a bite-sized podcast about Newfoundland

The Colonial Building Riot

Hello, and welcome back to NewfoundPod, a bite-sized podcast about Newfoundland. I’m your host, Debbie Wiseman, and today I’m going to talk to you about the Colonial Building Riot.

This week, Newfoundlanders go to the polls in another provincial election. If you watch the news, have social media or just talk to people, there’s always something going on that makes people angry with whoever is in charge. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s not. Back in 1932, people had had enough and a demonstration turned into a riot that threatened the life of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister at the time was Richard Squires. Remember, this was before Confederation, so Newfoundland was it’s own country. You may remember him from a couple of episodes back as the husband of Lady Helena Squires, and as a man who tried to keep women of Newfoundland from getting the right to vote. That wasn’t his only character flaw though.

Richard Squires served as a member of the Liberal party from 1913 to 1918. In 1919, he ran for the leadership of the party and won, becoming the sixth Prime Minister of Newfoundland. His tenure was fraught with accusations of corruption. It seems like wherever he could, he abused his position to line his own pockets. Just some of the accusations included obtaining money illegally from the Liquor Department, accepting bribes from steel and mining companies who hoped to use the resources at Bell Island, using money from the Department of Agriculture for his own personal gain, misappropriating campaign funds, bribing people to win the election in the first place…it’s quite a list. Squires was forced to resign and William Warren was chosen as the new leader of the party. He called for a criminal investigation into the allegations, Squires was arrested and convicted.

Believe it or not, this isn’t where the story ends. Despite all of that, Richard Squires ran for Prime Minister again just 5 years later and won. Seriously!

He was soon back to his old ways. This time though, people found it harder to look the other way since they were going through the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, fish catches were the lowest of the century and the price being paid for those catches were low. People were dying from diseases caused by malnutrition.

In February of 1932, Peter Cashin, a member of the Squires cabinet, resigned and accused Squires of corruption. He claimed that Squires had falsified Council Minutes, had paid himself money out of public funds and even paid himself an annual amount of $5000 from the War Reparation Commission funds. That month, a group of several hundred people attacked the Court House where Squires had an office. He escaped unharmed.

In March, the government met again, this time to implement some extremely unpopular measures – cutting pensions to ex-servicemen and higher taxes on food.

The people were fed up, and who could blame them. Here was a person who was supposed to look after their best interests, and he was raising taxes and cutting pensions while people suffered and he lined his own pockets. The tipping point came when Squires hired a man to look into the charges that he knew would side with him, which he of course did. Squires was deemed innocent of any wrong-doing.

In April, a public meeting was held by clergymen, businessmen and politicians. They planned a march in the streets, that would end with them presenting a petition to have Squires properly investigated for his actions.

That day, a group of 2,000 people gathered near the Majestic Theatre. As they marched, another 1,500 people joined them. By the time the time they reached Colonial House, an estimated 10,000 angry citizens were present. The petition was presented but the representatives were not allowed inside. The crowd got restless while they waited for a response. People started to break in to the building. Rocks were thrown through the windows. They tried, unsuccessfully, to set the building on fire. They broke furniture inside. They looked for Squires, who had hidden in his office with Joey Smallwood. A rescue group of priests and cops arrived. They tried to escape by cab but Squires was spotted and forced back inside. The clergy and police tried to negotiate with the crowd to let Squires leave. They reluctantly agreed, but he didn’t get far before they got to him again, striking him in the face. He escaped on foot and hid out in a house for the night while the mob looked for him and looted downtown liquor stores. Many injuries were reported but no loss of life.

Squires, typically arrogant, refused to resign. And why not? He’d stolen from the people before and he’d been re-elected. He was sure that his political enemies were behind all of this, and not that he was unpopular or doing anything wrong. He instead called an early election. He was sure he’d be re-elected again. He was wrong. In June of 1932, his opponents took 24 of 27 seats.

He never gave up on his dream of getting back in power. Luckily for the people of Newfoundland, that didn’t happen.

I don’t get political on here. I’ll just say, vote. Always vote. It’s important.

Thanks for listening today. You can find me at NewfoundPod on social media, my email is NewfoundPod@gmail.com. I’ll be back next week with a mini episode. Talk to you then!


Rowe, Frederick William. A History of Newfoundland and Labrador. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1980. Print.