SHEA, Sir EDWARD DALTON, newspaperman, politician, and public servant; baptized 29 June 1820 in St John’s, son of Henry Shea* and Eleanor Ryan; m. 23 Aug. 1849 Gertrude Corbett (d. 1903) in Cork (Republic of Ireland), and they had two sons and five daughters; d. 8 Jan. 1913 in St John’s.
The Sheas constituted one of the most prominent Irish Catholic families in 19th- and early–20th-century Newfoundland. Edward Dalton was the youngest son of merchant Henry Shea, who had come to St John’s from County Tipperary (Republic of Ireland). He was educated locally, and in 1836 began working for the business established by his father. The family also owned a newspaper, the Newfoundlander, which was edited by Edward’s brother William Richard* and then briefly by another brother, Ambrose*. Edward took over the paper in February 1846 and continued as its editor and publisher for nearly 40 years.
The Newfoundlander reflected independent Liberal and Roman Catholic opinion, and was at times a platform for the views of the politically ambitious Ambrose, a prominent and powerful figure in Newfoundland affairs. In the 1850s the paper supported the granting of responsible government to the colony and reciprocity with the United States. It argued strongly in favour of confederation during the 1860s and advocated railway building and other progressive measures in the 1870s and 1880s. The Newfoundlander never blindly followed the Liberal party line.
Edward Shea entered politics in 1855, when, in the first election after the introduction of responsible government, he ran successfully for the Liberals in Ferryland. He joined the government of John Kent* (without portfolio) three years later, almost certainly because Ambrose was speaker and therefore unavailable. Edward was re-elected in 1859 and in 1861, when the Liberal party was defeated. After four years in opposition, the Shea brothers and Kent crossed the floor to join the Conservatives, then led by Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter*. Kent and Ambrose Shea became members of the government. Edward was given the post of financial secretary – the predecessor of the auditor general – but not an executive seat. All three supported confederation. Edward soon found that his constituents did not; indeed, they burned him in effigy during the 1865 election campaign, and he prudently retired from the contest. Carter appointed him to the Legislative Council in January 1866; he continued as financial secretary.
The Carter government was defeated in the confederation election of 1869, but Shea remained financial secretary (outside the cabinet) under the anti-confederate government of Charles James Fox Bennett*. However, he ran against Bennett’s candidates in Ferryland in the 1873 election. In the course of a rough campaign, Shea claimed, his life was in danger on several occasions. He came at the bottom of the poll, with fewer than 200 votes. It was his last flirtation with electoral politics. When Carter and the Conservatives returned to office in 1874, Shea achieved cabinet rank as colonial secretary and led government business in the Legislative Council.
The influential place of the Shea brothers was threatened in the mid 1880s by the eruption of sectarian passions and politics after an Orange-Catholic riot at Harbour Grace. The closing of the Newfoundlander at the end of 1884 probably reflected Edward’s unwillingness to take sides and the increasing difficulty of his position. During the 1885 legislative session, Ambrose and other Catholics found it expedient to leave the Conservatives, now led by Sir William Vallance Whiteway*, and move into opposition; but Edward continued as colonial secretary. Indeed, he remained in the post throughout the year, even in the militantly Protestant government of Robert Thorburn*, elected that autumn. It was clearly in the family interest to have representatives in both camps.
Early in 1886, Edward Shea indicated that he had had enough and requested succession to the offices held by the elderly Edward Morris*, who was both president of the Legislative Council and cashier (general manager) of the government-controlled Newfoundland Savings Bank. Since the Sheas had quietly supported Thorburn’s party, Edward received what he wanted – as did his son George*, a member for Ferryland, who became financial secretary.
The remainder of Edward’s life was uneventful. He was created a knight bachelor in 1902, managed the savings bank until 1905, and presided over the Legislative Council until 1912. Overshadowed by the prominence of his brother, Edward nevertheless profited from it and was thus enabled to lead a comfortable life of quiet importance. The Shea brothers were viewed by many, particularly their co-religionists, as ambitious men intent primarily on looking after their own interests. While there is some truth to this estimation, during his long and active public life, Edward Shea contributed significantly to the debates on most major issues facing Newfoundland in the second half of the 19th century. In this way he helped to shape public policy and to promote the emergence of a politics based on issues rather than sectarian loyalty.
PANL, GN 2/2, Shea to Thorburn, 8 Jan. 1886. Daily News (St John’s), 9 Jan. 1913. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 31 May 1886, 8 Jan. 1913. Newfoundlander (St John’s), 18 Nov. 1873. Patriot (St John’s), 26 Nov. 1873. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser (St John’s), 25 Sept. 1849. Terra Nova Advocate (St John’s), 15, 19 Aug. 1885. J. P. Greene, “The influence of religion in the politics of Newfoundland, 1850–1861” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld, St John’s, 1970). J. [K.] Hiller, “Confederation defeated: the Newfoundland election of 1869,” in Newfoundland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: essays in interpretation, ed. J. [K.] Hiller and P. [F.] Neary (Toronto, 1980), 67–94. Historical directory of Newfoundland and Labrador newspapers, 1807–1987, comp. Suzanne Ellison (St John’s, 1988).