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Crosbie, Sir John Chalker, businessman and politician; b. 11 Sept. 1876 in Brigus, Nfld, son of George Graham Crosbie and Martha Ellen Chalker; m. 5 Sept. 1899 Mitchie Ann Manuel in Exploits, Nfld, and they had six sons and seven daughters; d. 5 Oct. 1932 in St John’s.
In 1858 Scottish-born George Graham Crosbie left New Brunswick, where he had immigrated as a child, to work as a plasterer in Harbour Grace, Nfld, a town that was rebuilding after a fire; he eventually set up a business in Brigus, buying schooners that he sent to the Labrador coast and provisioning others involved in the fishery there. In 1884 a downturn in trade prompted him to move his family to St John’s, where he purchased a hotel. After it was burned in the fire of 8–9 July 1892 [see Moses Monroe*], he constructed a larger establishment. The Crosbie Hotel opened in December 1894, just when Newfoundland’s two private banks collapsed [see James Goodfellow*]. The physical and financial strains took their toll and Crosbie died three months later.
The second youngest of his eight children, John Chalker Crosbie had graduated from the Methodist College in St John’s in 1892. He put aside his ambition to become a doctor to help rebuild the hotel, discovering quickly that the plastering trade was not for him, and to serve as its manager. Just before his 23rd birthday he married Mitchie Manuel, a regular at Cochrane Street Methodist Church, where the Crosbies worshipped. The strong-willed Mitchie came from a prominent family of shipbuilders.
In 1900, in partnership with his in-laws, Crosbie started Crosbie and Company as produce and provisions merchants. Three years later the Manuels gave up their interest and Crosbie, “a hustler” with “considerable business capacity” in the words of the Daily News, soon expanded into the fish-export business. To do so, on 21 Aug. 1905 he incorporated the Newfoundland Produce Company Limited, a firm in which he shared equal ownership with English brokers Holmwood and Holmwood and of which he became president. Crosbie and Company continued to operate, now largely as shipowners and ships’ agents. In February 1914 Crosbie would acquire full ownership of Newfoundland Produce and retain the Holmwoods to sell fish on his behalf in southern Europe and Brazil. In 1909 he had five foreign-going vessels; by 1920 Newfoundland Produce was operating three steamers and four barquentines.
In the general election of 31 Oct. 1904, influenced by his St John’s lawyer, Donald Morison, Crosbie had decided to run for the House of Assembly in the two-member riding of Bay de Verde. He stood for the United Opposition Party, which was led by Sir William Vallance Whiteway*, Sir James Spearman Winter*, Augustus Frederick Goodridge, Alfred Bishop Morine*, and Morison himself, all brought together by their desire to oust Liberal premier Sir Robert Bond*. Losing by just 20 votes, Crosbie boldly predicted that he would win the next contest.
When Newfoundland again went to the polls on 2 Nov. 1908, the People’s Party under Sir Edward Patrick Morris tied with Bond’s Liberals, and Crosbie was indeed victorious in Bay de Verde. After Bond resigned on 3 March 1909, Morris ensured Crosbie’s support by making him a minister without portfolio, a position he retained after another election on 8 May 1909. The highlight of the second campaign had occurred on 30 April when a Crosbie supporter pushed Bond into the harbour at Western Bay. Bond held Crosbie responsible and charged both men with aggravated assault. He won against his attacker but Crosbie’s case, heard on 28 May, was dismissed because of insufficient evidence. The “rowdyism” associated with Crosbie in this election and his use of alcohol to sway voters would become regular tactics. In the house Crosbie strongly supported Morris’s policy of building branch railways. His influence helped persuade the Reid Newfoundland Company Limited [see Sir William Duff Reid*] to begin construction of a spur from the main trans-island line to Bay de Verde.
Though a minister, Crosbie bid on behalf of Newfoundland Produce for a public contract to provide coastal-steamer services. Successful in early 1910 in winning routes in the Fogo and Fortune Bay districts, the company soon had a new vessel constructed. Requiring larger and deeper harbour premises in St John’s, in December the firm purchased property there that had once belonged to fish magnate Edwin Duder*. That year Newfoundland Produce became the local agents for Holmwood and Holmwood, providing fire and marine insurance with a “speciality made of outport risks.” It also represented Lloyd’s of London. By 1914 it was the largest exporter of cod to Brazil, the biggest single market for Newfoundland salt fish.
Crosbie’s rise to prominence in public life paralleled the burgeoning career of William Ford Coaker, president of the Fishermen’s Protective Union of Newfoundland. Coaker objected to Crosbie’s intermingling of government and business activities but, with the support of his prime minister (a title Morris had begun using in 1909), Crosbie easily weathered Coaker’s appeals to Governor Sir Ralph Champneys Williams for his removal from the cabinet. Whether by design or not, Crosbie’s boat service on the northeast coast, where the FPU was the strongest, was occasionally unable to pick up the union’s fish for transport to St John’s.
In the election of October 1913 the FPU’s Union Party vigorously opposed Crosbie’s candidacy in Bay de Verde, but he eked out a victory, coming in second to the Liberal–Union candidate, Albert Edgar Hickman*. During the campaign Coaker had embellished a story he had previously related in his weekly newspaper, the Fishermen’s Advocate, that Crosbie had bought two spars and rigging from the government for $28 and sold them back again for $2,200. “To give the devil his due,” Coaker now said, “that is not correct – he bought a whole wrecked vessel, including the spars for $28.” Crosbie had brazenly gone on the stump introducing himself as “the buck that sold the spars.” His success in the election was partly due to the steady progress of the branch railway to his constituency; Coaker, however, attributed it to his misuse of public funds and generous distribution of alcohol.
An occasional debater in the legislature, Crosbie was known more for wit than verbosity. He was, Governor Walter Edward Davidson wrote in his diary in early 1913, a “combination of Scotch tenacity and American bluff: but withal one of those frank men who are heart and soul in their business and quick at a quarrel but are yet most easily led if handled right.” He was “unfortunately in politics, and being in against his will, loves the rows of an election and cannot bear to give it up.” Coaker had been elected in 1913 and his presence in the house meant that Crosbie could no longer treat him, as he said in 1914, with “silent contempt as I have done the past four years.” In a memorable clash that year he responded to Coaker’s boast of having raised the price of fish paid to fishermen by recalling Shakespeare’s adage “It will come to pass / That every braggart shall be found an ass.” Crosbie marshalled export figures for the past decade to show that it was market demand that determined what fishermen received for their catches. With regard to Coaker’s “spars” claim, he maintained that “a man who is capable of such lies is contemptible enough for anything.”
By 1917 a shortage of shipping tonnage, the result of World War I, had brought Crosbie and Coaker together to keep the colonial economy afloat. Crosbie remained a minister without portfolio in the coalition ministry Morris formed on 17 July that year. At Coaker’s suggestion the government on 19 July established a subcommittee of the Executive Council, the tonnage committee; Crosbie became chairman and Coaker and Hickman served as the other members. Its purpose was to procure markets and transport for fish and to ensure the island’s supplies of salt and coal. Administrative responsibility fell to Crosbie, and for the rest of the year he “worked incessantly,” according to Coaker, to secure the committee’s objectives and his “energy and experience” were critical to its work.
The committee dealt first with the salt shortage, taking regulatory control of the sale of all salt held by merchants. To increase tonnage for the export of fish to southern Europe, it arranged the purchase of two steamers in Britain, only to have the Admiralty block the transfer. The committee then chartered a Norwegian vessel, which was unfortunately torpedoed before it could reach Newfoundland. Another steamer was found, but getting cargo insurance proved difficult; the committee resolved the matter by persuading the British government to provide the necessary policy. When Crosbie and his colleagues were able to acquire sufficient sail tonnage to transport a supply of fish to Italy, the same problem of cargo insurance arose, and this time the committee had the Newfoundland government step in. It also guaranteed a minimum price to fishermen by denying insurance to merchants who bought below it. In addition, the government encouraged the development of a local shipbuilding industry and commandeered private vessels when necessary, for example to bring salt and coal from Nova Scotia. Crosbie had his own coastal steamers used for public service. Although Hickman was strongly critical of Crosbie’s management of the tonnage issue, Governor Sir Walter Davidson paid public tribute to the overall achievements of the committee before he left Newfoundland in December 1917.
On 2 Jan. 1918 Morris’s resignation as prime minister came into effect. Three days later William Frederick Lloyd formed a cabinet, which included the new-found friends Coaker and Crosbie as well as Michael Patrick Cashin*. Coaker declared that Crosbie “is not a difficult man to work with. He is outspoken and does not speak like an angel to one’s face and immediately turn around to knife one in the back. Mr. Crosbie is able and experienced and full of energy. If he has faults the world knows them.” On 18 Jan. 1918, because of the heavy work placed on the tonnage committee, the government under the War Measures Act of 1914 set up the Department of Shipping, with Crosbie as acting head, assisted by Cashin, Coaker, and Hickman. Legislation in the spring formally established the new body with broad powers, and Crosbie was appointed its minister on 13 May 1918. The department controlled all shipping in and out of Newfoundland; as well, it regulated freight rates, marine insurance, and the importation and sale of salt and coal. Crosbie was a strong mediating voice in the government. First, he dissuaded Coaker from having the cabinet set a price for seal oil that was strongly opposed by the merchants, who then voluntarily agreed to a price that was acceptable to Coaker and still allowed them to make a profit. Secondly, in April 1918 he prevailed upon the Reid Newfoundland Company, which was experiencing a strike by the Newfoundland Industrial Workers’ Association [see Philip Bennett*], to compromise with the union.
Crosbie’s greatest challenge from late 1918 was the existence in Italy of a government-sponsored combine, organized in September, to control the purchase of fish and set the price at which it would buy. In early 1919 he chaired a committee of four major exporters struck to establish minimum prices for which fish would be sold in Italy, Greece, and Brazil. This committee persuaded about 20 merchants to work together to coordinate their shipments overseas and thus stabilize the trade. They eventually found an outlet for over 200,000 quintals of fish, destined for Italy before the combine was formed, in other countries. Crosbie made no effort to interfere with the price of fish, except in Brazil, where the financing of the market was different and for whose buyers he asked merchants to maintain set prices. By its actions the committee succeeded in preventing an imminent collapse of markets, though the situation remained unsatisfactory in Italy and Greece.
The downfall of the coalition government in May 1919 led to the formation of a new Liberal-Progressive ministry under Cashin. Crosbie had wished to retire from politics but Cashin persuaded him to remain by promising to recommend him for a knighthood, which was announced in the king’s birthday honours on 3 June 1919. Fishery problems remained critical. On 7 July the Newfoundland Board of Trade asked Crosbie to strike a committee of exporters to coordinate voluntarily the price, quality, and amount of the fish they sent to Greece and Italy. Upon Crosbie’s suggestion, the exporters developed a system of fish inspection that met with his approval. With an election pending, however, the cabinet refused to countenance the plan because its members generally opposed regulation of the fishery. The committee was disbanded, but Crosbie encouraged the trade to cooperate in negotiating with a European-based English fish broker, George Hawes, to arrange a sale with the Italian combine.
Having already committed himself to run for the government in the general election of 3 Nov. 1919, Crosbie turned down Coaker’s offer to lead a party that would include Unionists and Cashinites, preferring to stay with his leader and oppose the Liberal Reform Party under Richard Anderson Squires. He moved to his native Port de Grave district to accommodate Hickman’s desire to head the government ticket in Bay de Verde, and he succeeded in defeating the Unionist incumbent there, George Frederick Arthur Grimes*. The election was won by the Liberal Reformers, in alliance with the Unionists, and returned just 12 opposition members.
Coaker became minister of marine and fisheries in the Squires ministry and he moved quickly on 20 Nov. 1919 to introduce regulations fixing the minimum price of fish, requiring licences for its export, and stipulating that any fish sold in Italy would be marketed through Hawes. A believer in the laws of supply and demand, Crosbie argued that setting prices was “dangerous, mischievous and troublesome.” Although he had himself intervened to regulate prices in Brazil, the measure was a temporary and voluntary one (and one that worked to his advantage since he did considerable business there). Crosbie was strongly opposed to the idea of giving Hawes control of marketing in Europe. For his own business, he preferred to remain with his own brokers. In January 1920 Hawes’s failure to get a higher price from the Italian combine only confirmed in his mind that Coaker’s scheme would bring financial ruin to Newfoundland. Concerned that the regulations would depress prices overseas, he sold his fish locally. As he told his fellow fish exporters in February 1920, “If I can place my fish, I think I ought to be allowed to be satisfied with my profit, or my loss.… I think I ought to be allowed to run my own business.”
Although Crosbie opposed the legislation incorporating the FPU’s fishery reforms in 1920, he was absent from the house in May when a unanimous vote passed the Codfish Exportation Act. The retention of fixed prices, Crosbie believed, would allow Newfoundland’s competitors – Norway, Iceland, and France – to sell their fish for less, thereby undercutting the island’s share of the market in Europe. Coaker’s response was that in Italy the presence of the combine meant that no free market existed and so it was necessary for the government to control sales there. In December 1920 the fish regulations collapsed when Hickman broke the law and sold fish in Italy for less than the government-dictated price. The divisions in the Newfoundland mercantile community emboldened Italian fish buyers to work with the opponents of the regulations to weaken and eventually to abolish them. In early 1921 the regulations were withdrawn, and in July the act was repealed.
By this time Coaker had become dissatisfied with his political ties to Squires. His unhappiness led to overtures to Crosbie, whose dealings with Cashin had also become tense. Having apparently aspired to take over leadership of the opposition in late 1920, Crosbie was now rumoured to be considering sitting as an independent. The overtures soon collapsed because Coaker was not sure that all of his Unionist mhas would follow him into any new alliance and there was disunity as well among the opposition members over whether Crosbie or John Robert Bennett* should lead it. The relationship between Crosbie and Coaker quickly deteriorated thereafter. In mid May Crosbie’s animosity towards Coaker was such that he and Cashin successfully called for Governor Sir Charles Alexander Harris to appoint an inquiry into the administration’s attempt in 1920 to satisfy fishermen by arranging for the purchase of their fish by selected companies, including the Fishermen’s Union Trading Company (commonly known as the Union Trading Company).
Crosbie was away for the 1922 legislative session, the result both of illness and of a trip he undertook to Europe, to examine markets there and determine the “most profitable way to handle our main product.” His receipt of his sessional pay despite his absence would be thrown at him in subsequent elections. Following his return he wrote to the press denouncing the system of consignment, the practice whereby exporters placed unsold fish with agents, such as George Hawes, in return for an advance against sales, and advocating the outright sales favoured by the London fish brokers, who resented Hawes, now seeking to dominate markets in Italy and Greece. Coaker, who also opposed consignment, replied by calling on Crosbie to spearhead the development of a system of outright sales. Although Coaker and Crosbie appeared to be moving closer together, a political alliance was impossible, Crosbie maintaining, with Samuel Harris* and others, that Coaker’s regulations had bankrupted local fish companies in 1920 and adversely affected the St John’s economy.
In June 1922 the commission on Coaker’s activities in 1920 exonerated the minister of marine and fisheries. Crosbie now looked to Coaker’s arch-enemy, Alfred B. Morine, to stir up discontent in the FPU by encouraging the incipient United Fishermen’s Movement in Coaker’s stronghold of Bonavista Bay. In the election of May 1923 Crosbie ran in his old district of Bay de Verde for the Liberal-Progressive Party, now led by Bennett, whose eldest son would wed Crosbie’s eldest surviving daughter in September. The opposition made Coaker a major election issue. For its part, the government stressed the exploitation, by Crosbie and others, of the public treasury between 1909 and 1919 (his opponents had long charged Crosbie with boasting that he was in government for what he could get out of it personally, although in this respect he was probably no more venal than other businessmen-politicians of the period); the Liberal Reformers also emphasized Crosbie’s “bullying” tactics of threatening not to buy fish “from any of the Bay de Verde folk” unless they voted for him. He and his running mate, John Charles Puddester*, lost in a defeat marred, in Crosbie’s words, by “bribery and corruption of a character which was the worst in the history of this or any other country.”
Having renewed its mandate in this election, Squires’s ministry soon unravelled over charges of political corruption. A Liberal Reform government led by William Robertson Warren took over in July 1923, but it fell in May of the following year and Hickman, Bennett’s successor as leader of the opposition, became prime minister. The ensuing general election was won by Walter Stanley Monroe* and the Liberal Conservatives. Crosbie had successfully contested St John’s West for Monroe’s group, having been recently cleared by the auditor general of charges made by the FPU’s daily, the Evening Advocate, that he had instructed an intermediary to pay an overdue bill for items supplied to him by the government’s liquor controller. Rowdyism, however, made its appearance when his supporters, fortified by spirits, disrupted his opponents’ meetings.
As minister of finance and customs in the new government, Crosbie addressed Newfoundland’s precarious financial condition by cutting expenditure, improving the collection of public revenues, and dealing with the widespread evasion of customs duties. Taxes removed by the Warren administration in 1924 were reimposed on foodstuffs and fishery supplies; personal income tax, introduced during the war and largely avoided, was abolished; and taxes on banks were reduced, a measure that was seen as benefiting only the rich. Crosbie also implemented major tariff reform, mainly the work of a commission that had been appointed by Squires, increasing the duties on such items as tobacco, rope, twine, butter, and margarine. The opposition charged key government ministers of acting for personal gain in this matter. The prime minister, for example, had large interests in tobacco and cordage companies. Soon after the budget passed, Crosbie, always on the lookout for a business opportunity, established a margarine factory in St John’s. The Newfoundland Butter Company Limited, eventually the province of his son George Graham, set up a medical and pension plan for its employees, a progressive move at the time.
On 21 Jan. 1926 Crosbie arrived back in St John’s from a visit to England, where he had been finalizing arrangements for a $6 million loan that the government had authorized in 1924. He returned to a Supreme Court case he had initiated in 1925, claiming libel against the Fishermen’s Advocate for charging that he had defrauded his own department of $20,000 by evading the tariff on imported cigarettes. It was a sensational case and one followed closely by the public. Crosbie took the stand in his own defence. He was exonerated on 19 Feb. 1926, with the newspaper being fined $500.
Privately Crosbie informed Monroe in December 1926 that borrowing had to be greatly curtailed since Newfoundland was near bankruptcy because of payments on its large debt, which in 1927 stood at $68 million. A new loan of $5 million was nevertheless authorized. Frustrated by the difficulties of balancing the budget, Crosbie lost his enthusiasm for politics. He did not run in the election of 1928, when the government of Frederick Charles Munro Alderdice, Monroe’s successor, was defeated by Squires and his Liberals. Although Crosbie remained a potent political force, any residual interest in government no doubt took a back seat to the $250,000 loss he suffered in the stock-market crash of 1929.
In early 1932 Crosbie underwent a thorough medical examination before taking out a $300,000 life-insurance policy. Soon afterwards, his health deteriorated, the decline no doubt helped along by a history of heavy drinking. Later that year he became ill and died at St John’s General Hospital. The insurance, and an estate valued at $122,325.31, subsequently enabled his widow and eldest son, Chesley Arthur*, to reorganize the businesses and continue building on the legacy bequeathed by “Spars” Crosbie. Part of that legacy was his family, which remains prominent in Newfoundland. His five sons who grew to adulthood would all be successful in their careers; of his daughters, Elizabeth Vera*, who married journalist Albert Benjamin Perlin*, was to distinguish herself through her work with mentally challenged children.
In commenting on his death, Coaker wrote that as a cabinet minister the strong-willed Crosbie “always had confidence in his judgement and fearlessly defended his opinions. During the war period he utilized his outstanding abilities and energy to overcome numerous obstacles … [and] his greatest public services were rendered during the period he served the country as Minister of Shipping.” As a businessman, Coaker continued, Crosbie “knew how to make a hard bargain.… He wanted his ounce of flesh, but he would sooner do one more good than harm.”
Memorial Univ. of Nfld, Maritime Hist. Arch. (St John’s), mha00000370, box 11, file 1.43.137; Queen Elizabeth II Library, Arch. and Special Coll., Coll-009, file 10.03.026; Coll-237, file 3.38.005. National Arch. (G.B.), CO 194/283, 288, 293, 295, 296, 299. RPA, GN 1/3/A, box 103, despatches 69A, 69B; box 106, despatch 1107; box 134, despatch 736; box 145, governor’s quarterly report; GN 1/10/0, 1917–18; GN 2/5, box 34, file 214; box 45, file 290A; GN 2.14, Davidson to the secretary of state, 21 Sept. 1917; GN 5/2/A/9, probate will of Sir John Crosbie; GN 8.172, 5 Oct. 1920; GN 9, proc., 1900–32,; GN 9.25, 19 July, 31 Dec. 1917, 5, 18 Jan. 1918; GN 13/1/B, box 242, file 67; MG 73, box 10, file 2; MG 136, box 1, file 2.02.003; box 2, file 01.001. Daily Globe (St John’s), 20 Feb. 1926. Daily Mail (St John’s), 19 Feb. 1914, 27 April 1923. Daily News (St John’s), 6 Sept. 1899; 19 Dec. 1904; 3 Jan., 28 Sept. 1905; 10 Dec. 1909; 13 Oct. 1913; 4 June, 8 Sept., 10 Dec. 1919; 23 June 1920; 13 May 1921; 14 April 1923; 17 May 1924. Daily Star (St John’s), 19 July 1917; 4, 19 Jan. 1918; 3 Oct. 1919; 15 Jan. 1920. Evening Advocate (St John’s), 19 July, 20, 27 Oct., 31 Dec. 1917; 4, 18, 22 Jan. 1918; 22 Sept. 1919; 28 Jan. 1921; 20 May, 2 June, 22 July 1924. Evening Herald (St John’s), 5 March 1914; 18 Jan., 7 Feb., 4 Sept. 1920. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 29 Sept. 1919; 20 Nov. 1922; 4 June 1923; 17 May 1924; 22 Jan., 20 Feb. 1926. Fishermen’s Advocate (St John’s and Port Union, Nfld), 7 Sept. 1912, 27 Sept. 1913, 12 Oct. 1932. Times (London), 3 June 1919. Trade Review (St John’s), 3, 17 Dec. 1910; 3, 10, 24 June 1922; 23 May, 10 Oct. 1925; 23 Jan. 1926. M. E. Condon, The fisheries and resources of Newfoundland, “the mine of the sea,” national, international and co-operative ([St John’s], 1925). Michael Harris, Rare ambition: the Crosbies of Newfoundland (Toronto, 1992). I. D. H. McDonald, “To each his own”: William Coaker and the Fishermen’s Protective Union in Newfoundland politics, 1908–1925, ed. J. K. Hiller (St John’s, 1987). Nfld, Acts, 1918, c.20; Dept. of Govt. Services, Registry of companies, “Companies and deeds online – CADO,” Company no.110: https://cado.eservices.gov.nl.ca (consulted 29 June 2011); General Assembly, Proc., 1910, 1914, 1920, 1921, 1927. Patrick O’Flaherty, Lost country: the rise and fall of Newfoundland, 1843–1933 (St John’s, 2005). A. B. Perlin, The story of Newfoundland, comprising a new outline of the island’s history from 1497 to 1959 … ([St John’s], 1959). Twenty years of the Fishermen’s Protective Union of Newfoundland from 1909-1929 …, comp. W. F. Coaker (St John’s, 1930).
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Cite This Article
Melvin Baker, “CROSBIE, SIR JOHN CHALKER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/crosbie_john_chalker_16E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Melvin Baker|
|Title of Article:||CROSBIE, SIR JOHN CHALKER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2016|
|Year of revision:||2016|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|