PINSENT, ROBERT JOHN, magistrate and judge; b. in 1797 in the Conception Bay area of Newfoundland; d. 28 Nov. 1876 at Pimlico, London, Eng.
Robert John Pinsent’s family was one of long standing in the Conception Bay area of Newfoundland. As the son of a prominent family he was probably sent to England to be educated. He married Louisa Broom; their only known child, Sir Robert John Pinsent*, played a distinguished role in Newfoundland’s legal and political life.
Robert Pinsent was appointed a stipendiary magistrate at Brigus in 1836 and in 1843 received a similar appointment at Harbour Grace. In 1851 reports reached the Newfoundland government that there were serious difficulties in St George’s Bay on the island’s western coast. Until 1850 St George’s Bay had been within the area of “non-settlement” according to treaty arrangements with France, and Newfoundland had had neither magistrates nor excise officers there [see Kent]. In 1850 James Tobin became magistrate and collector of customs for the area and the people were called upon to pay taxes including boat and net taxes. The French, however, continued to fish alongside them without paying taxes; in fact they were paid a bounty for their catch by the French government. The people of St George’s Bay protested; the resulting arrests, fines, and transportations to gaol in St John’s provoked outbursts – the magistrate was stoned, public meetings were held, and petitions were signed. On 15 July 1851 the government appointed Robert John Pinsent and Captain George Ramsay as justices of the peace for Newfoundland and its dependencies, and sent them to St George’s Bay on Ramsay’s ship, Alarm, to investigate the disturbances. On Pinsent’s appointment the Roman Catholic Newfoundlander commented, “We entirely concur in the fitness of the selection of Mr. Pinsent; the well-earned reputation of this gentleman being an excellent voucher for the impartial and efficient discharge of his responsibility.”
Pinsent and Ramsay spent several weeks at St George’s Bay and recommended that the Catholic magistrate, James Tobin, be replaced by a “Protestant of good plain sense, having a patient temper and a tolerable acquaintance with the law.” Governor John Gaspard Le Marchant ignored the recommendation, stating that “although Tobin was not an over judicious person, his removal would be the cause of a quarrel [as] he is a bitter Catholic and a friend of the Roman Catholic bishop who would espouse his cause.”
In 1861 Pinsent was involved in a particularly difficult situation in Harbour Grace. On nomination day, 26 April 1861, after three controverted elections to the assembly since 1859, intense party strife, complicated by religious animosity, caused a serious riot, despite the presence of some 100 soldiers from St John’s. Pinsent, having read the riot act to no avail, attempted to persuade the mob to disperse. An accusation of negligence was later brought against him by the Protestant inhabitants as a result of his refusal to request that the troops break up the armed crowd of between 300 and 400. Pinsent claimed that he understood his only alternative was to order the troops to fire “and that last and deadly resort I did not feel warranted in adopting . . . as although the damage to property was considerable, little or no personal violence was inflicted on anyone.” The Executive Council sent Joseph Peters, the stipendiary magistrate of Old Perlican, to Harbour Grace to act with Pinsent, but Pinsent refused to recognize Peters in his official capacity. The council then decided to remove Pinsent although “in view of his former services, he was to receive some other suitable appointment.”
By 1862 Pinsent was a member of the Legislative Council and in 1863 he was named judge of the court of Labrador, a post he held until his retirement in 1874. In 1866 he took a leading part in organizing a meeting of St John’s merchants and other citizens to prepare resolutions in opposition to the proposed confederation of Newfoundland with the other provinces of British North America.
Throughout his life Pinsent was an active member of the Church of England community and a member of the Newfoundland Church Society. As one of a family long established in the Conception Bay area and having connections with leading families in St John’s, Pinsent fitted into the role of outport squire and magistrate, respected by both Catholics and Protestants. His unwillingness to take harsh measures during the riotous proceedings in Harbour Grace in 1861, although justly resulting in his removal as magistrate, indicates his humane attitude and his concern for the outport people.
PANL, Newfoundland, Executive Council, Minutes, 1861, 563–629. PRO, CO 194/133–194/134, 194/135–194/136. Newfoundland, House of Assembly, Journal, 1852, appendix. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 28 April 1893. Newfoundlander (St John’s), 10, 24 July 1851. Newfoundland Patriot (St John’s), 30 June 1866. Public Ledger (St John’s), 27 June 1865. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 12 Dec. 1876.