SIMMS, JAMES, lawyer, merchant, and public official; baptized 24 Feb. 1779 in Birmingham, England, the son of William and Mary Simms; d. 2 Jan. 1863 at Tulse Hill, Surrey, England.
From 1788 to 1792 James Simms attended school in West Bromwich, near Birmingham. He probably then studied law in Birmingham or London. In 1809 he came to Newfoundland, and by the last years of the Napoleonic wars was established in business in St John’s. A sometime auctioneer, notary public, agent for trustees of insolvent estates, broker of codfish sales, and renter of wharfage and warehouse space, he was in a mercantile partnership with Joseph H. Costello in 1811–13. Simms traded in St John’s and Twillingate, where his brother Joseph seems to have been established as a merchant. James Simms’ varied experience enabled him to obtain a thorough knowledge of the legal and economic life of St John’s and Newfoundland.
Simms was not, however, active as a businessman after 1825, when his official career began. In that year he was appointed acting attorney general of Newfoundland in the place of John William Molloy who vacated the office for a more lucrative seat on the Supreme Court. Simms’ appointment, made permanent in October 1827, lasted until 1846.
The pre-eminent question throughout Simms’ term as attorney general was the form of government best suited to Newfoundland. Simms outlined his opposition to the proposed system of representative government in a written opinion requested by Governor Thomas John Cochrane* in 1831. Simms believed that the increased cost of this form of government would lead to further taxation of the fisheries, and that the additional burden would force fishermen to emigrate to the United States, to the great detriment of the industry. He asserted that, given the social and economic structure of Newfoundland, the new assembly would be filled with merchants resident in Newfoundland only during the short fishing season, whose participation in its work would consequently be restricted.
His alternative was an enlarged governor’s council which he unrealistically believed would receive wide public approval. He felt the Newfoundland merchants, with their economic and social ties in Britain, could obtain favourable legislation for the fisheries through the British House of Commons.
Despite Simms’ objections, Newfoundland was granted representative government in 1832 and Simms became a member of the Council under the new constitution. His appointment revealed one of the weaknesses of representative government: the Council under the new system, which exercised both executive and legislative functions, was filled with officials adamantly opposed to an elected assembly, who tried to thwart its actions whenever possible. Legislation passed by the assembly, such as the Revenue Bill of 1833, was repeatedly vetoed or amended by the Council. Simms was a leader of this group of conservatives and, according to a 19th century historian, “seems to have been their mouthpiece at all public meetings.”
In April 1833 Simms was offered, but refused, a seat on the Supreme Court; however, in the same month he was made acting chief justice after the retirement of Richard Alexander Tucker. Simms apparently expected to receive a permanent appointment to the chief justiceship, but in November 1833 Henry John Boulton of Upper Canada was appointed. It is not surprising, therefore, that he and Boulton often clashed over legislation in the Council. Simms particularly objected to Boulton’s advocacy of the more extensive Application of English law in Newfoundland. The institution of the rigorous English law regarding insolvencies, for example, would disrupt the traditional ease with which Newfoundland firms were declared insolvent, an important consideration given the instability of the cod trade. In 1844 Simms served again as acting chief justice for several months before the arrival of Thomas Norton.
Simms continued to serve in his offices through the early years of representative government and as an appointed member of the amalgamated legislature after 1842. He maintained a conservative outlook, opposing any extension of the powers of the assembly. Although he had refused an assistant judgeship in 1833, he did not object in 1846 when Governor Sir John Harvey* appointed him to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, where he served for the next 12 years. His subsequent role in the colony’s political life was relatively unimportant since at the time of this appointment he was removed from both the Executive and the Legislative councils. He was, however, involved in one controversy in 1849 when he was suspended for a time after a dispute with Governor John Gaspard Le Marchant*; the disagreement involved the provision of funds for circuit courts and in protest Simms had refused to take his turn on the circuit.
Simms’ last years in the Supreme Court were marked by growing incapacity. The other assistant justice, Augustus Wallet DesBarres*, was also old and enfeebled. Only in 1858 were Simms and DesBarres pensioned off by a special act of the first assembly with responsible government, under the leadership of Philip Francis Little*. Simms retired to England, probably the same year, and died in 1863.
James Simms was one of those few public officials in Newfoundland whose public careers began with the introduction of colonial status in 1824, continued through representative government, and concluded in the period of responsible government after 1855. The relatively short time-span involved made appointed officials like Simms both unique and anachronistic in their own time.
PANL, GN 2/1, 1826–33; GN 2/2, 1826–33; GN 13, James Simms, “Observations on the propriety of instituting a local Legislative Assembly for Newfoundland” (c. 1831); P3/A/2 (James Simms correspondence, 1788, 1790, 1823). PRO, CO 199/20–25. Nfld., Blue book, 1828–58; House of Assembly, Journal, 1834–36, 1858. Courier (St John’s), 12 May 1858. Newfoundlander, 27 Feb., 6 March 1834. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal (St John’s), 1816. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 3 Feb. 1863. Greene, “Influence of religion in the politics of Nfld., 1850–61.” Marjorie Smith, “Newfoundland, 1815–1840: a study of a merchantocracy” (unpublished ma thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, 1968). E. A. Wells, “The struggle for responsible government in Newfoundland, 1846–1855” (unpublished ma thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, 1966).