Samuel Codner (1776-1858) was a ship’s captain, businessman, and philanthropist. His family came from Kingkerswell and owned at that time three ships employed on the Newfoundland trade. By 1794 he was acting as agent in St. John’s for Daniel Codner and Company but after the death of his parents he returned to England with the family firm until in 1819 he began to conduct trade on his own account, initially from Teignmouth and then, after 1828, from Dartmouth.
Despite various set-backs, such as the loss of nine ocean-going vessels between 1806 and 1815, Codner sustained his interest in Newfoundland trade, including the cod and salmon fishery in Labrador, until 1844. From 1815 to 1844 his main commercial activities were centred in St. John’s exporting salt fish to Spain, Portugal, and the West Indies, and importing salt and coal from England and wheat, bread, and biscuits from Germany. From the 1820s, however, Codner specialized in importing “Bridport goods,” sailcloth, ropes, nets, and twines from west Dorset, and cloth goods from Devon. While building this lucrative business in St. John’s, Codner retained his share of the Teignmouth coastal trade.
Even though Codner’s firm was one of St. John’s leading mercantile establishments for more than three decades, he made his mark in Newfoundland history by founding the Newfoundland School Society, an institution which had a profound effect on the island’s educational and cultural development.
Through his commitment, perseverance and tireless fund-raising efforts the British government, in 1824, gave £500 for the construction of a central school in St. John’s and £100 for the salary of a schoolmaster. Codner then made a second circuit of the most important towns and cities in England, Ireland, and Scotland to solicit donations and the assistance of political and ecclesiastical leaders in founding branch societies. Through private subscription in 1825–26 he raised £1,871, and secured the patronage of such persons as Sir John Gladstone in Liverpool and the archbishop of Dublin.
An explanation for Codner’s interest in promoting schools in Newfoundland comes from a story about an experience he had in crossing the Atlantic to England: his ship encountered a violent storm and Codner is said to have vowed to devote himself to humanitarian work if he were safely delivered.
If he was indeed elected by fate and circumstances to instigate social reform, he must be regarded as a wise choice and as an individual who promoted positive change in Newfoundland’s social, cultural, and educational life.
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