GRAHAM, AARON, office holder and judge; b. c. 1753, probably in England; m. a cousin of Sir Henry Tempest, and they had two sons; d. 24 Dec. 1818 in London, England.
Described as incomparably the greatest civil servant in the history of Newfoundland, Aaron Graham was secretary to four governors during the period from 1779 to 1791. Contemporary witnesses attributed the success of these governors in large measure to Graham’s skill, zeal, and industry; some of them characterized him as a spirited and admirable aide and even as the virtual governor of the island.
Almost nothing is known about Graham prior to his appointment in 1779 as secretary to Governor Richard Edwards*, although it is possible he may have acted as a barrister in London. He doubtless served an effective apprenticeship with Edwards, a “very careful and attentive administrator.” Graham seems to have had some mercantile connections at this time since in 1782 he owned the Maria, which transported navy victuals to Newfoundland. Another vessel consigned to him and carrying a cargo of salt was apparently lost or captured on its voyage out. About his service to Governor John Campbell between 1782 and 1786 there is little information. John Elliot, a prudent, intelligent, and firm governor, took office in 1786 and the following year informed the home authorities that Graham had been extremely helpful to him in matters of civil government and that he had been acting as custos rotulorum since 1783 without pay. Elliot commended Graham for his complete knowledge of Newfoundland and recommended that he continue to be “personally attached” to the governor.
By the time Mark Milbanke was appointed governor in 1789 the administration of civil justice in Newfoundland had broken down. In an attempt to find a solution Graham met the governor-designate in London and initiated a search of Milbanke’s commission. From his reading, he advised Milbanke that he could appoint a court of common pleas with regular judges to replace the inefficient and vulnerable system which had been in use. Graham’s interpretation of the commission was untechnical but very clever, since it was to spur a careful investigation of the whole judicial system by the British government. Meanwhile, the civil court was duly constituted in the summer of 1789 with Graham as one of its judges, and although deemed illegal by the home authorities it functioned that year and the next. Despite major complaints from West Country merchants, the British government decided that a civil court was necessary, and in 1791 the House of Commons passed an act to create a court designated grandly as “The Court of Civil Jurisdiction of Our Lord the King at St. John’s, in the Island of Newfoundland.” It was to be presided over by John Reeves*. Graham served as one of the two assessors to Reeves, who acknowledged that Graham’s competence was crucial in establishing the new court on a firm footing. With some changes the court was continued on an annual basis until 1809, when it became permanent.
Late in 1791 Graham returned to England, where he became a police magistrate in London. In 1793 he was called to testify before a committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of the trade to Newfoundland. Insofar as Graham was concerned, the inquiry became in effect a careful examination of his role as adviser to Milbanke in instituting the Court of Common Pleas. Graham acquitted himself admirably, claiming that the court was an attempt to legalize what had been done from necessity for so long in the administration of justice. His testimony and that of Reeves underline the exaggeration in the complaints against the court and the tyranny and greed of the West Country merchants.
In his capacity as a police magistrate, Graham was appointed by the Home Department to launch an inquiry into the naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1796 and 1797. It is clear from his final reports that he believed most of the suspicions entertained about the presence of Jacobin agitators were without serious foundation. By 1805 he had become involved in the Drury Lane Theatre, and he has been variously described as one of the principal shareholders, manager, superintendent, and supervisor of affairs. He may very well have been involved in the theatre before he retired from the bench because of ill health. His indisposition developed into a serious illness which afflicted him for the last five years of his life. At the time of his death in 1818 he had one living son, who had attained the rank of captain in the Royal Navy.
PRO, ADM 1/472: f.22; CO 194/21: f.352; 194/38: f.290; 194/41: f.23. L. A. Anspach, A history of the island of Newfoundland . . . (London, 1819), 209. Gentleman’s Magazine, 1798: 84, 646–47. G.B., House of Commons, Reports from committees of the House of Commons which have been printed by order of the house and are not inserted in the Journals, [1715–1801] (16v., London, [1803–20]), 10: 409–32, “Second report from the committee appointed to enquire into the state of the trade to Newfoundland, 24 April 1793”; 433–503, “Third report . . . , 17 June 1793.” J. R. Smallwood, “A dictionary of Newfoundland biography,” The book of Newfoundland, ed. J. R. Smallwood (6v., St John’s, 1937–67), 5: 571. R. H. Bonnycastle, Newfoundland in 1842: a sequel to “The Canadas in 1841” (2v., London, 1842), 1: 132–35. James Dugan, The great mutiny (London, 1966), 155–65, 175, 193, 242, 323–32, 396, 440, 455, 460. John MacGregor, Historical and descriptive sketches of the Maritime colonies of British America (London, 1828; repr. East Ardsley, Eng., and New York, 1968), 230–31. McLintock, Establishment of constitutional government in Nfld., 9n., 59–77. W. J. Macqueen Pope, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (London, 1945), 224. Paul O’Neill, The story of St. John’s, Newfoundland (2v., Erin, Ont., 1975–76), 2: 554–55. Charles Pedley, The history of Newfoundland from the earliest times to the year 1860 (London, 1863), 158–63. Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895), 345–60, 599, 662. John Reeves, History of the government of the island of Newfoundland . . . (London, 1793; repr. New York and East Ardsley, 1967), 162–67.