A shot in the dark; Newfoundland governor urged London to send a warship to

quell potential anti-Confederation riots in 1948


By Stanley Tromp, The Vancouver Sun, Aug. 23, 2008

LINK to original memos



In 1948, the British governor of Newfoundland secretly urged the British naval chief to send a warship with 200 armed marines to stand by near St. John's, out of sight, to quell any potential riots by people opposed to Confederation.

This information, which could have had a significant influence on Newfoundland in the turbulent months leading to Confederation, is contained in previously unpublished letters and telegrams, stamped "Top Secret and Personal," obtained from the National Archives at Kew-Richmond in England.

British prime minister Clement Atlee initially agreed to the request for a warship, but later reversed his position because the navy lacked resources, and political passions seemed to have cooled by the time Newfoundland formally joined Confederation on March 31, 1949.

Fearing "widespread damage to property and possibly in loss of life," governor Gordon Macdonald had asked for a warship three weeks before Newfoundlanders voted in a second referendum on July 22, 1948. The vote was to finally decide whether to join Canada or become an independent nation -- and the pro-Confederation side won it by just four percentage points.

The British feared that the city's 160-member police force was inadequate, and it had no military garrison "which could be unobtrusively strengthened." A warship could be harboured in Placentia Bay or Conception Bay, ready to reach St. John's on short notice if trouble occurred.

Macdonald was well aware of the political risks, writing to a British politician in December on the need for strictest secrecy, because if the request ever became public, "it would cause such embarrassment to yourself in Parliament, both at question time and in debate. 'Confederation forced on the people under duress. . . . The Navy used to see it through' are possibly typical of the unfounded charges that might be made."

There is no evidence anyone in the Canadian government was ever told of the warship request. In fact, one British official advised against it, writing that "I need hardly say that we could not invoke aid from Canada in the circumstances."

The governor also asked that all mention of the request be withheld from the British naval reserve's leading officer in St. John's -- lawyer Robert Furlong, one of the founders of the Newfoundland Conservative party and who later became Newfoundland's chief justice -- because he was staunchly anti-Confederation.

If the public had somehow learned of the request before the vote, anti-Confederation campaigners might have been able to exploit the news. But whether their rhetoric would have turned enough voters to scuttle Confederation is unclear.

"I don't know if it would have changed the final result," Newfoundland historian James Hiller said in an interview. "It would have depended on what point in the campaign the news came out. And [pro-Confederation leader] Joey Smallwood was a brilliant counter-spin operator."

Hiller says that, although there was some violence during the second referendum campaign, calling in troops was unnecessary.


The historical context of the events helps to explain the warship request.

A British colony until 1907, Newfoundland acquired the status of an independent country or dominion from 1907 to 1934, one with its own prime minister, equivalent in political rank to Canada and Australia. This was the form of "Responsible Government" that the anti-Confederation campaigners in 1948 wanted for Newfoundland.

In 1934, stricken by the Great Depression, the dominion gave up its self-governing status to Britain. The Commission of Government took its place, a non-elected caretaker body that governed Newfoundland from 1934 to 1949, an entity that Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson says lost public support because of its "secrecy, condescension and insistent stupidity."

It comprised six British-appointed civil servants who were directly subordinate to London, and the body's final chairman and Newfoundland's governor since 1946 was British citizen George Macdonald.

A public referendum to decide Newfoundland's future was held on June 3, 1948. The Confederation option was not initially on the first ballot, but the British government and Joey Smallwood insisted that it be added.

The result was inconclusive, with 44.6 per cent supporting the restoration of Responsible Government, 41.1 per cent opting for Confederation with Canada, and 14.3 per cent for continuing the Commission of Government. No option had won a clear majority, that is, 50 per cent plus one. So under the rules of the referendum, the option that won the fewest votes was dropped and a run-off referendum was scheduled for July 22, 1948.

The first letter found regarding the warship was dated one month after the first vote, and during the bitter, feverish campaign three weeks before the second vote.

On July 3, 1948, Philip Noel-Baker, the British secretary of state for Commonwealth relations, wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty (chief of the British navy), Viscount George Hall, on Macdonald's prediction of a "very close" vote in the second referendum and the security risks that might ensue if the confederates won.

"Gordon Macdonald has already spoken with you on the matter set out below. . . . the Governor feels that there is a real danger of civil disorders there," he wrote. Yet Noel-Baker predicted no trouble if the Responsible Government side prevailed.

"We cannot ignore the possibility of disorders, and that, as we shall still be responsible for the preservation of law and order in the Island, we must take such precautionary measures as are possible. We have, of course, no military garrison there which could be unobtrusively strengthened. The best, perhaps indeed the only, course seems to be to have a warship in the neighbourhood which could in case of need be sent in to St. John's."

Noel-Baker regretted having to call on the heavily-burdened British navy, but saw no alternative, "if only because the safety of the Governor and the Commissioners of Government may come into question."

Noel-Baker asked Viscount Hall for a ship to be present in Western Atlantic waters in late July, able, if needed, to get to St. John's by the 23rd. He added that "I need hardly say that we could not invoke aid from Canada in the circumstances," and that "this question has been mentioned to the [British] Prime Minister and that it has his approval."


On July 17, Eric Machtig, an official in the British Commonwealth Relations office, wrote to Macdonald to say that Viscount Hall feared it was "quite impossible" to send a cruiser to Newfoundland at that time, but a frigate from the America and West Indies Station could be sent to St. John's from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The ship would be at San Juan from July 22 to 28 and could reach St. John's in five days. The admiralty arranged for the naval commander-in-chief to be warned of this possibility.

"This is very disappointing," Machtig lamented, because the ship could arrive days after the vote. He added that "the whole matter has to be kept a top secret."

On July 19, Noel-Baker wrote a memo to cabinet, advising it to send the warship. Three days later, on July 22, the second referendum was held.

Those favouring Confederation with Canada won with 52.3 per cent of the vote, followed by the Responsible Government supporters with 47.7 per cent. Newfoundland began negotiating its formal entry into Canada.

There was no rioting. But the bitterness of the campaign persisted. Allegations were rife at the time -- and a few linger today -- of conspiracies and vote-rigging.

Peter Cashin, fiery leader of the Responsible Government League, claimed that an "unholy union between London and Ottawa" had led to Newfoundland being claimed by "the Canadian wolf."

Cashin's League then tried to scuttle Confederation through a petition to the British government, signed by 50,000 Newfoundlanders, demanding the immediate restoration of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, arguing that only it had the authority to enact Confederation.

The petition was ignored and a legal challenge by six members of the pre-1934 House of Assembly, which argued that the National Convention Act and the Referendum Act were both unconstitutional, was quashed by a British court on Dec. 13.

Newfoundland and federal officials held a ceremony in Ottawa on Dec. 11 and there signed the agreement establishing the new Canadian province.

The League had made one last-ditch effort to stop it. On Friday, Dec. 10, a crowd of 5,000 anti-confederates met in the Lad's Brigade Armories in St. John's and passed a motion urging officials to refrain from signing any agreement. Afterwards, led by Cashin, they marched to Government House, called Gov. Macdonald out of bed about midnight, and told him the delegates to Ottawa had no authority to speak for the people of Newfoundland.

Although the protest ultimately didn't change events, Macdonald did consent to hold a special meeting of his Commission of Government at 10 a.m. the next day in response to the complaints.

The march on his residence obviously troubled him, for Macdonald wrote a letter on Dec. 13 about the outcome of the Commission's private "special meeting" on the morning after the march. But the meeting was held not so much to consider the protesters' claims as it was to call upon Britain a second time for a warship. (The recipient of this letter is unnamed, but it was likely intended for a senior British politician, as it discussed political "embarrassment to yourself in Parliament.")

Macdonald wrote that the Commission had written up the following plan in an as-yet-unsent telegram: "I consider it essential that additional force should be made available at not more than two hours notice, preferably less, and ask that Naval vessel capable of landing two hundred armed ratings [sailors] or marines may accordingly be immediately place at my disposal. It would not repeat not be desirable that such vessel should enter St. John's harbour or be seen in the neighbourhood, but there would be no repeat no political objection to its sheltering if necessary in Placentia Bay or Conception Bay."

Yet the governor decided against sending the telegram to Britain for approval, explaining, "The decision to send the telegram was associated with the march on Government House at eleven o'clock on the night of Friday the 10th of December. But it also had regard to rumours that certain elements would resort to rioting in an attempt to prevent the finalizing of Confederation."

Macdonald wrote that he told the commissioners he would not actually request a warship again until after studying political developments over the weekend. But since matters seemed to have cooled down since Friday's march, the need for a ship was now less urgent.

"So far nothing has happened. Needless to state, I should much prefer to have the decision of the people carried out without the presence of a Naval vessel in Newfoundland waters. Moreover, it would cause such embarrassment to yourself in Parliament, both at question time and in debate. . . .

"On the other hand, rioting beyond the powers of the police (a force of some 160) could result in serious and widespread damage to property and possibly in loss of life. Should such circumstances arise a Naval vessel as far away as Bermuda would be of little use." Macdonald asked the British government for its opinion before he would act.

 Confederation a fait accompli

On Dec. 17, Noel-Baker wrote to Viscount Hall that, notwithstanding the current lack of violence, sending a ship to Newfoundland was still a good idea. But Viscount Hall advised against the warship plan, for two reasons he noted in a letter to Noel-Baker in a letter Jan. 3, 1949.

First, "the threat of deploying decisive forces, drawn from the Royal Navy, to quell what would certainly be represented as a manifestation of frustrated public opinion might well inflame the situation rather than provide a peaceful solution."

Secondly, it was logistically too difficult. At the time, all navy ships of the America and West Indies Station were to be on pre-arranged cruise programs, and after the first week in January none would be north of the Gulf of Mexico.

The final letter on the warship issue obtained from the National Archives was dated Feb. 2, 1949, from an unnamed official in the Commonwealth Relations Office to another official in the same branch named John Laurence Pumphrey:

"You mentioned to me recently that the Prime Minister was not altogether happy about the way matters had been left as the result of Mr. Noel-Baker's correspondence with the First Lord over the question of naval support in the event of an emergency in Newfoundland."

The letter notes that a Jan. 27 telegram from Macdonald suggested that "there is no very great risk of a serious disturbance in St. John's."

"It is of course impossible either for the Governor or us to guarantee that there will be no such disturbance. But we feel that such risk as may be involved owing to the absence of any warship within less than six days steaming time from Newfoundland, will have to be accepted. We think that the Governor realizes this." For these reasons, the letter noted, Noel-Baker had decided to stop pressing Viscount Hall for a warship.

Confederation was now a fait accompli. Although the act creating the new province came into force just before midnight on March 31, 1949, ceremonies in St. John marking the occasion did not take place until April 1.

That day there was a brief swearing-in ceremony at Government House for the new lieutenant-governor, Sir Albert Walsh, who then accepted a Canadian citizenship certificate on behalf of all Newfoundlanders.

Joey Smallwood was sworn in as the interim first premier until a general election could be held. Despite the fiery contest that had led to this event, the day passed very quietly, with little demonstration either for or against Confederation. Yet reaction to it was mixed, and apparently still is today.

"The objection that most Newfoundland anti-confederate voters had at the time was not on joining Canada, but how the process was done," said Hiller. "It can still be a tender point."

Macdonald resigned as governor and returned home to Britain in 1949. Two days after his departure, a gushing laudatory poem to him was published in the St. John's Evening Telegram. Weeks later, the editors discovered the poem was an acrostic, that is, the first letter in each line, when read downward, spelled out THE BASTARD.

 Locals kept in the dark

In the tense atmosphere of the time, governor Macdonald was very careful about who he shared information with.

He wrote to the British government on Dec. 13, 1948 that "There is one other matter I feel I ought to mention, namely that as the R.N.V.R. Liaison Officer at St. John's is himself a rabid and most active anti-confederate you may consider advising the Naval Commander-in-Chief concerned that any communications relative to the matter of this dispatch should be addressed directly to myself." Noel-Baker wrote to warn Viscount Hall four days later that "This officer is, I understand, a local solicitor by the name of Furlong."

That was Robert Stafford Furlong, a Royal Navy veteran and one of the founders of the Newfoundland Progressive Conservative party in February 1949. In the province's first general election on May 27, 1949 -- which Smallwood won in a landslide -- opponents to Confederation aligned themselves with the Conservatives.

Macdonald's fears of violence might not have been wholly groundless, for Newfoundland had experienced political roughhousing before.

In the run-up to the second referendum, wrote historian Michael Harris, passions were so overheated that Smallwood had taken to carrying an unloaded gun: "His security guards were armed with brass knuckles, blackjacks, chains, and some strategic advice from [labour leader] Irving Fogwill: Broken heads make for bad press, while a hearty squeeze of the testicles induces political moderation without a fuss."

Harris wrote that after Smallwood finished a radio show in St. John's, a mob had tried to lynch him. Just before the vote, things turned ugly at another Smallwood rally, and he had to be spirited away in a hidden car. The mob then stormed down Devon Row where Smallwood lived and proceeded to stone the wrong house.

Longtime Newfoundlanders could also have recalled a harrowing event 16 years previous, one that Macdonald might have been aware of -- the "Great Riot" of 1932.

The Great Depression had crippled the Newfoundland economy and caused the dominion government to collapse in bankruptcy. "Emotions were building up to an explosive level," wrote historian Frederick Rowe, and in February 1932, a mob of several hundred people attacked the courthouse in which prime minister Richard Squires had his office.

Then complaints about dire poverty and government corruption led the opposition to organize a large parade on the House of Assembly. The crowd became angry when no one came out to address them, and groups broke into the assembly, ransacked it, and attempted to burn it down. Squires and government members had to flee around the back; he escaped only by running through someone's house.

"But for the herculean efforts of the police, who were aided by several clergymen, the mob undoubtedly would have killed the Prime Minister," Rowe wrote.

"Miraculously, no lives were lost, although both police and members of the mob received many injuries."