KENT, ROBERT JOHN, lawyer and politician; b. 1835 in Waterford (Republic of Ireland), son of James Kent and Mary Carigan; m. 1866 Ellen F. Donnelly of Harbour Grace, Nfld, and they had four children; d. 29 Sept. 1893 in St John’s.
Robert John Kent’s family had long been involved in the Waterford–Newfoundland trade, with members on both sides of the Atlantic. James Kent had worked with his uncle Patrick Morris* in St John’s before returning to Ireland. Robert was almost certainly educated at St John’s College, Waterford, before moving in 1856 to Newfoundland, where he worked as a clerk in the business of his uncle John Kent*. He may have had some legal training in Ireland, but in any event he studied law with Hugh William Hoyles* in the early 1860s and was called to the Newfoundland bar in 1864. He then entered a partnership with lawyer and politician Joseph Ignatius Little*, brother of former premier Philip Francis Little.
Given his background and connections, it is not surprising that Robert Kent soon entered political life. John Kent was a confederate and a Conservative in the later 1860s, and it was rumoured that Robert would run as a confederate candidate in St John’s in 1869. In the event, he did not, but ran for the first time in St John’s East in 1873 for Charles James Fox Bennett*’s anti-confederate party, telling the electors that he had changed his mind on the issue. Bennett led a coalition of Catholic Liberals (like Kent) and those Conservatives who had been unable to support Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter’s confederate views. It was in opposition throughout the late 1870s, and, as former Conservatives dropped away and Bennett grew older and more isolated, leadership of the opposition devolved upon J. I. Little and the Liberals. The party generally supported the Conservative government of Carter and William Vallance Whiteway* in their policies of economic development, and Kent spoke enthusiastically in favour of building a railway. In 1880 he was a member of a joint select committee of the legislature which recommended that a transinsular railway be built.
With no major issues dividing them and with general agreement on economic policy, by the early 1880s the Liberal and Conservative parties were moving towards an electoral alliance. It was formalized in time for the 1882 election, in which they faced the badly organized New party, a largely mercantile group that opposed Whiteway’s railway policy. Kent won his fourth consecutive victory in St John’s East. There were rewards. The firm of Little and Kent became lawyers for the Newfoundland Railway Company and Kent the speaker of the House of Assembly. In 1883 Little was made a judge, and Kent soon emerged as the leader of the Liberal party. What might have been a prominent political career then collapsed amid the sectarian discord that erupted in the mid 1880s. The crisis was precipitated by an Orange-Catholic riot at Harbour Grace in December 1883, in which five persons were killed. The subsequent inquiry, and the arrest of 19 Catholics on charges of murder, led to intense sectarian tension, which in turn placed great strain on the governing Conservative-Liberal coalition led by Whiteway. The strain was clearly demonstrated at the trials of the 19 Catholics, when Whiteway led the prosecution and Kent the defence. Kent handled the case with considerable skill, obtaining acquittals in each of two trials in 1884–85. Protestant indignation at this result led to a Protestant-Catholic polarization in the assembly, which, over the objections of all Catholic members, passed a motion critical of the verdicts. The Liberals promptly left the government coalition, and Kent resigned as speaker in February 1885.
Although Kent was effectively the Liberal leader, his position was by no means firm, since Premier Whiteway’s leading Catholic supporter, Sir Ambrose Shea*, who had left the Liberal party in 1865, now rejoined the Liberals. If highly partisan press reports can be believed, Kent later acquiesced in Shea’s leadership of the Liberals in the election called for October 1885. Kent was again elected for St John’s East, but resigned his seat the following June. One factor may have been the volume of legal work that he now had to handle alone as a result of Little’s promotion to the bench. Another explanation, and the more probable one, is that he was unable to survive the backroom bargaining, which in mid 1886 led to the breakup of the Liberal party. Some Liberals joined the Reform government of Robert Thorburn* and the remainder the Whitewayite opposition led by Robert Bond*.
Kent never again entered the political arena. President of the Benevolent Irish Society between 1883 and 1891 and of the Law Society of Newfoundland from 1888, he tended his prosperous law practice and was clearly a respected and prominent citizen. His death in 1893 was apparently precipitated by worry and extra work caused by the destruction of his office in the fire that had devastated so much of St John’s the previous year.
Supreme Court of Newfoundland (St John’s), Registry, 6: 43–44 (will of R. J. Kent) (mfm. at PANL). Courier (St John’s), November 1869. Evening Herald (St John’s), 30 Sept. 1893. Evening Mercury (St John’s), 16 Feb. 1883. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 11 April 1882; 23 July 1884; 26 June, 7 Oct. 1885; 9 Sept. 1886; 2 Oct. 1893. Patriot and Terra-Nova Herald, 11 Nov. 1869; 4, 11 Oct. 1873; 4 Nov. 1878. Public Ledger, 17 May 1878, 6 April 1880. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906?]). Hiller, “Hist. of Nfld.” Elinor [Kyte] Senior, “The origin and political activities of the Orange order in Newfoundland, 1863–1890” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., St John’s, 1959). W. D. MacWhirter, “A political history of Newfoundland, 1865–1874”