GRIMES, GEORGE FREDERICK ARTHUR, businessman, labour activist, and politician; b. 29 June 1877 in Channel (Channel–Port aux Basques), Nfld, son of William Grimes and Amelia White; m. 28 Aug. 1900 Annie Clarke in St John’s, and they had seven daughters; d. there 10 Aug. 1929.
George F. A. Grimes’s father was an outport policeman, who in 1878 was posted to his home town of Brigus, where he became a sergeant. When George was 12, the family moved to St John’s for William to take up a posting as head constable (he would eventually rise to the rank of superintendent). George left school around this time. In 1890 he was an apprentice clerk in a dry-goods establishment. He would remain with this business until 1902, when he secured a much more favourable berth as manager of the book and stationery department for George Knowling Limited, one of the largest general retailers in St John’s. Grimes continued his education through private reading. He was active in the Cochrane Street Methodist congregation, as well as the Methodist College Literary Institute, a mainstay of the intellectual life of St John’s. His practical faith led him to a lifelong advocacy of temperance and also, it would seem, to socialism.
It is not known when Grimes began to identify with socialism. At his death contemporaries would note a long-standing interest in the “labour question,” which may date from the unionization of the St John’s waterfront in his young manhood. The Truckmen’s Protective Union was founded in 1900 and the Longshoremen’s Protective Union in 1903. It was a period of labour activism in the city, including the “great sealers’ strike” of 1902 [see Simeon Kelloway*]. Meanwhile, political philosophy and current events were common topics at the MCLI. Grimes’s known associates at this time include Julia Salter* (subsequently Julia Salter Earle, a labour and social activist). In 1906 Grimes was a founding member of the Newfoundland Socialist Society, and in 1908 he was financial secretary of the St John’s Trades and Labour Council, newly formed by the mayor, labour lawyer Michael Patrick Gibbs*.
As one with both an intellectual and a practical interest in labour matters, Grimes must have followed keenly the formation of the Fishermen’s Protective Union in 1908 by William Ford Coaker*. By 1911 the FPU had 12,500 members in 116 local councils and was a force to be reckoned with. Bent on reforming the system of supply to fishermen as the crucial first step in social change, Coaker incorporated the Fishermen’s Union Trading Company, commonly known as the Union Trading Company, to supply “cash stores” in the outports. Grimes’s first known association with the FPU came in 1912. In March he spoke at a mass meeting it held in the capital, and when the UTC began operating from St John’s premises in May, he was manager of the dry-goods department. He attended the annual convention that December where the FPU unveiled its Bonavista Platform and made plans for Union candidates to contest the coming general election.
The FPU had solid support in northern Newfoundland, yet the closest local council to St John’s was at Grimes’s boyhood home of Brigus, in the district of Port de Grave. Early in 1913 Grimes was selected as the Union candidate in this district, where his local connection helped him secure election in October. He was one of eight Unionists elected in alliance with Sir Robert Bond’s Liberal party, and he soon came to be regarded as one of his party’s most effective spokesmen in the opposition.
It was shortly after his election that the incident occurred which, perhaps more than any other, has secured Grimes a place in Newfoundland history: his “conversion” of the young Joseph Roberts Smallwood* to socialism. Smallwood relates that this came about as a result of a chance meeting at a dentist’s office, probably early in 1914. The schoolboy ingenuously blurted to the politician that he was a socialist; Grimes asked a few questions and afterwards supplied young Smallwood with pamphlets. (Grimes’s depiction in Wayne Johnston’s historical novel The colony of unrequited dreams (1998) – persistent in the cause yet mild-mannered to a fault – is consistent with personal recollections of him. However, the Smallwood character’s disenchantment with his mentor is not consistent with Smallwood’s lifelong respect for Grimes, whom he considered a true intellectual, gentleman, and socialist.)
Grimes’s earnest, inoffensive air generally deflected criticism of his proclaimed ideology. His years with Knowling’s book department had bolstered his natural inclinations to make him one of the best-read residents of the capital. He was no revolutionary, being known in St John’s as a man of solid family and a pillar of his church. Among those who were prepared to overlook Grimes’s ideological idiosyncrasy was Coaker, who had publicly dissociated himself and the FPU from socialism.
In St John’s, as elsewhere, the Great War saw an increased interest in labour politics. Grimes helped form the Newfoundland Socialist League in 1914 and in 1917 he was a frequent speaker at meetings which resulted in the formation of the Newfoundland Industrial Workers’ Association [see Philip Bennett]. The sole point of contact between city unions and the FPU, which also rejected any affiliation with the labour movement, Grimes helped organize an NIWA cooperative. He was a regular speaker in the House of Assembly, particularly in the debate over Prohibition in 1915–17. He had been a long-time advocate of women’s suffrage (no doubt he knew well his former employer’s daughter Fannie McNeil [Knowling]), in part because, as he said, “Prohibition would have been world-wide long ago, if women had a vote on it.” In labour matters his voice was one of conciliation, favouring “machinery to prevent strikes” and, above all, “learning to know each others difficulties and becoming less suspicious.”
In July 1917 Coaker and William Wesley Halfyard*, another Unionist mha, were invited by Sir Edward Patrick Morris* to sit in cabinet as part of an all-party National government, felt to be a necessary step in order to introduce conscription. There are indications that Grimes opposed the coalition, although he eventually fell into line behind Coaker. In April 1917, to pave the way for an accommodation with the FPU, the government had established a commission to investigate war profiteering. It recommended a board of food control, to which Grimes was appointed early in 1918.
Meanwhile the FPU was building a model town on the northeast coast, a centre for its various businesses. When the UTC moved its headquarters to Port Union in February 1918, Grimes went too, along with his wife and daughters. As in 1913, when his experience in debate had been crucial in establishing the credibility of the Union party, Grimes’s knowledge of business and community affairs contributed to the success of both the UTC (which had 40 branch stores by 1918) and Port Union. In November 1919 Grimes ran for re-election, as part of a Union alliance with the Liberal Reform party of Richard Anderson Squires*. Although the Squires–Coaker combination carried the day, Grimes was defeated in Port de Grave by Sir John Chalker Crosbie*. Three weeks later he was selected secretary-treasurer of the Supreme Council of the FPU.
Out of public life during 1919–23, Grimes was able to devote his energies to the UTC at a time when its two principals, Coaker and Halfyard, had responsibilities in cabinet. By 1922, however, the “Coaker regulations,” introduced when Coaker became minister of marine and fisheries to reform the marketing of fish, had been undermined and the whole Union agenda was in danger. Disillusioned, Grimes moved back to St John’s, where he established a modest agency and wholesale business. He also resumed his leading place in the Cochrane Street congregation, and was elected secretary of the East End Methodist School Board and president of the MCLI.
As a general election came due in May 1923, Coaker determined that the FPU would stick with Squires. Grimes was returned as a member for Fogo – unlike Port de Grave, an area with deep Union support. Though he had stood as a Liberal, he was clearly pledged to Coaker. Squires was soon compelled to resign in the face of evidence of systematic misuse of public funds. William Robertson Warren then formed an administration, with Union support. Grimes was Warren’s minister of marine and fisheries, outside cabinet, from 29 July 1923 to 2 May 1924, when the government collapsed as its Unionist faction pushed for the prosecution of Squires.
Grimes was returned to the assembly twice more. Elected as a Liberal-Progressive for Twillingate in June 1924, he became one of the more effective members of a fractured opposition, speaking out against the policies of Prime Minister Walter Stanley Monroe*. He was the Liberal member for Lewisporte from October 1928, serving also as deputy speaker of the house and as a member of the Board of Works.
The following summer Grimes died of an “apoplectic attack,” while at work in his office on a Saturday night. He had contributed a great deal to the FPU movement in Newfoundland, including a grasp of parliamentary procedure, a respected intellect, and a St John’s perspective. In return the FPU raised the bookish floorwalker to be a man of affairs. Looking back on the achievements of the FPU, Coaker identified Grimes as one of those men of “common sense and hidden ability” which the Union had brought into public life to the profit of the country.
[Information about G. F. A. Grimes was provided in interviews with the late J. R. Smallwood, 1981–82, and R. Carl Grimes, 1998. r.c.]
PANL, GN 30, 97; Parish records coll., Methodist/United Church, St John’s, Cochrane Street. W. F. Coaker, “The passing of George Grimes” and “Past, present and future,” Fishermen’s Advocate (Port Union, Nfld), 16 Aug. 1929 and 27 July 1932. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 12 Aug. 1929, 7 April 1933. Arthur Fox, “M.C.L.I. is one of North America’s oldest debating clubs,” in The book of Newfoundland, ed. J. R. Smallwood et al. (6v., St John’s, 1937–75), 5: 400–3. I. D. H. McDonald, “To each his own”: William Coaker and the Fishermen’s Protective Union in Newfoundland politics, 1908–1925, ed. J. K. Hiller (St John’s, 1987). Nfld, General Assembly, Proc., 1914–30. J. R. Smallwood, I chose Canada: the memoirs of the Honourable Joseph R. “Joey” Smallwood (Toronto, 1973). G. H. Tucker, “The old N.I.W.A.,” in The book of Newfoundland, 1: 279–81. Who’s who in and from Newfoundland (St John’s), 1927.