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b. 26 Sept. 1841 in Colchester, England


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WILLIAMS, GRIFFITH, army officer and author; m. by 1771 Ann Fothersall, and they had three daughters; d. 18 March 1790 at Woolwich (London), England. His brother John was a merchant of St John’s, Newfoundland, in 1785.

Griffith Williams entered the Royal Artillery as a private in January 1743 and became a cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich the following year. His next few years are the subject of some uncertainty; according to a pamphlet he wrote later he was in Newfoundland from about 1744, but another source states that he served as an additional sub-engineer in South Carolina and Georgia from 1744 to 1749. At all events, by October 1749 Williams, now a lieutenant-fireworker of artillery, was stationed at the Newfoundland outport of Carbonear, and by 1750 he had been transferred to St John’s. Rather unusually for an officer, Williams took a keen interest in the fishery and in farming; indeed, the Newfoundland historian Daniel Woodley Prowse* considers him to have been one of the pioneers of farming on the island. By the time of his departure from the island he had received and cleared a grant at Quidi Vidi.

In 1758 Williams, now a first lieutenant, was sent to Europe, and he served in the battle of Minden (Federal Republic of Germany) the following year. By 1763 he was a captain in command of a company of artillery and for two years was stationed at various London garrisons. During this time he maintained his interest in Newfoundland. He claimed to have lost over £2,000 in livestock, buildings, and crops during the French attack on the island in 1762 [see Charles-Henri-Louis d’arsac de Ternay], and for several years he addressed memorials to the British government in an apparently futile attempt to obtain compensation. After his departure for the island in 1765 to become artillery commander there, a friend had Williams’ observations on the fishery printed in a pamphlet, An account of the island of Newfoundland . . . (London, 1765). Williams served in Newfoundland for a further eight years, during which time he explored the interior of the Avalon peninsula and defended the Anglican missionary Edward Langman against charges brought by his parishioners. He and his wife received more grants of land and continued their farming.

In June 1773 Williams left Newfoundland and returned to garrison duty in England. Three years later he was promoted major and sent out with the reinforcements under Burgoyne destined for Canada. Williams served throughout the campaigns of 1776 and 1777, holding de facto command of the artillery in the Burgoyne expedition until he was captured at the battle of Bemis Heights (near Schuylerville, N.Y.) on 17 Oct. 1777. Released from captivity by 1780, he served as brigade-major of the New York garrison for a time. In 1782 Williams, then a lieutenant-colonel, was sent to Gibraltar to take command of the artillery during the closing stages of the siege. In December of the same year he was promoted colonel. The following year he was appointed to command the Woolwich garrison of the Royal Artillery, a post he held until 1786 and again from July 1789 until his death.

Williams’ importance to Canadian history rests not on his unspectacular service as an officer, but on his pamphlet. An interesting document, it is one of the few non-official sources on Newfoundland in the 18th century. At the time of its publication the British and French governments were disputing the rights of their fishermen on the French Shore of northern Newfoundland, and Williams evidently intended his pamphlet to awaken the British public to the necessity of securing fishing rights for Britain in the region. Using some questionable and certainly unverifiable statistics, he claimed that during the years 1745 to 1752 the Newfoundland fishery had been worth £1,000,000 annually to Britain, but during the 1760s only about one-sixth of that total. This decrease Williams ascribed to the lack of adequate garrisons since 1750, which discouraged British merchants from competing with the French on the French Shore because they lacked protection in case of disputes. It is unlikely, however, that the presence of garrisons would have made much difference to the merchants, and the decline Williams noted was probably a result of the depletion of the resource following the fishery’s operation at maximum capacity in the 1740s. As well, during the 1750s and 1760s the northern shore became less important to British fishermen as they began to exploit the rich Grand Banks fishery. Williams did, however, make some telling arguments against the naval governors, criticizing their negligent computation of the seasonal catch, which they often underestimated by as much as two-thirds. He also proposed interesting innovations, including the institution of a resident governor, a legal amendment that would allow fishermen to winter on the island, and a reduction in price for the equipment and food needed in the fishery. All in all, the pamphlet is a good “Account” of some aspects of 18th-century Newfoundland.

Stuart R. J. Sutherland

Griffith Williams is the author of An account of the island of Newfoundland . . . (London, 1765).

Cathedral of St John the Baptist (Anglican) (St John’s), parish registers, 1752–1800, 1, ff.2, 4. PRO, Adm. 80/121, f.108; CO 194/12, ff.123–24, 196; 194/13, ff.31, 74, 137, 184, 207, 234; 194/14, ff.10, 28; 194/16, f.193; 194/20, f.19; 194/23, ff.325, 341; 194/28, ff.97, 118; 194/30, f.113; Prob. 11/1190, f.176. USPG, B, 6, nos. 165, 169. Gentlemans Magazine, 1790, 373. Battery records of the Royal Artillery, 1716–1859, comp. M. E. S. Laws (Woolwich, Eng., 1952), 27–52. G.B., WO, Army list, 1756–90. Officers of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, comp. John Kane (4th ed., London, 1900), 4, 4a, 169. J. P. Baxter, The British invasion from the north: the campaigns of generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, 1776–1777 . . . (Albany, N.Y., 1887), 286–87. John Drinkwater [Bethune], A history of the siege of Gibraltar, 1779–1783 . . . (10th ed., London, 1861), 155. Francis Duncan, History of the Royal Artillery, compiled from the original records (2v., London, 1872–73), I, 315, 330, 389. C. G. Head, Eighteenth century Newfoundland: a geographers perspective (Toronto, 1976). Porter, History of Royal Engineers, I, 166. Prowse, History of Nfld. (1895), 296–97, 427.

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Stuart R. J. Sutherland, “WILLIAMS, GRIFFITH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/williams_griffith_4E.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/williams_griffith_4E.html
Author of Article:   Stuart R. J. Sutherland
Title of Article:   WILLIAMS, GRIFFITH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 26, 2023