January 9, 1888
The Colonial Building, Military Road, St. John’s is arguably the most significant historic building in the province.
At the official opening of the Colonial Building on January 28th, 1850, Governor Sir John Gaspard LeMarchant stated it was, “dedicated to the future advancement and well-being of the country, a building which from its magnificence and extent will henceforth invest our legislature with and additional degree of interest and veneration.”
The Colonial Building has had a storied history, if the walls could speak, they would tell us of events such as Newfoundland gaining Responsible Government in 1855, the Riots of 1932 that saw Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires hiding from the mob. It was the building that was a witness to the national Convention debates that saw the Dominion of Newfoundland dragged into Confederation.
After Confederation in 1949, the Colonial Building was the seat of the Provincial Legislature until the Confederation Building opened in 1959.
The Colonial Building was also in the eye of the storm because of less significant incidents.
In early January 1888 the talk in the town of St. John’s and throughout the province was all about a carpet, not you’re run of the mill carpet, the talk was about a very expensive carpet allegedly stolen from the ‘Colonial Building.’
The government of the day (Premier Robert Thorburn) had purchased the carpet at the great expense of $300.00 (three hundred dollars) a carpet that was put down on the Assembly Chamber in the Colonial Building the year previous. In today’s currency the carpet would cost approximately $7,000.00 dollars. It would have been a large carpet, the Assembly Chamber is a substantial room measuring 29’6” X 49’.
The editor of the local newspaper the Evening Telegram was furious. Where was the carpet? Why was there no one in the government concerned about the missing carpet? The Editor boldly suggested that the government of the Colony of Newfoundland was holding a double standard. He wrote:
“Why should the poor fisherman be sentenced to 30 days imprisonment with hard labour for stealing a tam o’ shanter cup worth only 25 cents while a sleek and well paid government official is allowed to steal valuable property from the people’s house with the utmost impunity!”
The newspaper refused to let go of the issue and soon discovered that not only was one of the carpets stolen but also “it will be necessary to talk about the valuable windows hangings stolen from the Clerk’s Office and the chairs and the desk spirited away from the Assembly Chamber ..”
The ‘Carpet Question’ was never resolved. Mr. Richard Holden the Assistant Clerk for the House of Assembly was the only person who offered any comment on the missing carpet suggesting that the government “says they are not going to have any carpet on the Assembly Room next season, but are going to have the floor painted in squares as a chess board.”
Currently the Colonial Building is closed for interior and exterior renovations and is slated to re-open in late 2015 with a restored interior, exterior and new exhibits to bring to life the people and political events of our past. It will be the home of our political history.
Alas, the interior will not feature the ornate carpet, the valuable windows hangings stolen from the Clerk’s Office and the chairs and the desk.
Have you seen this carpet? Will the floors be painted in squares as a chess board?
Lost phrase: “tam o’ shanter cup” associated with the Scottish tradition, a cup that was stolen that may have been a trophy cup. (Love to hear from you on this!)
Recommended Website: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/law/colonial/default.html
Recommended Museum Visit: At The Rooms Provincial Museum visit the exhibit ‘Here, We Made a Home’ in The Elinor Gill Ratcliffe Gallery – Level 4. This exhibit highlights some of the events associated with the political history of Newfoundland and Labrador.