BROWN, PETER, merchant, politician, and jp; b. c. 1797 in Ireland; d. 28 Dec. 1845 in Harbour Grace, Nfld.
Peter Brown passed his childhood in Ireland. He was, by trade, a carpenter. In 1817 he was settled in Harbour Grace, and by the 1820s had become established as an important fish merchant and prominent Roman Catholic. Although he appears to have received little formal schooling, in 1826 he was a member of a committee to build St Patrick’s Free School in Harbour Grace, an early indication of his lifelong interest in education. (He was still involved in the affairs of the school in 1845.)
Brown was not an active participant in the Harbour Grace meetings of 1829 and 1830 which called for the establishment of a Newfoundland legislature, but in 1831 his name appears along with those of other respectable petitioners requesting the boon. When representative government was granted by Britain in 1832, he seemed initially reluctant to offer himself as a candidate for election unless a fellow merchant, Thomas Ridley*, also agreed to stand. Eventually he allowed his name to go forward without Ridley’s, and he was returned as one of four members from the district of Conception Bay, the others being Robert Pack*, Charles Cozens, and James Power. The four had run as a group, apparently having pledged themselves “to oppose the imposition of any Tax which may have a tendency to injure the interests of the Fisheries or of Agriculture, or that may bear exclusively upon the poor”; “to procure an Act which shall cause the balance of servants’ wages to be paid in cash”; and to decline to take “any Office of emolument under Government while they sit as Representatives in the House of Assembly.” The second promise is highly suggestive. It is apparent that the election of Brown and the others was one manifestation of the strength of popular feeling against the truck system in Harbour Grace and Carbonear in the early 1830s – feeling which had already broken out into dangerous riots. The reform movement in Conception Bay at that time was a movement among the masses.
When the new assembly opened on 1 Jan. 1833, Brown immediately moved that the house “do now proceed” to the election of its own officers (the clerk, the sergeant-at-arms, and the messenger). Another of his actions was to introduce a bill that would prevent government contractors and other office holders from sitting in the legislature. Both these issues were to cause controversy in Newfoundland throughout the early years of the assembly. Brown was attempting to anticipate and prevent encroachments by the crown upon the rights of the house, thus showing that in spite of his description of himself as “a true Radical,” he was in fact somewhat traditional in his thinking, an old whig transplanted in the colonies. The first two sessions passed peacefully enough, and Brown’s efforts demonstrated that he took seriously his pledges to work for the practical benefit of his constituents. He successfully piloted through the house bills to establish fire companies in Harbour Grace and to regulate the town’s streets. However, both proved to be defective pieces of legislation and had to be quickly amended. The Harbour Grace street bill was aimed at controlling the reconstruction of the town after the fire of August 1832, in which Brown’s premises had been saved. In 1833 he was accused of drafting the bill to favour his own business. He was also attacked for his proposal to change the name of the colony to Clarence Island.
It was not until William Carson was returned in a by-election in December 1833 that the partisan divisions among members were revealed. Pack, Brown, and Power found themselves in a minority rump of reformers which included Carson and another St John’s member, John Kent*. These men were loosely united in their opposition to alleged unconstitutional exertions of executive power and violations of civil rights, and in their concern to assert the authority of the legislature. Brown tended to support Carson in debates on such issues. In February 1835, for example, he spoke in favour of Carson’s unsuccessful attempt to have a select committee of the house inquire into the administration of justice – really, an effort to undermine Chief Justice Henry John Boulton*. Brown’s speech on that occasion was careful and moderate. He does not appear to have been dominated by Carson, even during the period 1834–36. Indeed, on such issues as establishing a classical academy, imposing taxes, and increasing the number of representatives, Brown was perhaps Carson’s most persistent opponent. He feared what he described as the “preponderating influence” of St John’s upon the assembly, and worried that outport interests were being overlooked in a number of measures that Carson supported. He was especially incensed over Carson’s favourite scheme to create an academy for, as Brown contemptuously phrased it, “the instruction of the opulent in the learned languages, in the richest town in the Island, whilst a common English School is denied to the poor people in the outports.” This theme of neglect of the outharbours became more marked in his speeches as years passed. Brown may not have been a graceful orator – he was ridiculed for “his choking and suffocating efforts to deliver himself” – but he was his own man, a rough and ready Irishman of independent means who stood his ground. In 1836, after an angry exchange in the house, Brown struck Kent and knocked his hat off. On the following morning Kent, apologized for his bad behaviour.
In the stormy election of 1836 Brown, who had been appointed a justice of the peace in 1834, again ran for Conception Bay. It appears that he played no part in encouraging the tumults at the polls in his district; indeed, according to a report by magistrate Thomas Danson, he tried, without avail, “to prevent the riotous and brutal conduct of the Mob” during the polling. He was returned, and, when that election was invalidated, was elected again in 1837, finding himself now in a house for the first time controlled by reformers. Also in the new assembly were Patrick Morris, the brilliant John Valentine Nugent*, and, once again, Kent. With Carson as speaker, the assembly quickly adopted the abrasive tone in its dealings with the Council (or upper house) and the general combativeness that would mark its activities for the next four years. Brown was not slow to initiate contentious pieces of legislation. On opening day he was once again asserting the house’s right to select its officers, and shortly afterwards he persuaded the legislature to undertake an inquiry into the activities of Harbour Grace magistrate John Stark during the 1836 election. Thus Brown was by no means out of place in the assertive assembly of 1837–41. Yet his alliance with the dominant St John’s reformers was an uneasy one. He and Morris quarrelled as soon as the house opened. Brown also immediately tackled the Newfoundland Patriot, the newspaper normally thought of as the organ of the reformers, and made a dangerous and permanent enemy for himself in the editor, Robert John Parsons*. In August 1837 Brown angered both Nugent and Morris by introducing a justice bill that threatened to undermine the jury system and restore summary jurisdiction to the courts. He was reported as saying that he was aware of juries in Harbour Grace, “not one of whom knew that two and two made four.” In effect, he was proposing a return to something resembling the old surrogate system [see James Lundrigan*].
Brown further angered Morris and Carson by persisting in his opposition to an academy in St John’s. In 1839 Carson professed himself “astonished” that Brown could “so systematically oppose education.” The charge was unjust. What Brown wanted was fair treatment of “the poor and those in the humbler walks of life . . . throughout the Island.” He was, in fact, an enlightened thinker about education. It is noteworthy, for example, that he opposed religious segregation in schools, arguing that “there should be one general school for all denominations of christians, for it was by Catholics and Protestants mixing together that prejudice could be overcome.” Brown was serving as a member of the board of education in Conception Bay in 1836, when Protestants, by insisting that the Bible in the King James version should be read in schools, in effect began the dissension that led to the creation of the denominational system of education in Newfoundland [see Charles Dalton*]. He later served as chairman of both the integrated and the Roman Catholic boards of education for the district Despite an occasional eccentricity such as his reactionary jury bill, Brown’s instincts as a reformer were sound. In his concern for the poor – a persistent theme of his political career – he may, in fact, have been more of a social reformer than some of his high-minded urban colleagues. It seems to have been his lack of gentility, his stubborn character and earthy rhetoric, and his unyielding advocacy of outharbour interests that they objected to, rather than any slackening in principle. Brown in any case refused to play a minor role in the assembly. He became chairman of the important committee of supply and appears to have handled the responsibility well. The proceedings of the house show him occasionally impatient to get on with the practical business of running the country. Brown’s general conduct in the house was thought so acceptable that his name was mentioned for possible promotion to the Council. He was also believed to be angling for the office of chief magistrate in Conception Bay – a rumour, kept alive by Parsons in the Patriot, which may have damaged Brown politically. Governor Henry Prescott* seemed to prefer Brown to all the other reformers, apparently viewing him as a stabilizing, moderating force in a volatile legislature. “He has a strong mind, but has had little education,” Prescott wrote, adding, “He is not so tractable as others [among the reformers], and I believe regrets the composition of the present House of Assembly.”
In 1841 Brown was chosen as one of four delegates to represent the views of the assembly to a select committee of the British House of Commons on Newfoundland. The four spent the summer of 1841 in London, but a change of administration in England may have prevented them from bringing effective pressure upon the imperial government. In 1842 they learned that a bill was before the Commons which in effect would destroy Newfoundland’s 1832 constitution, replacing it with a peculiar legislature in which the upper and lower houses would be combined. Though the assembly had not been sitting for a year, the delegation drafted a petition of protest, which was presented to the Commons by the Irish politician Daniel O’Connell. The petition eloquently presented the case against altering the constitution in such a way as “to neutralize the influence of the people, and make a mockery of representative government in Newfoundland.” However, the British government proceeded with its plan, and Newfoundland was blessed for the next five years with a legislative system that was an oddity in the colony’s constitutional history.
Once the new constitution was approved, Brown ran once more for Conception Bay in the elections of December 1842. He was defeated, placing an ignominious sixth in a field of seven. He had been the object of persistent attack in the Patriot since 1837, and the abuse had spread to the press in Conception Bay. For this and possibly other reasons, Brown had become unpopular. Late in 1839, in a strange incident which seems to have been unconnected with politics, his house had been fired upon by four gunmen in a simultaneous discharge. Mercilessly, Parsons alleged that Brown had fired the guns himself.
In the closing years of his life, Brown maintained his interest in education, and became active in a Harbour Grace association for the repeal of the union between Britain and Ireland. In June 1844 his business premises were destroyed by fire. However, despite the loss – he was only partially insured – he remained in comfortable circumstances.
Peter Brown was the leading Conception Bay member in the Newfoundland House of Assembly from 1833 to 1841. His career is a reminder that the reform movement in the colony grew from roots in the outports as well as in the capital city, and that within that movement, once it became a powerful force in the assembly, there were conflicting regional interests. A study of Brown’s career shows Carson, Kent, and Morris from a different perspective: as St John’s politicians, rather than as bearers of the torch of reform for the whole island. Brown’s chief contribution to the assembly was to keep it mindful of its responsibilities for all regions of the colony.
NLS, Dept. of mss, ms 2274. PANL, GN 2/1, 28–45; GN 5/1/B/1, Harbour Grace, 1813–26. PRO, CO 194/60–124. Nfld., General Assembly, Journal, 1843–45; House of Assembly, Journal, 1833–41. Newfoundlander, 1827–34, 1837–45. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 1816–27. Newfoundland Patriot, 1834–42. Newfoundland Vindicator (St John’s), 1841–42. Patriot & Terra Nova Herald, 1842–47. Public Ledger, 1828–47. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 1828–31, 1845. Sentinel and Conception Bay Advertiser (Carbonear, Nfld.), 1839–40. Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld.
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Cite This Article
Patrick O’Flaherty, “BROWN, PETER (d. 1845),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brown_peter_1845_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Patrick O’Flaherty|
|Title of Article:||BROWN, PETER (d. 1845)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||June 4, 2023|