Newfoundlandia: How The Death of Henry Hall Caused The Banking Crisis Of 1894

Was the fall of Newfoundland's banks the fall of an independent Newfoundland?

Much like the process which has formed our landscape, history can feel glacial. A slow grinding course of inevitability, beyond the capabilities of the individual to alter. Tolstoy thought of this as historical collective fatalism, that the individual cannot affect large scale societal direction.

Our history would suggest otherwise. Not only has large scale change happened quickly, but it has often depended on a single person. One such person never set foot in Newfoundland, never smelled an evergreen forest, but he changed the shape of our future. Precipitating not from anything he did, but rather from what he stopped doing. He stopped breathing.

To meet and re-flesh this lynchpin, we have to go back to the year 1894, and travel across the Atlantic to a modest room. Walls of dark wood panelling, mahogany and leather furniture, warmed by a low fire, and filled with the sounds of horse hooves on cobbles echoing down the streets below. This was London, the London of Sherlock Holmes, and still at that time the largest city on Earth, and the heart of a global empire of which Newfoundland was a part.

Found within our cozy room is a man slumped in his chair, head down on his desk, papers strewn onto the floor. He is middle aged, portly, mustachioed, slightly balding, and of average height. His bowler hat on the corner rack proclaims him a member of the professional class, and the middling sherry on his sideboard confirms it. He is an average person of no remarkable gifts who happened to live in the right time, to work in the right place, and most importantly to die at just the right moment. Mr. Henry Hall has just expired and changed our world forever.

To understand how, we need to give our Mr. Hall his breath, and send him back hale and hearty a few months earlier, back to his job of stamping forms for the firm of Messrs. Prowse, Hall, and Morris, London agents for firms exporting fish to European markets. On our side of the Atlantic, the fishing season was picking up pace. As usual, vessels were made ready through a series of advances. London advanced the banks in Newfoundland, which advanced local mercantile firms, who in turn advanced captains and crews in exchange for that season’s catch. There was certainly an element of speculation and risk, but bad years were cushioned by good ones, and it had functioned well enough.

Our two banks, the Union Bank of Newfoundland and the Commercial Bank, had operated successfully for decades. They had even managed to out-compete the British Bank of North America. Were they greatly weakened by the Great Fire of 1892? Undoubtedly. Were they over-extending themselves to recoup losses? Absolutely. By backing each other’s bills, the banks were able to carry on operations with extreme overdrafts. Everyone needed this fishing season to be a success. Mr. Hall couldn’t have known just how important it was for him to stamp the forms and keep the gears turning.

It was a terrific fishing season. Ship after ship filled with the highest quality fish sailed into St. John’s harbour awaiting transport across the Atlantic. Autumn in Newfoundland has always seen a stilled tension, a mixture of trepidation and hope. The year’s productivity would reach its maximum and the tally would begin. The focus would shift from making to shipping. Would it be enough? Would demand and prices remain high? Would this winter be good, bad, or brutal? Would we be enough?

The first ships left in September, finding demand high and prices excellent. October saw dozens of ships depart on a daily basis. November was even better, as the finger piers thrummed with comings and goings. Red ink was rapidly disappearing. It was clear that markets were holding strong and that there remained enough product to sell to set the banks and merchants onto solid footings. Full recovery from the Great Fire was at hand, or should have been.

December finds us back in that cozy office in London, with that slumped figure and a scatter of papers. Mr. Henry Hall died and the firm of Messrs, Prowse, Hall, and Morris declined any further exchanges pending a complete investigation into their affairs. On Saturday, December 8th news reached St. John’s that all transactions were halted, and that the Bank of England was calling in debts. Absolute catastrophe.

December 9th our banks stopped all loan advances and leaned on merchants for repayment. Some mercantile houses closed their doors almost immediately, E.J. Duder on the 8th, and A.F Goodridge and G.A. Hutchings on the 9th. Merchants withdrew from all business operations on December 10th, laying off staff wholesale, making a huge percentage of the workforce unemployed overnight.

Bread riots emerged, mobs surrounded the house of assembly, stores were looted, and marines were landed to protect property.

The Commercial Bank opened its doors on Monday December 10th to a crowd which quickly developed into a mob. Worry was replaced by desperation transmuted to panic and chaos. The Commercial Bank closed its doors, which led to a run on the Union Bank. Neither would ever open again. Ground to a halt, seven of the largest mercantile houses, some  established for well over a century, would not see another sunrise. The next two weeks were bedlam, bread riots emerged, mobs surrounded the house of assembly, stores were looted, and marines were landed to protect property.

England refused emergency credit, even though there was well over $2,000,000 worth of goods sitting in St. John’s, not including all of the loaded vessels en-route and piling up in the docks of London. Enough goods to pay the balance outstanding a hundred times over, yet England refused.

One way out: the Canadian banks. The Canadian banks, wearing their finest wolfish grins, offered help. Within the political turmoil of four different Premiers in a matter of weeks, Canadian help was accepted. The Bank of Montreal lent the Newfoundland government necessary funds and gained exclusive control over all government accounts. The Bank of Nova Scotia opened a branch in St. John’s on December 21st, only eleven days after our banks closed their doors. In the 21st, century it takes months for aid, monetary or otherwise, to reach disasters. How, in the 19th century, could foreign banks make available not only all necessary funds, but also open a physical branch in less than 2 weeks without foreknowledge?

All Canadian banks followed, in what amounted to a financial coup. The Canadian dollar was made legal tender; the Newfoundland dollar which was worth more was devalued by 1.4%, and pinned equal to it.

Since this moment, the vast majority of all banking profits left the Island, leaving us without a financial industry, without an investment bank, and without a real representative currency, in effect permanently disadvantaged.

The fall of our banks was also the fall of an independent Newfoundland. It was at this moment that we joined Canada. All subsequent confederation talks and elections were just window dressing. Had Mr. Henry Hall lived even one month longer, you and I and our fair Isle would be very different indeed. History does not record how Mr. Hall died. I wonder.

(A re-imagining based on real events. Source: Heritage NF)

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