Placentia Magistrates

By Judge G. Barnable

The following document was written by Judge G. Barnable and is given here (with permission) in its original form. The only alteration is the addition of subheadings to make web browsing easier, as well as a few pictures. The article, in giving a very extensive coverage of judicial history, also gives insight into life and times in the area from the early 17th century. To quote Judge Barnable at the end of this document " deals with human relations in their most complicated aspects. The whole confused, shifting helter-skelter of life parades before the law and through the courts." We thus see both Law and Life in this document.

 The First Magistrate


Placentia has had a magistrate since 1729.

In 1728 the British government decided to set up a sort of civil government in Newfoundland. The commander of the naval fleet, sent out seasonally to protect the fishery, was given a commission to act as governor during the fishing season and to appoint magistrates from among the resident population. He would live aboard his vessel and return home in the fall and they would keep order in the winter.

At the time Newfoundland's status was designated as a "fishery." It would only later become a "plantation," still later a "colony," then a "dominion," and finally a province of Canada.

So, why did this low-status "fishery" deserve any form of civil government? It was because a resident population was emerging despite every effort of the British government and the fishing interests to the contrary. In the last skirmish with the French many of those residents, especially the Irish, had shown a deplorable lack of loyalty. In St. John's, some residents, lead by William Kean, were banding together and operating their own, rather republican form of government. One way or another, Great Britain feared losing its "fishery" if something wasn't done.

Governor Osborne, the first of these naval governors, did what he was told. He appointed magistrates, or "winter justices" as they were called. However, he didn't have much faith in those from which he had to choose. He wrote to a superior advising that "The best of these are but meen people," and that no sooner would him go home than they would do just what they liked.

Placentia was one of the original districts, running from Cape Pine on the east to Placentia and the Western side of Placentia Bay.



Three Magistrates/Three Constables - 1732


The list of appointees for 1729 has been lost but the list for 1732 remains and it is safe to assume they were the same people.

There were three magistrates appointed for the Placentia District: Peter Signet, a Placentia merchant who died within a couple of years, Thomas Salmon, and Thomas Buchannan. Three constables were appointed to act as police under their supervision - Laurance Hardin, Henry Huxford, and John Brand. (Ref. Folkingham Report, Prowse, History of Newfoundland, p. 30)

Thomas Salmon paid rents to Governor Gledhill. A few years earlier there was a report that an Irishman, Thomas Salmon was accused by the governor of harboring rebels from the Sturt rebellion of 1715. (Ref, Decks Awash, vol. no. 17, no.3 May-June 1988, "The Placentia Area.") Mr. Salmon had been evicted by Colonel Gledhill, whose unpopular decision was defended by the garrison clergyman, Rev. Richard Cox who claimed that during his seven years there, he had "never known any person of Salmon's family (them generally reported Papists) at the communion of the Church of England, and not one, compelled by the Governor, ever took the oath to His Majesty." (Ref. Arthur C, Wardle, "Some Notes on Old Placentia," Placentia library archives)

Mr. Salmon must have rehabilitated himself by the time he appointed a justice.


Difficult times for early Magistrates


These early magistrates had very difficult times when the naval fleet sailed away in the fall. There were eight "houses of entertainment" in Placentia back then. (Ref Wardle, "Some Notes on Old Placentia.") Among their assigned tasks was the duty to build jails, erect gallows, stocks and whipping posts. However, they had no money with which to these things. They hadn't the power to tax the fishery but could tax individuals. They received no salaries but took part of the fines as fee.

The Placentia magistrate must have found a bit of money somewhere because between 1742 and 1755 there was a scaffold erected here. (Ref, Michael Harrington, Off-Beat History, the Evening Telegram, Feb. 2, 1981, quoting Jean Pierre Proux, National Historic Parks and Sites).

There was a great deal of resentment toward these magistrates. The seasonal fishing captains resented them because they were used to the arrangement whereby the first captain to enter a harbor became the ruler for that season, the "fishing admiral." These fishing admirals didn't want their power taken away by a resident whose only sources of authority stemmed from a commission granted to the naval commander by executive order. They argued that their power came from a more legitimate source, parliament. They insisted on continuing to hold their own courts, deferring only to the governor's subordinate officers, or surrogates, when they visited during the season. The few merchants and merchant's agents, who found it more convenient to manage their fishing interests from the Island, didn't like them at first either. Like the fishing captains, they didn't appreciate anyone interposing himself between themselves and the poor man. However, the merchants were soon to discover that it was themselves, or people they could control, who would be the magistrates. After seeing this, they had no further trouble accepting the new judicial arrangement. The early magistrates were merchants, merchant's agents, doctors or clergymen.

They performed all the functions of government. In addition to judging, they supervised policing, welfare, customs, education, health and municipal affairs. In time of war they were expected to be the military leaders, like Charles Garland in Carbonear and Robert Carter in Ferryland.


John Broom appointed in 1762.... then Edgecombe & Haddock


In 1762 John Broom was appointed magistrate for Placentia. He had come to Newfoundland as a young midshipman with Captain Cook, the famous navigator and chart maker. He transferred to St. John's later and eventually was appointed chief magistrate for the whole Island, and acted as Chief Justice for the whole Island when there was no other in residence. He died February 3, 1836, aged 81. In his obituary it was said of him that only one of his decisions was ever overturned by the Supreme Court. (Ref. Crosbie, Book of Vital Statistics, 1831-72, quoting from the Times, February 3, 1836)


The Plight of the Irish Catholics


When Broom was transferred, Robert Edgecombe and a man named Haddock were appointed magistrates. At this time, (after 1750) Irish Catholics were being harassed. Magistrates were all Protestants and it was one of their duties to see to it that life was made especially hard for the Irish. It is too long to go into it here, but it should be said that the Irish had brought some of it on themselves. In 1752 a group of them had killed William Kean, the St. John's merchant and magistrate who had been instrumental in getting at least this much government for Newfoundland. Thereafter, there were a panic and the number of Irish in Newfoundland became noted with alarm. The poor Irish, stranded on this Island, suggested the development of a disloyal resident population. Irish were not allowed to own ground, hold religious services, have a house with a chimney in it, have a house with too many people in it, have the spiritual comfort of priests, or hold public office.

It was no use for an Irish Catholic to swear allegiance to the British Crown. The authorities believed that he would be excused from such an oath by his priests, and his church, that it wouldn't bind his conscience.

Consider Robert Edgecombe's oath, taken when he became a magistrate. In this way the authorities tried to assure themselves that he wasn't Catholic:

"I, Robert Edgecombe, do declare That I do believe there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper of bread or wine at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever." (Ref. Placentia Court Records, [vol.1] Sept. 1776 to July 25, 1786)


Edgecombe and Haddock dismissed in 1764


In 1764 Edgecombe and Haddock were reprimanded and dismissed by Governor Palliser. It wasn't because of their lack of zeal in pursuing Irish because Palliser was the most anti-Irish of all the governors. Rather, it is said that they had been behaving in a high-handed fashion and administering the law erratically. They were levying taxes on the residents. They were fixing prices on the goods to be sold to the fishermen. It wasn't that they couldn't do these things. Price controls were being imposed in St. John's at that time and taxes levied under the governor's direction. There a tax was levied for repair of the burying ground and relief of the poor. Here in Placentia the taxes and the price controls seemed to favor the upper classes.

In court Edgecombe and Haddock had heard the case of Simon Honeyburn v. Lawrence Reilly. Honeyburn was a master who claimed his servant Reilly had struck him. Reilly said Honeyburn had held back his wages, using the excuse that he had been neglectful of his duties. All was decided in favor of Honeyburn and Reilly was ordered to apologize. When he refused, he was placed in the "black hole" at the guardhouse for 24 hours. Similarly, in the case of Collins v. Green the court showed favor to the merchant. (Ref. Placentia Court Records, 1761-1764)



Gossard, Brarthwaite & Bennett


Jervis Gossard, Richard Brarthwaite and William Bennett were appointed to replace Edgecombe and Haddock. (Ref. Prowse, History of Newfoundland, p.316)

In 1774 the first courthouse was built in Placentia. (Ref. Prowse, History . . . p.653). It was located just to the west of the present Anglican church. Previously, court was held in the public house (tavern) belonging to John Murphy, who received 20 shillings for the rent of this room. (Ref. Placentia Library Archives)

In 1775 Magistrate Jervis Gossard wrote the following to Robert Pringle, military engineer about the flooding that had occurred in Placentia on September 11.

"We beg leave to acquaint you that on the 11 inst. between the hours of nine and 10 o'clock at night, we had a violent gale of wind in the best part of the night' and by its violence and rising of the water, every house in this place has some two, three or four feet of water in them. Everyone is obliged to move up to the Garret." (Ref, Decks Awash, May-June, 1988, p.7; see also the Evening Telegram, Dec., 22-25, 1983?)

In 1779 Governor Edwards ordered the magistrates to conduct the first census. There was found to be a population of almost 11,000. (Ref. Pedley, The History of Newfoundland, p. 130)


Religious freedom granted to Roman Catholics - 1784


In 1784 Governor Campbell granted religious freedom to Roman Catholics in Newfoundland. However, the first few years were not smooth, for several reasons. Father O'Donel led an "approved" clergy from St. John's. Father Burke was his supporter in Placentia. Nevertheless, there were still other priests turning up, more rebellious minded and offering rival services to the Catholic population. One such individual was Fr. Thomas Lundrigan (1752-1787). Father Lundrigan arrived in Placentia in 1785 and promptly caused trouble for the government and the future of Bishop O'Donel. In October Governor Campbell wrote to the magistrates at Placentia telling them to capture Fr. Lundrigan, and put him on a boat back to Ireland, "for his turbulent spirit." (Ref: Prowse, History of Newfoundland, pp .364 65). Bishop O'Donel was in full agreement with the Governor.


He wrote:

"In this district of Placentia lurks a certain apostate of the Order of Preachers from the Irish Province who came there this year from France and who without jurisdiction hears confessions and goes on with all that pertains to a person legitimately sent. Horrendous things concerning him are told about him here and written to me by the aforementioned Father Burke; indeed, complaints about him were sent to the Governor himself, namely that he had violently assaulted a Protestant fisherman and gathered together in tumult several Catholics who threatened him with death and therefore he was forced to give up the fishery in this place causing the loss of a hundred guineas; finally he (the Protestant fisherman) seeks to know by whom the loss is going to be made good, whether by the King or by the Governor who allows such priests on the Island." (Ref. Byrne, Gentlemen-Bishops and Faction Fighters, p.56)

Indeed, it was Thomas Saunders, the merchant, who had asked the Governor to help get Lundrigan, who "was popular with the Irish servants" banished. (Ref. Mannion, Irish Merchants Abroad, Newfoundland Studies vol. 2, Fall 1986, p.181)


Prince William Henry's arrival in 1786


1786 was a blessed year for the people of Placentia. They were touched by royalty that summer, and for a while had a prince for a judge, a future king of England - Prince William Henry, the "sailor king." As part of his training to be king, Prince William Henry was assigned as a naval officer that year and accompanied the fleet to Newfoundland.

Nominally he was subordinate to the governor who as I said earlier, was chief judge during the fishing season. He couldn't be everywhere at once so his subordinates, the naval officers commanding the other ships of the guardian fleet, travelled the coast as his surrogates, inspected the work done by the resident magistrates, oversaw the admiral's court, acted as court of appeal. Later, those "surrogates" would become land-based residents appointed from among the senior magistrates, and the first of the magistrates to become salaried officials. But in 1786 they were still itinerant naval officers.

It is said that the bachelor prince had a pleasant stay here and that the blood of royalty flows in the veins of some of the people ever since. Be that as it may, I will dwell upon his legal achievements only.


Prince William disapproved Catholic use of court house for worship


He didn't find the two magistrates of the town conducting affairs as they should. Doctor John Brown and Alexander Wilson had been letting the Catholic Irish use the new court house as a place of worship since 1780, and letting them bury Catholics in the Protestant burying ground. At his first court session, with them beside him, he ordered that they no longer allow the use of the court house for such purposes. We wrote to the governor asking permission to tax the inhabitants to raise money for the building of a Protestant church, "the old one having been burnt down some years ago." (Ref Rev. Canon Pilot, "Placentia Old Church," in Placentia library archives). He was so angry with the two magistrates that he ordered them to each contribute 5 pounds toward this proposed building. Only two years before had Catholics formally been granted freedom of worship. They still hadn't a church in Placentia and still didn't enjoy much religious toleration. During his time in St. John's Prince William Henry had become enraged upon seeing the future Bishop O'Donel walking in the street outside the billiard room and had hurled a file at him, hitting him in the shoulder. Now arriving at Placentia he wrote an angry letter to Governor Elliot expressing his disgust that the priest was shown more respect than the two justices. Meanwhile, even the more acceptable Fr. Edmond Burke was complaining of Prince William's behavior with certain of the women of the town. (Ref. Decks Awash, May-June 1988)

Prince William Henry didn't quite appreciate just how numerous the Irish were, how much trouble they could be when the fleet and the armed marines sailed away. In short, he didn't appreciate political reality, and in fact, that's why he was hurried off to Placentia. The political reality was that there were more Irish Roman Catholics than there were Protestants. In 1763, out of a permanent resident population of 7,500, there were 4,795 Roman Catholics and 2,705 Protestants.

He found the two magistrates timid when it came to quelling civil disorder. There had been some sort of Irish brawl, (possibly a faction fight) on the beach and the magistrates seemed reluctant to intervene, especially since they only had a constable or two to back them and especially since they had to stay there the next winter.


Prince William's examples of Law & Order

Prince William Henry decided to give them a demonstration of how law and order should be restored. Backed by a body of armed marines, he came ashore and had the suspected ringleader seized and flogged on the very site of the riot. The actual record reads as follows:

"Sunday, 6 August, 1786"


A riot happening on shore about four o'clock in the afternoon and the Chief Magistrate attending to suppress it apprehended the Ringleader and instructed a constable to take him into custody and commit him to Gaol the following offered violence to the Constable who would get no assistance from the by standers who requested by the Magistrate thro' which means the rioter made his escape. The Magistrate immediately Waited on His Royal Highness Prince William Henry and reported the business who immediately came on shore with a Guard of Marines apprehended the man called a court and he was ordered to receive 100 lashes at the usual place of punishment on shore 80 of which were immediately given him being thought as many as he could with safety received at that time, after which he was ordered to be confined on board of His Majesty's Ship Pegasus, until further enquiry was made into his conduct. (Ref. Placentia library archives, a typed transcript prepared Cyril J. Greene, 1972)


"The next day," to quote Judge Prowse, "upon inquiring into the matter, it was found that he had flogged the wrong man."(Ref. Prowse History)


At this same session of court John Connors was luckier. The record reads as follows:

"A complaint made as follows Sharp of Oderin against his man John Conners for running away in the Midst of the hurry of Business in the Fishery. Both parties being summoned and the case minutely inquired into Conners ordered to receive 39 lashes on his bare back, the fellow being penitent and the Master declaring it was the first offence after many years servitude the sd. Conners excused .... by order of his Royal Highness Brown, Justice of the Peace"


Strong disapproval of Prince William Henry's treatment


A man named Foley was said to have broken the constable's windows. Prince William Henry had him flogged also. The Irish grew angry at this treatment and when they gathered in the evenings at the tavern known as the "Yellow House," there was much grumbling and at least one man, Geoffery Flynn, the tavern owner, were heard to speak of open insurrection.

But, the Prince was undaunted. He moored his ships in the roads in such a way that the guns were trained squarely on the little, angry town, and ". . . with a spring on the cable," to accommodate the recoil, he awaited the showdown that never came. (Ref, Placentia Library Archives, papers of H.W. LeMessurier, ed by C.R. Fay)

The above account was dramatized originally by Magistrate Thomas O'Reilly, based on an account given by a Mrs. Furlong, then 95, who was the daughter of the Geoffry Flynn in the story. It was prepared in the 1870's and was adopted by Mr. LeMessurier about 1915. We should think of it as written down folklore, with at least some error, since the setting was Christmas eve, and the naval fleet and Prince William would be long gone from Placentia by Christmas eve. However, the court records do show that a "Jeffery Flynn" did attend the first court session presided over by Prince William Henry the August before. (Ref, Placentia library archives.)

At the end of the fishing season Prince William Henry sailed away without igniting the rebellion that he had so carelessly encouraged. Eventually, Dr. Brown left also. In 1792 he succeeded William Spurrier as magistrate in St. Marys. (Ref. Mike McCarthy, "History of St. Marys Bay",

p. 67.) He may have been elevated to surrogate by this time, 1800, and still exercise a supervisory role over the Placentia court. (Ref. O'Reilly, "Historic Placentia", Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. vi, No 2, [Oct. 1906], p. 11) Dr. John Brown was the grandfather of Prime Minister, Sir Hugh Hoyles. (Ref. Prowse, History... p.653)


John Evens


At the turn of the century the Anglican clergyman, John Evens was also the magistrate for least until that summer.

In August George Ryvers, the naval surrogate made a visit of inspection. He opened court and promptly dismissed the unfortunate Evens from both posts. It wasn't that he had performed badly as a magistrate, but he was found to have been "beastly drunk in the pulpit". (Ref. Placentia Court records, [vol. 2] Aug. 1786 - Dec. 29, 1802)

Mr. Evens was married to Elizabeth Collins of Placentia, one of the Collins' family that Prince William Henry had favored when he had visited. Henry had sent Mrs. Collins some valuable church plate when he returned to England. The Collins felt it might have been a personal gift but being the wardens of the church they left it for the church. Blackburns were the next church wardens, followed by Bradshaws. The plate has been kept in St. John's since 1927 when the last Bradshaw was leaving the area. (Ref. Placentia library archives, letters from Miss A. Collins, Searston to "the Star")



Dr. Francis L. Bradshaw & Josiah Blackburn - 1800


In 1800 Dr. Francis L. Bradshaw and Josiah Blackburn were made magistrates in Placentia to replace Evens, and were also expected to conduct divine services for the Church of England people, at least until a clergyman could be recruited. They were still conducting divine services in 1803. For the next fifty years or more, the Placentia magistracy was controlled by the Blackburns and the Bradshaws, especially the latter family.

Dr. Francis L. Bradshaw was an ex-naval surgeon who had been first appointed a justice of the peace in Trepassey in 1792. Smallwood's Newfoundland Encyclopedia records that he served as a magistrate for 18 years, then made the mistake of asking to be paid for the performance of his judicial functions. He was refused and removed from office at once, but still continued to practice medicine in Placentia until 1825. He was married to Sarah Hart.

In 1807 Denis O'Brian was Chief Constable in Placentia. The other constables were Richard Hearn, Thomas Vigeurs, Martin Foley, Thomas Blanch and Danial Redmond. In Little Placentia James Power and Edmond Walsh were the constables.

Constables didn't have long tenure. By 1809 only O'Brian and Blanch were still in their positions. The other constables in Placentia then were Lawrence Furlong, John Sutton, James Brennan, James Wyse, and Richard Forestall. In Little Placentia William Smith, Nicholas Hayes, and Patrick Forehan were the constables. (Ref. Decks Awash, May-June 1988)

It should be understood that publicans were obliged to be the police in those times and the merchant houses were also expected to provide policing. This would explain the quick change of names.


William G. Bradshaw - 1837


Even after the original Dr. Bradshaw lost one of his posts, other Bradshaws continued to hold the post of magistrate. In 1837, a William G. Bradshaw, "Licensed magistrate", officiated at the wedding of Joseph (Josiah) Blackburn, son of old Josiah, to Mary Walden Tucker. He was the son of the senior Francis L. Bradshaw. He died December 29, 1880.

In 1830 Roger Sweetman was elected foremen of the Grand Jury and was made a Justice of the Peace for Placentia that same year.


Another Dr. Francis L. Bradshaw - 1836


In 1836 there was another Dr. Francis L Bradshaw in Placentia. He and Josiah Blackburn were members of the first school board for the District.

In those days the magistrates were expected to be the protocol officers for the community also. On October 22, 1840 Mr. J. B. Jukes came to Placentia. Magistrate Bradshaw called on him on board his ship and invited him for breakfast the next day, after which the two walked the five miles to Little Placentia where they spent the day in a borrowed punt looking at the geological features of the area, dined with a local merchant and returned home in the evening. Mr. Jukes described the clear and frosty morning and affected to be ecstatic about the surprisingly good road that existed between the two places. He found he could look about him as he walked and swing his arms freely and not be always ready to catch himself from tripping. "I felt very much inclined, like the Irishman, to walk backwards and forwards in order to make the most of it", he wrote. (Ref. J. B. Jukes, Excursions in and about Newfoundland During the Years 1839, 1840, vol. 1, p. 208, Canadiana House, Toronto, 1969)



Last of the faction fights - 1845


1845 was the year of the last of the "faction fights" in the Placentia area. This one, culminating in the case of Hogan v. Walsh, involved the agent of the Sweetmans and the parish priests of Placentia and Little Placentia. Fr. Pelagius Nowlan (Nolan) (1784-1871) was a parish priest in Little Placentia. He was from Kilrush, Co. Wexford and had come to this area in 1831. He and his supporters didn't like Kilkenny men, and the parish priest in Greater Placentia was Fr. Walsh from Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny. Hogan's men had some trouble with Fr. Walsh's men and they had gotten charged in court and the court had done all it could to get them convicted. After the jury acquitted Walsh's men, it became fairly unsafe for Hogan and Wexford "Yellow bellies", even Fr. Nowlan to walk in the streets of Placentia. No one in Placentia would agree to act as constable to keep the peace after Bishop Fleming saw fit to transfer Fr. Walsh to Merasheen and government troops were requested from St. John's. (Ref. Placentia Library Archives, John Mannion, "Irish Merchants Abroad." p. 171)

In 1850 Dr. F. L. Bradshaw was the magistrate in Placentia. Luke Collins was the Clerk of the Peace at the courthouse. (Ref. Journal of the House of Assembly, 1850, Appendix, p. 21) Bradshaw continued to be the magistrate until at least 1865 because it was he who was assigned to investigate the complaint of Croucher, the would be politician who had lost the election to Thomas O'Reilly. According to the census 1864-65 the other members of the legal fraternity at that time were Samual Collins, jailer, John Sinnott, stipendiary constable and cooper, and William G. Bradshaw, preventive officer.


In the Anglican cemetery here in Placentia there is the gravestone of one, "F. Bradshaw", who died September, 1870. (I've seen other accounts stating that this man died "May 9, 1872, age

75" and alternately, "March 9 1873".)


There is much less information on Josiah Blackburn Sr. His son, Joseph, (Josiah), the one who married Miss Tucker, was magistrate in St. Mary's and was later transferred to Grand Bank. He was a water-colorist and some of the early paintings of Grand Bank are his. (Fizzard, History of Grand Bank....)


Adam McKen replaces Bradshaw in 1870


When Bradshaw died in 1870 he was replaced by Adam McKen, who was transferred here from Bay Bulls. He would likely be the first stipendiary magistrate, (salaried) since all the remaining outport magistrates were put on salary in 1872. (Ref. Garfield Fizzard, Unto the Sea, a History of Grand Bank, 1987, Grand Bank Historical Society, p. 123)


The O'Reilly's....Magistrates 1877 - 1927


Between the years 1877 and 1927 the Placentia magistracy was in the hands of the O'Reilly's, first Thomas O'Reilly and then his son, William. In this era the present court house was built. In the late 1880's a Grand Jury listed the Placentia court house as among those in the worst state of repair on the Island. The corner stone for the present court house was laid June 26, 1902. The architect was probably William H. Churchill since it was one of a series of similar courthouses being built at about the same time under his direction. One of its remarkable features is an off-center clock tower, which originally was a pointed tower, but was later replaced by a flat top. In addition to the magistrate's office and court room on the second floor, the building also contained the postal and customs office, a constable's residence, and a jail. It was not called the court house, but was referred to as "the new general building." (Ref. Placentia Library Archives)


Thomas O'Reilly


Thomas O'Reilly is one of the most famous sons of Placentia, since it was he who started the Star of the Sea Association in 1876, and was its President until his death in 1897. His activities relating to the Star are so well known that they can be passed over here in favor of a glimpse at the other aspects of his life.

He was born in 1839, the son of John O'Reilly and Hannah (Roach) O'Reilly. His father was the lighthouse keeper at the Cape and was also a member of the first school board for the District in 1836.

When Thomas grew up he became a school teacher. In 1856, when he was just 17 years old he operated the commercial school here in Placentia, in a room 30' by 16'. Between 90 and 120 students attended. This school had been operating since 1845 so Thomas wasn't its first teacher. By 1859 he was receiving 70 pounds per year. (Ref. Journal of the House of Assembly, 1859)

In 1862 he decided to seek election as a candidate for the House of Assembly for Placentia-St Marys. In order to do so he had to resign his teaching post. When he lost the election the parish priest of Greater Placentia, Father Condon wouldn't give him back his school, although O'Reilly claimed that Condon had made that promise when he decided to run.

Little Placentia (Argentia) had its own school board and its own parish priest, Father Nolan (Nowlan), of whom I've already spoken. The school board there hired him. This wasn't surprising because Father Nolan favored him. Also, he had married an Argentia girl, Sarah Phoran, the daughter of the merchant, William Phoran. There was a final quarrel erupted when Thomas refused to hand over the key to the school house in Greater Placentia to his successor in office, Francis Curtis. It is also said that he held the school books belonging to the Greater Placentia school also.

In 1865 he again tried his hand in politics. He was one of four candidates who sought the three available seats for the District, and together with Ambrose Shea and Pierce Barron was successful.

The loser, merchant, James Croucher was the only Protestant running, but he had at least one strong friend - Father Condon. Father Condon persuaded Croucher to petition the House of Assembly to set aside O'Reilly's election. The government tried to settle this election dispute by having Magistrate Bradshaw investigate. However, Father Condon refused to attend and give evidence. Instead, Father Condon went to the House of Assembly himself in support of the petition, where he told the members, "It is from his character that I am unfriendly to him."

After leaving politics Thomas O'Reilly was eventually appointed magistrate here in Placentia, after an interlude as a trader and dealer.


I will not bore you with a detailed account of his doings as a magistrate but a will pause to tell you of several trials that may have lingering interest.


Some trials

 During the first week of July, 1888 the government cruiser, Ingraham, while enforcing the provisions of the Bait Act, captured two French bankers off Cape St. Marys, the Amazon and the Virginia. They were towed into Placentia and their captains and crews of approximately thirty were imprisoned here.

The Bait Act of a century ago was an earlier attempt to limit foreign fishing. The Bank fishery then was a hook and line fishery, and a good supply of fresh bait was essential. The provisions of the Act prohibited Newfoundlanders from selling bait to foreign vessels and forbade them from coming in close to the coast where the necessary squid, herring and capelin were to be had. It had the support of most Newfoundland fishermen, except those in areas like Fortune Bay where good money could be made from the sale of bait to foreigners. (Ref. letter to the Evening Telegram, July 3, 1888)


Returning to the case, the Telegram of July 12, 1888 reported:


"Mr. P.J. Scott goes to Placentia to defend the French bankers captured by the Ingraham off Cape St. Marys. Attorney General Winter for the Crown. We hope the latter gentleman will not allow the whole business to be bungled as he did the case of the Ambrose H. Knight."

(The Ambrose H. Knight was an American vessel and her skipper Duggan was acquitted in St. John's earlier when the Crown failed to produce the evidence it needed to gain a conviction.)

The trial took place before Magistrate Thomas O'Reilly and the case was in fact prosecuted by a Mr. Greene Q.C. who either replaced the Attorney General or assisted him. It lasted several days and wasn't concluded until Saturday evening. Mr. Scott was unsuccessful in his line of defense which was that the arrest was illegal in that the vessels were boarded without reasonable and probable grounds, but rather on mere suspicion. On the substantive issue the French witnesses swore that the capelin

found on board were taken off Miquelon, except for a barrel of capelin to eat.

Convictions followed and both captains were fined $200.00. What was more significant by far was that both vessels were ordered forfeited to the Crown and were towed away to Burin. This latter penalty caused a furor.

The appeal was heard in the Supreme Court in St. John's on November 28, 1888 before Mr. Justice Little. The convictions and fines were upheld but it was held that there was no jurisdiction under the Bait Act to order forfeiture or confiscation.


The Wreck of The Morna

Wrecks were not as common this far up the Bay as they would be on an exposed shore of Newfoundland. Nevertheless, they form a rich part of Newfoundland history and you will hear about one.

On the evening of August 7, 1888 the brigantine, Morna, en route from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia to St. John's with a load of coal, ran aground on Point Latine, about two miles from Little Placentia. The ship was under the command of Captain Bartlett and was owned by John Woods and Sons, merchants and shipowners, of St. John's.

Boats and men came from everywhere around and removed the coal and carried it away. On August 17 Judge Prowse was sent out to investigate the allegations of wrecking and plundering and on August 22 he and Magistrate O'Reilly conducted court proceedings in Placentia in relation to the wreckers.

On August 28 the Evening Telegram reported the plundering trial was concluded and that David Bruce was convicted and sentenced to four months. Richard Sparrow received six months, James Cunningham two months, and Denis King was fined $50.00.

This wasn't exactly the last word. In November the Telegram published an anonymous poem from a writer in Placentia expressing regret only for the fact that the Morna would never be able to go to Glace Bay for more coal. (Ref. The Evening Telegram, Aug. 11, 17, 22, 28, and Nov. 27, 1888)


Death of Thomas O'Reilly


Thomas O'Reilly died at the age of 58. He was predeceased by his wife, Sarah who had died in 1887. He was survived by his sons, William, who took his place on the Bench, Rev. Dr. O'Reilly, a priest, and a son Patrick. There may have been other children but I have not got their names.


His headstone in Placentia Cemetery reads:

"In every capacity he strove for the public welfare and the support of the church of which he was a most exemplary member."


William O'Reilly, Thomas' son, becomes Magistrate in 1897


William O'Reilly took over the post of magistrate when his father died in 1897 and held it until approximately 1927. He would have overseen the building of the present courthouse. He built and owned the O'Reilly house which was later taken over by the government, thereafter to be used as a magistrate's residence until the death of retired magistrate William Linegar. In 1906 he wrote an essay, entitled "Historic Placentia", which has already been referred to in this talk. His tenure of office did not end quite happily.


Magistrate Sinnott


Magistrate O'Reilly was succeeded by Michael Sinnott, a Placentia man and another President of the Star of the Sea Association. He was the son of Edward Sinnott and once sat in the House of Assembly as a cabinet minister for a short period of time. He died in 1965 at the ripe old age of 94.


Magistrate Linegar


The next magistrate was William Linegar, a St. John's man and a noted long-distance runner in his youth. He transferred here sometime after 1939, after spending a short period of time in Harbor Breton. He was the first Placentia magistrate who was also a lawyer. A lawyer was surely needed in the post then, since the American arrival at Argentia was just around the corner.

As you know, between 1935 and 1949 self-government in Newfoundland was suspended in favor of rule by a Commission. There were no politicians, no House of Assembly, no elections. During this period magistrates were assigned to represent the Commission on every aspect of government in the outports. They were to oversee the work of all departments of government in their districts, send regular reports and even pictures, as each one was issued a camera. They became transferrable and were given housing. In short, they returned to the same high status they had enjoyed in the days of the naval governors.

In the Placentia District Magistrate Linegar acted for the Commission in a great many of the transactions concerning the arrival of the Americans and their occupation of our lands. He also oversaw recruitment for war service.

Besides the strictly judicial, Magistrate Linegar had a great variety of issues to consider. On the one day he might be issuing orders to the ranger to enforce the rule that bulls are castrated, the next day it might be the yoking of goats. There was a complaint from one of the communities on the Western shore that the school master was refusing to adjust the clock to Anderson's time, and while some of the community was supporting him, it was causing a great deal of confusion, and could he, the magistrate, drop a line or two to this singular teacher and make him conform with the rest of Newfoundland.

Magistrate Linegar tried to respond to all correspondence. The following is his answer to a lady in Arnold's Cove Station in 1943.


"Dear Madam,

I have for acknowledgment your letter of the lst. inst, but regret to inform you that I find it impossible to understand from it just what you are complaining about. It appears from your letter that someone is saying something about you, and you want me to write someone to stop doing so. I have to advise you that Magistrates do not take sides, by correspondence or otherwise, in any matter which might later be a cause for litigation.

I think I should point out to you, by the way, that you are not permitted to use envelopes marked "On His Majesty's Service", when sending your own personal mail. This is an offence punishable under the laws of this country.


Yours truly,"


Magistrate Corbett - 1972

In 1972, when Magistrate Linegar retired, Magistrate Terrance Corbett transferred here from Stephenville and stayed for the next ten years. During his time the Provincial Court Act was enacted, which Act defined the magistrate, his court and his jurisdiction for the first time in modern terms and in conformity with the way this court was considered elsewhere in Canada. In 1981 the title was changed from "magistrate" to "provincial court judge".



The incumbent arrived in Placentia September 1982, to replace Judge Corbett who transferred to Holyrood. The story after that date is boring and modern and must be left for someone else to tell.




A judicial history is relatively easy to do because courts keep records. It is worth doing because the law deals with human relations in their most complicated aspects. The whole confused, shifting helter-skelter of life parades before the law and through the courts. Although the brush strokes have been light I hope you have enjoyed the picture I tried to paint for you this evening.

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This Page is part of a Historical and Cultural Web Site created by students of Laval High School, Placentia, NFLD (A0B 2Y0) First created March, 1997. Updated February, 2000.