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PACK, ROBERT, merchant, politician, and justice of the peace; b. 1786 in Dorset, England, probably the son of Stephen Olive Pack and Olivia Horwood; m. 1809 Anna Ash in Carbonear, Nfld, and they had three daughters and two sons; d. there 1860.

The critical elements involved in understanding the career of Robert Pack lie in his ancestry, his occupation, and the era in which he lived in Newfoundland. The Pack family hailed from Christchurch in Hampshire and were old-established dissenters. Robert’s father spent more than 40 years as a captain in the Newfoundland trade, much of the time as an employee of the large Poole–Carbonear concern of George and James Kemp. Robert came to Newfoundland in 1801 as an apprentice clerk in the Kemp establishment. Had he been of his father’s generation he too would probably have been a ship’s master, or at most a migratory agent for one of the large West Country firms. As it was, Pack was to become one of the early sedentary merchants who, after learning the trade with an older firm, established their own fisheries in Newfoundland. In the early years of his career Pack did travel back to England often, but after 1815 he seldom left the island.

In this respect, Pack merely reflected the change in Newfoundland from a largely migratory fishery to a settled colony. After 1800 the migratory fishery had decayed rapidly and the West Country fishermen and merchants had to choose between living in Newfoundland and thus keeping their occupations, or remaining in England and giving up the Newfoundland trade.

However, throughout his career, Pack relied heavily upon British merchants and bankers for his livelihood. In 1811 he ended his employment with the Kemps and went into business on his own account in Bay Roberts where he entered into a partnership with George Blackler of Dartmouth in Devon. Their trade was small and unlikely to get much bigger without an infusion of outside capital. In 1813 Pack terminated this partnership and entered into a new association with William Fryer of Wimborne, Dorset. Fryer was a partner in the important Wimborne bank of Fryer, Andrews and Company, which since the 1770s had played a large role in financing the Dorset merchants, shipowners, and planters involved with Newfoundland. Partnership with Fryer gave Pack a good source of capital, but he now faced another problem. Bay Roberts was at this time a prosperous community, but it was small and offered little opportunity for expanding a mercantile trade. In 1817 John Gosse of Ringwood, Hampshire, was taken into the partnership; he already had a growing trade in Carbonear, the second largest town in Newfoundland and, with its heavy involvement in the Labrador fishery and seal hunt, a far better place for expansion.

The new partner, who was older than Pack, had first come out to Newfoundland in 1789 as a clerk to the Kemps and later became their agent. Like Pack he was a dissenter and like Pack he had quit the Kemps in 1803 to establish his own concern of Chancey, Gosse, and Ledguard. Gosse had established a flourishing trade at Carbonear but in 1816, at 49 years of age, he felt the need to establish a head office in Poole and to retire there. With Fryer and Pack, Gosse formed a new concern, Fryer, Gosse, and Pack in England and Pack, Gosse, and Fryer in Newfoundland. The new company was large from the start, having branches in Bay Roberts, Brigus, and Carbonear, and rapidly became heavily involved in the Labrador fishery and the seal hunt.

This arrangement allowed Gosse to run the firm’s head office in Poole, with Fryer a sleeping partner and Pack managing the Newfoundland end. The company was able to expand even more after 1820 when the Kemps wound up their business in Carbonear. By 1825 Fryer, Gosse, and Pack employed 12 vessels in the trade between Europe and Newfoundland, and in the years 1820–58 they registered no fewer than 90 vessels for employment in the coasting and fishing trades of the island. They became, and remained until the 1850s, by far the largest firm in Carbonear, and were for a time among the largest shipowners in the west of England. Their success is all the more remarkable considering that it occurred in the 1820s, when most West Country–Newfoundland traders were retrenching. Apparently this success did not result in large fortunes for the partners – in part because the times were not propitious and in part because the fishery itself was not particularly profitable for outport merchants. Pack seems to have been the junior partner throughout. When his partners died, their sons inherited their full shares but Pack’s two sons were unable to follow him in the firm. Pack did not (or could not) retire to England when his turn came around. He ran the Newfoundland business until the firm wound up in 1858, when he was 72, and then stayed in Carbonear until his death.

The fact that Pack, unlike many other merchants, did not retire to England in middle age had a profound effect upon his life. As a fully resident merchant, he took a far greater interest in the political, social, and economic development of Newfoundland than did many of his contemporaries. Thus he was an early supporter of the notion of representative government and took the lead in organizing support for it in Conception Bay. From 1832 almost all Protestant merchants joined the Conservative party, but in the elections of 1832 and 1836 Pack ran as a Liberal and set himself apart from the other merchants. Why did Pack differ politically from most merchants? The key to understanding him lies in the fact that he was a resident, a dissenter, and a merchant. In Dorset his relatives and friends, newly enfranchised by the repeal of the Test and Corporation acts in 1828, were bitterly fighting for local power against the old conservative oligarchies. They were often radical Whigs. Many of the Newfoundland merchants were also dissenters and until 1832 they supported the idea of representative government in Newfoundland as wholeheartedly as they did parliamentary reform in England. Thus neither Pack’s support of representative government nor his running for election in 1832 is hard to understand. What was unusual was Pack’s identification with the Liberal party. In both elections he was chosen by the largely Catholic interests in Conception Bay. The probable explanation is that in the first contest he was identified as the leading supporter of representative government in Conception Bay, and was asked to run, together with three Catholic colleagues, by Liberal party sympathizers. He came top of the poll – at the expense of all other Protestant Conservative candidates. In running on a Liberal slate, Pack ensured his own election, but alienated himself from his usually Protestant merchant colleagues and also, increasingly, from the Protestant electors of Conception Bay.

Between 1832 and 1836 Newfoundland politics polarized between a Protestant Conservative party and a Catholic Liberal party. Even in the elections of 1832 the Liberal party had committed several acts of intimidation and riot against would-be Conservative voters. Pack as a merchant was a consistent supporter of law and order, but elector intimidation worked in his favour and thus he did not protest. In the 1836 election intimidation was even more widespread – and indeed half a dozen men in Carbonear were charged. Much to his horror, Pack was one of them. He was acquitted but it marked the end of his active political life. When the election of 1836 was declared invalid and a new one called the following year, Pack was elbowed out by the Catholic Liberal party which ran and saw elected an entirely Catholic slate in Conception Bay. A radical liberal party, identified almost completely with the working class Irish and the Roman Catholic Church, was not the party for Pack: in 1837 the Liberal voters demonstrated that he was not the man for them either. From that time Pack played little or no part in political affairs – he did not, like so many of his associates, move into the Conservative party; he merely gave up politics altogether.

Robert Pack continued to play a leading role in the general life of Conception Bay and to be an advocate of “improvements.” He spent a considerable amount of time and energy creating a model farm, and was a founding member of the Carbonear Commercial Society, a governor of the Newfoundland Savings Bank, and a justice of the peace for many years. He lived long and laboured hard.

Keith Matthews

Most of the information on which this biography is based was drawn from the Pack name file and other copies of records relating to the trade and fisheries of Newfoundland available at the MHGA.

Dorset Record Office (Dorchester, Eng.), D400/1–2; P34/OV9 (Apprenticeship indentures); P227/CW1–2, CW4 (Churchwardens, rates and accounts, 1751–1818), rates, vestry minutes; P227/OV15 (Apprenticeship indentures); P227/RE4 (Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 1740–90). Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., journals, 1801–6; Newfoundland letter-book, 1801 (mfm. at PANL). MHGA, Parish records of the county of Hampshire, Eng., reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials for dissenting churches at Ringwood and Christchurch; Plantation books, Conception Bay, 1804–5 (copies). PANL, GN 2/1; GN 5/1/B/1, Harbour Grace, 1812–16; GN 5/4/B/1, Harbour Grace, 1790–91, 1793–1803; P1/5; P7/A/6, especially box 30 (Slade & Co., Catalina, letter-book, 1818–21). PRO, BT 107; CO 194/43–46, 194/49, 194/64, 194/70, 194/80; CO 199/18, Conception Bay plantation book, 1807, extracts (copies at MHGA); CUST 65/33. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Harbour Grace, Nfld.), Conception Bay mission, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (copies at PANL). Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1832–36, 1857. Dorset County Chronicle (Dorchester), 1830–61. Lloyd’s List (London), 1801–60. Newfoundlander, 1827–60. Newfoundland Express (St John’s), 1851–60. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 1816–27. Public Ledger, 1827–60. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 1833. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 1807–60. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 1832–60. Lloyd’s register of shipping (London), 1801–60. Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld.

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Cite This Article

Keith Matthews, “PACK, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pack_robert_8E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pack_robert_8E.html
Author of Article:   Keith Matthews
Title of Article:   PACK, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   June 24, 2024