“Certainly there’s no lack of memorable characters in the pages of Newfoundland history”; Ted Rowe on his new biography of Sir Richard Squires
I liked your motive for writing this book – that you were simply curious about Richard Squires. Do you remember your first impressions of him?
Well I came to the project with the typical impression of Squires as a corrupt, thieving politician of the 1920s and knowing next to nothing about his personal life. Finding out about his childhood, especially reading his letters to his father who was away for months at a time, gave me a picture of a smart, bookish young man. His mother died when he was still an infant but he grew up capable of making a success of whatever he put his mind to. I liked him, though one little incident from his time as a boarder at Methodist College did nag at me a bit, a little taste of his later character as a politician. The matron found him on the girls’ floor without permission and let him off without a fine as it was the first time he was caught there. “Not first offence, but first time caught,” Squires wrote in his diary. Harmless enough, perhaps, but it left me feeling that for him a crime was only a crime if you were caught at it.
Did your research into Robert Bond naturally start to lead in the direction of this new book?
Yes, it did. I knew from Bond’s writings that there was no love lost between him and Squires, especially after Squires became prime minister in 1919. That was years after Bond had left politics but was keeping a close eye on the goings-on. “That creature” was how he referred to Squires and despaired of his scandal-ridden, debt-laden administration. “My poor country! The last phase!” he wrote in 1923, and was not that far off the mark. Bond’s words drove me to find out more about the man he demonized so severely.
What did you learn about Squires that most surprised you?
There is not much about this in his papers, only a glimpse here and there, but for all his hard-driving ambition he did have a sensitive and artistic side – an appreciation of good literature, good music, and in later life the beauty of a well-tended rose garden. He told Smallwood what a joy he took in strolling among the trees he had planted on his Midstream estate. During his whirlwind career in politics he had little time for these enjoyments and, by the way, seems to have made little effort to pass them on to his children. With them he had a stiff and formal relationship, prodding them to become overachievers like himself.
I was thinking this era was a particularly character-driven time, but perhaps that can always be said of NL politics?
Certainly there’s no lack of memorable characters in the pages of NL history. That said, in writing about this particular time my bias was to lean towards the players and the roles they played in Squires’s escapades. So you can indeed conclude from my depiction that the period was character-driven. Other accounts though are more event-driven, or policy-driven, and reading those might not leave you with the same sense of a character-driven era. The same could probably be said for other periods of our history as well.
What lessons from that period can/should we apply to current issues and policies?
I believe the most important lesson was learned and acted on long ago, and that was dealing with issues of conflict of interest on the part of politicians and restricting the opportunity for personal enrichment by those involved in political life. We have come a long way in that regard, also in the scrutiny of political funding. Smallwood said he was especially careful to keep separate accounting of his political funds as he thought that was the biggest mistake made by Squires that eventually led to his downfall.
Including his family adds a wonderful note. What was it like to meet them? Were they initially reluctant to be involved, or happy to share stories (and photos) of him?
I was indeed fortunate to be able to make contact with the family, which came about through the staff at the Center for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial. I met first with Sir Richard’s grandson Robert, who then took me to meet his brother Richard and his family. They were very congenial, if a little apprehensive as to how I was going to approach the story of their grandparents. I explained that as a researcher and biographer my job was to report on what I found and I would do that as fairly as I could. Sir Richard’s misdeeds are no secret. I believe I was able to reassure the family that I was not going to sugar coat them but was interested in exploring and trying to understand what lay behind them.
They were genuinely interested in having the full story told, and, along with their cousin Elaine Wilson, provided lots of family lore and access to private papers and photographs. Along with the background provided by the Strong family, it did allow for some interesting twists to the narrative.
Mischief in High Places: The Life and Times of Sir Richard Squires is published by Breakwater Books ($22.95)