“You old buggar, I’ll pump you full of lead.” The Great War in Canada and Policing the City of Saint John, NB, 1910-1920

By Ben Griffin

In his 1920 “Valedictory,” the outgoing Mayor of Saint John, New Brunswick, R.T. Hayes reflected that “The four years have been full of incidents of outstanding importance, none more so perhaps in the history of the City and of the world.”[1] Indeed, Hayes’ observations are supported by historical scholarship on the Great War; Brian Douglas Tennyson called it a clear demarcation between the “before” and “after” of our historical evolution.[2] Notwithstanding the dominant trends of the literature, the historiography is enhanced when we explore stories of how New Brunswickers navigated this era. This is especially important in contexts that lack significant attention, such as policing. As a logistical hub and ice-free port of acute military importance, Saint John should be a nexus for exploring Canadian experiences of the war. This snapshot of its police force, itself in crisis during the 1910s, highlights how street-level tensions in a Maritime city were complicated by global events.

Wartime policing in Saint John was complicated by ongoing conflict between the Commissioner of Public Safety, Harry McLellan, and Walker Clark, who served a remarkable 25 years as Chief of Police (1890 – 1915). McLellan, who was elected in 1912 when the city adopted commission-style government, immediately commenced a tenacious campaign to unseat Clark from his job. Whether motivated by unknown enmity between the two men, a bad personal experience involving the Commissioner, or his genuine belief that policing in Saint John would benefit from progressive reform that was popular across North America during the early 20th century, McLellan worked tirelessly to prove that Clark was unfit for duty. Among McLellan’s more memorable accusations were “That the men were absolutely ignorant of rules and regulations,” and “That the Chief exhibited an utter lack of knowledge regarding the actions of the members of his force.”[3]

Clark, on the other hand, had been arguing for decades that his ability to deliver effective policing was hamstrung by a lack of support from council. In 1911, for example, Clark stated that the force was worse off numerically than in 1890 and that “The City requires better police protection than is now afforded; the requirements are much too great for the present Force to adequately handle.”[4] Moreover, Clark was not alone in grumbling about manpower. An unnamed citizen complained in 1910 that “the present Police Force… do not seem capable whether by reason of small number of them or otherwise to protect property in North Street in the City of Saint John… I am writing to ask for liberty to appoint someone at my own expense to… protect my property on that street.”[5] 1911 was a bad year for policing in the city, foreshadowed by Clark’s persistent unease: on New Year’s Eve an inebriated crowd of revellers “transformed into a mob” and caused significant damage to streetcars and other city property.[6] The (in)ability of the Saint John police to suppress public disorder was a trenchant concern long before the war.

The operational capacity of the police force was turned into a public debate following their widely derided response to the street railwaymen’s strike of July 1914. As Europe stood on the cusp of war, labour disputes mushroomed into a large-scale protest and company property estimated at $15,560 was destroyed.[7] Trial by media was swift and harsh: The Telegraph’s front page blared that the police “Made No Serious Attempt At Preserving the Peace.”[8] Although Clark defended himself in his annual report for 1914,[9] the pressure of continual scrutiny and lack of support from his political bosses saw the embattled chief retire at the outset of 1915. McLellan used the occasion of Clark’s departure to label the police force “a joke.”[10]

With Clark finally deposed, wartime policing in Saint John was overseen by incoming chief David Simpson, an outsider hand-picked by McLellan who was politically tethered to his commissioner. Still, many of Simpson’s subsequent frustrations echoed Clark’s, and his men were increasingly challenged by restless and unruly troops who indulged in liquor and sought out prostitutes. Remarkably, one soldier appeared in court nineteen times in a six-week period.[11] Increasingly agitated by these patterns of unrest, an “enraged” magistrate Ritchie directed the police to address misbehaving soldiers and interrupt women selling sex. Such behaviour was considered a contaminant to the integrity of the Canadian military and as agents of moral correction, police were asked to counteract this threat.[12] Whether Ritchie’s entreaty had any impact will remain unknown, but Simpson reported that 189 soldiers were arrested during 1916.

Some of these incidents generated formal complaints to the Common Council. In April 1916, local businessman Samuel Ride wrote that on a recent evening while outside chatting to a friend “one of the soldiers who are on guard in that locality walked up to us, pointed his rifle at me and used these words “you old buggar I’ll pump you full of lead”.” Ride reported the threat to a policeman “but got little or no satisfaction from him and it is for this reason that I am laying this matter before you.” He concluded his missive by stating that “As a law abiding citizen I resent treatment of this nature.”[13] Although the outcome of Ride’s complaint is unknown, Magistrate Ritchie was confident that “the police had control over the men in khaki.” Sadly, Ritchie’s faith was broken by continuing violence between soldiers and regular citizens. To stem this mini crisis, an agreement was struck that placed additional restrictions on soldiers’ freedom and the Military Police were asked to be more accountable for their men.[14]

The separation of responsibilities between the two police forces was poorly defined, however, and the failings of this ill-conceived system manifested with the sad case of James V. Vanwart. On April 15th, 1918 the Standard reported that “the late James V. Vanwart who was “arrested by the Military Police and handed over to the City Police on or about the 25th day of March last,” died in police custody of shock brought on by the “excessive use of tobacco and delayed medical care.”[15] Council responded by instructing McLellan to investigate Vanwart’s untimely demise, the results of which are unknown. Nevertheless, the implications were troubling for the police, military, and citizenry alike.

Problems with policing in wartime Saint John can be interpreted in two ways; as singular vignettes of a police force dealing with complicated incidents during a difficult period, or as indictors of a broken system riddled with structural deficits that was essentially incapable of addressing the challenges of the day. Irrespective the position one takes, which is far beyond the scope of this post, there is no doubt that the Great War taxed a police force that had been struggling to manage its own affairs for decades, let alone navigate the unique challenges of war on the home front.  


Ben Griffin is a PhD student in History at the University of New Brunswick with a focus on 20th century Canadian policing and crime. He is also employed as a police officer with the City of Fredericton and is interested in bridging the gap between history and the practice of contemporary justice.


[1] Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Microfilm F285, City of Saint John Annual Reports, 1920. Valedictory of Mayor R.T. Hayes, 159.

[2] Brian Douglas Tennyson, Canada’s Great War, 1 914-1918. (London, England: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), xi.

[3] Gerald Wallace, William Higgins and Peter McGahan. The Saint John Police Story: The Clark Years, 1890-1915. (Fredericton, NB: New Ireland Press, 1991), 103-104.

[4] Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Microfilm F284, Annual Report of the Chief of Police, January 1911.

[5] Minutes of the Common Council of Saint John, 6 February 1911.

[6] Wallace, Higgins and McGahan, The Clark Years, 92-93.

[7] Ibid, 124.

[8] The Daily Telegraph, 24 July 1914.

[9] He asserted “I greatly deplore the disgraceful results… at the same time I attach no blame to myself or the officers under me.” Report of the Chief of Police, 4 January 1915.

[10] Gerald Wallace, William Higgins and Peter McGahan. The Saint John Police Story, Volume 2: The Simpson Years, 1915-1919. (Fredericton, NB: New Ireland Press, 1992), 9.

[11] Peter McGahan. Crime and Policing in Maritime Canada. (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1988), 100.

[12] Wallace, Higgins and McGahan, The Simpson Years, 52.

[13] Provincial Archies of New Brunswick, RS427, Minutes of the Common Council of Saint John 18 April 1916.

[14] Wallace, Higgins and McGahan, The Simpson Years, 55-59.

[15] Saint John Standard, 5 April 1918.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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