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SHEA, HENRY, accountant, mercantile agent, merchant, and militia officer; b. c. 1767 in or near Carrick on Suir (Republic of Ireland); m. 20 Nov. 1800 Eleanor Ryan in St John’s, and they had seven sons and three daughters; d. there 29 Oct. 1830.

Henry Shea probably arrived at St John’s in 1784. Little is known of his background in County Tipperary beyond the tradition that he came from a respectable family and that he ran away from home. In 1786 he commenced work as a clerk, most likely for Nathaniel Philips, a New Englander who had settled in St John’s around 1774 and had built up a substantial mercantile trade. Shea entered this service at a time when the St John’s merchant community had begun its long and effective drive to engross the island’s trade. Philips shared in the expansion, building up his extensive supply trade in St John’s and along the populous east coast and shipping fish from these places. The late 18th century also witnessed a rapid growth of Irish participation in the fishery, especially in St John’s and the districts near by. Like most Protestant merchants Philips hired Catholic Irish agents and accountants to help handle the trade with the Irish. Partly through employees such as Shea from major centres of Irish migration, Philips established a considerable Irish clientele in St John’s, Conception Bay, and the southern half of the Avalon peninsula. Shea’s lengthy term as an accountant thus afforded ample opportunity for him to learn the complex operations of the cod trade, develop business contacts, and accumulate enough savings to launch an independent mercantile career.

Probably the most significant step in Shea’s slow transition was his marriage to the daughter of Timothy Ryan, merchant, which took place in 1800, two years after the death of Philips and the dissolution of his house. Ryan, like Shea a Tipperary man, had been resident in St John’s some three decades and with his sons, particularly Patrick, had established a considerable trade. Ryan and Sons conducted an extensive supply business in St John’s and contiguous districts, as well as in Placentia Bay, notably Burin where the firm Ryan and Morris was established in 1802 following the marriage of Geoffrey Morris of Tipperary to another Ryan daughter. The firms shipped fish back to the British Isles and to the Iberian peninsula. For much of the remainder of his life Henry Shea was intimately involved in this family enterprise, but he also traded on his own account and accepted commissions from other houses. By the fall of 1801 he apparently had a store of his own in St John’s, had correspondents in the town of Placentia, had commenced obtaining writs, and was listed among the merchants and principal inhabitants expressing concern over the absence of a chief justice to settle disputes during the winter. It was, however, a modest trade. Shea did import goods on his own account and received small cash payments from the local authorities for arranging or providing passages home for some distressed Irish, but there is no evidence, for example, that he ever owned a ship or even a share in one. By comparison with other merchants, he obtained few writs and they were usually for small sums involving local Irish shopkeepers, artisans, and fishermen.

In the fall of 1810 Shea announced a formal partnership with Ryan and Sons of St John’s to be called Henry Shea and Company. The Ryans stressed that this new firm was separate from their existing house in St John’s, implying that Shea and Company would trade on its own account. Shea joined the Ryans at a propitious time, when their enterprise was expanding rapidly in response to rising demand and prices for fish in the European markets. It is difficult to determine precisely the business arrangements between Henry Shea and his in-laws but he did play a major role in the Ryans’ St John’s operations. Patrick Ryan’s untimely death in 1814, at the peak of the company’s trade, almost certainly meant that Shea succeeded as operating manager of Ryan and Sons in St John’s under Timothy, whose other son, Joseph, remained with the firm’s branch in Liverpool, England. Shea continued to trade, however, on his own account. Between 1811 and 1816, for example, he shipped over £800 of supplies, particularly butter but also pork, wine, nets, nails, and stationery, to Burin and he advertised foodstuffs for auction at his St John’s store.

In February 1817 the Ryans’ house in Liverpool was declared bankrupt, a victim of the depression in the cod economy after the war, and three months later the parent house in St John’s collapsed. The company was owed more than £18,000 and Henry Shea was appointed agent to assist the trustees collect debts, pay creditors, and sell off the insolvent estate. This latter task proved difficult because of the depression, and the problem was compounded by fires in the fall which also destroyed Shea’s part of the premises. He commenced rebuilding and in the spring of 1819 advised “his friends and the public in general that his shop, stores and warehouse in the premises lately held by Ryan & Sons, Water St., are now nearly completed. He will import all kinds of goods to sell on commission by private or public sales.” Sales did ensue as trade recovered and supplies arrived at Shea’s premises from Waterford, New Ross, Dublin, Liverpool, and the North American mainland. The Ryans’ transatlantic business also resumed. There was no significant change in the deployment of principal personnel: Joseph Ryan remained in Liverpool, Geoffrey Morris in Burin, and Henry Shea with his son John in St John’s where he worked closely with the ageing Timothy Ryan. The business had little of its former vigour and finally collapsed with the demise of Timothy Ryan in 1830. Shea’s own trade was also precarious after the mild recovery in the early 1820s. Its vulnerability was exposed in 1823 when he was declared insolvent because apparently he was unable to pay a small debt. Trustees were appointed but Shea recovered and, with his son John, continued his modest business to the end.

Despite his long and not very successful struggle to gain prominence as a merchant, Henry Shea was one of the most respected residents in St John’s. This was true not only among Catholics but also among the Protestant community, local officials, and the governor. His long residence in the town and understanding of its character, his loyalty, and his integrity resulted in recognition in a world where economic circumstance and ethno-religious origins usually defined social rank. Shea was one of only a handful of Catholic Irish empanelled to serve on the grand jury of Newfoundland’s Supreme Court in the first decade of the century. He served also on petty and special juries and as an expert witness, sometimes in precedent-setting or important cases relating to property rights, shipping, and the customs of trade. His talents were sought as an arbitrator, as an assessor of property or goods, and as trustee, executor, or administrator of estates.

Shea’s popularity among local authorities, civil and military, led in 1806 to an appointment as lieutenant in one of the five companies of the Loyal Volunteers of St John’s, two-thirds of whose ordinary members were Irish Catholics. He was the first Irish Catholic to be awarded this rank and two years later was promoted captain; he held the position until 1812, when he resigned and was replaced by Patrick Ryan. Shea was distinguished by another appointment early in 1806 when he was elected secretary of the newly founded Benevolent Irish Society. The society was established to alleviate distress amongst the Irish poor whose numbers were increasing in St John’s and who, in the absence of any regular form of official aid, frequently needed support. Membership was open to males of Irish birth or descent. Catholics comprised around 90 per cent of the original body but the mass of Catholic Irish were regarded with suspicion, at least by the government authorities, and partly to meet that concern members of the society’s executive and one of two special committees were drawn overwhelmingly from the upper ranks of the military and from the small Protestant Irish community. Shea’s selection as the only Catholic on the executive reflected his general acceptability to all parties. He held the secretaryship until 1814 when he was promoted vice-president; from the departure in 1817 of the president, James MacBraire, until the selection of Patrick Morris* as president in 1823, Shea acted as chairman. He then resigned the vice-presidency and was toasted at the annual dinner as “the oldest and best servant of the Institution.” His allegiance continued and in the following year he delivered the St Patrick’s Day address to 118 members in the president’s absence.

The final 15 years of Henry Shea’s life was a period of considerable economic difficulty in Newfoundland and witnessed the growth of public protest and the politicization of the island’s woes. As the migratory fishery faded and residency increased, the need to reform an archaic system of government became more and more evident and was articulated especially by a growing middle class in St John’s. In 1811, for example, the government decided to lease the ancient and outmoded “fishing ships’ rooms” in St John’s for private development. These lands, long used as commons, were perceived locally as public property and at a meeting in November of the principal inhabitants, which Shea attended, it was proposed that the substantial income derived from the leases be used for municipal improvements and services. The suggestions fell on deaf ears. Shea was also involved, both as expert witness and as special juror, in a case brought by the government against John Ryan, a St John’s tailor-merchant, in 1813. Ryan had rented part of a ship’s room in 1811 and proceeded to build substantial premises there that encroached, the government claimed, on public space. Ryan won the ensuing case but Chief Justice Thomas Tremlett overturned the jury verdict and then advertised the property for sale. Ryan protested vigorously and mustered substantial local support. He was sued by the crown for libel but a special jury, of which Shea was a member, acquitted him of all charges The most significant advance in the struggle for reform was prompted by a blatant miscarriage of justice in 1819–20 involving two Irish planters from Conception Bay, James Lundrigan and Philip Butler. Both men were in debt to merchants and, after they resisted efforts to confiscate their properties, were flogged. A committee was formed in November 1820 under the chairmanship of Patrick Morris and a memorial sent to London expressing shock at the treatment of the planters. While proclaiming total loyalty, the committee, composed of eight Catholic Irish merchants including Henry Shea, four Englishmen, and a Scot, William Carson*, vowed to pursue every legal and constitutional means in their power to initiate judicial reform. A second memorial signed by 180 inhabitants, the vast majority Irish, at a public meeting in St John’s in late December complained about various practices of the surrogate courts and raised the question of a local legislature. Official reaction was cool, and so in 1822 the committee members prepared a more detailed account of Newfoundland’s difficulties and suggested some solutions. The fishery could be lucrative, they claimed, but large English houses took away the profits and did not re-invest locally; civil servants and surrogates also took their money away and over £30,000 was remitted annually to Britain in rents from St John’s alone; this amount itself would support a local legislature. They urged the encouragement of farming, the construction of roads, and more government support for the cod fishery. This seminal statement on reform in Newfoundland did draw some response from London, but its proposals were deemed inadequate by another public meeting in November 1823 at St John’s. A fresh set of requests was submitted by an expanded committee dominated for the first time by Protestant merchants. These proposals resulted in some important juridical reforms in 1824.

Although Henry Shea was consistently a member of the committees, he was overshadowed by the youthful, vigorous, and successful Morris, who emerged as the clear leader of the Irish community. Shea had smaller financial resources than Morris, perhaps did not have the literary skills, was ageing, and was politically moderate in a period when class and sectarian feelings were on the rise. His political philosophy is probably best expressed in the prospectus submitted to the governor for the Newfoundlander, a paper established by his son and mercantile partner, John, in 1827. The paper was “to be conducted on liberal principles, the object being to unite in the bonds of social harmony all classes of British subjects. With Religion, when unmixed with Politics, no matter of what sect or denomination its votaries may be, the Newfoundlander shall never meddle.” These aims accorded by and large with the views of the Catholic hierarchy, from James Louis O’Donel*, who had arrived in St John’s at about the same time as Henry Shea, to the ecumenical Bishop Thomas Scallan, as well as with the opinions of much of tile Catholic middle class and liberal Protestants.

Shea was a loyal supporter of the Catholic Church. He was one of 18 Irish laymen petitioning in 1794 to have O’Donel made bishop and vicar apostolic, and he acted as joint executor with O’Donel’s successor, Patrick Lambert*, of wills where substantial cash or property was bequeathed to the church; he managed the finances involved in constructing an extension to the chapel and worked closely with the clergy in the affairs of the Benevolent Irish Society.

Henry Shea was an immigrant in a port and town dominated by newcomers. Many came from in and around Carrick on Suir, after Waterford and New Ross the leading centre of Irish migration to Newfoundland. One of the striking features of Shea’s social and economic life was the close link he gradually forged with people from southeast Tipperary. Names of godparents in the St John’s parish registers indicate his social connections with leading Tipperary families in Newfoundland – the Ryans, Morrises, Meaghers, Murphys, Gleesons, arid O’Donels – and business records also reveal ties with Tipperary people. A number of them made him trustee or executor of their estates.

Shea’s popularity endured to the end. “We have seldom heard such universal regret expressed for any person’s death as for Mr. Shea’s” began the obituary in the St John’s Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser. “His kind and pleasing manners made him deservedly a favourite with all classes of the community.” In a eulogy Stephen Lawlor, fellow merchant, fellow member of the original Benevolent Irish Society and now its president, described his friend as “kind, unaffected, generous, sincere, patriotic,” with a heart that was “truly Irish.” His funeral was honoured by a slow march through the streets and a day of general mourning. It was reported as the largest funeral for a private person in St John’s since the death of Patrick Ryan.

Shea founded one of the most talented and respected families in 19th-century Newfoundland. Joseph, the eldest son, qualified as a medical doctor in Britain and returned to practise in St John’s, where he married a daughter of William Carson. John inherited his father’s trade and was active in the community until he moved to Cork (Republic of Ireland) in 1837. William Richard*, Henry, Ambrose*, and Edward Dalton* remained in St John’s as publishers of the Newfoundlander and made a major contribution to the colony’s political and literary life.

John Mannion

Basilica of St John the Baptist (Roman Catholic) (St John’s), St John’s parish, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (mfm. at PANL). Benevolent Irish Soc. (St John’s), Minutes, 1822, 1824 (mfm. at PANL). Maritime Hist. Arch., Memorial Univ. of Nfld. (St John’s), Nathaniel Philips name file. NMM, WYN, 30 Aug. 1800 (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN 2/1, 12, 14–16, 19–20, 24, 31–32; GN 2/2, 1827–32; GN 2/39/A, 1795, St John’s; GN 5/1/A/4, 1801–3, 1821–25; GN 5/1/C/1, Burin, 1806, 1820; GN 5/2/A/1, 1798–1830; GN 5/2/A/9, 1798, 1802–26; GN 5/2/A/10, 1832; P1/5/4/10, 51; P/1/5/11/38; P7/A/6, Fogo Island misc., 1798; P7/A/18, letter-book and ledger; P7/A/48, letter-book, August 1809. PRO, ADM 1/475: 11–12; CO 194/21, 194/23, 194/36, 194/42–43, 194/45, 194/50–51, pt.ii, 194/59, 194/64, 194/66, 194/68–69, 194/71. Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (Belfast), D 2935/5 (Edward Kough, letter-book), Kough to John Bland, n.d. Patrick Morris, Remarks on the state of society, religion, morals, and education at Newfoundland . . . (London, 1827). Newfoundlander (St John’s), 1828–40. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 1817–24. Newfoundland Patriot (St John’s), 6 Oct. 1835, 15 March 1836. Public Ledger, 1824–44. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 1810–32. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 30 Oct. 1833; 23, 30 March 1836. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of StJohns, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906?]). M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

John Mannion, “SHEA, HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 2, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/shea_henry_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/shea_henry_6E.html
Author of Article: John Mannion
Title of Article: SHEA, HENRY
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: September 2, 2014