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BROOKING, THOMAS HOLDSWORTH, merchant and leader in the campaign for representative government in Newfoundland; b. at Stoke Fleming, Devon, England, and baptized in St Petrox Church, Dartmouth, 8 Aug. 1790, son of Thomas Brooking, tide-waiter at Dartmouth, and Hannah Channel; m. in 1816 at St John’s, Nfld, Frances Mclea, the daughter of a Scottish merchant, and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 13 Jan. 1869 in London, England.

Thomas Holdsworth Brooking came to Newfoundland in 1806 or 1807 as a mercantile clerk, possibly to work for the Torquay firm of Hunt, Stabb, Preston, and Company, but more probably for Hart, Eppes, Gaden, and Robinson of St John’s and London. In any case in 1818, when the Newfoundland partner of the latter firm, George Richard Robinson, retired to “head office” in London, Brooking became its resident junior partner, and the company traded as Hart, Robinson, and Company. In 1822 the senior partner retired and the firm became Robinson, Brooking, and Garland; the other member was Joseph Bingley Garland of Poole who had a large independent trade to Trinity and Bonavista bays.

It became Brooking’s turn to retire to “head office” late in 1831, and the local establishment was left in the hands of a new junior partner, William Jaffray Hervey. Brooking never again returned to the island and the local business was run by a succession of agents and partners, including for a while two of his sons, George Thomas and Marmaduke Hart. Garland’s death in 1840 and Robinson’s retirement in 1850 left the firm completely in the hands of Brooking and his sons, although at the time of Brooking’s death a St John’s man, Frederick Joseph Wyatt, held a number of shares as the “Newfoundland partner.” Expensive litigation between the two sons, however, resulted in the disappearance of the company in 1873.

Brooking was typical of the mercantile élite that dominated Newfoundland during the first half of the 19th century: he came out as young man with little wealth but good connections, apprenticed to a flourishing concern, and eventually owned it. Lucky in the choice of Hart, Robinson, and Company, which survived the prolonged post-1815 depression in the fish trade, Brooking moved quickly into a position of prominence and power. From the outset he was assured of a respectable place in the social structure of St John’s, dominated as it was by a small group of fish merchants and the beginnings of a professional class of lawyers and doctors. Almost invariably the older members retired in middle age to Britain, and young, literate men were given unusual freedom and authority. Newfoundland itself was in a state of transition from a “migratory fishery,” visited by thousands but inhabited by few, to a populous and dynamic community, which in 1815 numbered up to 60,000 souls. Before 1800 hardly any merchants settled in the island, and thus when Brooking arrived he found a young man’s paradise. Institutions of government were few and the St John’s middle class naturally assumed every function of responsibility and power it could. Inevitably it came into conflict with the governor and his small group of civil servants, and the period of Brooking’s residence in Newfoundland was one in which this élite gradually wrested authority from the rulers, and brought about the establishment of representative government in 1832.

A glance at Brooking’s ever widening involvement in the affairs of Newfoundland illustrates both the natural manner in which the mercantile leaders took their place at the head of society and the growth of agitation for local and political change which characterized the period. His first public service was in 1812 when he served on a committee which organized a lottery to raise money for road construction. The fact that the roads had to be constructed by private subscription illustrates the deficiencies of the government and its revenues at the time; it also shows the interest of the mercantile élite in “improvements,” especially because they were living in the colony the year round. By 1816 Brooking was serving as foreman of the grand jury – an institution that was the only representative body on the island. From then until his departure from Newfoundland Brooking stayed in the forefront of social and political life. He was appointed chairman of a group which attempted to build a merchant’s hall, churchwarden of the Anglican church in St John’s, and the first fire warden for the east end of the town. He was a founding member of a committee to establish contact with the by now almost extinct race of Beothuks [see William Eppes Cormack], treasurer of the St John’s amateur theatre, president of the St John’s Library Society, member of the vestry society for the establishment of evening lectures, for years president of the St John’s Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Amateurs of the Turf, and a founder of the Newfoundland Fisherman’s and Shoreman’s Association. In 1825 his social prominence was recognized by his appointment as colonial aide-de-camp to the governor with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the militia.

However, Brooking’s concerns were more serious than this mundane if strenuous pursuit of worthy causes might suggest, and he gradually became identified with the cause of social and political change on the island. With a few other merchants, such as Patrick Morris* and William Thomas, he was ahead of his fellows in seeing the need for change and for mobilizing the middle class shopkeepers, tradesmen, and planters of St John’s behind reform. They were also the only people in Newfoundland who could put up with the politically brilliant but personally abrasive character of Dr William Carson*, first and best propagandist for reform. Brooking’s senior partner, George Richard Robinson, who was elected Tory member of parliament for Worcester in 1824, represented the reformers in the British corridors of power.

Brooking’s first introduction to wider social problems came early in 1817 when the great fire in St John’s, after two years of depression and bankruptcy in the fishery, created unimaginable misery for the poor of the town. The depression continued and in 1821 the grand jury presented an address, probably drafted by Brooking as foreman, advocating government action to relieve distress, and even urging emigration from Newfoundland either to Great Britain or to mainland North America. The immediate need was met by the British government but the deeper problems of poverty remained, and in 1822 Brooking was appointed to yet another committee to alleviate the condition of the poor. That year he also began his long and deep interest in education by forming a committee to establish a charity school.

As he became more deeply involved in the chaos and poverty of life in post-Napoleonic Newfoundland, he gradually realized that radical change was needed to cure the ills of her society. In 1819 he seems to have wanted only some kind of municipal body in St John’s which could control “nuisances” and deal with the ever present menace of fire, but he soon found himself following Carson and Morris in agitation for wholesale reform of the laws as they related to Newfoundland. By the early 1820s they were becoming convinced that only the introduction of some form of representative government could alleviate the moral and material condition of the island. In 1824 the reformers’ agitation resulted in three new pieces of imperial legislation that swept away the ancient system of government and introduced reforms in the judicial and administrative structure of the island.

The new legislation was hardly revolutionary, but it was of symbolic importance in signalling the end of the British government’s policy of dealing with Newfoundland as a fishery rather than a colony. It provided for a non-elective executive council to which Brooking was appointed, but neither he nor the other reformers were satisfied and agitation continued. However, the purpose of the battle had now changed from convincing the British government of the need for reform to overcoming divisions in Newfoundland society – particularly the apathy of most inhabitants, especially outside St John’s, towards the whole question of government. For example, the new legislation provided for the establishment of a municipal corporation in St John’s and Brooking was prominent in trying to persuade the inhabitants to support it. Despite his efforts the proposal was heavily defeated. Unable to solve a local problem, the reformers turned to the larger question of obtaining “local” government for the entire colony. Brooking and his partner Robinson played a continuous and a vital role in the campaign since their wealth and prominence gave it respectability in England. Robinson presented petitions in parliament while Brooking chaired the increasingly numerous reform meetings in St John’s. In 1831, when Brooking retired to England, representative government was about to be introduced, and he sailed with the plaudits of all ranks and classes, Irish and English, Protestant and Catholic, in his ears. Everyone basked in the feeling of amity and cooperation which the campaign had created. Four years later Newfoundland society was bitterly divided and the Protestant merchants, now the Conservative party, who had so staunchly supported the advent of local government were strenuously demanding that the experiment be abandoned on the grounds that Newfoundland was not fit for freedom. Thomas Holdsworth Brooking was willing to admit that he shared their view.

Brooking’s life was of course by no means over; he was only 41 when he left Newfoundland and his business continued and flourished for nearly 40 years more. However, his interests in England seem to have turned from social or political questions towards a concentration upon his business, as typified by the joint speculation in Prince Edward Island land with Samuel Cunard and others, and the firm’s great involvement with Lloyd’s of London. The excitement of reform was replaced by the private affluence of Victorian commerce.

Keith Matthews

Cathedral of St John the Baptist (Anglican) (St John’s), marriage register, 1816. H. M. Customs and Excise Library (London), Customs 65/3, Outport letters (Dartmouth), June 1788. PANL, GN 2/1, March 1819, October 1821, October 1822, 19 Oct. 1825; Nfld., Surrogate Court, St John’s, Minutes, December 1816. PRO, BT 107/472, December 1818; CO 194/68, 344; 194/71. St Petrox Anglican Church (Dartmouth, Devonshire, Eng.), baptismal and marriage registers. G.B., Statutes, 5 Geo IV, c.51, c.67, c.68. Newfoundlander, September 1828, March 1829, 15 Jan. 1869. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal (St John’s), 7 Aug. 1818–9 March 1820; May, November, 22 Dec. 1822. Public Ledger, December 1828, February 1829-March 1832. Royal Gazette (St John’s), February 1812; March 1817; September 1830; 18 Dec. 1831; 8 Dec. 1840; 11 Nov. 1852; 13 Jan., 4 May 1869; 21 Jan. 1873; 24 June 1907. Gunn, Political history of Nfld., 79–80. A. H. McClintock, The establishment of constitutional government in Newfoundland, 1783–1832 . . . (London, 1941). Keith Matthews, The class of ’32 (Maritime History Group pub., Memorial University of Nfld., St John’s, 1974).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Keith Matthews, “BROOKING, THOMAS HOLDSWORTH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brooking_thomas_holdsworth_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brooking_thomas_holdsworth_9E.html
Author of Article: Keith Matthews
Title of Article: BROOKING, THOMAS HOLDSWORTH
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: October 22, 2014