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BAIRD, JAMES, merchant and politician; b. 30 Nov. 1828 in Saltcoats, Scotland, son of Hugh Baird and Margaret Anderson; m. 3 Dec. 1857 Anne Boyd in St John’s, and they had three sons and one daughter; d. there 30 May 1915.

James Baird came to Newfoundland in 1844 and worked as a draper’s assistant until about 1853, when he established his own importing and drapery business in partnership with his brother David. In 1868 the store windows of Baird Brothers were broken, apparently by members of an association of store clerks because the company had been the first to defy an agreement establishing earlier closing hours. Four years later James started a business under his own name, in which he was later joined by his nephew James Gordon. By the early 1880s the firm had expanded into wholesale and retail trade in groceries and dry goods and the sale of wines and spirits, as well as the fishery supply business.

The company was cautious in entering the colony’s fish export trade, doing so in the mid 1880s and then for only a few years. This proved a sound business decision; although he lost his premises in the fire that destroyed much of St John’s in 1892, Baird was able to rebuild on a much larger scale and survived the financial collapse of the island’s banking system two years later [see James Goodfellow*; Augustus William Harvey*]. Indeed, the company was well positioned to fill the gap left by a number of major, financially troubled firms. It re-entered the fish trade, taking over the assets of several bankrupt firms, including Thorburn and Tessier, owned by former premier Sir Robert Thorburn*. Baird’s company would grow to become an important 20th-century fish exporter. By 1901 Gordon, who had previously managed his uncle’s businesses, had become a full partner in the firm, now known as Baird, Gordon and Company. Following Gordon’s death in February 1908, the name was changed to James Baird Limited, with Baird’s sons becoming managing partners. In October that year the firm’s premises were destroyed once again by fire, but they were substantially rebuilt.

Along with fellow merchants Moses Monroe* and A. W. Harvey, James Baird was prominent in developing local industries in St John’s. He held shares in boot and shoe, woollen, and clothing factories, a bakery, a nail foundry, and the Colonial Cordage Company, a firm started by Monroe. Baird was also active in the sealing and whaling industries. During the sealers’ strike of 1902, he was a member of the committee that negotiated on behalf of the owners [see Simeon Kelloway*]. He served as president of the St John’s Gas Light Company, which by 1914 would be generally regarded as the most secure of local investments in Newfoundland.

James Baird is best known in Newfoundland history for his role in the famous Baird et al. v. Walker case, for which he has been called “Newfoundland’s [John] Hampden.” In 1889 he had purchased the mortgage to a lobster factory on the island’s west coast, where France had historically held fishing rights. The following year the factory was closed by Sir Baldwin Wake Walker of the British navy under the terms of a modus vivendi reached for that fishing season between France and Britain. The agreement prohibited the erection by Newfoundland fishing interests, after 1 July 1889, of new lobster factories on what was known as the French Shore, except with the consent of the British and French naval commanders. Walker had acceded to a French request that the factory be closed because, the French claimed, it had been erected after that date. Baird in 1890 sued Walker in the Newfoundland Supreme Court for $5,000 in damages for the loss of business resulting from the factory’s closure. In taking this action, possibly with the support of other Water Street merchants, he may have been hoping to embarrass the Liberal government of Sir William Vallance Whiteway* over its handling of the modus. In a decision delivered in March the following year, Chief Justice Sir Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter* and Sir Robert John Pinsent* found for Baird, noting that Walker had no legal authority to close the factory. The imperial legislation under which he had acted was no longer in force, and short of introducing new legislation, the British government could not enforce the modus vivendi and stop Newfoundlanders from operating on the French Shore. On behalf of the imperial government, Walker appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, where Baird once again fought his case and won.

His action was a significant political and constitutional victory for Newfoundland in its long dispute with Britain and France over historic French fishing rights on the island, an issue that would not be finally settled until 1904, when it formed part of a broader French-British agreement on colonial questions. The case also served in the 1890s to rally a demoralized opposition, unofficially led by Moses Monroe, that had been crushed by Whiteway’s electoral victory in 1889 over Sir Robert Thorburn. In 1898 the newly elected Tory government of Sir James Spearman Winter appointed Baird to the Legislative Council.

James Baird was one of a number of Scottish-born merchants – among them, Thorburn and James Goodfellow – who held considerable economic influence in late-19th-century Newfoundland through their diversified commercial and industrial investments. Socially, Baird was active in many community organizations, such as the St John’s Athenæum, and he was prominent in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, serving as treasurer for many years.

Melvin Baker

Daily News (St John’s), 31 May 1915. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 25 Oct., 30 Nov. 1908; 31 May 1915. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser (St John’s), 8 Dec. 1857. Baird et al. v. Walker (1891), Newfoundland Reports (St John’s), 7: 490–508. “Births, deaths, marriages in Newfoundland newspapers,” comp. Gert Crosbie (typescript, 10v., Maritime Hist. Arch., Memorial Univ. of Nfld, St John’s, n.d.), 2 (1851–59). The crown vs. the directors of the Union Bank of Newfoundland; evidence and exhibits, taken and produced at the preliminary investigation before His Honour Judge Conroy, jp, stipendiary magistrate ([St John’s, 1895]), 41–42. J. K. Hiller, “A history of Newfoundland, 1874–1901” (phd thesis, Univ. of Cambridge, Eng., 1971), 196–209. “Hon. James Baird, m.l.c. . . . ,” Newfoundland Quarterly (St John’s), 3 (1903–4), no.1: 9. J. L. Joy, “The growth and development of trades and manufacturing in St. John’s, 1870–1914” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld, 1977). K[eith] Matthews, “Profiles of Water Street merchants” (typescript, 1980; copy in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial Univ. of Nfld). Newfoundland men . . . , ed. H. Y. Mott (Concord, N.H., 1894). Notable events in the history of Newfoundland, comp. [P. K.] Devine and [M. J.] O’Mara (St John’s, 1900), 30 Nov. 1828, 23 April 1868, 30 Nov. 1908. 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). Walker v. Baird and another, [1892] Law Reports, Appeal Cases (London): 491–97, Canadian Reports, Appeal Cases (Toronto), 10: 262–71 (Privy Council).

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Cite This Article

Melvin Baker, “BAIRD, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/baird_james_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/baird_james_14E.html
Author of Article: Melvin Baker
Title of Article: BAIRD, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: July 24, 2014