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MONROE, MOSES, businessman and politician; b. 1842 in Moira (Northern Ireland), son of John Monroe; m. 16 May 1871 Jessie Gordon McMurdo in St John’s; d. there 19 May 1895.

Moses Monroe received his early education in Armagh and Galway and then worked for a clothing manufacturer near his home. At the urging of his uncle, Presbyterian minister Moses Harvey*, he emigrated to St John’s in 1860 and became a dry-goods clerk with the firm of McBride and Kerr, which after 1864 was managed by James Goodfellow. Goodfellow purchased this company in 1869, and the following year he took Monroe as a junior partner. The two men had a disagreement and on 31 Dec. 1872 Goodfellow dissolved the partnership, claiming that Monroe had falsified the prices on goods sold by the firm. Goodfellow refused offers of mediation from Harvey, but the disagreement had no long-term detrimental effect on his friendship with Monroe, whose standing in the business community remained untarnished. In 1873 Monroe established his own dry-goods and fisheries-supply business. The necessary capital may have come from his father-in-law, Thomas McMurdo, a prosperous drugstore owner.

The firm of M. Monroe proved a success, supplying merchants and fishermen throughout the island and in Labrador. By 1890, however, Monroe had almost withdrawn from the Labrador fishery because the cure of fish was of such poor quality that it had become uneconomical [see Robert Stewart Munn]. About 1875 Monroe became involved in the bank fishery, prosecuted mainly from the Burin peninsula, through the hiring of ships and their crews. In 1885, for instance, he outfitted 12 vessels with a total of 120 men; four years later this number had risen to 40 vessels carrying 500 men, who caught 30,000 quintals of fish valued at $126,000. Monroe never actively pursued the fish export business, but he did invest with other merchants in west-coast lobster factories.

Monroe’s business interests also centred around the promotion of marine-related industries in St John’s during the late 1870s and the 1880s. Although he was reputed to have investments in many joint-stock companies, his major interests lay in the Newfoundland Boot and Shoe Manufacturing Company (1875), the Newfoundland Pioneer Woolen Company (1881), the Colonial Cordage Company (1882), the St John’s Electric Light Company (1885), and the Atlantic Building Company (1885). However, it was his involvement with the Colonial Cordage Company (the “Ropewalk”) that earned him the name of “Monopolist Monroe” from his political opponents.

Prior to 1882, the local fishery had depended upon imported lines, twines, nets, cordage, and cable. Merchants experienced great difficulties in maintaining their supply in the early 1880s, and James J. Rogerson* and Ambrose Shea* approached Monroe to start a local twine and net factory. Not being familiar with this industry, Monroe offered to form a copartnership with the English firm Joseph Grundy and Company. After Grundy refused, Moses and his brother James H., who came out from Ireland to manage the business, in 1882 invested $80,000 to construct the factory. Between 1883 and 1885 the Ropewalk employed about 180 people and was thus one of the largest local employers of wage labour. In the late 1880s Monroe established the Monroe Fibre Company in the Bahamas on the advice of Shea, who had become governor there.

The immediate success of the Ropewalk owed much to the protectionist policies of the Conservative government of Sir William Vallance Whiteway*, which in 1882 gave the business a five-year exemption from import duties and a five per cent bounty on imported raw materials. The company also benefited from an eight per cent tariff duty, first instituted in 1871, on imported twines, cables, and cordage. The Colonial Cordage Company was established in 1883 as a joint-stock company with a nominal capital stock offering of $120,000, of which $96,000 was raised by the end of the year. Shareholders included many of the island’s leading business and political figures such as Charles R. Bowring*, Robert Thorburn*, and Premier Whiteway. The Monroe brothers were the largest investors with $60,000 in the company.

Disaster struck the Ropewalk on 23 Dec. 1885, when fire destroyed the frame factory, which had little insurance coverage. With further government assistance, it was rebuilt the following year, this time with stone and brick. Monroe persuaded Thorburn’s recently elected government to increase the bounty paid the Ropewalk to seven and a half per cent and continue it until the end of 1895. In 1886 the tariff on imported cordage and related products was increased to ten per cent. On 23 February that year the Colonial Cordage Company was re-incorporated with a nominal capital stock of $160,000, $120,000 of which was paid up within the first year. For local shareholders the Ropewalk represented a secure investment, and its importance as a source of employment gave Monroe considerable political influence in the west end of town, where many of the employees lived.

Monroe’s prominence in business and politics had been recognized on 19 Feb. 1884, when Whiteway appointed him to the Legislative Council. As a councillor he took such unpopular stands as supporting a nondenominational system of education and opposing legislation that favoured local option on the liquor trade. In 1885 he served as an intermediary in Whiteway’s efforts to form a political coalition with either the Roman Catholic Liberal party led by Shea or a mercantile Protestant party led by Thorburn. The mercantile party did not share Whiteway’s and Monroe’s vision of a transinsular railway to develop resources that purportedly existed in the interior and on the west coast, areas where Monroe had speculative timber and mineral interests. Moreover, in early 1885 Thorburn’s supporters had carefully exploited sectarian antagonisms, which had developed out of a recent violent confrontation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Harbour Grace [see Robert John Kent], so as to force the Whiteway government to amend the throne speech in such an overtly anti-Catholic manner that the Liberals were compelled to withdraw from it.

In anticipation of an autumn general election Whiteway, with Monroe’s help, attempted a reconciliation first with the Liberals and then with the Protestant party, without success. Finally, in October Whiteway struck a deal with Thorburn whereby he resigned the premiership in favour of Thorburn, who would then lead an all-Protestant party in the general election to be held on 31 October. In return Whiteway would be offered the position of chief justice when that office became vacant, a promise that was never kept. Thorburn easily won the election, campaigning on a platform of “no amalgamation with the Catholics,” at the same time intimating to senior Liberal politicians that such a coalition would be desirable after the election. Monroe remained loyal to Whiteway and supported the candidacy of independent Alfred Bishop Morine*, a Whiteway supporter and a close personal friend, who ran unsuccessfully in the Protestant district of Bonavista.

During much of the tenure of the Thorburn government, from 1885 to 1889, Monroe maintained an independent position, without making an open public break with Whiteway. In 1887 he criticized Thorburn’s decision, despite his election promise of no more railway construction, to build a branch railway to Placentia. This railway had been part of a coalition agreement whereby some senior Roman Catholics had supported Thorburn in return for the appointment, made in July 1886, of Maurice Fenelon and William J. S. Donnelly to the Executive Council. The remaining Liberal members in the House of Assembly, under the leadership of St John’s West mha Patrick J. Scott, continued in opposition but supported Thorburn’s policies. Other opposition members in the assembly by 1887 included two Whiteway supporters and one independent, Edward Patrick Morris*, a young populist Roman Catholic lawyer elected in 1885 as one of three representatives for St John’s West. After 1889 Morris would become a rival of Monroe for the political allegiance of voters in the west end of the city.

Monroe’s formal break with Whiteway came in the 1889 general election. On this occasion he tried unsuccessfully to defeat the Morris-led Whiteway candidates, who now called themselves Liberals. However, the real break with Whiteway may actually have occurred a year earlier when on 30 August Monroe won election as councillor for ward 3 on the recently established municipal council. His campaign organization had been put together with Scott’s help. The seven-member council included two government appointees, one of whom was the chairman, James Goodfellow. Monroe quickly established his presence and dominated council affairs. Within two months of the council’s taking office, a Whiteway-inspired civic reform movement developed, which was critical of municipal patronage appointments and the contract the council had made for lighting the city. Since Monroe was the secretary of the St John’s Electric Light Company, he came in for particular public condemnation. As a municipal councillor from 1888 to 1892, he was frequently embroiled in public controversy with Morris; both claimed credit for civic works and sought to use the council for their own political ends. Consequently, the government press constantly criticized the “bounty-fed” Monroe for having enriched himself at the “expense of the working classes of the whole community” while his employees, especially the women and children, worked at the Ropewalk for “starvation wages.” He did not seek re-election to the council in the civic election held on 23 Jan. 1892, stepping aside to permit Goodfellow to run successfully for his former seat against a Morris-backed candidate.

After 1890 Monroe remained a critic of Whiteway’s Liberal government in the Legislative Council, while at the same time dissociating himself from the policies of the former Thorburn government. Although there was no formal opposition party, Monroe was generally acknowledged as a leading opponent of the government and a strong financial backer of the opposition Evening Herald, edited by Morine, a staunch confederate. Monroe was not a known confederate himself, but he favoured reciprocal relations with both the United States and Canada.

In 1890 Morine and Monroe helped to spark widespread protest throughout Newfoundland against a modus vivendi concerning French fishing rights on the island’s west coast reached by the British government with France earlier that year. Under this agreement Britain consented to prohibit the establishment by Newfoundlanders of any new lobster factories on the French Shore. Premier Whiteway had been prepared to accept this modus in return for imperial financial assistance to complete railway construction across the island. However, the tories, now styling themselves the Patriotic Association, held meetings denouncing the agreement and Whiteway fell in line. Meanwhile the British government found that it had no statutory authority to enforce French fishing rights and introduced enabling legislation.

To prevent this move, the Newfoundland legislature sent an all-party delegation to London in April 1891 to argue the colony’s position. The mandate of the delegation was such that, when a majority of its members agreed to a settlement, the rest would be bound to support a majority recommendation to the legislature. Monroe and Morine were selected to represent the opposition, and the Liberals were Whiteway himself, Augustus W. Harvey*, and George Henry Emerson. They found the British unwilling to withdraw the bill until the delegates agreed to have permanent legislation enacted in Newfoundland. Consequently, they recommended to the legislature a compromise whereby temporary legislation would be passed enforcing the fishing rights to the end of 1893 in return for the withdrawal of the British bill. On the basis of this understanding, the legislature would then be required to enact permanent legislation providing for continued enforcement by local courts. Whiteway stayed in London to negotiate the terms for the permanent legislation, and the other delegates returned home. Morine and Monroe played a significant role in persuading their fellow legislators to adopt the temporary legislation. However, the bill Whiteway agreed on with the Colonial Office allowed for the enforcement of French fishing rights under imperial jurisdiction and courts. When he presented it to the assembly in 1892, it was strongly condemned by Morine and Monroe as a repudiation of the bill the delegates had consented to in London the previous year, a view supported by Emerson. Faced with this argument, a majority of Whiteway’s own supporters rejected his bill. They shared Monroe’s view that permanent legislation was really unnecessary and that the colony should withhold any further action on the matter until the French recognized Newfoundland’s right to have lobster factories on the west coast. The result was a series of temporary bills until 1904, when France agreed to surrender its fishing rights on the island as part of a larger Anglo-French colonial agreement.

Local politics were further inflamed in 1892 following a fire on 8–9 July, which destroyed the eastern and central parts of St John’s. The debate over rebuilding turned strongly partisan when the legislature dealt with the contentious issue of land tenure in the burnt-out areas. The problem was that, after the fire in 1846 that had destroyed much of St John’s, absentee landlords, who lived mainly in Great Britain and owned much of the valuable commercial and residential land in the city, had taken advantage of the situation to exact exorbitant rents and give short-term, 40-year leases. Tenants were placed at a disadvantage because, at the expiry of a lease, landed property reverted to the landlord, who then dictated the renewal terms. Monroe was not burnt out in the 1892 fire, but the following year he had to renegotiate the lease to his Water Street property and he hoped to use the opportunity provided by the fire to his advantage. Twelve days after the conflagration prominent leaseholders met in his store and decided to form the Tenants’ League, which would pressure the Whiteway government to establish a land court to adjudicate fair and equitable rents upon appeal by a lessee. The court would be modelled on the Irish land court headed by Moses’s brother John. Moses wanted the right of appeal to the local court to extend not only to leases terminated by the fire but also to those that would expire in the near future. However, Whiteway, himself an agent for absentee landlords, rejected the proposal believing that property owners and tenants could best deal with their own affairs. Instead, Monroe had to settle for government legislation providing incentives for landlords to grant 99-year leases and thus be free from having to compensate tenants for any improvements made to the property during the life of such a term.

The other major issue arising out of the 1892 fire was the large surplus revenue the colony had received from tariffs as a result of the sudden increase in imported building supplies that the fire had necessitated. On 30 September Monroe convened a public meeting to support the position of the tory-controlled municipal council that this additional revenue be given to the financially beleaguered council. Needless to say, the government turned a deaf ear to this appeal, although Monroe and his tory colleagues continued to make the surplus revenue a political issue with which to beat the government.

The reason was that 1893 was an election year, and the government quickly made Monroe himself and the Ropewalk one of the issues. Specifically, as the unofficial tory leader, he was criticized for having profiteered from the sale of goods and provisions for fire relief, a charge that the governing Liberals failed to substantiate. After considerable speculation as to who would lead the opposition in the election, to be held on 6 November, the tories held a public meeting on 16 June in St John’s to announce the formation of the Grieve–Monroe party, named in honour of the co-leaders, St John’s merchant Walter Baine Grieve and Monroe. The leaders condemned the government for its past neglect of the fisheries and its weak actions in protecting local interests on the west coast against the French. They also attacked the railway contract Whiteway had signed earlier in 1893 with Robert Gillespie Reid*, the Canadian contractor the colony had hired to operate the Placentia railway and complete construction of the main line to the west coast. Monroe opposed not the building of the railway but the terms of the contract, because it gave away too much of the colony’s resources in return for a ten-year operating contract. He headed the three-man tory ticket, which also included P. J. Scott, against Morris and his colleagues in St John’s West. As historian Daniel Woodley Prowse*, a Whiteway supporter, noted at the time, both Morris and Monroe campaigned vigorously: Monroe, “one of the ablest politicians in the island, conducted his own election in the west end of St John’s with immense spirit, leaving no stone unturned to gain his seat.” Both parties provided employment and alcohol to prospective voters; indeed, one Morris demonstration was referred to by the Monroe faction as the “Wild West Show” in contrast to their own “People’s Parade.”

Monroe failed in his first try at colonial politics as the Liberals easily won re-election. The opposition did not take defeat lightly and on 6 Jan. 1894 filed petitions in the Supreme Court under the Corrupt Practices Act of 1889 charging 17 government members with the illegal use of public funds during the campaign. Subsequent judgements of the court led to the unseating of Whiteway, Morris, and other members, which in turn forced the resignation of the government and the formation of a new one led by tory merchant Augustus Frederick Goodridge. His parliamentary majority depended on the return of tory candidates in by-elections held later in the year in those districts left vacant by the unseated Liberals.

Monroe, who had been reappointed to the Legislative Council in August, on 16 October unsuccessfully contested Whiteway’s former district of Trinity. The decision to run in Trinity took Morris by surprise. He tried to reach Monroe, none the less, by publishing in the weekly outport edition of the Evening Telegram the details of “one of the foulest plots ever hatched by the most unscrupulous politician.” Morris asserted that in March that year Monroe had sent an employee to see him in the hope that Morris would use government influence to have the Ropewalk bounty extended after its expiry in 1895. He had not made this information available before, Morris wrote, because he was “patiently waiting till the time when Mr. Monroe would come to St. John’s for Election, when I should have confronted him publicly with the instrument of his perfidy.” James Monroe defended his brother against this attack, denying Morris’s charges that James had used coercion to secure a published retraction of the employee’s statement. James also denied that the employee was drunk at the time of the retraction.

On 10 Dec. 1894 – “black Monday” – the political chaos of the past several months gave way to problems created by the collapse of the island’s two private banks [see James Goodfellow]. A subsequent public investigation showed that the banks’ directors had overextended their credit in making large loans to themselves and other export merchants. Two days after the collapse Monroe, not one of the merchants who had followed this borrowing practice, wrote to the press that he had arranged for the Bank of Nova Scotia to establish a branch in St John’s. He also cautioned the public that it was “not the time for recrimination or abuse” for “there will be ample time later on for enquiry and punishment if desired.” With the immediate assistance of outside banks, Monroe believed, many of the mercantile firms would indeed be solvent if their owners were given time by their creditors to realize their assets. His suggestion was not generally followed and a large number of firms found themselves placed in trusteeships. Monroe managed to avoid this situation by agreeing with his creditors to pay off his debts in full if permitted sufficient time. This he did, but he nearly depleted his financial resources and saw his health rapidly deteriorate. When his estate was probated three months after his death in May 1895, it was valued at only $10,500, much of which, no doubt, represented his shares in the Colonial Cordage Company. On 8 February Monroe had left for a holiday in his native Ireland for health reasons. Greatly improved, he returned to Newfoundland on 19 April. Despite having apparently fully recovered, on 19 May he suffered another stroke and died suddenly.

Monroe’s death took the whole community by surprise. When the House of Assembly met the following day, friend and foe alike praised him and then adjourned in his honour. Morine, his long-time friend and solicitor, was “so much overcome by his feelings that he was forced to resume his seat.” For Morris, Monroe’s “opponents in political life found in him one worthy of their steel, and in a fight you quickly recognized that if you were to win, every tactic and the most skilful manœuver must be availed of.” However, “when the battle was over and the fight ended, the nobility of the man’s character shone forth, and whether victor or vanquished, the big heart longed for reconciliation.” Two years later residents of St John’s established a memorial to him in Victoria Park, which he had helped to set up during his term as a municipal councillor. Its inscription in part reads: “Erected by voluntary subscriptions of all classes and denominations in the island, in token of the respect and esteem with which they cherish his memory.”

Melvin Baker

PANL, GN 2/1/A, 1883–93; GN 9/1, 1860–95; P5/4; P8/A/25, reg. of marriages, 16 May 1871 (mfm.). PRO, CO 199/80–90 (copy at PANL). Supreme Court of Newfoundland (St John’s), Registry, 4: 74 (will of Thomas McMurdo); 6: 224 (will of Moses Munro) (mfm. at PANL). [T. R.] Bennett, Report of judge Bennett, together with evidence respecting bait protection service, 1890 (St John’s, 1891). Decisions of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, ed. E. P. Morris et al. (14v., St John’s, 1897–1954). Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1860–95; Legislative Council, Journal, 1860–95. Colonist (St John’s), 1886–92. Daily News (St John’s), 1894–95, esp. 20 May 1895. Evening Herald (St John’s), 1890–95. Evening Mercury (St. John’s), 1885–89. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 1883–95. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 1882–87. Nfld. men (Mott), 55. Melvin Baker, “The government of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1800–1921” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1981). Hiller, “Hist. of Nfld.” J. L. Joy, “The growth and development of trades and manufacturing in St. John’s, 1870–1914” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., St John’s, 1977). Keith Matthews, Profiles of Water Street merchants (mimeograph, [St. John’s], 1980). D. W. Prowse, A history of Newfoundland from the English, colonial, and foreign records (London and New York, 1895; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). F. F. Thompson, The French Shore problem in Newfoundland: an imperial study (Toronto, 1961). Melvin Baker, “The influence of absentee landlordism on the development of municipal government in 19th century St. John’s,” Newfoundland Quarterly (St John’s), 81 (1985–86), no.2: 19–25.

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Cite This Article

Melvin Baker, “MONROE, MOSES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/monroe_moses_12E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/monroe_moses_12E.html
Author of Article:   Melvin Baker
Title of Article:   MONROE, MOSES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   February 21, 2024