from the liquor controller’s office for his campaign.
Walter Monroe got rid of prohibition after winning the election.
“It’s almost like this whole thing involving prohibition and the crackdown on liquor almost backfired,” Hunter says.
The domestic booze ban is only one aspect of Newfoundland’s prohibition-era history.
Hunter says the island’s warehouses remained open for the transhipment of alcohol throughout the 1920s, unlike warehouses in American states and Canadian provinces.
So as U.S. smugglers were forced out of neighbouring jurisdictions, he says they gravitated towards Newfoundland.
They’d register vessels here and ship booze to the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
“They were filing papers saying they were going from Newfoundland to the Caribbean with all this liquor, but really, they were going off the coast of New York, or Rum Row, and handing off this liquor to faster vessels or mother ships who were smuggling the liquor onshore,” Hunter says.
He has researched this aspect of prohibition in Newfoundland by cross-referencing the Atlantic Canada Shipping Project Database with intelligence reports on smuggling the Americans sent to the British.
“Between 1926 and 1933 there were all these intelligence reports that listed the names of suspected vessels, who they thought the owners were, and where they think these vessels were registered,” he says.
This provided Hunter with a picture of how much smuggling was taking place through here.
“What I found there were around 81 ships between 1926 and 1933 that were regularly on these intelligence lists, and they were smuggling alcohol from Newfoundland or St-Pierre to the United States and extensively bound for elsewhere.”
Hunter says the government of Newfoundland didn’t crack down on the activity with the vigour the Americans and British wanted.
In 1927, he says, the justice department concluded if goods came to Newfoundland in transit to somewhere else, it was not the custom service’s duty to ask for evidence about the where the goods were going.
A few years later, Hunter points out, the department said, if the present high seas bootlegging business were to disappear, it would mean a loss of $20,000 in customs revenue.
That speaks to the state of Newfoundland’s economy and revenue sources at that time, he says.
Hunter says there was no real crackdown on the smuggling out of Newfoundland until Responsible Government collapsed and the island became ruled by the Commission of Government.
The British-led commission beefed up the customs department and started taking the complaints of the Americans more seriously, he says.