TREMLETT (Trimlett), THOMAS, merchant, office holder, and judge; baptized 5 Jan. 1770 in St Saviour’s parish, Dartmouth, England, son of Thomas Tremlett and Hannah Stapeldon; d. unmarried August 1830 in Stoke Fleming, England.
The Tremletts were an old, established, south Devon family. The grandfather of Thomas Tremlett was the collector of customs for the port of Dartmouth, and an uncle was an Anglican clergyman in the same area. Tremlett’s father succeeded to the post of collector of customs in 1767, but during the American Revolutionary War quit to go into trade. He sold American-built vessels, olive oil, ship stores, and sundries. After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Newfoundland fishery entered a period of feverish expansion, and the Tremletts were among many “new adventurers” who expected great and rapid profits from the trade. They opened stores in St John’s and at Little Bay, in the newly settled Fortune Bay. In 1786 they claimed to be supplying 500 people in the neighbourhood and a year later owned eight vessels engaged in the trade between the west of England and Newfoundland. Like many others the Tremletts were caught with over-extended credit in the great crash of 1789 [see Peter Ougier*] and in October of that year they were declared insolvent. Their business in Little Bay was liquidated, but young Thomas went to St John’s as a small-scale commission merchant. By 1798 the family’s business had recovered to some degree: they owned one foreign-trading vessel in that year. By then, however, Thomas’s brother Robert had come of age, and the enterprise was probably too small to support all the family.
In 1801, the last year of Benjamin Lester*’s life, control of patronage in Newfoundland seems to have passed from the town of Poole, in Dorset, to Dartmouth. Amongst other appointments Thomas Tremlett secured those of registrar of the Vice-Admiralty Court and deputy naval officer and, in October, the position of chief surrogate for the island of Newfoundland. The post of chief surrogate is easily confused with that of chief justice, but the two were separate. The chief surrogate was basically a justice of the peace, although he had an official salary and powers to hear cases all over the territory within the jurisdiction of the government of Newfoundland. No legal training was expected; indeed, there were no trained lawyers in Newfoundland at this time.
Few new positions were being created in the public administration of England and the same held true for Newfoundland. Vacancies generally depended on the death or retirement of the incumbent, and appointments required the extensive use of political patrons. Newfoundland’s climate and situation provided vacancies fairly often. The second chief justice, D’Ewes Coke, chose to resign in 1798 rather than live on the island year-round. His successor, Richard Routh*, was lost at sea on a voyage from England to Newfoundland in 1801 and was succeeded by surgeon Jonathan Ogden. Within a few months Ogden was incapacitated by a stroke. Tremlett happened to be on the spot in the spring of 1803 and as chief surrogate had the best claim to promotion. He was accordingly appointed chief justice on 23 May by Governor James Gambier.
Like earlier magistrates, Tremlett was careful to keep the esteem of successive governors, writing lengthy and fulsome letters which combined flattery and assurances that Newfoundland was loyal and law-abiding. However, he was also reluctant to surrender some of his other paid appointments after becoming chief justice, and in 1804 and 1805 he had to be firmly instructed to do so.
By 1809 relations between Tremlett and the merchants of St John’s had become strained; indeed, in October the merchants’ society petitioned Governor John Holloway for his removal on grounds of incompetence, partiality, and venality. The charges against him were complex and, as time went on and the conflict deepened, became ever more so. There seems little doubt that Tremlett was technically incompetent: he, like his predecessors, had no legal training whatsoever. He also appears to have been heavily influenced by the officers of the court; however, he does not seem to have been venal. Many of the charges against him stemmed from the fact that his interpretations of law did not favour the mercantile élite, but on at least one point his accusers seem to have been correct: Tremlett had a tendency to interpret his will as the law. For example, in one celebrated case of debt he ordered all charges relating to the purchase of liquor and tobacco to be struck out on the grounds that “such things might do harm.” Above all, Tremlett was hostile to creditors in cases of debt and insolvency. This attitude may well have been due to the Tremletts’ own earlier insolvency.
In 1810 and 1811 Tremlett’s case continued to simmer. The Privy Council committee for trade apparently found no legal grounds on which to remove him. After a full inquiry into three complaints by the merchants against him (which Tremlett had answered by writing: “To the first charge . . . I answer that it is a lie, to the second charge, I say, that it is a damned lie, and to the third charge it is a damned infernal lie”), the committee reported that he had not behaved unjustly or with partiality, but was at worst guilty of an “ungracious manner.” However, given his continuing unpopularity in St John’s and his evident want of judgement, something had to be done. In 1813 the British government thought that a solution had been found. On Prince Edward Island, Chief Justice Cæsar Colclough was similarly unpopular, and it was decided that Newfoundland could have Colclough, and Prince Edward Island, Tremlett, in fair exchange.
Colclough had become unpopular with a faction of the Prince Edward Island House of Assembly connected with Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, chiefly as a result of his opposition to the Loyal Electors, a nascent political party. But he had many friends and supporters on the Island. Tremlett, who was appointed on 6 April 1813, rapidly succeeded in alienating virtually everyone of importance, first the new lieutenant governor, Charles Douglass Smith*, and soon the leading proprietors, much of the legal profession, and even ordinary freeholders called to jury duty at the only site of the Supreme Court, Charlottetown. His problems were both political and judicial.
Tremlett exasperated Smith, who was ever fearful of continuation of the levelling “demagoguery” of the Loyal Electors, led by James Bardin Palmer. From the lieutenant governor’s perspective, the chief justice was entirely too sympathetic to the lawyer Palmer; Tremlett even adjourned his session of the court in 1814 from day to day to permit Palmer to pursue his practice in Nova Scotia. Smith’s immediate response was to protest privately to timber merchant John Hill* that it “would not be safe to suffer any question of Property to be tried in the Supreme Court against Palmer” with Tremlett on the bench. Palmer, admittedly the most proficient and learned lawyer on the Island, was in Smith’s judgement too overwhelming for a chief justice who was “at a loss as to the Practice of Courts.” Attorney General William Johnston added that Tremlett was incredibly slow in trials, “which I suppose must arise from his never having practised or presided in a court of common law – Points of practice are to him matters of greater difficulty than even points of law.” The chief justice was, moreover, accused of refusing to accept crown challenges of jurors regarded as sympathetic towards the Loyal Electors and of treating offenders too leniently. Part of Tremlett’s difficulty was his tendency to approach cases as informally as he had in Newfoundland. He personally transcribed the testimony of each witness, and on at least one occasion had the temerity to suggest that the litigants settle their differences amicably by shaking hands and forgetting about their petty grievances.
By the summer of 1815 Smith was complaining to the Colonial Office itself about Tremlett. He denied any personal differences but added, “I never can feel safe with him in my Council, he universally hangs back about every thing, his sympathies are all with the lower orders, & Palmer can make him do any thing, except absolutely commit himself with me.” Trendett and George Wright* were regarded as Palmer’s agents on the Council; assistant judge James Curtis* usually sided with Tremlett on the court, to the point where assistant judge Robert Gray refused to attend. When Smith attempted to regularize (and reduce) the fee schedule for lawyers, Tremlett refused to make the lieutenant governor’s proclamation of fees retroactive. This action should have pleased the Island’s legal fraternity, but most members were too upset with the chief justice’s wholesale rejection of “the most weighty authorities” in their pleading. John Hill added a complaint that Tremlett had been involved in an attempt to seize and condemn one of his vessels which the customs people claimed had been engaged in transporting timber illegally obtained. Tremlett further incurred the wrath of the Island administration by refusing to back attempts to enforce militia service through the courts. Correspondence to the Colonial Office became a constant litany of criticism of Tremlett and insistence on his removal. Smith even argued in 1817 that he could not convene the House of Assembly while both Palmer and Tremlett were on the Island; by this time Palmer was openly talking about Catholic emancipation and free land for tenants. Palmer’s departure from the Island produced a satisfactory legislative session in 1817, although Smith subsequently dissolved this relatively friendly assembly.
The assembly that met in November of 1818 was hardly one sympathetic to Smith, much of the electorate having been worked up over his efforts to impose escheat and collect quitrent arrearages, especially from resident proprietors. In these endeavours Smith now had the support of Palmer. Not surprisingly, the legislators also turned against Chief Justice Tremlett, passing a series of 13 resolutions critical of his administration of justice. Smith’s reply was to label the charges “as unjust as they were intemperate” and to refuse demands for Tremlett’s suspension. Privately, the lieutenant governor admitted that complaints about the slowness of proceedings in the Supreme Court, which kept jurors and litigants for months in Charlottetown away from their farms, were legitimate points. But Tremlett had enforced the collection of quitrents in conformity to the law, and Smith had no complaints on this score. He supported Tremlett again in 1820.
Between 1818 and 1824 Smith, Tremlett, and Palmer appear to have reached some understanding. Smith ceased demanding Tremlett’s removal and the chief justice appeared ready to enforce the law, especially regarding the quitrents. When Island unrest with Smith’s administration, led by John Stewart and John Hill, finally reached the breaking point in 1823 and 1824, Tremlett was included in the condemnations. Petitions from each county in the Island complained of the long maladministration of justice by Tremlett; the one from Queens County observed that the chief justice “certainly enjoys less of the consideration and respect of his fellow-subjects than any other person that ever yet held his important office in the Colony.” Tremlett was swiftly removed from his post in the clean sweep of 1824 made by the Colonial Office. Samuel George William Archibald* was named to replace him.
The expressions of popular discontent with Tremlett ought not to be exaggerated. The complaints that produced his dismissal were carefully orchestrated and came mainly from the professional and propertied classes of the Island. The length of court sittings was perhaps the most serious legitimate grievance, but objectionable too was the fact that the court sat only in Charlottetown, and this arrangement was not entirely Tremlett’s responsibility. He had attempted to administer justice instead of law, and in the process he alienated most elements of Island society that mattered. As Smith himself put it, Tremlett’s errors were “of the head” rather than of the heart.
Tremlett remained in Charlottetown through 1825 memorializing the government for back salary, but eventually retired to Devon, where he died in 1830 at the age of 62. He was buried in St Saviour’s parish cemetery on 10 August.
Much of the information concerning Tremlett’s family in Devon and his Newfoundland career was drawn from the Tremlett name file and other copies of records relating to the trade and fisheries of Newfoundland available at the Maritime Hist. Arch., Memorial Univ. of Nfld. (St John’s).
Devon Record Office (Exeter, Eng.), 2992 A (St Saviour, Dartmouth), reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 22 April 1767, 5 Jan. 1770, August 1830. Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., ledgers and letter-books (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN 2/1, 1801–13; GN 5/2/A/1, 1803–13. PAPEI, Acc. 2810/171. PRO, ADM 7; BT 6; CO 194/43–54 (copies at Maritime Hist. Arch.); CO 226/30–32; 226/41–42 (mfm. at PAPEI); CUST 65/33; E 190 (copies at Maritime Hist. Arch.). P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 8 Dec. 1818. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 16 Nov. 1830. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 1807–13. Sherborne Mercury or the Weekly Magazine (Sherborne, Eng.). Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter). The register of shipping (London). Warburton, Hist. of P.E.I., 324–25, 435.
© 1987–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
J. M. Bumsted and K. Matthews, “TREMLETT, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tremlett_thomas_6E.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:
|Author of Article:||J. M. Bumsted and K. Matthews|
|Title of Article:||TREMLETT, THOMAS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||May 31, 2023|