Sir Ambrose Shea (September 17, 1815 - July 30, 1905)

Photograph: Sir Ambrose Shea

Sir Ambrose Shea
© Public Domain, Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, vol. 5, p. 151

Ambrose Shea was one of two Newfoundland delegates to the Québec Conference. He was a successful businessman and supporter of the rights of Newfoundlanders. He later went on to become governor of the Bahamas.

Ambrose Shea was born in St. John's, Newfoundland, the son of Henry Shea and Eleanor Ryan. He worked for a time on The Newfoundlander, a family-owned newspaper, before going into business for himself. By the 1850s, he was a successful merchant who also dealt in insurance, and acted as the agent for the transatlantic steamer trade. He continued to operate the business during most of his political career. In addition, he helped found the Newfoundland Natives Society in 1840, serving on the management committee in 1842, and as president in 1846. He was a lifelong supporter of the interests of native-born Newfoundlanders. Shea was married twice, first to Isabella Nixon in 1851 (d. 1877), and then to Louisa Hart in 1878.

Although he had been suggested as a candidate for the House of Assembly in 1842, Shea declined a nomination. It was not until 1848 that he ran and won as a Liberal member for Placentia-St. Mary's. He was regarded as a man of great ability, though he tended to be outside the mainstream of the party. Nevertheless, he supported such party causes as the campaign for responsible government. He also emerged as the spokesman for reciprocity with the United States, acting as the Liberals' delegate to the Treaty of Washington negotiations in 1853.

In the first responsible government election in 1855, Shea was returned as a member for St. John's West, and was appointed Speaker. However, tensions soon arose between those members who were immigrants to Newfoundland, and those, including Shea, who were born there. There were also difficulties between Shea and premier John Kent, who took office in 1858. Despite the conflicts, the Liberals retained power after the 1859 election. Shea won a seat at Burin. He remained as Speaker after the election, but did little to repair party divisions. He was absent much of the time from the fall session of 1860, and many believed that he was organizing a covert campaign against Kent. When the Kent government collapsed, and Hugh Hoyles was invited to form a minority Conservative government in 1861, Shea was offered a cabinet post but declined. In the election held that year, Shea was elected in Placentia. The Liberals were soundly defeated. After Kent's departure, Shea became leader.

When the invitation to the Québec Conference arrived in 1864, Shea acted as one of two delegates, along with F.B.T. Carter. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Québec Resolutions, giving a speech in their favour at a dinner in Montréal. Upon his return to Newfoundland, however, he found that his enthusiasm was not shared by much of the population. Once again, Shea found himself in the minority of political opinion during debates on the subject in 1865. As one of the few Catholic supporters of the idea, Shea was invited to join a coalition cabinet under Carter. However, his presence there drew much criticism and provoked many anti-Confederation attacks, to the point where he was unable to sway even Catholic opinion in favour of union. His plan to promote union by employing Newfoundlanders on the construction of the Intercolonial Railway (ICR) was unsuccessful, as many men either failed to find work on the line, or drifted away without returning to the island. In the 1869 election, Shea was forced to campaign in Placentia against Charles Fox Bennett, the anti-Confederation leader, and an electorate strongly opposed to union. He and Carter's pro-union coalition government were defeated.

Following the defeat, Shea avoided public life for a time, but by 1873 was ready to run again. Although he was defeated in St. John's East that year, he was returned unopposed in Harbour Grace in January of 1874. When Carter re-assumed the premiership after the fall of the Bennett government in 1873, Shea remained in the Assembly, wielding considerable influence in the Executive Council even though he was not a member. Shea was one of the primary supporters of railway construction, and was a member of the joint committee that recommended establishment of a line in 1880. He also fought the 1885 election as leader of the Liberal Party, quietly negotiating with members of the new Reform Party to ensure a Reform victory, and laying the groundwork for a future coalition.

Although Shea retained his seat in the 1882 election, he began campaigning for employment with the British imperial government. After receiving a knighthood in 1883, he began expressing his desire to become governor of Newfoundland. Previous government service had given him a favourable standing with the Colonial Office, which indicated to Shea that his services would be properly rewarded. However, he found himself in competition with Carter for the same position. Even though the Colonial Office initially decided to appoint Shea, it was forced to withdraw his name in the face of protests organized by Carter. The experience soured Shea's opinion of Newfoundland and its government.

Despite efforts to placate Shea, many in the Newfoundland government felt he was an embarrassment, and wished to see him employed elsewhere. When the governorship of the Bahamas became available, it was agreed to give Shea the position. He served there from October 1887 to December 1894, and was by all accounts a popular and respected figure. However, he maintained an interest in Newfoundland's affairs, even attempting to participate in the 1888 Confederation negotiations (though his efforts were ignored). He also seemingly never lost his desire for the Newfoundland governorship. As late as 1894, he was still campaigning for appointment to the post. After his term as governor of the Bahamas ended, Shea retired to London. Upon his death, he was accorded a lavish state funeral in St. John's, the first Newfoundlander to receive such a tribute.


  • Bates, Allison. "Shea, Ambrose". Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. Ed. Cyril F. Poole. St. John's, Nfld. : Harry Cuff Publications Ltd., 1994. Vol. 5, p. 151-152

  • Hiller, James K. "Shea, Sir Ambrose". Dictionary of Canadian biography. Ed. Ramsay Cook. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1994. Vol. 13, p. 942-947

  • "Shea, Sir Ambrose". Macmillan dictionary of Canadian biography. Ed. W. Stewart Wallace. 4th ed. Toronto : Macmillan of Canada, 1978. P. 763

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