ALDERDICE, FREDERICK CHARLES MUNRO, businessman and politician; b. 10 Nov. 1871 in Stranmillis (Belfast), son of William Alderdice and Rachael Kathleen Monroe; m. 25 Oct. 1900 Harriet Carter, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 26 Feb. 1936 in St John’s.
Educated at the Methodist College, Belfast, Frederick C. M. Alderdice moved to St John’s in 1886 to work for his uncle Moses Monroe* at the Colonial Cordage Company, which made rope, nets, and cable for Newfoundland’s fishing industry. In 1890 he was listed in the city directory as the company’s cashier, in 1898 he held the position of accountant, and in 1904 he was sub-manager. Elevated to vice-president and managing director in 1922 following the demise of his uncle James Harvey Monroe, he would run the firm until his death. He also served as a director of Imperial Tobacco, Newfoundland Manufacturers’ Mutual Insurance, Newfoundland Motor Mutual Insurance, Eastern Trust, and Newfoundland Hotel Facilities.
Alderdice took part in a range of public activities in St John’s. He attended St Thomas’ Church, was a delegate to the Church of England synod, and supported various Anglican activities. He had been an athlete as a young man, but an injury in a rugger match resulted in septicaemia which, over the years, caused the loss of both feet and most of one leg. His multiple surgeries left him hobbling on two walking sticks. He remained interested in sports, being a member of the Bally Haly Golf Club, the City Club, and Murray’s Pond Fishing Club; he also belonged to the British Empire Society and the Overseas Club.
He had expressed an interest in political affairs as early as the election of 1908, when he publicly supported Sir Edward Patrick Morris. In 1924 he was appointed to Newfoundland’s Legislative Council by his cousin and business partner, Liberal-Conservative prime minister Walter Stanley Monroe*. Three years later he became leader of the government party in the upper house. In August 1928, when Monroe resigned, a delegation from his party persuaded Alderdice to take over the leadership. Appointed prime minister on 16 August, he renamed his group the Conservative Party. He shared Monroe’s conservative outlook, and did not distance himself from his predecessor’s record. In October, Alderdice’s government was defeated at the polls by populist Sir Richard Anderson Squires. Alderdice himself was elected to the House of Assembly for St John’s City East. By 1931, with a debt load made worse by the devastating impact of the Great Depression, the Squires administration faced a fiscal crisis. Canadian banks, after obtaining approval from Alderdice (they wanted his sanction in case the government changed), extended credit but under harsh terms. Political machinations and a riot at the Colonial Building in St John’s on 5 April 1932 precipitated the collapse of the government. In the midst of the turmoil, Alderdice appealed for an end to the violence and promised to do all that was possible to secure Squires’s resignation.
In the lead-up to the election in June, the widespread disillusionment with partisan politics allowed him to capitalize on his strength as a man of business. After regrouping his followers under a new name, the United Newfoundland Party, Alderdice campaigned on the promise to govern in an honest, economical, and businesslike fashion. He also proposed, in May, to appoint a committee to inquire whether “a form of Commission Government” would serve the country better for a period of years, though the suggestion was not, as it later appeared to be, the principal plank in his platform. A non-partisan, unelected government, he believed, would be free to cut expenditures without having to worry about re-election. The idea that a body of commissioners should administer the country had been advanced at the 1925 convention of the Fishermen’s Protective Union of Newfoundland by former fisheries minister Sir William Ford Coaker and it had some public support. Before making any constitutional change, Alderdice committed to calling another election on the question. Given his reluctance to deal with the matter until forced to do so by the British government, however, he may not have favoured a commission of government at this point. He became prime minister on 11 June, taking all but 3 of 27 seats.
Alderdice also assumed the post of minister of finance, so the burden of dealing with the ongoing fiscal crisis fell on him. Despite his moderate inclinations, he floated some radical solutions, including an unsuccessful attempt to lease the resources of Labrador to a private syndicate. He drastically reduced government spending. The education grant of the year before, for instance, was cut by more than half, to $500,000, for 1932–33. Alderdice also accepted that a partial default on the dominion’s debt was unavoidable. He seemed to believe that if the government, after slashing expenditures, was still unable to meet its interest payments, then bondholders would accept that Newfoundland had done all it could and agree to reschedule its debt at lower rates.
In November 1932 Alderdice informed Whitehall that he planned to unilaterally reduce the interest payments on government bonds. Such action was unacceptable to the British authorities, who persuaded him to take an Anglo-Canadian loan in exchange for an imperial investigation of Newfoundland’s finances. The resulting body, set up in February 1933, was known as the Amulree commission after its chairman, William Warrender Mackenzie, Baron Amulree. Alderdice appointed, as Newfoundland’s representative, Sir William Ewen Stavert, a Canadian banker who had been the government’s financial adviser and who, Alderdice thought, would bring a knowledgeable and sympathetic eye to the investigation of his government’s curtailment of spending.
Unknown to Alderdice at this juncture, the British had decided to allow no default, to reschedule the debt, and to edge Newfoundland into accepting a commission of government. Amulree was thus dispatched to secure justification for the move and to obtain the cooperation of Alderdice and (on account of its financial stake) the Canadian government. In his testimony in camera before the Amulree commission, Alderdice suggested that the existing constitution was satisfactory if the government was honest, but in reality it placed no restrictions on corrupt politicians. He therefore favoured, until prosperity returned, a commission of government made up of Newfoundlanders.
The Dominions Office in London pressured Alderdice to enact a suspension of the constitution without first calling an election on the issue. He had little choice: to reject the terms for rescheduling the debt would be to accept bankruptcy, which could have devastating results for the colonial business class dependent on credit. The British, some of whom were condescending in their treatment of Alderdice, counted on him to persuade the members of his government to acquiesce. In secret meetings at Alderdice’s house, Amulree appealed to the prime minister’s sense of imperial loyalty. Although Alderdice was under tremendous pressure and unable to consult with his colleagues, he held out for lower interest, and attempted to secure government positions for the cabinet members whose support he would need in order to get dissolution through the assembly. He later claimed that Amulree had agreed to such sinecures and so assured four of his ministers. In the end, he accepted the British plan.
With Alderdice’s compliance a certainty, the Amulree commission recommended the indefinite suspension of democratic government in Newfoundland. When this proposal was made public, Alderdice’s own position became easier because there was a widespread feeling that the Amulree report had rightly condemned partisan politics. The House of Assembly was recalled on 27 Nov. 1933, and the following day the bill enabling the constitutional change was introduced and passed. Once the legislature had suspended itself, Alderdice’s cooperation was no longer essential and the British refused to honour his promises to his colleagues. Given his status, however, he could not be ignored in the composition of the new Commission of Government, to be headed by Newfoundland’s governor, Sir David Murray Anderson.
On 16 Feb. 1934, in a ceremony at the Newfoundland Hotel in St John’s, Alderdice was sworn in as commissioner for home affairs and education and as vice-chairman of the commission. Britons held the three senior portfolios, which dealt with natural resources, public utilities, and finance. The other Newfoundland representatives were Alderdice’s former cabinet colleagues, William Richard Howley, who, as attorney general, was responsible for justice, the police, and liquor control, and John Charles Puddester*, who became commissioner for public health and welfare, labour, and pensions. Ill health and the “toll of office” immediately obliged Alderdice to take a three-month leave of absence. His subsequent service with the commission was a source of personal frustration. When the ambitious British commissioners pushed for social reform, he wanted to proceed slowly, with regard to the wishes of the interested parties. In 1934–35, despite his responsibility for education, he only participated in efforts to revamp the denominationally based school system when forced to, and then he made little progress. His cautious approach was vindicated, perhaps, when the reformers backed down before the united opposition of church leaders. Alderdice was against the commission’s land settlement program and, at one point, he warned John Hope Simpson that he and his fellow British commissioners should abandon attempts to raise people’s standard of living since any improvement only bred discontent.
Frederick C. M. Alderdice remained a commissioner until his death from a cerebral haemorrhage in February 1936. He was given a state funeral. The government hoped to share its cost with his family, but his estate was found to be considerably smaller than anticipated. Historians have frequently been disappointed in Alderdice’s failure to defend democracy, seeing him as little more than the midwife of commission government. Such a view does not fully take into account the other legislative and administrative agendas of his government as it awaited the Amulree report. Nor does it represent the extent to which Alderdice tried to wrest greater compensation from Britain while operating from a weak bargaining position. Despite these efforts, his name remains symbolic of the failure of responsible government before Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949.
GRO, Roscommon, Ire., Reg. of births, Stranmillis (Belfast), 10 Nov. 1871. RPA, GN 2/5, file 768; GN 8, Frederick C. Alderdice sous fonds. Daily News, 26–27 Feb. 1936. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 26 Feb. 1936. W. J. Browne, Eighty-four years a Newfoundlander: memoirs of William J. Browne, p.c., q.c., ll.d. (2v., St John’s, 1981–84), 1. Directory, St John’s, 1890, 1898, 1904. Gene Long, Suspended state: Newfoundland before Canada (St John’s, 1999). Phillip McCann, “The educational policy of the Commission of Government,” Newfoundland Studies (St John’s), 3 (1987): 201–15. P. [F.] Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic world, 1929–1949 (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1988). S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (Toronto, 1971). Patrick O’Flaherty, Lost country: the rise and fall of Newfoundland, 1843–1933 (St John’s, 2005). White tie and decorations: Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson in Newfoundland, 1934–1936, ed. P. [F.] Neary (Toronto, 1996).