Calling the Police before the Police in Newfoundland

M. Max Hamon

Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1729-1871, by Keith Mercer (St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2021).

Drawing out ambiguities of the “police before the police” is an excellent way to explore the past as a different country in the classroom. For instance, a great hook to tell students is that in Newfoundland the colonial government forced tavern keepers to moonlight as constables in exchange for their liquor licences. This opens up the opportunity to explain the strangeness. The history of the police before the police has become one of the most teachable moments in my pre-confederation classes or, as Daniel Samson has written in another post, making the familiar dis/comfortingly strange.

Unpacking the term “police” helps students untangle the origins of social regulation, governmentality, and the first constables themselves. We look at the growth of state through the history of those agents appointed to enforce the laws. Inevitably, however, the issue of definition comes up. To call police “the police” before the police can be, to put it mildly, confusing.

British historian Clive Emsley helps unpack it: “the word police was generally applied, not to an institution but to the management and government of a particular piece of territory, particularly a town or city.”[1] The debates surrounding the formation of Canada’s first “police town,” Kingston, studied by George Betts, illustrate this point wonderfully.[2]

Yet, as Donald Fyson points out, “concentrating too heavily on the form of the police can lead to ignoring the material impact of their actions on those who experienced them.”[3] Taken together Fyson’s and Emsley’s warnings provide a richer history of meaning and lived experiences: “high” and “low” history. This complex and strange past has been illuminated by some excellent studies that combine these approaches.[4]

Also striking are the topics that still need further research.

So, the appearance of Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1729-1871 by Keith Mercer, commissioned by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society was a highlight of this year. Keith Mercer also delights in the opportunity to tell us about the bizarre: “as strange as this tavern-keeper system might seem today, publicans were the only law enforcement in St. John’s for more than a generation [1790-1815], serving as officers of the court and performing other legal duties.” And the book does an excellent job reconstructing the colourful everyday history of the “police before the police” while deconstructing assumptions about the past.

Rough Justice is a justified corrective to a narrative of policing in Canada that tends to be dominated by the Northwest Mounted Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. With the first constables appointed in 1729, Newfoundland may lay claim to having one of the oldest continuous constabulary forces in British North America. Mercer highlights the lived experiences of the constables by piecing together fragments of information from different archives and has taken every effort to uncover the identities of little known and voiceless constables. Rough Justice turns the conventional wisdom of the early police as unprofessional amateurs on its head. Mercer demonstrates that Shakespeare’s derision of Dogberry, the overinflated police constable in Much Ado About Nothing, is a poor caricature of the largely anonymous men who enforced the law. We learn that, in addition to testifying in court and serving warrants for arrest, the first constables were busy collecting taxes, conducting surveys, shooting dogs, policing mummers, and clearing the beach of obstacles. I was struck more than once that a commissioned history, with an explicit mandate to document the history of a police force, is one of the best means of advancing an alternative framework to the nationalist one. At the same time, engagement with the recent discussions about how police institutions are investing in their heritage would have added critical spice.[5]

Reluctance is fundamental to Newfoundland’s history, and this book shows that policing was no exception. Efforts to impose law and order were often resisted by those claiming the “privileges and freedom of the Fishery as secured by law.”[6] In other words, the notion of free trade in the cod fishery made it difficult to impose taxation and regulation. Mercer astutely connects complex political issues with day-to-day policing. For instance, by reconstructing the role of the constabulary in the scandalous whippings of Lundrigan and Butler (a rallying cry for the reform movement in nineteenth century Newfoundland), he hits hard at some persistent myths about ideas of brutality and lawlessness. Unfortunately, the book shrinks away from pronouncing on broader political and social issues. For instance, it is hard to imagine that constables were neutral to the calls for police reform in the public sphere. Even if, as Mercer claims, the police eschewed politics, politics did not eschew the police—as shown by the debacle over the retirement of William Phippard, High Constable during the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, there are also drawbacks to commissioned histories. While Rough Justice expertly undermines many simplistic ideas about origins of the police, more discussion of alternative meanings of the term “police” would help. In the debates over municipal reform of St. John’s and colonial reform more broadly, the term “police” often refers to governance not constables. When William Carson, doctor and political agitator, called for an “ordinance of a police” in the local press he was referring to municipal government.  Across North America, the term “police” was historically entangled with ideas about state responsibility for the people’s welfare, and the relationship between the origins of social regulation and the history of the first constables needs to be clarified.[7]

The history of the police before the police in Newfoundland is dis/comfortingly strange. Mercer effectively pulls our gaze away from the rear-view mirror to disrupt familiar frameworks that explain the past from a mid-nineteenth century breaking point forward (whether it be Confederation or 1871). This excellent history contests the classic narrative of progress and at the same time shows the important links between the constables and state formation.


M. Max Hamon teaches and researches the history of colonial North America during the long 19th-century, with particular interest in the intellectual and cultural history of the Métis and French Canada. He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Brandon University (one-year term appointment). His writing draws links between the histories of the east, west, north, and south, the French and the English, Indigenous and settler histories. His first book, The Audacity of his Enterprise: Louis Riel and the Métis Nation that Canada Never Was (1840-1875) explores the formation of the Canadian state in the nineteenth century and highlights the perspective of Louis Riel. His current research concerns the history of policing in British North America and Canada. He hosts the Policing and the Border Podcast, and you can find him on Twitter at @max_hamon.


[1] Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, 4th ed. (London: Routledge, 2010), 227.

[2] George Betts, “Municipal Government and Politics,” in To Preserve and Defend: Essays on Kingston in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Gerald Tulchinsky (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976).

[3] Donald Fyson, Magistrates, Police, and People: Everyday Criminal Justice in Quebec, 1764-1837 (Toronto: Osgoode Society, 2006), 182.

[4] In Canada I would highlight the work of Jean-Marie Fecteau, Marie Ann Poutanen, Dale Gibson, Michael Boudreau, John Weaver, Don Fyson, and Tamara Myers.

[5] From some recent interventions on the history of police and production of history see Matthew Ferguson, Justin Piché, and Kevin Walby, “‘That’s Not a Conversation That Belongs to the Museum”: The (In)visibility of Surveillance History at Police Museums in Ontario, Canada,” in Making Surveillance States: Transnational Histories, edited by Robert Heynen and Emily van der Meulen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019); Steve Maynard, “Police/Archive,” Archivaria 69 (Fall 2009): 159-182.

[6] Erasmus Gower governor of Newfoundland from 1804-06, quoted in Mercer, Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1729-1871, (St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2021), 206.

[7] William Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).



Featured Image: “Dogbery and Verges with the Watch,” (From Much Ado about Nothing Act 3, Scene 2), by Henry William Bunbury, in Twenty-Two Plates Illustrative of Various Interesting Scenes in the Plays of Shakespeare (London: Thomas Macklin, Poets Gallery, 1792), via Artsy.


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