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John Munn (1807-1879)
John Munn is considered an outstanding example of a prominent Newfoundland outport merchant. From small beginnings in 1833, he built the largest general fishery supply firm outside St. John’s in Harbour Grace and became the single largest owner of vessels in the colony. His innovative business practices fostered the growth of his firm Punton and Munn, which became John Munn and Company in 1872 and continued operation until Newfoundland’s disastrous Bank Crash of 1894.
As a man of wealth and prominence, Munn was dedicated to the social and political concerns of Harbour Grace, of Conception Bay and of the colony of Newfoundland. Deeply involved in the politics of the time, he entered the House of Assembly in 1842, was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1855 under Responsible Government, and in the election of 1869 was a leader of those who favoured Confederation with the Dominion of Canada.
Born in Scotland in 1807, Munn came to St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1825 at the age of 18. For eight years, he worked as a bookkeeper at the firm Baine, Johnston and Company, one of the largest general trading companies in the colony. In 1833, Munn moved to Harbor Grace, Conception Bay and, together with Scottish mariner Captain William Punton set up the mercantile firm Punton and Munn. Starting as a one-vessel fishery supply company, the company flourished under Munn’s direction, setting up a sizeable shipyard at Harbour Grace in 1838, and soon became one of the largest business concerns in Newfoundland. The firm operated in the Labrador fisheries, the shore fishery of the island, the seal fishery, in shipping, and owned or supplied several fishing rooms in southern Labrador and in northeastern Newfoundland.
The innovative business practices that ensured longevity of Munn’s enterprise included investing in steam vessels and developing a special method of salting Labrador fish that allowed for long-distance transport to markets in England and further abroad. Diversifying, Munn formed a fish by-products business that, by the end of the 19th century, was the major supplier of cod liver oil from Newfoundland. He also branched into copper mining, was one of the founders of a maritime insurance company, and became a newspaper owner.
Munn also became a respected civic leader. Like many outport merchants, Munn took a deep interest in the political and social issues of his home. He served on the boards of the Harbour Grace Grammar School, as a Justice of the Peace, as a foreign consulate at Harbour Grace, as commissioner of roads for his community, and donated funds to many organizations. In the political realm, Munn used his position and influence to argue the case of the outports’ social and economic concerns, including the need to strengthen Newfoundland’s ties with North America. In the election of 1869, he led the campaign in Conception Bay supporting Confederation, becoming one of nine elected representatives who supported joining the Dominion.
Following his retirement from politics in 1873, Munn retired to Southport, in England in 1878. When news of his death in September 1879 reached the colony, Harbour Grace and the wider Conception Bay community went into mourning: flags flew at half-mast for one of the leading merchants and civic leaders of Newfoundland.
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