MARTIN, JOHN WILLS, merchant, jp, office holder, and politician; b. in England, likely in Dorset; m. first 1 April 1827 Phoebe Cooper; m. secondly 24 Jan. 1839 Martha Taylor; d. after 1843.
Born probably in the early 1790s, John Wills Martin arrived in St John’s from Poole, Dorset, in 1816. Little is known of his early years in Newfoundland, but in 1821 he was employed as a clerk at Trinity by George Garland and Sons of Poole [see George Garland*]; six years later he was posted to Twillingate. By 1828 he was the agent for the principal mercantile establishment at St Mary’s, Slade, Elson and Company, another Poole firm. Philip Henry Gosse* was a clerk in the company and his son’s biography of him records that there was “nothing genial” about Martin; “consequential and bumptious in his deportment, he enjoyed wielding his rod of authority.”
In 1830 Martin was appointed a justice of the peace for the southern district. Shortly thereafter he became a member of the board of education and in 1834 was appointed a commissioner of roads for the district. By September 1830 authorities in the outports had received instructions from the central reform committee at St John’s to ascertain how the inhabitants felt about a local legislature, a goal long sought by such reformers as William Carson and Patrick Morris. Martin chaired the public meeting at St Mary’s, gave the main address in which he proudly announced his full conversion to the idea of representative government, and compiled the resolutions for submission to the central reform committee.
In 1832 Martin was elected as one of the two members for Placentia–St Mary’s in the first House of Assembly. The legislative process was characterized by discord, primarily between the elected house and the appointed Council [see Sir Thomas John Cochrane*], and by a kindling of religious animosities which ushered in a troubled period in the history of the colony. His participation in debate showed Martin had signs of promise as a practical legislator, though his speeches reflect an ostentatious and verbose manner. For reasons which may have stemmed from his arbitrary and calculating character, he also emerged as a vehement opponent of the reformers, especially Carson, whom he regarded as “his most deadly enemy.”
Martin introduced bills to regulate the police force on the island, to establish light-houses along its treacherous coasts, and to initiate courts of general sessions of the peace. He opposed remuneration for elected members and, with Charles Cozens, a member for Conception Bay, the idea that bankruptcy should render a member ineligible to sit. Martin weathered a bitter altercation relating to his own eligibility, since as a mercantile agent he did not technically occupy his own premises. He fiercely defended the independence of members without appeal to their constituents. As well he supported a bill to increase the number of members in the assembly. With Patrick Kough*, he played a leading role in defeating Carson’s efforts to create a municipal government in St John’s. In 1834, as a member of the assembly, he was appointed a governor of the newly formed Savings Bank at St John’s.
The bumptious side of Martin’s nature was reflected in a celebrated incident at St Mary’s in 1834–35. He, his two clerks, and a servant were the only Protestants in this Roman Catholic community of about 500. According to the report which Martin filed later, the local priest, James W. Duffy*, applied to Martin for a specific piece of land on which to erect a church. Refused the site, the priest and his flock forcibly took possession of it and began building. Martin, about to leave to attend the assembly in St John’s, charged his clerks not to have any dealings with the priest. When Duffy was refused a gallon of brandy, Martin alleged, he led his flock in January 1835 in the burning of a fish-flake erected by Martin on formerly common property which gave access to Duffy’s church. Proceedings were instigated against the priest and nine others. All charges were dropped in May 1837 after it was discovered that Martin had both exaggerated and misrepresented the situation. During this dispute Martin had in 1835 arbitrarily dismissed the local constable, William Burke, a Roman Catholic. Five years earlier, Martin had dismissed another constable, Thomas Christopher, but as a result of an investigation had been ordered to reinstate him and explain his actions.
Martin did not run again for election after he had finished his term in the assembly in 1836, at which time he was transferred to Carbonear to head a larger branch of Slade, Elson and Company. That year he was appointed a justice of the peace for the northern district. On 30 April 1838 the company’s branch operations in Newfoundland were declared insolvent by the northern circuit court and Martin became one of the three provisional trustees of the estate. Later in the year he was appointed by the regular trustees as their agent in liquidating the business. When the enterprise was offered for sale on 1 May 1839 it was advertised as “one of the most complete mercantile establishments in Nfld.” Dividends were paid to its creditors from 1839 to 1847, though Martin had left Carbonear during the early 1840s.
In 1843 he was appointed a justice of the peace for Fogo. The fact that this was a junior appointment in the most law-abiding district of Newfoundland indicates that it was probably a stipendiary position and that he had abandoned his commercial career. His name does not appear in the appointment lists issued by the governor’s office for 1849. It appears likely that he returned to England since no record of his death can be found in Newfoundland.
MHA, Martin name file. PRO, CO 194/94. Dr William Carson, the great Newfoundland reformer: his life, letters and speeches; raw material for a biography, comp. J. R. Smallwood (St John’s, 1978), 81. Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1833–36. Newfoundlander, 26 Jan. 1832; 7 March 1833; 8, 27 Feb., 17 March, 10 July, 16 Oct. 1834. Public Ledger, 26 June 1827; 17 Sept. 1830; 13 Jan. 1832; 11, 15 Jan. 1833; 7–14 Feb., 4, 18 April 1834; 3 March 1835; 1 Jan., 12 April, 17, 27 May, 13, 16 Dec. 1836. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 29 Oct. 1816; 11, 29 Jan., 27 Nov. 1832; 4–25 Feb., 18, 25 March, 1–22 April, 17 June, 8, 29 July, 21 Oct. 1834; 2 June 1835; 13, 27 Dec. 1836; 8 May, 18 Sept., 13 Nov., 4 Dec. 1838; 7 May, 24 Sept., 17 Dec. 1839; 14 July 1840; 29 Aug. 1843; 14 Dec. 1847. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 6, 20 Jan. 1836; 13 Feb. 1839. E. [W.] Gosse, The life of Philip Henry Gosse, F.R.S. (London, 1890), 62. Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld. Joseph Hatton and Moses Harvey, Newfoundland, the oldest British colony; its history, its present condition, and its prospects in the future (London, 1883), 101–9. M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979), 325–38. Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895), 427–39, 664.