O’BRIEN, LAURENCE, merchant, banker,
politician, and office-holder; b. 1792 in Clashmore, County Waterford (Republic
of Ireland); m. in 1853 Margaret Manning of St John’s, Nfld; d. 28 April 1870
near St John’s.
Lawrence O’Brien probably left Ireland for Newfoundland some time between 1808 and 1810. During these years the war-time prosperity of the Newfoundland fishery was attracting young men and women from southern Ireland and southwestern England. O’Brien may have come to Newfoundland as a mechanic, possibly as an apprentice, although the Newfoundland Mercantile Journal of 1819 lists a Lawrence O’Brien as a publican. At the time of O’Brien’s death an associate commented that he had risen from the lowest levels of society.
By the mid 1820s Lawrence O’Brien and Company was engaged in the wholesale and retail trade in St John’s, locally known as “dealing.” As a dealer in this period, O’Brien would import various goods to sell in the St John’s area for cash or credit. It was customary for dealers to advance goods to fishermen during the fishing season for a return from their catch of cod in the fall, and also to contract for dried cod to be sent abroad in their own ships or sold to larger suppliers. Moreover, an enterprising dealer might purchase and sell vessels for the export trade and the seal fishery. By the 1840s O’Brien owned between four and eight ships himself.
Eventually, O’Brien, through his extensive wholesale-retail trade, was importing coal from Sydney, N.S., vegetables from Prince Edward Island, lumber from the Miramichi in New Brunswick, molasses from Barbados, fishery salt from Cadiz, Spain, and manufactured goods from England. His establishment on Water Street grew to consist of a wharf, warehouses, and a retail store, with flakes for drying codfish on some of the roofs. In 1833 and again in 1846 O’Brien’s premises were destroyed by fire, but he soon rebuilt. In the codfish trade O’Brien’s involvement was small in comparison with such large merchants as Charles Fox Bennett*. O’Brien shipped cod abroad in his own ships or in foreign vessels to Brazil, Naples (Italy), Havana (Cuba), Leghorn (Italy), and Veracruz (Mexico); he also shipped pickled cod to the United States.
By 1850 O’Brien’s commercial success was based especially on sealing, in which he had been engaged at least since 1837. The smaller investment necessary for sealing as compared with the inshore, Labrador, or Grand Bank fisheries allowed the two medium-sized mercantile firms of O’Brien and James Tobin* to contribute 15 to 20 per cent of the annual sealing fleet in the 1840s, the golden age of Newfoundland sealing. However, O’Brien’s prominence did not survive the disastrous seal fishery of 1848 which reduced his fleet the next year to half its usual size. Smaller firms like O’Brien’s did not have the financial resources to rebound from their losses as well as large establishments like Bowring Brothers or Job Brothers and Company.
Among O’Brien’s other commercial activities was the formation of the Bank of Newfoundland in 1844. The leading merchants of St John’s were displeased with the restrictive lending policy of Newfoundland’s only bank, a branch of the Bank of British North America. The shares in the new bank were subscribed, its charter passed by the assembly, and the bank ready to commence business when the older bank’s directors appear to have taken action to mollify the merchants; the Bank of Newfoundland was, therefore, wound up before it began. O’Brien was also a leading figure in the promotion of the Union Bank, a locally controlled commercial bank which opened in 1854. Similarly O’Brien was a member of the boards of directors of the Equitable Fire Insurance Company of London, the Standard Life Assurance Company, the Newfoundland Marine Insurance Company, and the Newfoundland Steam Tug Boat Company.
One of O’Brien’s enduring interests was agriculture which he pursued on his estate, Rostellan, on the outskirts of St John’s. He seems to have been particularly interested in grains, some of which he displayed in an exhibition in London in 1862. He served as president and member of the board of management of the Agricultural Society in St John’s for many years.
Despite his humble origins in the Roman Catholic community, O’Brien’s growing affluence in the 1830s and 1840s had thrust him into contact with the mainly Protestant mercantile community, and his name appeared with increasing frequency as a member of committees formed to undertake such public projects as cholera prevention. Yet O’Brien’s position within the Irish Roman Catholic community was also important. Between 1838 and 1857 he was 11 times president of the Benevolent Irish Society, a quasi-charitable, quasi-political organization, and after 1859 was vice-patron of the society.
O’Brien’s prominence in the St John’s community brought him into the colony’s politics. Like other Irish Roman Catholics O’Brien had supported the movement for representative government in Newfoundland. He had been one of 67 prominent supporters of the creation of a local legislature who had signed a public notice calling a meeting in September 1831 to discuss the slow progress of the local legislature bill through committee in the British House of Commons. O’Brien played a leading role in the meeting which drew up resolutions to be forwarded to the House of Commons [see Brooking; Rochfort].
In 1840, when Patrick Morris*, one of the Reform leaders of the representative government movement, accepted a seat on the Council, a St John’s assembly seat became vacant. O’Brien had at first joined in supporting James Douglas as the Reform candidate; but, whether motivated by personal ambition or by pressure from Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming*, O’Brien changed his mind and ran himself. With only the two Liberal candidates in the field, most of the merchants supported the Protestant Douglas, while John Kent* and the Roman Catholic clergy of St John’s backed O’Brien. O’Brien won by only eight votes out of 3,000 cast in a heated and violent election.
The legislature which O’Brien entered in 1841 was a battleground between the elected assembly and the appointed Council. Important legislation was in suspension since the Council had been using its power to amend or veto bills sent up from the assembly in order to frustrate the operation of the representative government the councillors disliked. Indeed in 1841 they refused to pass 19 bills, especially the electoral and supply bills. That year O’ Brien was one of four delegates sent by the assembly to London to put its case against the Council to the British colonial secretary, Lord John Russell. As a result of a British parliamentary inquiry, the two bodies were amalgamated in 1842 into a single chamber with 15 elected and ten appointed members. The structure of the new legislature gave governor Sir John Harvey* control of its proceedings by use of a combination of appointed office-holders, particularly the speaker, James Crowdy, and elected Conservative merchants. This control was bitterly denounced by O’Brien and other Reform members, and in 1843 Governor Harvey appointed O’Brien to the Executive Council as a conciliatory gesture to the Reformers.
Although he attended the sessions of the legislature regularly, O’ Brien did not take a major role in its proceedings, leaving the Reform leadership to Morris, Kent, and William Carson*. True to his mercantile background he supported increased duties to protect Newfoundland manufacturers. But unlike his Protestant colleagues he insisted on the rights of Roman Catholics to fairer representation and to more government jobs.
With the expiration of the trial period for the amalgamated legislature in 1848, Newfoundland returned to the old system of an assembly and an appointed Legislative Council. O’ Brien was re-elected for St John’s in that year. However, in 1850 he resigned from the assembly to accept an appointment to the Legislative Council to fill the vacancy left by the death of Patrick Morris the previous year.
O’Brien’s new position in the council and his stature in the commercial world of St John’s allowed him to play a unique role among his associates in the period leading to the introduction of responsible government in 1855. In a special meeting of the Commercial Society of St John’s on 16 Feb. 1852, O’Brien was the only prominent merchant who refused to support a resolution proposed by C. F. Bennett and Thomas Row condemning responsible government as likely to lead to control of the executive by the Roman Catholic bishop, John Thomas Mullock, not by the assembly. In March of the same year O’Brien was the only dissenting voice from a council resolution opposing responsible government. He criticized the existing arrangement of representative government as defective, defended Newfoundlanders’ right to responsible government, which had been granted in the neighbouring colonies, and demanded that Roman Catholics and Wesleyan Methodists be given their fair share of government patronage. With the institution of responsible government in 1855 O’Brien received his reward and was appointed president of both the Legislative and the Executive councils created under the new system. He was consequently administrator of the colony in 1863 before the arrival of Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave*.
The first two administrations of the new era were created from the Liberal party and were headed by Philip Francis Little* and John Kent. O’Brien was a member without portfolio while retaining his position as president of the Legislative Council. He apparently had little involvement in the formation of Liberal policy, but continued to defend his party in the mercantile community. With the dismissal of the Kent government by Lieutenant Governor Sir Alexander Bannerman In 1861, the Conservative leader, Hugh William Hoyles*, attempted to draw Liberal Roman Catholics into his new government. Only O’Brien accepted his proposal, and remained in the Hoyles administration through the contested elections and riots of 1861 [see Mullock] and all the bitterness of the succeeding decade. In 1866 Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter* formed a coalition administration made up of three members from the Hoyles government including O’Brien, and four Liberals, including Kent and Ambrose Shea*. O’Brien was still a member when he died in 1870.
In his progress from poor immigrant to affluent merchant, Laurence O’Brien adopted the hard-fisted methods of other merchants, whether English or Irish, Protestant or Roman Catholic. Robert John Parsons*, writing in the Patriot at the time of the by-election of 1840, referred to O’Brien as a “hard-dealer” whose only qualification for election was to be “found in his iron chest wrung from the fishermen and mechanics of Newfoundland.” O’Brien did not forget this aspersion cast on his motives; in 1849 he brought forth a petition from some of Parsons’ constituents in St John’s insinuating, wrongly it appears, that Parsons had misused funds he had received after the great fire of 1846. As his commercial interests prospered, O’Brien came to have less in common with his Reform colleagues and moved closer to his Protestant mercantile associates in the Chamber of Commerce and the Legislative Council. Yet his interests in agriculture could have been part of an attempt to establish himself as a gentleman-farmer, rather than retiring to the British Isles as a large number of his Protestant colleagues would do. O’Brien was one of the earliest of Newfoundland mercantile and political figures to consider himself a Newfoundlander, not an Englishman or Irishman temporarily transplanted to Newfoundland.
David J. Davis
Church of St John the Baptist (Roman Catholic) (St John’s), marriage register, 1853. MTCL, R. H. Shepherd, “Three months in Newfoundland” (handwritten on blank pages at end of [Henry Winton], A chapter in the history of Newfoundland for the year 1861 (St John’s, 1861)). PANL, GN 1/1, 10 June 1840, 16 March 1843. R. B. McCrea, Lost amid the fogs: sketches of life in Newfoundland, England’s ancient colony (London, 1869). Nfld., Blue book, 1845–57; House of Assembly, Journal, 1851, app., “Evidence taken before the select committee on the St. John’s Hospital”, 194–95. Newfoundlander, 1827–52, 1870. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal (St John’s), 1819, 1826. Patriot (St John’s), 1840, 1849–50. Public Ledger, 1827, 1870. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 1840–53. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 1850, 1867. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, Ire., [1906?]), 1–100. Garfield Fizzard, “The amalgamated assembly of Newfoundland, 1841–1847” (unpublished ma thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, 1963), 21–109. Greene, “Influence of religion in the politics of Nfld., 1850–61.” Gunn, Political history of Nfld., 66–159. Prowse, History of Nfld. (1895), 458–60.
Canadian Biographical Dictionary