ST JOHN, THOMAS, seaman, miner, and union organizer; baptized 11 Sept. 1865 in Harbour Main, Nfld, son of James St John and Mary Hunt; m. Alice ------ by 1906; last known to have been seen in the period 1920–22.
Thomas St John was born into one of the many Irish Catholic families in the Harbour Main area. His paternal grandfather, John, a native of Tipperary (Republic of Ireland), owned a plantation at Conception Harbour, Nfld, a half interest in a brigantine, and fishing rooms on the Labrador. His father was a sealing captain who worked successfully in partnership with his brothers but the growth in the number of steam vessels eventually forced them, along with many other swoilers (sealers) who used sailing ships, to abandon the seal fishery. Thomas himself went to sea, serving as a mate on merchantmen, and apparently spent time in Bell Island’s iron-ore pits, which Canadian capital had developed to supply Nova Scotia’s steel industry. He may have been a seasonal worker like many of the island miners, who came largely from the communities around Conception Bay. It is possible too that he found work in the United States.
His appearance on history’s stage was brief. On 27 Jan. 1900 he was on the passenger ship Silvia when it docked at Halifax en route from New York City to St John’s. That summer he led a six-week-long strike on Bell Island. On 11 June miners there struck the Dominion Iron and Steel Company Limited, also known as the Whitney company after its president, Henry Melville Whitney. They were indignant that the company, which had begun operations a year earlier, wanted them to work longer for the same pay. They were also offended by their treatment at the hands of the company’s managers and foremen, who were from Nova Scotia, a stance that aroused public sympathy for the strike. The miners persuaded the workers at Bell Island’s other pit, operated by the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company Limited, to join the strike. Together they formed the island’s first miners’ union, the Wabana Workmen and Laborers’ Union, with 1,100 members, and they chose St John as president, Eugene Sheppard as vice-president, and Daniel J. McCarthy as secretary. The union demanded 15 cents an hour for all workers, which represented a five-cent-an-hour increase to match the rate paid at Sydney, N.S., the replacement of the offensive foremen, and the companies’ recognition of the miners’ committee as the bargaining agent. The companies refused.
St John proved to be an imaginative and meticulous organizer. He quickly established four watches of 300 men each to patrol approaches to the island and to protect company property. These watches allowed him to maintain order among the volatile miners, to know, within minutes, of the arrival of ships with police or strike-breakers, and to monitor the activities of company officials. St John also set up a system whereby the miners allowed no one to leave the island without approval and no one to land without promising not to interfere with the strike. In addition, the strikers appear to have systematically relayed information back and forth between the island and the mainland. St John and the other union leaders maintained morale by organizing parades in which the miners carried banners emblazoned with the slogans “no surrender,” “hang her down” (meaning maintain one’s place), and “St. John.” A “kodaker” (snapshooter), the press reported, even made up buttons featuring a picture of St John. These sold quickly and the miners wore them proudly. Such actions made for an orderly and, initially, effective strike.
The companies responded with strike-breakers, and the government dispatched as many as 52 policemen, a magistrate, and Newfoundland’s inspector general of police, John Roche McCowen*, to protect the scabs loading the ore schooners. The government’s action did not provoke the miners to violence, but they did become more determined. Their intransigence finally moved the companies to seek the arrest of the leaders. On 12 July, three days after St John and a group of miners had prevented Dominion manager W. S. Grammer and a gang of office hands from unloading a coal schooner, the police charged St John and McCarthy with obstruction and Sheppard with riotous conduct. They pleaded not guilty, but the court remanded them to the penitentiary in St John’s for nine days. The arrests, the police protection, and the miners’ impoverishment after six weeks without pay broke the strike. On 23 July Edward Michael Jackman*, a merchant tailor and “labor’s friend,” negotiated an agreement at the Conception Bay community of Kelligrews. The Treaty of Kelligrews, as it became known, gave skilled workers a two-cent-an-hour increase and unskilled workers one cent. The miners also managed to procure the reinstatement of all the strikers, a significant achievement, but there is no indication that the companies recognized the union or acceded to its demands over hours. Thomas St John received a “thunderous ovation” from the miners when he arrived at Bell Island on the 24th to chair a meeting about the settlement. Many miners, including St John, wanted to hold out for a single wage for all, but the men eventually voted unanimously to return to work at the negotiated rates.
It could be argued that the miners were lucky to have obtained anything given that the government had intervened, that 1900 was an economically poor year, and that the miners were generally only seasonal workers anxious to support their families through the winter. It was no doubt their solidarity, St John’s organization, and public support against foreign-owned companies that enabled the miners to make limited gains. The settlement had an immediate impact in the city of St John’s, where labourers, who were earning eight cents an hour on average, struck for the Bell Island rates. The historian Briton Cooper Busch has argued that the miners’ example also made the sealers more militant during their strike in 1902 [see Simeon Kelloway*].
The details of Thomas St John’s life after the strike are sketchy and dependent on personal recollections. Former mineworkers from Bell Island claim that he and other leaders found jobs at the steel plant in Sydney. Manifests for passenger ships between St John’s and New York City in 1914 indicate that he had moved to New York and become an American citizen. Members of the St John family who moved to Glace Bay believe he went to Camden, N.J. Martin Kennedy, who left Newfoundland in 1920 to work in high-steel construction in Camden, boarded until 1922 with Thomas’s brother Joe, a dock builder. Although he never met Thomas, or Tombo as he was called, he saw him, and remembers him as a big, tough man, over six feet in height and about 250 pounds, a Roman Catholic, and still a solid unionist.
The DCB acknowledges information provided by Steven Neary and Martin Kennedy in interviews held in October 1992.
NA, RG 76, C: 1(b). PANL, GN 1/3/A, dispatches 149, 187; GN 5/2/A/9,2, f.572 (1865); GN 9/1, June–August 1900; MG 299; Parish records coll., Roman Catholic Church, Harbour Main, baptisms, no.103. PRO, CO 194/245, no.46. Daily News (St John’s), 11 Sept. 1899, June–July 1900, 22 March 1906, February 1931. Evening Herald (St John’s), June–July 1900, March 1906. Evening Telegram (St John’s), June–July 1900, 21 March 1906, February 1931. Gazette (Montreal), July 1900. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser (St John’s), 29 Nov. 1864. Trade Review (St John’s), June–July 1900. David Alexander, “Newfoundland’s traditional economy and development to 1934,” in Newfoundland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: essays in interpretation, ed. J. [K.] Hiller and P. [F.] Neary (Toronto, 1980), 17–39. Addison Bown, Newspaper history of Bell Island (2v., n.p., n.d.). J. D. Green, “Miners’ unions on Bell Island” (b.comm. paper, Memorial Univ. of Nfld, St John’s, 1968). P. F. Neary, “‘Traditional’ and ‘modern’ elements in the social and economic history of Bell Island and Conception Bay,” CHA, Hist. Papers (1973): 105–36. M. J. Nugent, “Wabana iron mines at Bell Island, Conception Bay,” Adelphian (St John’s), 1 (1904): 94–98. Gail Weir, The miners of Wabana: the story of the iron ore miners of Bell Island (St John’s, 1989). Who’s who in and from Newfoundland (St John’s), 1927.