St. John's, City of Fire.


170 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-1-897317-19-8
DDC 971.8'1






Reviewed by R. Gordon Moyles

R. Gordon Moyles is professor emeritus of English at the University of
Alberta, co-author of Imperial Dreams and Colonial Realities: British
Views of Canada, 1880–1914, and author of The Salvation Army and the


“Fire,” states Butler, “is a transformative event in the life of any large community. Such destruction makes people dig deep into themselves for a sense of what defines them, and this process can stir up many layers of myth and speculation which become woven into the very bricks of the rebuilt homes.” It is this theme that governs this excellent recounting of a city three times ravaged by major conflagrations—in 1817, 1846, and 1892. Butler not only describes the fires themselves (though such descriptions are fascinating), but shows how, each time, the city moved a little farther along the road to 19th-century modernity. He also shows how those fires illuminated the dark social differences between the upper (mainly English) and lower (mainly Irish) classes that inhabited the city. The events described are meticulously researched, invested with human drama, and judiciously interpreted.            


“St. John’s,” he writes, “remains a city of contradictions, stubborn yet friendly, charming yet defiant, sprawling yet crowded, huddled yet grand. Three times burned, it has little left to prove to others or to itself.” How, Butler asks, “would St. John’s have developed had none of the major fires of the 19th century occurred?” His answer to that question results in a very entertaining and informative book.


Butler, Paul., “St. John's, City of Fire.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 17, 2024,