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KIELLEY (Kielly), EDWARD, surgeon and naval officer; b. c. 1790 in St John’s; m. there 13 June 1822 Amelia Jackson, and they had two sons and one daughter; d. there 8 March 1855.

Nothing is known of Edward Kielley’s family or early life. He studied under Daniel Coughlan, a military surgeon at St John’s, and in June 1814 became an assistant surgeon in the Royal Navy, serving on the hospital ship Niobe. In August of the following year he was promoted surgeon. His experiences in the navy during wartime may well have had a formative influence on his character; many years later he would recall with pride his visits to Russia and Greece, and he remained to his death strongly loyal to Britain. Kielley’s cosmopolitan experience and military loyalty were factors which held him apart from other Roman Catholics in St John’s, most of whom were Irish immigrants, and led him to identify and associate with the ruling Protestant establishment in the colony. By November 1818 Kielley was back in St John’s practising as a surgeon. Six years later he was indicted by the grand jury for common assault and assault with intent to commit rape upon Mrs Eleanor Ann Shea of Twillingate. At the trial on 9 July 1824, prominent fellow surgeon William Carson*, who had known Kielley since arriving in Newfoundland in 1808, testified on his behalf. The verdict stated that “the Jury are unanimous in Honorably acquitting the Defendent, of charges brought agt him in the Disgusting Action.”

When Thomas John Cochrane* became governor of Newfoundland in 1825, Kielley found himself in official favour and in fact soon became Cochrane’s friend. In 1826 he was appointed surgeon to the local jail, a salaried position under the government. It is possible that he would also have received the more lucrative post of district surgeon, had not both he and Cochrane been absent from the colony when the situation became vacant late in 1827. Instead, Carson received the appointment. Kielley had gone to England to try to secure his half pay from the navy, and to obtain permission to stay in Newfoundland while retaining his rank as surgeon. He in fact returned to full-time service, and was appointed surgeon to the Barham, on the Jamaica station. However, in May 1828 he was “invalided” at Jamaica and was obliged to return to Newfoundland “nearly in a dying state.” The precise nature of the injury or illness is not known, but, according to his own statement, for some time afterwards he found himself in “embarrassed circumstances” owing to “periodical attacks, a debilitated constitution, and a total loss of my practice.” Nevertheless, later that year he was back in St John’s, where he resumed the office of jail surgeon.

Kielley professed a desire to stay away from political matters. In 1828 we find his name among petitioners for a representative legislature, and in 1829 he and John Kent* addressed a meeting of Roman Catholics who were pressing for the extension of Britain’s Catholic relief act to Newfoundland. But in the late 1820s these were causes which the majority of sensible men were supporting. When reports circulated around St John’s in 1830 that he had written a controversial letter on a Roman Catholic question, he wrote to Henry David Winton’s Public Ledger denying authorship and stating that he had never “either directly or indirectly, during my residence in this community, mixed myself with, or taken any part in, any dispute of a religious or political nature.” Kielley was an active member of the Benevolent Irish Society until 1833, but when the society, led by Patrick Morris*, was drawn into partisan politics on the side of the reformers, he withdrew from it. However, the period 1832–38 was so charged with political and sectarian tensions that it was not possible for a prominent Catholic such as Kielley to remain untouched by events.

Although Carson was district surgeon, from 1827 Kielley was an occasional adviser to the local authorities on matters affecting public health. In 1832 he became a member of the newly established board of health and medical officer for the port of St John’s. In giving Kielley this latter responsibility, Cochrane apparently overturned a decision of the chief justice, Richard Alexander Tucker*, who while acting as administrator some months earlier, had given the post to Carson’s son-in-law, Joseph Shea. But Cochrane was determined to give Kielley an even greater boon. On 31 March 1834 he declared Carson’s post of district surgeon “abolished,” and shortly afterwards assigned the duties of the office to Kielley. The official appointment of Kielley as district surgeon followed on 1 July. It was a move which Carson deeply resented. Hereafter Kielley’s government offices were a matter of contemptuous discussion in the reformers’ newspaper, the Newfoundland Patriot, and of debate in the House of Assembly. Whether Kielley liked it or not, he was a public figure. In the event, his tenure as district surgeon was destined to be brief. Upon gaining control of the assembly in 1837, Carson and the reformers set about undermining his position, and in 1838 he was effectively forced out. In that year a supply act was passed providing for the appointment of four district surgeons for St John’s and containing a provision prohibiting the jail surgeon (Kielley) from occupying one of the four positions. However, Kielley by then had sole charge of the St John’s Hospital, a post which, though it initially brought him only a small income, by 1851 was providing him with a comfortable annual salary of £300.

In the heated political atmosphere of the 1830s Kielley, as a protégé of Cochrane, had soon been publicly identified as “a Tory of the first waters” and as an opponent of the pro-Catholic reform party. What kind of pressure was brought to bear upon him as a consequence is hard to determine with certainty. In 1838 Kielley complained to Cochrane about “the cruel system of persecution which thro’ the influence of the Catholic priesthood has for the last four or five years been so industriously pursued against me,” and which had affected him “most seriously in my professional practice.” From this letter, Kielley seems to have been in straitened circumstances; yet John Valentine Nugent* described him the following year as “apparently affluent.” At any rate, Kielley was making no effort to conceal his antipathy to the reformers in St John’s and his public support for the candidates of the opposing interest in the elections of 1836. The openness of his political views is illustrated by his prominence at an extraordinary public occasion in March 1836. It was the custom of the Benevolent Irish Society to hold an annual celebration in honour of Saint Patrick. That year, Kielley presided at an opposition celebration on 17 March attended by “Orange Catholics” and certain of the Protestants whom the reformers most hated and feared, such as Winton, a particular friend of Kielley’s, and Chief Justice Henry John Boulton*, one of his patients. Following a series of patriotic toasts, Kielley himself toasted Boulton and praised him for protecting citizens from the “tyranny of a mob.” This was his most daring thrust at the reform party in Newfoundland. Antagonism towards Kielley was now so intense that in October the vicar general, Edward Troy*, refused to walk in a funeral procession in his company. The burial was delayed nearly an hour until Kielley was informed that his presence was causing embarrassment among the clergy. He withdrew. The funeral proceeded.

Kielley was a marked man. He was also a person of compassion and pride, “a plain man who spoke the feelings of his heart,” as he once described himself, and the two sensational court cases in which he found himself embroiled in the late 1830s were provoked, in part, by his own outspokenness. The first of these cases was an action for defamation of character brought by Dr Samuel Carson, William Carson’s son, against Kielley in May 1837. Kielley had been called to examine a female patient who had been attended by the younger Carson and another physician, John Rochfort*. The woman appeared to have been extensively mutilated in a surgical attempt to induce birth. On seeing her broken body and squalid circumstances, Kielley, who was known throughout his life, and with good reason, for his concern for the sick poor, exclaimed: “They have butchered the woman, and deserve to be hanged!” This opinion was widely circulated through St John’s, allegedly to the injury of Samuel Carson’s reputation. In the two-day trial in July which followed, Boulton, the presiding judge, openly sided with Kielley and denounced Carson for his shameful treatment of the woman. The child had died and, although the woman survived, Boulton stated that she was “a perfect cripple, and will most probably remain a wretched object all her life.” When William Carson was called to testify, Boulton rebuked him scathingly and at length for conducting a painful, unauthorized, and intimate examination of the patient merely to be able to testify on his son’s behalf. Boulton also took advantage of the occasion to remind “the lower orders of people” that they were not “to be treated like cattle” by physicians. The trial ended in a nonsuit. The Public Ledger, in commenting on the trial, pointed to the “combination which has so long existed among most of the medical men of this town” against Kielley. The elder Carson, the paper noted, was especially antagonistic towards him. In Winton’s view, Kielley now stood “decidedly first among the civilian medical practitioners in this community.”

In 1838 Kielley again found himself at the centre of furious controversy. On 6 August he and Kent quarrelled in the streets of St John’s. Kielley allegedly called Kent a “lying Puppy” and threatened to beat him, whereupon Kent withdrew to the assembly and claimed that his privileges as a member of that body had been violated. After examining three witnesses, the house determined that Kielley should be arrested; a warrant was issued by the speaker, Carson, and the arrest was made by the serjeant-at-arms, Thomas Beck. Beck required the help of the messenger of the house, David Walsh, who later admitted in court that he was compelled to use “a little force” to get Kielley out of his home. Kielley, who later claimed he was arrested “with great force and violence,” was kept in custody in Beck’s home. On 7 August Kielley was brought before the House of Assembly and asked for an explanation of his conduct; he responded by calling Kent, in his seat, “a liar and a coward” and “other very many contumelious epithets,” and was remanded in the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. On 9 August he was again brought before the house. A formal apology was demanded. He declined to make it. Warrants were then issued committing Kielley to the common jail, where he appears to have spent that night. On 10 August he was released by the sheriff on a writ of habeas corpus issued by George Lilly*, assistant judge of the Supreme Court. The house, on 11 August, ordered the arrest of the sheriff and Lilly, and both were taken into custody. Kielley, in the mean time, had gone into hiding. Two days later Governor Henry Prescott* prorogued the house and the immediate crisis was over. The house met again on 20 August. On entering the speaker’s room shortly before it resumed, Carson was served with a writ by the sheriff on behalf of Kielley, claiming assault and false imprisonment, and setting damages at £3,000. Similar writs were served on other members, including Kent and Peter Brown*, and on Walsh, whom Kielley tried to have arrested.

The case of Kielley v. Carson was a celebrated one in 19th-century Newfoundland legal history [see Sir Bryan Robinson*]. At issue was the House of Assembly’s right to commit for contempt. This was by no means an inconsequential issue in the colony during the 1830s. It was “a restless and dangerous age”; if the house legitimately possessed the right claimed by its members, they were by no means ill disposed to use it. The indignation provoked by the behaviour of the assembly contained also an element of alarm. The case was tried by the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, and a decision favouring the House of Assembly was delivered on 29 Dec 1838, with Lilly dissenting. Kielley then appealed to the judicial committee of the Privy Council in Great Britain. The case was argued before the committee in January 1841 and May 1842, and a decision reversing the judgement of the court was handed down on 11 Jan. 1843. Referring to the House of Assembly, the decision read: “They are a local Legislature, with every power reasonably necessary for the proper exercise of their functions and duties, but they have not what they have erroneously supposed themselves to possess – the same exclusive privileges which the ancient Law of England has annexed to the House of Parliament.” The long delay in arriving at a decision caused tension and anxiety in Newfoundland. The verdict was important insofar as it defined a limitation in the power of colonial assemblies, and it thus had implications for the entire British empire. In Newfoundland it was believed that the affair was the cause of the suspension of the constitution of 1832. Certainly, it solidified the antagonism felt towards the assembly by the merchants and the press. Self-styled reformers summarily placing eminent citizens in custody was not likely to win esteem for the house. These same reformers in the assembly, said the Harbour Grace Star, “are the gentlemen who abhor oppression, who all along have been declaiming against our arbitrary Fishing Admirals, our despotic Governors, our tyrannical Judges, our absolute Surrogates, our grinding and exactious Merchants and snarling Officials.” At the personal level, Kielley was vindicated and in 1844 the assembly agreed that Kielley’s expenses in the lengthy litigation, nearly £1,000, should be paid out of public funds.

The rivalry between Kielley and Carson appears to have been professional and political rather than personal. In July 1841, at a public dinner in St John’s, Carson proposed a toast to Kielley as “a happy specimen of Native talent, wisely and successfully exercised,” and Kielley, to the surprise of the Newfoundlander, responded by complimenting Carson as “his old and respected friend.” The dinner was the “first festival” of the Natives’ Society, an organization that was founded in June 1840 and soon attracted considerable notice. Kielley had originated the project of a natives’ society in 1836. The idea arose, he said, “because strangers had been sucking the vitals of the country,” while Newfoundlanders had been treated “as intruders in their Native Land.” In 1840 he became the society’s first president – an honour which he held to be “one of the proudest incidents of his life.” The society held its first quarterly meeting on 12 September in a fish store in St John’s. In an emotional speech, Kielley explained the objectives of the organization, and Robert John Parsons*, another native, followed by declaring: “This night we proclaim ourselves a people – we proclaim our nationality.” The society professed to have “nothing to do with religion” and, as Kielley said in 1842, to belong to “no party.”

Inevitably, however, the Natives’ Society, like the Benevolent Irish Society, was drawn into the political squabbles of the day, and by 1845 was accused by Parsons of being “divided.” When the natives met in July 1845 to protest the failure of Governor Sir John Harvey to favour Newfoundlanders in making appointments, Kielley supported the move, apparently with some hesitation. He trusted, he said, “that the proceedings would be conducted with due respect to the Head of the Executive.” Parsons, on the other hand, was now associating native rights with his campaign for responsible government and Daniel O’Connell’s slogan of “Ireland for the Irish, and the Irish for Ireland.” Such ranting must have made Kielley uncomfortable. In May 1845 the foundation stone for a Natives’ hall was laid, but in a major storm of September 1846 a building erected on the site – a “miserable bundle of boards,” according to Parsons – blew down, killing two people who had taken refuge in it. Subsequently interest in the society declined. A movement which might have done much to overcome religious and partisan bitterness in the colony had come to nothing.

Kielley’s final years were passed in the comfort and comparative obscurity of professional employment. Unlike Carson, he had always taken a greater interest in medicine than in public affairs, and in a speech given in 1854 he expressed the hope that his health would enable him “long to enjoy the happiness of administering relief to suffering humanity.”

Edward Kielley was a surgeon noted for his compassion. In politics, he was one of the few prominent Newfoundland Roman Catholics to side openly with the ruling Protestant élite and oppose the so-called “Catholic Party.” He did not, however, seek publicity, and was drawn into prominence more by accident than by design.

Patrick O’Flaherty

Benevolent Irish Soc. (St John’s), Minutes (mfm. at PANL). NLS, Dept. of mss, mss 2276, 2278. PANL, GN 2/1; GN 2/2; GN 5. PRO, CO 194/61–146; CO 199/19. Supreme Court of Nfld. (St John’s), Registry, 3: f.252 (will of Edward Kielley, probated 7 June 1855). Kielley v. Carson (1839), 2 Nfld. R. 91, rev’d. [1841–42] 4 Moore, P.C. 63–92; 13 E.R. 225; 2 Nfld. R. x (P.C.). Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1833–55. A record of the extraordinary proceedings of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland, in the arrest and imprisonment of Edward Kielley, esq., surgeon, &c. &c. and subsequent arrest of the Honorable Judge Lilly and the High-Sheriff (B. C. Garrett, esq.) for, (as the House has it!) “breach of privilege!!” (St John’s, 1838; copy in Memorial Univ. of Nfld. Library, Centre for Nfld. Studies, St John’s). Re Kielley (1838), 2 Nfld. R. 72. Newfoundlander, 1827–34, 1837–43. Newfoundland Express (St John’s), 1854–55. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 1816–27. Patriot (St John’s), 1834–55. Public Ledger, 1827–55. G.B., ADM, Navy list, 1814–30. Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Patrick O’Flaherty, “KIELLEY, EDWARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kielley_edward_8E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kielley_edward_8E.html
Author of Article:   Patrick O’Flaherty
Title of Article:   KIELLEY, EDWARD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   November 28, 2023