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Charles Fox Bennett: A Figure of Controversy

For the week of Monday November 29, 2010

On December 5, 1883, Charles Fox Bennett died in St. John’s, Newfoundland. A prominent entrepreneur and politician, Bennett was an outspoken and often controversial public figure who opposed Confederation. Bennett played a large part in the development of Newfoundland’s mining industry and in preventing Newfoundland from joining Confederation in 1869.

Tilt Cove. A view of the mine ca. 1900
© Memorial University of Newfoundland, Geography Collection – Historical Photographs of Newfoundland and Labrador, HPNL0766
Bennett was born in Shaftsbury (Dorset), England, in 1793. He moved to Newfoundland in 1808 and, in the 1820s, he started a business with his brother. His business, C.F. Bennett and Company, began as an import and export company, but eventually expanded to include groundbreaking mining ventures, a shipyard, foundry, brewery and distillery. Bennett’s mining operation at Tilt Cove, in Notre Dame Bay, created 700 jobs for mine workers and was the first substantial mining operation in Newfoundland. His business made him a prominent and wealthy citizen. In 1836, he was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce and, in 1841, he helped found the Newfoundland Agricultural Society.

During the debate over the introduction of responsible government to Newfoundland, Bennett argued that Newfoundland was too underdeveloped for such a political change. Therefore, he became involved in the political fight against it in 1842. When responsible government was adopted, Bennett lost his seat in the Legislature and was publicly attacked for his outspoken efforts. Unhindered by his previous political failure, Bennett publicly condemned the Quebec Resolutions of 1864, which set the terms for Canadian Confederation. Fearing that union with Canada would increase taxes, disrupt trade, and decrease Newfoundland’s population, Bennett published articles and editorial letters condemning the federal scheme well into 1868. By 1869 he was the leader of the Anti-Confederation Party. When an election was held in 1869 to decide if Newfoundland would join Confederation, Bennett led the campaign that convinced the majority of the population to vote against it.

Charles James Fox Bennett
© Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, Vol. 1, p. 176

Bennett became the Premier of Newfoundland on February 14, 1870. An improvement in Newfoundland’s economy allowed his government to lower taxes while avoiding debt. Under his leadership, Newfoundland saw an increase in road construction and other public works projects as well as grants for geological surveys.

Despite this success, Bennett’s party fell apart. No longer united by the threat of Confederation, members quit to form other political alliances. Bennett resigned his position as the party leader in 1874, but did not leave the realm of politics until 1878.

As a prominent politician and entrepreneur, Charles Fox Bennett was designated a National Historic Person in 1975. Newfoundland’s Entry into Confederation in 1949, as Canada’s 10th province, was designated a National Historic Event in 1958.

For more information on Newfoundland and Confederation, see the This Week in History stories “And Then There Were Ten” and Canada’s Last Father of Confederation.

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