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NEWMAN, ROBERT, ship’s captain, agent, and merchant; baptized 9 Dec. 1735 in Dartmouth, England, eldest son of Robert Newman and Mary Holdsworth; m. 1760 Ann Holdsworth; they had no children; d. 30 July 1803 in Dartmouth.

To be a merchant in the Newfoundland cod fishery during the years between 1600 and 1800, when it was carried on as a migratory trade from the southwestern counties of England, was to engage in a highly speculative undertaking where profits at times could be enormous. Unfortunately, for much of the period profits were marginal and hard to come by, and a fortune made in a few years could be, and often was, dissipated before the death of the first generation of entrepreneurs. Thus the fishery was characterized by a continuous turnover in the dominant merchant families. Few managed to establish dynasties lasting more than two or at most three generations, but there were a handful of families who traded to Newfoundland for more than one hundred years. The Newman family, however, were unique in that they appear to have become involved in the fishery almost from its commencement and did not withdraw from Newfoundland until 1907. The family were domiciled at Dartmouth and Totnes in south Devon by 1395, when they were shipping English cloth and salt fish to Bordeaux (France) and Portugal in exchange for wine. In 1589 John Newman had two vessels in the Newfoundland fishery, and for the next 300 years every generation of Newmans had its representative in the trade. One of the first families to become West Country – Newfoundland merchants, they were the last to withdraw. It is not surprising, then, that the family played a vital role not only in sustaining the fishery in Newfoundland, but even at times in maintaining the fluctuating fortunes of their home town of Dartmouth.

However, one generation stands out from the others, that which engaged in the fishery between 1775 and 1811. This era was one of constant boom and slump, of war and economic changes both within the Newfoundland trade and the English economy in general. It was an era in which most Dartmouth merchants rose quickly to fortune and crashed again, unable to adjust to new methods of trade which called for supplying settlers with goods in exchange for fish rather than fishing on one’s own account. By 1810 only three Dartmouth merchants survived out of more than 15 who had been active before 1793, and only the house of Robert Newman and Company had succeeded to the extent that it was far larger than it had been in 1793. The company had commenced in 1779 with a capital of £9,000. By 1800 it had cleared a net profit of more than £90,000, much of it assiduously ploughed back into the business. In 1780 the company owned three vessels; by 1805 it owned 12, despite heavy losses during the French revolutionary wars. Its exports of fish grew from an average of 14,000 quintals per annum in the period 1780–85 to 27,000 quintals in the period 1800–5, when it accounted for some five per cent of the entire export trade of Newfoundland.

Until Robert and his brothers formed their company, the family had survived for generations but had managed to accumulate surprisingly little wealth. By the time his generation passed away, however, the Newmans had risen to enormous affluence and social position in the west of England, and had laid the groundwork for the lives of the inhabitants of the south coast of Newfoundland during the 19th century, when they operated no fewer than ten establishments there and earned their reputation as purveyors of “rum and religion.”

The beginnings of the company were traditional enough. Robert Sr and his brother Richard had conducted their fishery in St John’s and its outports ever since the death of their father in 1754. Robert had no fewer than six sons, of whom Robert, the subject of this biography, was the eldest. The third son, Thomas, was apprenticed to the house of Holdsworth, Land and Olive, wine merchants and commission agents in Oporto, Portugal, whilst the fifth son, Holdsworth, seems to have always operated on his own – possibly he made a marriage which alienated his father. This left four sons who followed their father into the Newfoundland trade, Robert, John, Lydston, and Richard. Robert first went to Newfoundland in the mid 1750s. In 1757 he was appointed commander of his father’s vessel Syren and for the next three years he seems to have acted as the family agent in St John’s. In 1760 he married and was elected a freeman of the borough of Dartmouth. It would appear that he and his brother John alternated as agents in St John’s until the death of their father in 1774. Neither Lydston nor Richard had as yet visited Newfoundland; one assumes that they worked with their father in the Dartmouth counting-house.

The death of Robert Sr saw a reorganization of the business under, surprisingly enough, the leadership of Robert’s younger brother John. However, in 1779 John died at the early age of 36 and the firm emerged the same year as Robert Newman and Company, in which Robert, Lydston, and Richard were equal partners. Under John, the company had at least survived the problems posed by the first years of the American revolution, but he had taken no fresh initiatives and had been content to run the trade as his father had done – operating banking vessels and dealing with the by-boat keepers and resident planters in St John’s, Torbay, and Petty Harbour. Robert, however, was more imaginative and enterprising. Immediately upon the end of the war in 1783 he visited Newfoundland and on his return to Dartmouth persuaded his brothers that they should open a new Newfoundland house in the recently settled and expanding region of the Burin peninsula. The store opened at Little St Lawrence under the care of an agent in 1784 and by 1800 was handling as much trade as the old established house in St John’s; meanwhile additional branches were opened at Burin and Little Bay in Fortune Bay. By 1812 the main Newfoundland office was moved to Harbour Breton, from which focal point the firm controlled the entire coast to the west during the 19th century.

Almost certainly it was the decision to move to an outport in a recently settled but fast-expanding region surrounded by some of the best fishing areas in Newfoundland that enabled the Newmans to survive and flourish during the 1790s whilst the firms of their compatriots who had remained in St John’s and on the Southern Shore declined. They had an assured supply of fish and, compared with the St John’s merchants, little competition. They were also in an area where the fishery was always carried on by resident fishermen, whereas St John’s and the Southern Shore had always been dominated by a migratory fishery sustained by the bank fishery and the annual migration of by-boat keepers out from England and Ireland. During the 1790s this migratory fishery collapsed, and with it the merchants who depended upon it; Robert Newman and Company, by shifting to the south coast, not only avoided this fate, but prospered. Their decision to move was not, however, an isolated chance. It reflected the high degree of commercial acumen and mercantile virtue which Robert and his brothers possessed. Shrewd and hard working, they paid enormous attention to detail and, as their surviving ledgers demonstrate, were assiduous bookkeepers whose accounting system was much in advance of that of most of their contemporaries. They were unsentimental and harsh towards employees who failed them, but tended to support those who won their trust. Their most striking characteristics were honesty and promptitude in their business dealings and parsimony both in their personal lives – for despite their rapid accumulation of wealth they always lived simply – and towards their employees.

By 1800 the partners had prospered, as their contemporaries pointed out, “to an eminent degree,” but a potential crisis, that of succession, threatened the family fortune and business. Fortunately, their brother Thomas, who had entered the Portuguese trade and was about to retire, had had two sons, Robert William and Thomas, educated in the port wine and commission trade. The partners cast their eyes around Dartmouth and decided also to allow a member of a Dartmouth family of little fortune to share the inheritance: Henry Holdsworth Hunt, son of a favoured doctor, was taken into the Newman clan and went to Oporto to replace Thomas Newman when in 1802 he retired to Bath. Robert Newman and Company opened an office in London where the partners’ nephew Robert William (later joined by his brother Thomas) learned the mysteries of the Newfoundland trade under the tutelage of a trusted clerk, John Christopher, and one of their retired captains, James Lyon. The old partners continued to operate what was still the main house in Dartmouth, the succession now assured.

They had certainly not acted too hastily for on 30 July 1803 “Alderman Robert Newman, Justice of the Peace,” died in Dartmouth. Richard followed in 1811 and, with Lydston declining business on account of advanced age, the Dartmouth house was more or less closed whilst the new generation took over from London. Lydston lived until the age of 89 but took no practical interest in the trade, which was developed even more by the nephews and their partners.

Before the death of Richard, however, the brothers did one more thing for the new generation. Between 1801 and 1810 Lydston and Richard purchased at least three manors and other lands worth a minimum of £30,000, and these they gave to Robert William Newman. On the strength of these holdings he catapulted into county prominence, becoming member of parliament for Exeter in 1818, and in 1836 a baronet with a new manor-house at Mamhead and a taste for carefully chosen endowments which are extant to this day. The Newman family had had for centuries a highly respectable place in the local society of Dartmouth, but in the late 18th century Robert Newman and his brothers laid the foundations for the much higher social position of the succeeding generations.

K. Matthews

Devon Record Office, 2537A; 2992A; DD60501–8053; Exeter City Arch., town customs accounts. Dorset Record Office, D203/A4–A5. Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., corr. from Dartmouth house and Oporto; journals and ledgers; ledger for Little Bay, Nfld. (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN 1/13/4; GN 2/1; GN 5/2/A/1-1817, minute-books. PRO, ADM 7/154–55; BT 5/3; BT 6/87, 6/190; CO 33/13–26; CO 194; CO 325/7; CUST 65; HCA 26/62; T 64/82. Trewmans Exeter Flying Post, or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter, Eng.). Reg. of shipping.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

K. Matthews, “NEWMAN, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/newman_robert_5E.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/newman_robert_5E.html
Author of Article:   K. Matthews
Title of Article:   NEWMAN, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   May 18, 2024