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WALDRON, JOHN, surgeon, ship’s captain, shipowner, merchant, and office holder; b. 12 Nov. 1744 in Burton Bradstock, England, son of Joseph and Martha Waldron; m. 14 Jan. 1775 Mary Young in Poole, England, and they had two sons and one daughter; d. in or after 1818, probably in Poole.

Though most of John Waldron’s career in the Newfoundland trade is well documented, the early phase of his life is somewhat obscure. At the time of his marriage to the daughter of one of his employers he was a parishioner of Burton Bradstock. Thereafter he resided mainly in Poole, living there permanently from his retirement in 1802. During his active working life Waldron spent most of his summers at sea and in Newfoundland. He occasionally wintered on the island in Harbour Breton, where for about 38 years he was an agent and later a partner in a Poole–Newfoundland firm.

Waldron was certainly not the first of his name involved in the Newfoundland fishery, and possibly not the first of his own family: records show that several Waldrons captained ships to Newfoundland from ports in south Devon during the early 1700s. His associates, the Clarke and Young families, also had a lengthy term in the Newfoundland fishery: the Clarkes, for example, had initiated a merchant business around 1700. Before the preliminary Anglo-French treaty of 1762 the firm of Samuel Clarke and Robert Young had established its headquarters in Saint-Pierre; Waldron had come out from England about 1760 as a surgeon for this firm. When Saint-Pierre was ceded by the treaty to the French, the English traders and settlers were ordered to remove. Samuel Clarke and Waldron, who had become a ship’s captain and agent in the employ of Clarke and Young, elected to relocate in nearby Fortune Bay and built their main premises on Harbour Breton. James Cook*, exploring and charting Fortune Bay a few years later, commented that Clarke and Young’s establishment was the “best situated for carrying on a fishery . . . of any place on the No. side of Fortune Bay.”

The year 1775 proved to be a significant one in Waldron’s career. He married into the Young family and after the death of his father-in-law, Robert Young, that same year had his name attached to the firm. The three major partners were now Samuel Clarke, Waldron, and Samuel Young, possibly a relative of Robert. From Clarke’s death in 1785 to 1794 the firm styled itself Waldron and Young, but after two of the Clarke heirs became involved it reverted to Clarke, Waldron and Young. This arrangement lasted only until 1797 when the partnership was dissolved; it was reorganized to become Clarke and Waldron. After Waldron retired the firm continued as Samuel and John Clarke until it went bankrupt in 1819.

As the resident agent of one of the more important trading companies in Fortune Bay, Waldron not only managed a shore and bank fishery but also developed a supply trade with the pioneering inhabitants in Fortune Bay and districts to the westward. Similarly, in their respective districts of Newfoundland most of the leading Poole merchant firms were able to establish a strong control over the fishery and supply trade with settlers. In 1785 Waldron and Young, together with Thomas Tremlett* of Dartmouth and some Jerseymen, were identified as the major entrepreneurs “who carry on the Fishery and supply the Planters in [Fortune Bay].” Most important, the merchants controlled and directed the patterns of migration and settlement. Thus it is not surprising that a large proportion of the population settling around Fortune Bay were formerly servants and passengers who had been transported from Poole and Dorset by Waldron’s firm and were also, on becoming planters in the fishery, provisioned from his Harbour Breton stores.

Waldron’s shipping suffered greatly during the American and French revolutionary wars; in the first conflict American privateers using Saint-Pierre as a base captured four of the firm’s vessels in two months, and in 1796–97 several other ships were taken. Though these losses were severe, the trade survived, and in 1800 Clarke and Waldron were rated in Poole on exports and imports valued at £700 per year and the ownership of five vessels – Navigation (112 tons), Fanny (40 tons), Calerus (66 tons), Commerce (78 tons), and Jane (102 tons). The firm’s export and import rates that year were small compared to those of other Poole–Newfoundland merchants (£3,000 for Benjamin Lester and £1,800 each for the firms of Thomas Saunders, George Kemp, and William Spurrier) but still larger than those of some of the smaller merchants, such as George Neave and Joseph Garland. Similarly, Clarke and Waldron’s ship tonnage of 398 tons was far less than Lester’s 1,743, Kemp’s 1,166, Spurrier’s 1,035, and Saunders’s 706, but still greater than that of smaller firms. These indices placed Waldron’s firm within the middle rank of Poole companies.

From 1782 until his retirement Waldron held the offices of justice of the peace and naval officer for Fortune Bay, but in fact his jurisdiction covered the whole of the south coast of Newfoundland between Point May and Cape Ray. Part of his responsibility involved the collection of statistics on the fishery and population, which he handed to the governor’s surrogate on his annual visit to Fortune Bay. His long experience in the Saint-Pierre-Fortune Bay area qualified him as one of the leading English experts on the French fishery in southern Newfoundland waters, and it was for this reason that he was summoned to give testimony before the committee of the House of Commons which in 1793 was appointed to inquire into the state of the trade to Newfoundland. According to his testimony, he sent an employee to Saint-Pierre with some regularity “privately to examine that Fishery, and to observe the general state of the island.” In August 1792, for example, he found that the French had “40 sail of brigs and ships, of the average of about 150 tons each” and “between 110 and 120 of fishing shallops, each carrying three men; about 100 bankers, upon an average carrying eight men.”

When Britain and France were engaged in peace negotiations in 1802 Waldron submitted a written brief through his member of parliament, George Garland, on the disposition of the French fishery in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. He claimed that after 1783, when the French government gave financial incentives, “the fishery was prosecuted with the utmost avidity – The Number of Adventurers were greatly increased, the Coast of these Islands swarmed with their Bateaux and our fishery as might be expected from the vicinity of the Islands to Fortune Bay, was very materially injured.” He also stated that the islands were used by the French as a “Mart for all their European Manufacturers for the United States” and that French fishers had “in the space of two months . . . destroyed more Trees [in the Fortune Bay region] than the English had done in Twenty years previous.” His allusions to relations between the French and Micmacs in Newfoundland constitute one of the few documentary sources on this topic. Waldron claimed that the French from “Motives of Policy” supplied the Indians with ammunition, and that the Indians visited Saint-Pierre regularly to receive “absolution . . . Gratis” from the Catholic priests resident there. One consequence of this intercourse, he contended, was “that the Indians were attached to them and hostile to us.” On the subject of the future development of Newfoundland, Waldron made a most unusual proposal, one that astounded even Garland: he suggested that Newfoundland be made into a “receptacle for Convicts,” arguing that they could be employed in cultivation and that their settlement in the colony would be vastly cheaper than their transportation to Australia, and went on to make proposals for crops and livestock. Garland forwarded Waldron’s letter to the government, commending Waldron’s eminent qualifications to make observations on the French fishery but disassociating himself from the proposal for a convict colony. Much of Waldron’s testimony before the commons committee in 1793 and many of his comments in his letter to Garland do appear to be valid, but there is little doubt that he was prone to exaggerate on some issues and lacked credibility on others. His optimistic remarks on the agricultural potential of Newfoundland, particularly in his own region, constitute but one example where his judgement might be questioned. A more flagrant example of his unreliability occurred in 1793 when he testified on the role of the custom-office in Fortune Bay.

The establishment of custom-houses in Newfoundland in 1764 had been bitterly opposed by the West Country and Poole merchants [see Richard Routh]. Merchants appearing before the committee of 1793, including William Newman and Peter Ougier of Dartmouth and John Jeffrey of Poole, were still contending that the activities of customs officers and the high customs fees were a hindrance to the Newfoundland trade. When Waldron appeared, he declared that his own trade had suffered from the establishment of the custom-house because the process delayed his vessels. Questioned about Charles Cramer, customs officer and justice of the peace in Fortune Bay, Waldron claimed that he had been dismissed as a justice for neglect of duty and bad conduct. Richard Routh, however, offered testimony about conflicts and retaliation between the two ending in Cramer’s delaying a ship and Waldron’s agent then clapping him in irons for three months.

John Waldron was clearly an energetic, physically robust, and somewhat ruthless and hard-driving individual, who was fairly well-educated, literate, and intelligent. Compared to his contemporaries he had an exceptionally long and arduous career in the Newfoundland trade: few other merchants lasted longer than a decade before they handed over the management to younger relatives and agents. Waldron’s pioneering was also exceptional in that he played a major role in establishing the frontier of English exploitation and settlement southward and westward in Newfoundland. He spent so much of his working life in Newfoundland that he had little time to make himself a political figure in Poole, but he did participate in several committees of Poole merchants formed to represent their interests in Newfoundland affairs and in 1800 he supported George Garland’s candidature for parliament. As far as can be determined, neither of his two sons established himself in the Newfoundland trade, but a John Waldron who captained ships between Poole and Trinity and Greenspond in the 1820s for the firm of Sleat and Read may have been either a son or grandson.

W. Gordon Handcock

Dorset Record Office, D203/A4–A5; D365; P227/CW3 (Churchwardens, rates and accounts, 1783–1802); OVl (Overseers of the poor, rates and accounts, 1764–73); RE7 (Reg. of marriages, 1770–86). Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., company records (mfm. at PANL). Maritime Hist. Group Arch., Waldron, John, name file. Nfld. Hist. Soc. (St John’s), Keith Matthews, “The West Country merchants in Newfoundland” (paper read to the Nfld. Hist. Soc., 1968). Nfld. Public Library Services, Provincial Reference Dept. (St John’s), Phillip Saunders and Pierce Sweetman, “Letter book of Saunders and Sweetman,” 1788–1804. PANL, GN 2/1, 2/2. PRO, ADM 7/373; BT 6/84, 6/87; CO 194/30, 194/43, 324/7; PROB 11/1609/481; RG 4/464. G.B., House of Commons, Reports from committees of the House of Commons which have been printed by order of the house and are not inserted in the Journals, [1715–1801] (16v., London, [1803–20]), 10: 391–503, “Reports from the committee on the state of the trade to Newfoundland, severally reported in March, April, & June, 1793.” Derek Beamish et al., Mansions and merchants of Poole and Dorset (Poole, Eng., 1976). C. G. Head, Eighteenth century Newfoundland: a geographers perspective (Toronto, 1976).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

W. Gordon Handcock, “WALDRON, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 21, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/waldron_john_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/waldron_john_5E.html
Author of Article: W. Gordon Handcock
Title of Article: WALDRON, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: August 21, 2014