BENNING, CLEMENT PITT, merchant, building contractor, politician, and magistrate; b. 1785 probably in Great Britain; m. Susan Penny of St Jacques, Nfld, and they had at least two sons and three daughters; d. 30 May 1865 at Burin, Nfld.
Clement Pitt Benning’s origins and early life are obscure. In 1804 he immigrated to Placentia Bay, Nfld, as agent for the firm of William Spurrier of Poole, England. Apparently originally an Anglican, Benning converted to Roman Catholicism probably at the time of his marriage. After the bankruptcy of the Spurrier firm in 1829, Benning went into the fishery business with his own boats at Burin. Later he became a building contractor and did construction and repair work on government buildings in several communities throughout the district. In the 1840s he was associated, in the joint venture of a Burin-Placentia ferry service, with the Falle family, the wealthiest Protestant, non-Anglican merchants in the area.
Benning was also involved in the public life of the colony. In 1831 he was appointed conservator of the peace for the Burin and Placentia districts. In the 1842 election for the Burin seat in the assembly Benning, a local merchant, was pitted against a St John’s faction led by Henry David Winton*, editor of the Public Ledger, and leading critic of Roman Catholic clerical influence in island politics. Benning won the seat. Choosing not to run in 1848, Benning became the Liberal candidate in Burin four years later, again opposing Winton.
The Burin election of 1852 was important for the Liberal party. Its open alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, which supported its campaign for responsible government, had tended to confine the movement to a sectarian cause. The Conservative party, solidly entrenched in all the Anglican districts, resisted responsible government as a Catholic plot to gain ascendancy and attempted to organize Protestants against the reform campaign, which was depicted as a purely religious struggle. The Liberals recognized the urgency of acquiring Protestant support and this burden was pointedly imposed upon them late in 1851 when the British government rejected responsible government because no “preponderance of opinion” had been shown to favour such a change. This rejection was interpreted to mean that the Liberals needed to win non-Anglican Protestant support, and, therefore, in 1852 had to elect candidates in one or both of the only two constituencies which did not have either Roman Catholic or Anglican majorities. In the four-member Conception Bay riding there had been a long-standing agreement among the Catholics, Anglicans, and Wesleyan Methodists to divide the seats equitably among themselves, but in the single-member constituency of Burin where Wesleyans held the balance of power there was no such pact. This riding could then be truly regarded as the key to the responsible government movement.
Benning was admirably qualified as a candidate to draw together Roman Catholics and dissenting Protestants. He had joined the trend away from the Church of England noticeable on the island in the preceding decades, especially in the Burin district. He had had during his career contact with Protestant business people such as the Spurrier and Falle families. As well, the Burin district was relatively free from St John’s conservative mercantile influence. Its Wesleyans and Anglicans had been feuding publicly over the former’s demands for the right to baptize, marry, and bury their co-religionists and to have their own schools.
Benning won the election and in the assembly joined the Liberals and Wesleyans in championing education, electoral redistribution, and responsible government. In 1855 he was re-elected and became part of the Liberal majority which inaugurated the first responsible government in Newfoundland’s history. He retired from politics before the 1859 election to serve as stipendiary magistrate in Lamaline. Six years later he died in Burin.
Methodist Missionary Soc. Archives (London), Incoming correspondence, Newfoundland, 1843–44, 1851–52 (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN 2/1, 1804–64; 2/2, 1825–59, 1863–64. Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1843–48, 1853–59. Morning Courier and General Advertiser (St John’s), 1853, 1855. Newfoundlander, 1842–48, 1852–53, 1855. Newfoundland Indicator (St John’s), 1844. Newfoundland Vindicator (St John’s), 1842. Patriot (St John’s), 1852–53, 1855. Public Ledger (St John’s), 1842–48, 1852–53, 1855. Greene, “Influence of religion in the politics of Nfld., 1850–61.” E. A. Wells, “The struggle for responsible government in Newfoundland, 1846–1855” (unpublished ma thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, 1966).