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COCHRANE, Sir THOMAS JOHN, officer in the Royal Navy and colonial administrator; b. in England on 5 Feb. 1789, eldest son of Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane and his wife Maria Shaw, widow of Captain Jacob Wheate; m. on 6 Jan. 1812 to Mathilda Ross by whom he had two sons and two daughters; d. in England in 1872.

During their careers both Thomas John Cochrane and his father excited a great deal of envy and provoked considerable acid comment against themselves. Earl St Vincent [John Jervis] stated that the “Cochranes are not to be trusted. They are all mad, romantic, money-getting and not truth-telling.” Reputedly Sir Alexander practised nepotism unduly, as when he entered his seven-year-old son on the books of his ship Thetis as a volunteer in 1796 and kept him under his pennant until 1805, when Thomas was promoted lieutenant on Jason. He became its captain in 1806 and saw service on it in the West Indies until 1809. By 1825 Thomas Cochrane had put in 26 years of service in the Royal Navy, including eight years on the North American Station, which were presumed to have been useful experience for his appointment as governor of Newfoundland on 16 April of that year.

Cochrane ushered in a new era for Newfoundland. He was the first resident governor, ending over 100 years of naval administration of an island long considered by the Admiralty as a ward of its own policy – a “great ship” anchored off the Grand Banks – and by the West Country merchants as their special area of commercial exploitation. Tory and authoritarian by upbringing and profession, Cochrane was fond of ceremony and preferred good living; he brought to Newfoundland enough household effects to equip a palace and, according to Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle*, he “displayed a magnificence in his vice-regal function before unknown” in the poor colony. To fit his ideas of good living, Cochrane had a new residence built for the governor. It stood on a ridge between Fort William and Fort Townsend far away from the dangerous fire area of the lower town. Designed in England, it was originally estimated to cost £8,778; increased size and frequent alterations at Cochrane’s wilful discretion brought the final costs in 1831 to £36,000, a most embarrassing sum which provoked a court of inquiry. Government house, now surrounded by the burgeoning city of St John’s, remains as a memorial to Cochrane. To add to his comfort and enjoyment he purchased land about three miles from the city where, beside a private lake, he built an ornamental retreat, Virginia Cottage, joined by a special road to government house. Despite his love of luxury, however, Cochrane was extremely energetic and dedicated to his duties.

By royal charter of 2 Jan. 1826 a change was made in the administration of Newfoundland. Cochrane was to divide it into three districts – northern, central, and southern – over which he was to place a chief justice and two puisne judges for whom ample salaries were to be provided. The Supreme Court was to be given power to admit a sufficient number of qualified solicitors and attorneys to practise in the courts. Richard Alexander Tucker* became chief justice with John W. Molloy and Augustus W. DesBarres the assistants, following this charter. The extension of a civil court system was not, however, matched by the introduction of a more customary form of civil government. In fact the Colonial Office refused to consider representative government and imposed a system similar to that just prepared for New South Wales, by which Cochrane ruled over Newfoundland with a nominated council, composed of the three judges and the commander of the garrison. As A. H. McLintock puts it, “this council was strictly advisory in its functions, for it was to be summoned by the governor to discuss only questions proposed by him, and as it was entirely official, the executive powers of the governor differed little from those under the old order.” The differences, however, were there; the political climate in England was changing and in the colony there were men able and willing to challenge an indefinite continuation of oligarchical rule.

Despite the restraints of the new order, Cochrane took up the solution of the colony’s problems, including its depressed economic situation, with enthusiasm. He countered the unconditional pauper relief, which he believed encouraged idleness and dependence upon the government, by providing employment on road-building projects to connect the capital with some of the adjacent outports; he encouraged agriculture by making small holdings available at nominal quitrents, though he believed that, because of the nature of the land, farming could only be complementary to the fishery; he stopped the practice of deporting the most destitute. He also sought to classify the application of the laws of England to Newfoundland, but this effort was interrupted. Cochrane attempted as well to set up a system of municipal government in St John’s. In 1826 a group was called together to devise a municipal system for the city, but he failed to get unanimity. Political cabals, Protestant and Catholic dissension, English and Irish antagonisms, and mercantile resistance all worked against him. Finally in 1827 he requested that the Colonial Office coerce the city into accepting a plan of local government, but London refused. During Cochrane’s regime St John’s was therefore ruled by the council.

Conspicuous among Newfoundlanders in their support for a representative assembly, a problem that engrossed the colony, were Patrick Morris*, born in Waterford, Ireland, and Dr William Carson* of Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. Cochrane was opposed to an assembly; his reasons were cogent and, in the light of later developments, justified if not completely valid. He was well aware that the reformers’ case for representative government had the support of some important merchants, although a not inconsequential number, resident and absentee, stood firmly against change. He had also been warned by the Colonial Office that the colony’s population (approximately 60,000) had reached a size where its pressure against authoritarian rule could not be withstood. The governor, however, argued that among this substantial population only a small merchant class had the wealth, education, and respectability to take places in the legislature, and this group, along with their agents, were already fully occupied in their mercantile affairs. Even if the small professional class were considered along with the merchants, St John’s alone would be well served. The lack of roads, the hostile climate, and a paucity of able men would leave the outports neglected. Cochrane was fully convinced that the existing form of government, with some innovations such as municipal governments for larger communities, was best suited for the mass of uneducated, politically innocent fishermen.

Sir James Stephen probably turned the scales in the reformers’ favour when on 17 Dec. 1831 in his position as legal adviser to the Colonial Office he made a report on the suggested form of legislature for Newfoundland. He observed that “in every colony where the population is homogeneous, . . . a Legislative Assembly is an inestimable benefit; that it executes its proper functions with a degree of ability for which it rarely obtains sufficient credit; that it either prevents discontents or gives them a safe direction; that it creates more useful exercise of the understanding; affords much innocent pleasure; and creates a subject of permanent interests in societies which would otherwise stagnate in a listless unconcern about all questions of a public character.” In the House of Commons George Robinson, member for Worcester, and long acquainted with Newfoundland through trade and residence, had already pressed the case for an assembly in September by relating that issue to the British reform bill. When Cochrane was advised in July 1832 by the home government that he had lost the argument, he did not resign but promised to further the new constitution as if he had thought of it himself. This resolve was not easily made for Cochrane’s voice on the needs of the colony had not been heeded by Viscount Howick [Henry George Grey], the under secretary for the colonies, a Whig and an enthusiast for representative institutions.

In August 1832 Cochrane obtained a new commission, and in fact became the first civil governor of the island. He was empowered to create a legislature with an executive council of seven members subject to his suspension for any just cause, and to divide the island into nine districts from which a 15-member assembly was to be elected on a franchise so wide that it amounted to manhood suffrage. Cochrane retained the usual negative voice with power to adjourn, prorogue, and dissolve the legislature. His two years under the new constitution were far from happy. Troubles, which Lord Goderich [Frederick John Robinson] had sought to prevent when he was colonial secretary, fell with a vengeance upon the infant legislature: despite warnings from Goderich and James Stephen, the council and assembly were not co-joined, hence there were no councillors in the lower chamber to check the radicalism of the more vociferous members; equally the separate council was an open invitation for the entrenchment of privilege. Quarrels between the council and assembly were constant, violent, and even undignified. The assembly bickered with Cochrane, fought with the public over privilege, and at times sought to browbeat the judiciary into compliance with its wishes. Strong, irascible personalities on either side of the contest both in and out of the legislature embittered the public and private debates, and newspapers argued blatantly with no attempt to cover their bias.

Factionalism in high places was exemplified in two persons particularly. Henry John Boulton*, lately dismissed by Goderich from his office as attorney general of Upper Canada and appointed chief justice (and thus a member of the council) in Newfoundland in 1833 by Goderich’s successor Lord Stanley, was far from impartial in his legal office and overbearing in his political position. The Roman Catholic bishop, Michael Anthony Fleming*, did not hesitate to play a role in politics, especially in support of the Catholic John Kent, and set a pattern for clerical involvement in politics. A running feud developed between Cochrane and Fleming and culminated in a libel action brought by the governor against the bishop’s chaplain, Father Edward Troy, for allegedly writing a series of articles against the governor in the local press.

Cochrane’s removal from office in 1834 was the result not only of his embroilment with the colony’s reformers and the bishop, but also of an accumulation of grievances against him and the disappearance from office of Goderich, who, according to Cochrane, had promised him a longer period than two years under his commission of 1832. To add to Cochrane’s discomfiture, Lord Stanley’s successor, Sir Thomas Spring-Rice, reminded him of his past extravagant expenditures and criticized his tardiness in writing dispatches to London. Only partially justified was the Colonial Office’s criticism that Cochrane was to blame for the mob violence against the Protestant editor, Henry D. Winton*, late in 1833 in St John’s, and the unpreparedness of the garrison to suppress such violence. Cochrane suspected that his dismissal was also hastened by the constant complaints against him to the Colonial Office by the Catholic party and the reformers. To fill his cup of humiliation, he and his daughter Mary were reviled and pelted with filth on their way down Cochrane Street (named in his honour) to the ship ready to take him back to England.

Cochrane was never again employed in a colony, but he did re-emerge briefly in Newfoundland’s affairs when he appeared before a select committee appointed in 1841 to enquire into the continuing legislative problems. On this occasion he reiterated his original belief that the colony was not ready for the constitution granted in 1832, and indicated that political events under Sir Henry Prescott’s governorship had served to strengthen his conviction. His opinions, along with others, persuaded the British government to modify a constitution they could not revoke, and led to the introduction of the Amalgamated Legislature the following year.

Cochrane served as the Conservative mp for Ipswich between 1839 and 1841, and in the latter year was promoted rear admiral; between 1842 and 1847 he was successively second in command and commander-in-chief of the China Station, and, from 1852 to 1855, commander-in-chief for Portsmouth. He ultimately rose to admiral of the fleet in 1865.

Though the events of his administration may not suggest a favourable verdict, Judge Daniel Woodley Prowse*, writing in the latter years of the 19th century, pronounced that “Sir Thomas Cochrane is now universally admitted to have been the best Governor ever sent to Newfoundland.” Before his departure in 1834, England’s oldest colony had been set on the rough and rocky road to representative government.

Frederic F. Thompson

PRO, CO 194/80–194/88. DNB. John Marshall, Royal naval biography . . . (2v. and supps., London, 1823–30), I. O’Byrne, Naval biog. dict. Gunn, Political history of Nfld. A. H. McLintock, The establishment of constitutional government in Newfoundland, 17831832: a study in retarded colonisation (Royal Empire Society imperial studies, 17, London, 1941). Prowse, History of Nfld. Thompson, French shore problem in Nfld.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Frederic F. Thompson, “COCHRANE, Sir THOMAS JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cochrane_thomas_john_10E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cochrane_thomas_john_10E.html
Author of Article: Frederic F. Thompson
Title of Article: COCHRANE, Sir THOMAS JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: July 24, 2014