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An unfavourable legacy

By

Bert Riggs,


(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday
.

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath

 

 

The last prime minister of the Dominion of Newfoundland has received a rough ride from history and has been virtually forgotten in the post-Confederation era.

Frederick Charles Alderdice was born in Belfast, Ireland, on Nov. 10, 1872, the son of William Alderdice and Katherine Monroe. He was educated at the Methodist College in Belfast, leaving school at 13 to come to Newfoundland to work for his uncle, Moses Monroe, a St. John's businessman.

Alderdice began working at Colonial Cordage Co. and spent most of his life associated with that firm, eventually becoming vice-president and managing director. He was also a director of another Monroe business, Imperial Tobacco Co.

Walter Monroe, Alderdice's cousin, also came to Newfoundland from Ireland to work in their uncle's businesses. In 1924, after a year of political turmoil, Monroe was elected prime minister of Newfoundland as leader of the Liberal-Conservative party. He served as prime minister until the summer of 1928, when he turned the party leadership and the prime minister's office over to his cousin.

Alderdice was sworn in as prime minister on Aug. 15, 1928. He was not a stranger to politics, having been appointed to the legislative council shortly after Monroe had become prime minister.

He called an election for Oct. 29, where he was forced to defend Monroe's record, which many people viewed as a disappointment for its pro-business stance, against a rejuvenated Richard Squires, a former prime minister, who was leading the Liberal party.

It was the first election in which women had the right to vote. Ironically, many appear to have voted for Squires, forgetting that it was Monroe who had enacted women's suffrage, whereas Squires had steadfastly refused to do so.

Alderdice was personally successful in St. John's East, but lost the election, winning only 12 seats in the new 40-member House. He resigned as prime minister in early November and became leader of the Opposition.

During the four years that followed, Newfoundland went from one financial crisis to another, as the public debt steadily increased, in large part because of the cost of operating the railway.

The government continued to borrow from international money markets and to meet its interest payments, but then came the crash of the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 29, 1929. A worldwide economic depression soon followed.

In 1931, international money lenders refused Newfoundland's request for additional loans. Default on interest payments was prevented only by the intervention of Canadian Prime Minster R.B. Bennett, who convinced Canadian banks to make a loan of $2 million. This loan was contingent upon the government appointing a commission to investigate its financial operations.

The result was a complete overhaul of the Department of Finance and the imposition of stringent expenditure controls. The financial troubles were endemic, however; Bennett's intervention was all that prevented default later in the year.

Allegations of financial mismanagement, fraud and extortion against the Squires administration in the spring of 1932 resulted in a riot at the Colonial Building, and a near-complete rout of Squires and the Liberal party in the June 11, 1932 election.

Alderdice won 24 of 27 seats in a redistributed House of Assembly, with only two Liberals and one independent elected in opposition.

One of Alderdice's key promises in the election campaign had been the appointment of a royal commission to investigate the "desirability and feasibility of placing the country under a form of commission of government for a period of years.

With the treasury spending 60 per cent of its revenues servicing the public debt and the possibility of default a constant threat, the economic prospects did not look good.

At Alderdice's request, the royal commission was appointed by the British government. It was headed by Baron Amulree, a member of the British House of Lords, and included Canadian banker Charles Magrath and William Stavert, the Newfoundland government's financial advisor.

Respite from politics

The commission's report recommended a respite from politics: "Until such time as Newfoundland may become self-supporting again, there should be ... a form of Government under which full legislative and executive power would be vested in the Governor acting on the advice of a specially created Commission of Government over which His Excellency would preside.

Alderdice accepted the recommendation and legislation was prepared to enable the House of Assembly to vote itself out of existence.

The two Liberal members, Gordon Bradley and Roland Starkes, put up a spirited defence of responsible government, but the bill passed overwhelmingly.

On Feb. 16, 1934, Newfoundland voluntarily surrendered its independence and once again came under the direct control of the British government. The public referendum that Alderdice had promised in the 1932 election campaign before he would take such a step, never materialized.

Six commissioners were appointed to assist the governor in the operations of government, three from Newfoundland and three from England.

When Alderdice accepted appointment as commissioner for home affairs and education, there were cries, from his critics and from some of his supporters, disappointed that they had not received political appointments from the new commission, that he had been looking out for his own interests.

In retrospect, economists, historians and political analysts claim that the political and financial situations were not as serious as they have been portrayed and that default on the loan payments was a viable option.

Alderdice has received much blame for his actions in 1933-1934, but little credit for the tough decisions he had to make.

He held the office of commissioner for less than two years. He died at St. John's on Feb. 28, 1936. He had married Harriet Carter on Oct. 25, 1900; they were the parents of four children.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...

 

 

This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: 29 May 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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