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LITTLE, PHILIP FRANCIS, lawyer, politician, judge, and farmer; b. 1824 in Charlottetown, son of Cornelius Little and Brigid Costin; m. 4 May 1864 Mary Jane Holdright in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire, Republic of Ireland), and they had eight sons and three daughters who survived to adulthood; d. 21 Oct. 1897 in Monkstown (Republic of Ireland).
Both natives of Ireland, Philip Francis Little’s parents arrived in Prince Edward Island by way of the United States. Cornelius Little achieved a moderate prosperity as a merchant and small shipowner on the Island and became active in reform politics. Philip, the second of four sons, was educated in Charlottetown and trained for the law with Charles Young, a prominent advocate of responsible government. He was enrolled as a solicitor in 1843 and as a barrister the following year.
Rather than practise in his home town, Philip Little emigrated in 1844 to St John’s, Newfoundland. Since he never explained the move himself, the reasons must remain a matter for speculation. It is known, however, that his mother was a close relative of the O’Mara family of St John’s and that his father’s ships had occasionally taken cargoes there. As a result of such contacts Little may well have decided that St John’s offered considerable opportunities. There were no Catholic lawyers then practising in the predominantly Catholic town, and there was clearly room for an able and ambitious young man. He arrived armed with a letter from Young introducing him to the leading reform politician in Newfoundland, John Kent*, and opened for business.
Little enrolled as a barrister without difficulty, but found himself excluded from the far more lucrative work of a solicitor by an anomalous clause in the local Lawyers’ Incorporation Act seemingly designed to reinforce the monopoly of those already resident. Kent presented Little’s petition to the legislature, which repealed the offending section. In 1848 Little was joined by his elder brother, John, also a lawyer, and together they developed a prosperous practice.
Philip Little rapidly became prominent in St John’s Catholic society. His success was no doubt due to his acquaintance with such persons as Kent and his rarity as a Catholic lawyer. As well as having these advantages he was a man of energy and ability, with strong political views that allied him with those mainly Irish Catholic reformers in St John’s who were beginning to agitate for responsible government. He was elected an officer of the Benevolent Irish Society in 1846, and two years later the Liberals unsuccessfully nominated him for the post of solicitor of the assembly. Another mark of favour was his appointment as managing executor of the estate of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming*, who died in 1850.
Fleming’s successor as bishop was John Thomas Mullock*, with whom Little became friendly. In 1850, strongly supported by Mullock and nominated by two leading Liberals, Kent and Robert John Parsons*, Little ran as the official Liberal candidate in a St John’s by-election against James Douglas*, a Protestant merchant with reform sympathies. Some Catholics evidently supported Douglas, regarding Little as a young upstart, and the election was hard fought. In his addresses Little promised to campaign for the introduction of responsible government and reciprocal free trade with the United States, policies that were to become the major planks in the Liberal platform over the next five years. He further pledged support for agriculture, road building, and improved educational facilities. As a good Prince Edward Islander he attacked the absentee landlords of St John’s; as a good Catholic he attacked Protestant ascendancy in the colony’s government. He won by 269 votes.
Little would not emerge as the undisputed leader of the Liberal party until 1852, but it was already clear that he was the coming man. Kent, a founder of the party in the 1830s, had accepted the offices of speaker and collector of customs in 1849, evidence of his belief that there was more to be gained by cooperating with, rather than opposing, the local government. As well, Kent had prevaricated on the issue of responsible government. Parsons, though as uncompromising as Little on responsible government, was unacceptable as leader since he was a Protestant native who had at times grown restive under the party’s clerical patronage. Ambrose Shea*, another potential leader, had always shown a marked independence and in any case preferred back-stairs influence to the responsibilities of leadership. There were no other candidates. Moreover, Little’s ascent was aided by the fact that the Liberal party was divided between two broad groups: immigrant Catholics, usually from Ireland and usually settled in St John’s, who enjoyed the support of and collaborated with the Catholic church; and natives, who tended to be more independent of clerical influence. As an Irish Catholic from Prince Edward Island, with impeccable reform credentials and an ability and willingness to work with Bishop Mullock, Little was acceptable to most, though by no means all, Liberal supporters. Together, the Irish bishop and the Charlottetown lawyer set out to infuse new energy into the Liberal cause and win responsible government for their adopted country.
Little was active in the assembly from the start. He handled a controversial representation bill in the 1851 session, was instrumental in pushing through an address to the crown petitioning for responsible government, and chaired committees on electric telegraphs, the St John’s hospital, and French fishing encroachments. The confirmation of his leadership came in the 1852 session when a cautiously negative reply was received from the Colonial Office to the assembly’s address on responsible government. Little led the debate on the dispatch, urging supporters to agitate: “and success is inevitable.” At a large public meeting a letter from Mullock to “Dear Mr. Little” was read, in which the bishop attacked the dispatch as “an insult to myself and to my people” and lambasted the existing system in outspoken language. There could be no question now who was leader and what was the central issue. Certainly, Governor John Gaspard Le Marchant* saw the incident’s significance, telling the Colonial Office that Little had become Mullock’s puppet in the assembly.
In the general election that autumn a well-organized Liberal party won 9 of the 15 assembly seats. With the Conservatives, who were opposed to responsible government, in control of the council, the legislature was deadlocked. In 1853 Little and Parsons went to London and, provided with letters of introduction from Joseph Howe*, put their case directly to the British authorities. The mission had two objectives: to urge the speedy grant of responsible government and to alert the Colonial Office to what the Liberals saw as the unreasonable objections of the local administration to Newfoundland’s inclusion in the proposed reciprocity treaty with the United States. Their reception was not unfriendly, and the delegates returned in a hopeful frame of mind. Indeed, by late January 1854 the Colonial Office had decided that responsible government could not be denied. The Liberals had successfully demonstrated that there was widespread support for the change in the colony, and that this support was not confined to Catholics. Moreover, they had placed the onus on the imperial government to find a plausible reason why Newfoundland alone among the North American colonies should be denied responsible government.
The dispatch announcing the favourable decision of the Colonial Office did not arrive until March 1854. In the assembly Little had been leading the Liberals in a refusal to pass any legislation under the existing constitution. He then became embroiled in a bitter and inconclusive confrontation with the council over the provisions of a bill to enlarge the assembly, an essential pre-condition for responsible government. In the summer Little departed for London again, this time with George Henry Emerson, to press for the introduction of responsible government without a representation bill. This proposal the Colonial Office refused, but Governor Ker Baillie* Hamilton (who had been supporting the council) was instructed to reconcile the conflicting parties and find a solution. With difficulty, a settlement was reached in the autumn.
A final dispute erupted over the timing of the election that would inaugurate responsible government, and for a third time Little travelled to London. Although he did not manage to persuade an increasingly exasperated Colonial Office to order that the election be held at the time most convenient to the Liberals, he did persuade the authorities to remove Governor Baillie Hamilton, who was “promoted” to Antigua and replaced by Charles Henry Darling*.
Little returned just in time for the general election in May 1855. In his absence the Liberal campaign had been organized by Bishop Mullock and John Little in such a way as to eliminate contests between rival Liberals and to cement the support of the Methodist voters, crucial if a majority were to be maintained. Given the demoralization and disorganization of the Conservatives, the Liberal victory was not surprising. Little was installed as premier and attorney general, and other Liberals filled the offices they had coveted for so long.
In his election address Little had promised legislation to bring Newfoundland under the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, and, in general, a combination of progressive measures and frugal expenditures. His government certainly made efforts to fulfil these aims. The colony came under the reciprocity umbrella in 1855. Official salaries were reduced and the civil service overhauled. A study was started into the causes of pauperism and additional funds allocated to education, health, and roads. Useful legislation was passed dealing with insolvency, limited liability, and legal reform. The colony was relatively prosperous and, on the surface at least, matters seemed to be unfolding as they should.
But the Liberal party was not without its problems. Acceptable as leader during the campaign for responsible government, Little was now increasingly eclipsed by more experienced figures such as Kent and Parsons and proved unable to heal divisions in the party. By the autumn of 1856 there were complaints that old campaigners and natives were being neglected in the distribution of loaves and fishes, and the government was under attack from its own supporters for alleged extravagance and arrogance. However, Little was able temporarily to re-establish his authority and unify the party early in 1857 when faced with a proposed Anglo-French convention defining French fishing rights on Newfoundland’s French Shore. The government had some difficulty answering opposition arguments that it had signally failed to protect the colony’s interests, but the legislature unanimously supported Little’s attack on the convention, which, all agreed, conceded far too much to the French. In an outpouring of patriotic indignation the legislature condemned the convention and appointed delegates to present the colony’s case to the other British North American colonies and to the British government. Little was one of those appointed to go to England, but before he could leave a dispatch arrived from the Colonial Office conceding that the colony’s consent was a necessary pre-condition for any agreement. This was victory indeed. With a good seal fishery, a fair cod fishery, and good prices, the government basked in self-confidence.
Little, though, had clearly had enough. He played a minor role in the 1858 session and at its end resigned from the government and the assembly on the grounds of ill health to take a seat on the Supreme Court. The ill health was apparently genuine, but in retrospect it can be seen that Little resigned at an opportune moment. In 1858 the colony entered a long depression caused by poor fisheries and prices, and the Liberal government, now led by John Kent, was to enter a period of division and bickering that would end with its defeat in 1861. Of immediate importance for Little, however, was the realization that if he did not take a judgeship in 1858 he would have to wait a long time. Governor Sir Alexander Bannerman* was concerned at the state of the bench and wanted to make new appointments to replace two aged and infirm members. He appointed Little and Bryan Robinson* as a balanced pair – a Catholic Liberal and a Protestant Conservative – in the expectation of reform and efficiency. The appointments were not uncontroversial, but were rapidly accepted.
Before fading out of the record (apart from his judicial decisions) Little played a minor role in the political crisis of 1861, which ended the Liberals’ position as the majority party. In New York with Bishop Mullock in 1860 he made arrangements to charter a steamer on behalf of the government for the recently approved coastal service. Faced with demands for relief payments, Kent refused to recognize the contract, an action that in turn caused Mullock to repudiate the Liberals, severely weakening their position. A few months later Little joined his fellow judge Robinson to contest a currency bill that would have reduced their real incomes. Their petition led Kent to attack the judges and the governor for plotting against him. When Kent refused to explain his remarks, Bannerman dismissed the ministry. The ensuing election in May 1861 was marked by violence in several districts, culminating in a serious riot in St John’s, which Little, all agree, did his best to quell.
Soon after his marriage into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family in 1864, Little apparently began to investigate the possibility of moving to Ireland permanently. He was absent for much of 1867, and the following year he was replaced on the bench. He lived the rest of his life in Ireland, near the farms of relatives, managing properties owned by his wife’s family as well as those he acquired himself. He was prominent as a lawyer and became active in the Home Rule movement. In St John’s his younger brother, Joseph Ignatius*, who had arrived in the colony about 1851, carried on the family law practice and followed in his brother’s footsteps to the leadership of the Liberal party and the Supreme Court.
Philip Francis Little’s political career was short – a mere eight years – but significant in that he managed, with Mullock’s indispensable support, to unite and energize the Liberal party under the banner of responsible government. But once the battle was over, Little proved unable, through youth and inexperience, to assert a permanent ascendancy. He had, in effect, played his part, and he retired in apparent contentment to a prosperous and comfortable obscurity.
National Library of Ireland (Dublin), P. F. Little papers (mfm. at PANL). P.E.I. Museum, File information concerning P. F. Little. PRO, CO 194/133–78. Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 24 March 1846, 14 Dec. 1848, 1850–58. Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser (Charlottetown), 16 May 1838. Daily News (St John’s), 26 Oct. 1897. Examiner (Charlottetown), 6 June 1864. Morning Courier (St John’s), 16 Nov. 1850. Newfoundlander, 26 March 1846, 12 Feb. 1852, 26 April 1855, 12 July 1858. Patriot and Terra-Nova Herald, 14 Sept. 1850. Prince Edward Island Register (Charlottetown), 25 Sept., 18 Dec 1824; 22 April 1825. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 12 April 1836. J. P. Greene, “The influence of religion in the politics of Newfoundland, 1850–1861” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., St John’s, 1970). Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld. E. A. Wells, “The struggle for responsible government in Newfoundland, 1846–1855” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., 1966). E. C. Moulton, “Constitutional crisis and civil strife in Newfoundland, February to November 1861,” CHR, 48 (1967): 251–72.
Revisions based on:
National Arch. of Ireland, “Search census,” 1911, Dublin, Brighton New, Mary Jane Little: www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search (consulted 18 Jan. 2019).