15 May 2012

The Old Wooden Mace #nlpoli

The Telegram’s James McLeod took some time during a recent Estimates committee hearing on Monday to dash off a post at his blog about the ceremonial aspects of the legislature proceedings.

He mentions the number of items in the House of Assembly chamber that came as presents from other provinces after Confederation.  He finishes off with this bit:

Arguably the coolest gift of them all came from B.C. They gave us a massive gold mace. The mace is so cool, it actually gets a parade every day when the House is sitting - it's a small parade, just the Speaker, and a handful of other folks, but still, a parade! You can read more about the mace here, including the old wood one that sits outside the public galleries.

The wooden mace on display in the public gallery of the House of Assembly is the one used in the first parliament in Newfoundland in 1832. How it got there is a story in itself.

In legislatures modeled after the British parliament, the sittings of the House are not considered legal if the mace is not present. The mace isn’t just the coolest, it is one of the most important items.  It represents the authority of the Sovereign.

For sittings of the House, the sergeant-at arms places the mace at the end of the Clerk’s table in the centre of the room.  That’s where the House officials like the Clerk and the House legal counsel sit.  The head of the mace points toward the government side and, by tradition the Premier sits in the chair immediately in front of it.  The opposition leader sits directly opposite to the Premier, facing the bottom end of the mace.

Here’s a picture of the House of Assembly from 1914 showing the mace in position.

If you follow James’ link you wind up at the page at the House of Assembly page about the mace.  There is a picture of the one currently used in the legislature as well as a wooden one.  The text describes the wooden one this way:

This hand painted wooden Mace is believed to be the original Mace given by the British authorities to the newly elected House of Assembly in 1833. What appears to be this wooden Mace is seen in various photographs taken of Members of the House of Assembly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When the Mace currently used by the House of Assembly was given to the House in 1950 by the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the old wooden Mace was placed in storage. In the late 1990s the old Mace was rediscovered and refurbished.

Not exactly.

When the House of Assembly closed in 1934, the mace and some other items from the Newfoundland legislature went into storage.  By some accounts, the mace, the sergeant-at-arms’ sword, and the Black Rod from Legislative Council went to the attic of Government House. They wound up in storage somewhere else and many of the items  - along with artefacts rom the Newfoundland museum - burned in a fire some time during the Second World War.

The wooden mace survived and re-appeared when the House of Assembly re-opened in 1949.  When the British Columbia mace arrived in 1950, the House put the wooden mace away.

Fast forward to the early 1990s.  The Premier sent Simon Lono to use his spare time to track down Joe Smallwood’s office furniture  from the 1960s.  Brian Peckford had replaced it all in the mid-1980s and Clyde Wells wanted to restore some of the older fittings to maintain a sense of tradition. 

Between conversations and telephone calls, Lono found the furniture.  But he found something else as well.  Here’s how Lono described it in a recent e-mail:

“Calling around, I talked to a man I knew who spent his government career restoring government-owned owned antiques and artefacts.  I ran down my list of stuff [from the pre-Confederation legislature] and he had no idea where any of them were until I hit the mace.

He said "I'm looking at the mace right now. It's been on a shelf in my workshop for decades"

Lono headed down to the man’s workshop in a government building in Pleasantville.  He brought the mace back to the office and showed it to the Premier.

Lono described how he authenticated the mace:

“At the tip was a wooden ball that was clearly a late add-on. Historical records [and photographs] said that the mace was damaged when it was secreted from the Colonial Building during the big riot [April 1932].  The little cross at the tip snapped off. Somebody replaced it with a little wooden ball.  That's how we confirmed that it was the very same mace.”

Lono added that the man who had kept the mace safe all those years, “Ralph Clemens, the antiques restorer and craftsman, cleaned it up and now it’s sitting just outside the House.”

The members’ desks from the House of Assembly as well as the Clerk’s tables from both the House of Assembly and the Legislative  Council are still around.  They are in storage somewhere in various states of disrepair.

But the mace survives and made it back to the House of Assembly with a little help from Simon Lono.