Policing and Public Houses in Newfoundland

Keith Mercer

In the fall of 1807, the Royal Gazette listed the public houses licensed to operate in St. John’s for the coming year. Most of these 33 taverns catered to the business district around the waterfront, attracting patrons with drink, music, and vice, but also colourful signs such as Agincourt, Jolly Fisherman, Red Cow, and Nelson – likely named for Lord Nelson, after he fell at Trafalgar in 1805. The London Tavern, like the Ship before it, was the leading establishment and catered to a more genteel audience. Mary Hennessey and Margaret Walsh ran the Royal Standard and Sailor taverns respectively. Robert Parsons, owner of the West India Coffee House, doubled as the high constable. Booze flowed freely in this wartime port and would likely put modern-day George Street to shame.[1]  

At the end of this public notice, the Royal Gazette stated that “All persons licensed to keep public-houses are constables for the district of St. John’s.” That may seem strange, but it was no joke. For at least a generation, publicans were pressed into public service to moonlight as constables. This tavern-keeper system of policing lasted from the 1780s to 1812, when the first fulltime constabulary was established. The St. John’s magistracy was responsible for appointing constables and licensing tavern keepers, normally around the same time at the fall Quarter Sessions. Publicans could have their liquor licenses revoked, and livelihoods threatened, if they refused to serve as policemen or enforce court orders, or if they were caught running “disorderly” taverns. Court records show these men in action, performing the full range of police duties for the local justice system. In 1806, sailor George Provost was charged with burglary. Constables Robert Dooling, William McCarthy, and Augustus McNamara were ordered to find him before he escaped, arrest him, search his ship, and secure any evidence. They later testified in Provost’s trial at the Supreme Court. All three constables were on the Royal Gazette’s list of tavern keepers the following year. 

Image of St. John's circa 1780 showing a tavern in the foreground.
St. John’s, c. 1780, Centre for Newfoundland Studies, showing the Ship tavern in the foreground.

This link between policing and public houses is long. As the late Peter Pope wrote, early-modern Newfoundland was a liquor emporium where wine, brandy, spirits, and rum were cheap and readily available from around the Atlantic world.[2] This was particularly true of St. John’s, where taverns and tippling houses abounded. Local concoctions like spruce beer and grog added to the variety on tap. As English settlers and visiting fishermen grew in number in the 17th century, early laws such as the Western Charter attempted to regulate the liquor trade and growth of taverns. They failed. But, morally speaking, such laws linked the alcohol problem with the observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest and prayer, and that would stick when it came to law enforcement.  

In 1729, Britain established a system of naval government in Newfoundland with civilian magistrates, constables, and penal institutions.[3] As one of their first preventative police functions prior to the 19th century, constables walked the streets to inspect taverns, and they did the same on Sundays to enforce observance of the Lord’s Day – with the greatest threat to the Almighty, of course, being drink on a servant’s day off. At Trinity in the 1750s, magistrate Samuel Harris took this moral policing to new heights. Reading the Bible literally, he took offence to any activity on Sunday beyond resting and attending church – such as household labour, or “strolling” around the harbour when church was in session. Harris used constables to monitor the Lord’s Day and physically restrain offenders in the stocks for leisure activities. At places like Trinity, moral regulation by the church was often intertwined with the legal imperatives of the courts. It also became linked to the “Irish problem,” as this was the same period in which Irish Catholics started to settle in Newfoundland in large numbers. Policing the liquor trade and the Sabbath remained key police duties into the 19th century.    

In Newfoundland, like most other British colonial jurisdictions, constables were part-time and did not possess formal training as policemen. They represented the middle of society in terms of respectability and socio-economic status – planters, artisans, and tavern keepers, and by extension employers and property owners. Richard Spragg, a constable and publican at Placentia in the 1750s and 1760s, was described as “sober” and “industrious,” qualities that the authorities looked for in both occupations. In several districts, such as Ferryland and Placentia, a disproportionate number of publicans served as policemen in the 18th and early 19th centuries. There was no formal, binding connection between the two, like in St. John’s, but the connection remained strong. Some publicans were given free liquor licenses as compensation for serving as constables, and that became a tactic for encouraging citizens to step forward to serve the public good. Free licenses were used in the early 19th century to entice good candidates to serve as high constables and deputy sheriffs in the outports, though some magistrates, such as John Edgar at Greenspond on the northeast coast, did not see the logic in linking alcohol consumption and public order.  

In 1812, when Governor John Duckworth replaced the tavern-keeper system in St. John’s with a fulltime constabulary, several veterans of the old system became members of the new force, in some cases for decades. William Phippard, who had likely been the first fulltime or professional policeman in the colony, was promoted to high constable within this new system. In reporting this police reform to London, one of Duckworth’s selling points was that it would not cost the home government a shilling. The magistracy proposed increasing the number of tavern licenses from 36 to 51, and relieved of their police duties, keepers would now pay twelve instead of the previous eight guineas for those licenses. The funding collected from tavern fees was then used directly to pay for the new police force – the St. John’s Constabulary. Phippard earned a salary of £30 while his officers collected £25. Phippard was still permitted to run a tavern, paying half price, but he declined. He was too busy with police work.  

In the Supreme Court in 1822, St. John’s publicans challenged what they characterized as an unfair subsidization of the police. They asked if they were required to apply to the Court of Sessions for licenses and what penalties the magistracy could inflict on them if they operated without licenses. The court sided with the publicans. While the Sessions did have authority to issue licenses, it could only charge a few shillings for them, instead of the going rate of £8 10s. For a year or two, this caused confusion, but Governor Charles Hamilton brushed the decision aside and sought a more permanent solution in London through the Judicature Act of 1824. This legislation gave magistrates full discretion over tavern licenses and allowed them to set the local rates. As if nothing had changed, that money was used to pay for the Constabulary, just like it had been since 1812. Even more, one of the constable’s primary duties was to inspect and police those same taverns, walking the beat, with Phippard issuing presentments to the Sessions. In 1832, with the granting of representative government to Newfoundland, St. John’s police salaries were paid from the colony’s general revenue, which included license money, but in the outports that connection was still as explicit as ever – tavern fees collected in a particular district was intended to defray the cost of “Police Establishments” in those districts.[4]  

In an aborted attempt to create a night watch in St. John’s in 1833, the House of Assembly tabled a bill that would have turned the clock back to the tavern-keeper system of the Napoleonic Wars, compelling publicans to serve as constables without pay. Publicans called this discriminatory, singling their profession out among a much larger population of merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers in the city, and sent an angry petition to the House. The bill died on the table – an early and unserious attempt at police reform.      

In a more traditional sense, drinking had always accounted for a disproportionate number of police calls and caseloads in local courts. It is unlikely that Victorians drank more than their forebears, but in urban centres like St. John’s, public drunkenness and social disorder were seen as growing problems in the mid-19th century. Newspapers, perhaps viewing the landscape through an elevated moral lens, railed against the evil of drink and questioned the inability of the police and sporadic night watch to maintain public order. Reports from the Police Court, appearing frequently in the press, show the police dealing almost exclusively with instances of public drunkenness, issuing fines and threatening jail time. Michael Carrol, a 39-year-old tailor, spent a night in jail for being “drunk” – his third offence recently. When brought into court the next morning, he was given the choice of a $3 fine or six days in jail.[5] Timothy Mitchell, inspector of the Constabulary, responded to complaints about drink and policing in the 1850s by stating that the force was simply overwhelmed. In 1855, he had twelve officers, the same number as during the War of 1812, despite a massive increase in the city’s population over the past two generations, especially in the urban core. If the press and government wanted to address the problem, they should expand or reform the police. Dealing with large-scale disturbances, even drunken brawls as the taverns closed and patrons spilled out into the darkened streets, was often too dangerous for the police and they chose not to engage.  

Portrait of Inspector Timothy Mitchell of the St. John's Constabulary. Likely from the 1850s or 1860s.
Inspector Timothy Mitchell of the St. John’s Constabulary, The Rooms, likely from the 1850s or 1860s.  

Even in a remote community like Little Bay, a mining town in Notre Dame Bay, Sergeant Thomas Wells and his small detachment from the recently-established Newfoundland Constabulary in the 1880s spent much of their time cracking down on alcohol abuse and illegal taverns called “Shebeens” – twin enemies of the temperance movement, now active on the island. They had little success, just like the “new police” throughout urban Canada.[6]        

The tavern-keeper system in St. John’s may have been unique in compelling publicans to moonlight as policemen in the Napoleonic era, but in many Canadian jurisdictions, residents were nominated to serve as constables by courts and local bodies and obligated to do so under the threat of fines – or unless they found a substitute. Perhaps the direct link between tavern money and policing in St. John’s was also a novelty, but it is probable that other colonies and towns connected the two issues and used liquor revenue to pay for policing and municipal services, as Quebec City and Montreal did in 1818 to pay for night watches. In Lower and Upper Canada, tavern keepers served as part-time constables in significant numbers, just as they did in Newfoundland. And, dating back to the early days of New France, governments everywhere attempted to regulate taverns through licenses and tying those licenses to the character and behaviour of the publicans themselves, including respecting the Sabbath.[7]  

Writing in his History of Newfoundland in the early 1860s, Reverend Charles Pedley looked back at the tavern-keeper system with amusement: “Without staying to remark on the morality of the motive here attributed to the guardians of the peace, it may be said, that if all the publicans in St. John’s in this year (1863) were efficient constables, the capital would be in no want of police.”[8] That may have been true, for this was also the period when Inspector Mitchell complained that his force had not been augmented by a single constable in over 40 years and that it was not able to deal with urbanization, population increase, and the perceived increase in public drunkenness and violent crime. As Mitchell chided, if the authorities thought that these were important social issues, then they should move beyond political rhetoric to expand the size of the Constabulary and institute police reforms. They did not take such action – an all too familiar pattern. Ironically, therefore, perhaps St. John’s of the early 19th century was served just as well by its moonlighting publicans. For a generation, they were the only policemen in town, serving the courts and their community.    

Keith Mercer is an Historian and the Cultural Resource Manager for Parks Canada in Mainland Nova Scotia. He’s based at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. This blog is based on material from his new book, Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary (St. John’s: Flanker, 2021).  


Featured image: E.P. Brenton, “A View of St. John’s in Newfoundland from the Harbour,” 1798, British Library. The tavern-keeper system of policing was in operation at this time. The town’s many public houses crowded the busy waterfront. 

[1] Royal Gazette, 24 Dec. 1807, in D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland: From the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records (London: Macmillan, 1895), 381. 

[2]Peter E. Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[3]Jerry Bannister, The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832 (Toronto: UTP, 2003).

[4] Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland (St. John’s: John Shea, 1833), 1: A61.

[5] Times, 2 Feb. 1870.

[6] E. Doyle Wells, All Quiet: The Diaries of Sergeant Thomas E. Wells, Newfoundland Constabulary, Little Bay, 1883-1889 (St. John’s: DRC, 2012).

[7] Greg Marquis, The Vigilant Eye: Policing Canada from 1867 to 9/11 (Halifax: Fernwood, 2016), chaps. 1-2; Donald Fyson, Magistrates, Police, and People: Everyday Criminal Justice in Quebec and Lower Canada (Toronto: Osgoode, 2005), chap. 4; Philip Girard, Jim Phillips, and R. Blake Brown, A History of Law in Canada: Volume One, Beginnings to 1866 (Toronto: Osgoode, 2018), 287-91, 560-64; Craig Heron, Booze: A Distilled History (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2003), chaps. 2-3.

[8]Charles Pedley, The History of Newfoundland: From the Earliest Times to the Year 1860 (London: Longman, 1863), 154-55.

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