Prior to 1902, St. John’s was run by five ward councilors and two members appointed by the Government of Newfoundland (with the exception of 1898-1902, when The City was run by government by commission).
Some legislation was passed in 1902 to alter the structure of St. John’s municipal government. It would now be run by six councilors at large, and one mayor, to be elected by those living in the city who paid property taxes.
The first mayor elected to the council chamber throne was George Shea. Shea was born in St. John’s (not everyone was in these pre-confederate days of proto-St. John’s). Shea was educated between town and Ampleforth College in England.
Shea’s uncle Ambrose became the governor of the Bahamas in the late 1880s! Ambrose’s taking of that position is what gave George a leg up in the family business, Shea and Company. Shea and Company was a shipping agent for Allan Line Royal Mail Steamers and the Ross Steamship Line – George took over as managing Partner in Ambrose’s absence. It was this business experience that later landed him a gig at the North British Mercantile Insurance Company and as a member of the Newfoundland Board of Revenue, and made him kind of a big deal.
The family business wasn’t the only professional ambition of the Shea family: Both father and son took a run at political careers, much like ol’ Uncle Ambrose. George ran for the Ferryland seat in the Newfoundland Assembly as a Liberal in 1885. He got into the seat his father had once filled, and served a few terms before becoming minister without portfolio in the government of Sir James Winter. He walked away from provincial politics in 1900, briefly.
In 1902, after many prominent citizens of St. John’s twisted his arm to do so, he ran for mayor of St. John’s. His strong background in politics and business helped him beat Thomas White (whom the influential railway owner Robert Reid was backing). During his term, history states he improved the city’s water system, and helped bring the city’s finances under control (the city had been operating on a deficit for a decade).
Despite those efforts, he lost to a well-liked labour lawyer, Michael Gibbs, in 1906. Sidenote: Gibbs created King’s Counsel in 1911, and was the editor of the Terra Nova Advocate in the 1890s.
It was no skin off Shea’s back though, he re-entered provincial politics as the Liberal representative for the district of St. John’s East (1904-1913), and once again served as minister without portfolio, this time in the government of Sir Robert Bond from 1904 to 1909. It is said that Shea’s support of Sir Richard Squires got him elected as Premier in 1919. Come 1920, Shea was appointed to the Legislative council and served stints as acting Premier when Squires was off the island.
Fun fact, our first mayor’s second wife (Margaret Rendell), was the first Newfoundlander to become a trained nurse graduate of the esteemed Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. During Shea’s reign as mayor, he appointed the first medical health officer for St. John’s, Dr. Robert Brehm, whom much has been written about.