Historic Smallwood letters

shed new light on the past

(March 6, 1997, Gazette)

By Pam Frampton

In addition to being premier of this province for many years, Joseph R. Smallwood (1900-1991) was a great many things to a great many people: statesman, orator, leader, political friend or foe. But the recent acquisition of 20 letters from "Joey," dating from January 1924 to February 1925, reveal a side of him that is little known today.

The letters were written to George H. Tucker, who at the time was an employee of Newfoundland Light and Power. George H. Tucker was born to George and Rebecca Tucker in Port de Grave in 1882, and grew up in Crabbes (now St. David's), on the province's west coast.

It is not exactly known how Mr. Tucker and Mr. Smallwood became acquainted, but one thing is sure: they shared a love of politics and a desire to improve the fortunes of the people of the province. The letters show that Mr. Tucker was, until his and Mr. Smallwood's lives moved in different directions, a sounding board for the future premier -- his eyes and ears in Newfoundland while Mr. Smallwood worked, and observed politics in the United States.

"Dear Comrade Tucker," Mr. Smallwood wrote in 1924, "It has been with a great deal of pleasure and with much encouragement and inspiration resulting that I have read and re-read your letter...I am therefore able to feel...that I am in direct touch with the realistic sentiments of a man who has observed trends and events with care and discrimination."

Lisa Tucker Boulton is an alumna of Memorial (B.Comm., 1981) who grew up in St. John's, but who now practices law in Toronto. George Tucker was her grandfather. After her father died, Ms. Boulton found a stack of letters in a safety deposit box that he had owned, and recognized them as letters from Mr. Smallwood to her grandfather. She said she remembers her father telling her about how, when he was a child, Mr. Smallwood often visited his father at their home at 20 Gear St., St. John's, where heated political debates would take place behind the closed doors of the dining room.

"My grandfather and Smallwood were great friends as young men," she told the Gazette. "I've read the letters and they're quite interesting. They're from Smallwood's early years, and little is known about this period -- it was the 1920s and Smallwood was campaigning for the socialist party in the United States."

On Feb. 17, 1924, a letter from 123 West 15th St., New York City, written by Mr. Smallwood to Mr. Tucker, contained this observation:

"It is because I believe that the time is propitious in Newfoundland for the founding of a Labor movement, or the sowing of the seeds out of which a Labor movement might grow, that I urge earnestly the necessity of building wisely, and soundly, and in line with all the lessons of the past -- the past in Newfoundland and in other countries, too. I urge the high desirability of learning by past mistakes and catastrophes to avoid the sunken shoals that beset the route that must be traveled if a movement is to be created. In this view I feel that you fully join."

It is the fact that Mr. Smallwood was only 23 and 24 years of age when he wrote the letters which makes them particularly valuable.

"I thought they would be interesting, and of use to the public," Ms. Boulton said. "My husband and I intended to donate them from the beginning, but it was just a matter of where."

The Boultons first contacted the National Archives, which advised them that anything related to Joseph R. Smallwood would be best kept with the Smallwood collection at Memorial University. Their next step was to get in touch with Dr. Philip Hiscock of Memorial's Folklore and Language Archive.

"I was happy when I saw the letters because I knew that that period of his life is underdocumented. It was good to find a primary source like that; you can really see in his style of writing that he really was a very good writer," recalled Dr. Hiscock, who surmised that Mr. Smallwood and Mr. Tucker met as a result of their mutual interest in labor unions. "The letters are not only interesting for their good writing, but for their political content. The word 'revolution' is never used in the letters, but they're certainly talking about a real shake-up in the Newfoundland political economy."

Because of the co-operative arrangement between the Folklore and Language Archive -- which collects mostly audio-visual material -- and the Centre for Newfoundland Studies (CNS) Archives in the Queen Elizabeth II Library -- which collects primarily textual and photographic material, Dr. Hiscock put the Boultons in touch with CNS archivist Bert Riggs, who is respected for his knowledge of Smallwood.

"The George Tucker Letters, as the collection is now called, contain 20 letters in total: 17 written from New York City, one from Frenchtown, N.J., one from Albany, N.Y., and the last one from Grand Falls, Nfld., in February 1925," Mr. Riggs said. "It's one of the few bodies of continuous correspondence -- the only one I know of -- written by Smallwood that discusses his political philosophy at that time. These are long, meaty letters, not 'Hello, how are you?'"

Mr. Riggs explained that the Smallwood letters are significant because of their rarity, their breadth and depth of content, and of course, because of their author.

"They complement the Smallwood documents we already have in the CNS Archives. Our Smallwood collection fills boxes and boxes. To date what we have processed are his political papers from 1947-1972 -- correspondence between him and the people of Newfoundland who wrote to him, his cabinet documents, materials related to the movement toward Conederation with Canada, plus 2,000 photographic images."

Mr. Riggs said that, once processed, these latest letters will appeal to anyone interested in Mr. Smallwood's political philosophy, Newfoundland politics in the 1920s, labor history, society and culture in transition (because they describe Newfoundland between the wars, heading for the Depression), or Mr. Smallwood's life in general.

Dr. Kevin Keough, Memorial's vice-president (research), was at the archives for the formal presentation of the documents, on Feb. 25. He said Mr. Smallwood's letters to Mr. Tucker are a welcome and generous gift.

"We're very pleased to have some actual, contemporary, written record of Mr. Smallwood's thoughts about labor relations and labor activism at that time," he said. "Most of the other information we have has been based upon the recollections of Joseph Smallwood and others. These letters will undoubtedly help scholars of Newfoundland history."