Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1729-1871 by Keith Mercer

The early 19th century was a time of great growth for St. John’s.   Under the administrative control of a colonial government and with a growing population and a demand for services, the lack of a municipal government within a community of landlords that were largely absent most of the time created conditions that were unsavoury at best. Though municipal taxation faced great resistance, lawmakers of the day made great strides in attempting to improve building construction, fire services and water and sewer in the growing fishing town. A small number of constables paid from the sale of tavern licences managed to keep some semblance of peace through nightly patrols but the government largely depended on the garrison and the clergy to keep the peace during times of crisis. In 1870, however, with the threat of maritime conflict fading, the Governor of the day, Stephen Hill,  was informed that the garrison would be recalled and that Newfoundland would now have to pay for its own security and defence. And so, born out of desperation, began the Newfoundland Constabulary and what would become the oldest police force in Canada.

Rough Justice, written by Newfoundland historian and Memorial University graduate, Keith Mercer, chronicles “the first detailed study of policing in early Newfoundland.” 

Rough Justice, written by Newfoundland historian and Memorial University graduate, Keith Mercer, chronicles “the first detailed study of policing in early Newfoundland.”  A project of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society and published in 2021 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Constabulary’s establishment, Mercer utilizes a case study approach to “shed light on the social history of law and order in both St. John’s and the outports” focusing on the “lived experiences of the largely anonymous men who filled that position” as constable during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Mercer’s historical analysis is garnered from detailed surveys of court records and documents organized chronologically over the course of two centuries.  Through the use of frequent storytelling and the presentation of various case studies, Mercer presents a scholarly account of a colony-wide endeavour to bring law enforcement to the area known as the Old English Shore.  The eight-chapter narrative is thorough and in-depth, citing archives and publications and also including maps, tables, appendices, a bibliography, and an index.  An 8-page album of black and white photos provides a visual context for the time period that Mercer comprehensively recounts in presenting the colony-wide endeavour to shed light on the social history of law and order in the fledgling colony. 

The Newfoundland experience was one of continuity and incremental reform rather than sudden change brought about by political or legislative milestones – in this, there are striking parallels with policing in other colonies and cities in British North America.

The narrative first begins chronicling some of the earliest visitors to our shores; the fishing admirals.  These mysterious fishing-ship captains selected the best beach space or fishing room but often ignored the legal responsibilities that came with the position, laying the groundwork for the introduction of the first constables in 1729.

Chapter 3 details the birth of police constables in Newfoundland, officers normally from middling occupations such as planters and who played an active role in regulating taverns and enforcing the observance of the Sabbath. The work was dangerous but the constables are seen as important figures in their communities and were elevated to a status of wearing a uniform and receiving a salary while playing active roles in serving the district and superior courts.

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Chapter 5 details the tavern-keeper system which remained in place until the first full-time constabulary was created in 1812 and Chapter 6 tells the story of Newfoundland’s most prominent police officer, William Phippard, who led the way in fighting crime on the streets during a postwar depression.  As a lover of all things history and all things related to my culture, I found Rough Justice to be both an interesting and comprehensive analysis of subject matter not often explored yet crucial to the growth and development of modern society.  Though it was a slow-going read with a highlighter in hand, I often found myself revisiting many concepts for the sheer interest and amazement of the historical context in which it was presented.  There were many “Did you know?” moments that I simply could not contain!!

Rough Justice is a solid, well-written and expertly researched record of how Newfoundlanders lived and worked a century and a half before the formal establishment of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. It is the story of those many men who quietly enforced the law and helped to make communities safe through the maintenance of public order.  In the words of Chair Edward Roberts of The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society, it is “a valuable contribution to the public record of Newfoundland’s past”. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Keith Mercer was born in Gander and holds graduate degrees in history from Memorial and Dalhousie Universities. He works for Parks Canada as the Cultural Resource Manager in Mainland Nova Scotia. He lives in Bedford, Nova Scotia, with his wife, Amy, and children, Abby and Sam.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Flanker Press (March 31 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 518 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1774570165
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1774570166

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Stephanie Collins is a school administrator and teacher from Mount Pearl, Newfoundland. She is an avid reader, STEM enthusiast, creator, collaborator, lifelong learner and aspiring children’s book writer. As an educator, she has always utilized children’s literature as a basis for her lessons.   Stephanie has worked as a curriculum writer and contributor for new primary Science and Mathematics programs implemented by the provincial Department of Education and participated in an extensive action research project with the Faculty of Education at Memorial University focused on enhancing the capacity of STEM education with teachers and students in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.  In 2019, Stephanie and her husband enjoyed a sabbatical travelling throughout North America in their RV and chronicled their year-long journey in a blog entitled From The Rock To The Rim.  Stephanie began writing book reviews for Flanker Press publications in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  Her reviews can be found at Fireside Collections and you can follow her on Twitter @MrsCollinsNL.

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