Coaker did things his own way, to the very end

The Compass - - OPINION -

Wil­liam Coaker — “Sir Wil­liam” as he be­came in 1924 when King Ge­orge V cre­ated him a Knight of the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire — did as much to shape the lives of New­found­lan­ders as any of their lead­ers dur­ing the first half of the 20th cen­tury. The Fish­er­men’s Pro­tec­tive Union, which he founded in 1908, dom­i­nated pol­i­tics along the north­east coast of the is­land for a quar­ter-cen­tury.

At its peak, 20,000 men marched un­der the FPU ban­ner — the largest po­lit­i­cal party in New­found­land’s his­tory. Their votes made Coaker a com­mand­ing fig­ure in pub­lic life and car­ried him to the pin­na­cle of po­lit­i­cal power. His great cru­sade to re­form the salt fish in­dus­try — the in­dus­try that sup­ported the ma­jor­ity of his fel­low New­found­lan­ders — failed, but he stands alone in our his­tory as the only man who had the courage and the dar­ing to try to do so.

Coaker died Oct. 26, 1938, in Bos­ton. He was 67. Two of his clos­est col­leagues, Aaron and James Bailey, brought his body back to New­found­land by train to Port Union in Trin­ity North, the town he cre­ated as the home for his beloved FPU and the base for the com­mer­cial en­ter­prises that grew from it. (Aaron Bailey, who had mar­ried Sir Wil­liam’s niece Ella Coaker, was Coaker’s pri­vate sec­re­tary for many years).

“Sad­dest oc­ca­sion”

Coaker lay in state in the Bun­ga­low, his home in Port Union. Hun­dreds of men and women came there to wake him. Among them was a jour­nal­ist and union­izer who had sung Coaker’s praises for many years. Joseph R. Small­wood, ac­com­pa­nied by his wife, had come to Port Union as “one of the party that ar­rived at Catalina by spe­cial [rail­way] car from St. John’s, on the morn­ing of the fu­neral.”

Small­wood hur­ried at once to get his “first view of Sir Wil­liam Coaker dead and help­less. As with so many oth­ers, it was the sad­dest oc­ca­sion in my life. But our dead leader and friend seemed not dead. He seemed merely to be asleep, just as fre­quently we had seen him asleep.”

Coaker al­ways did things his own way. A staunch and com­mit­ted, even fer­vent, ad­her­ent of the Church of Eng­land (known to­day as the Angli­can Church of Canada), he had been the driv­ing force be­hind the con­struc­tion of the Church of the Holy Mar­tyrs in Port Union.

The great and the good gath­ered there on the af­ter­noon of Fri­day, Nov. 4 for his fu­neral ser­vice. The cer­e­mony was graced by the pres­ence of John C. Pud­dester, New­found­land’s Com­mis­sioner for Pub­lic Health and Wel­fare, rep­re­sent­ing the Do­min­ion’s gov­ern­ment. Sir Richard Squires was there, and so were mem­bers of the Cashin, Cros- bie, O’Leary, Win­ter, Mif­flin and Rus­sell fam­i­lies, all of them prominent in New­found­land’s busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal world.

The pro­ces­sion, led by a Guard of Hon­our from the Bon­av­ista com­pany of the Church Lad’s Brigade, made its way through the town, fol­lowed by the chief mourn­ers. Small­wood de­scribed the day in a lengthy, ful­some (and un­signed) obit­u­ary. He left his read­ers in no doubt of its solem­nity and sig­nif­i­cance.

“For a fleet­ing five or six hours the full re­al­iza­tion of the ter­ri­ble frailty of his end was mer­ci­fully kept from us — that was to come when the street out­side [the Bun­ga­low] be­gan to thicken with mourn­ers, the hearse ar­rived op­po­site the gate, and the fi­nal prepa­ra­tions be­gan to take him for the last time away from the home he loved so well.”

Small­wood con­tin­ued: “To a man, as they came in many hun­dreds, they re­mem­bered — how could they fail to re­mem­ber? — the dead leader’s count­less bat­tles for the up­lift­ing of the fish­er­men. They re­mem­bered count­less stir­ring oc­ca­sions when his flash­ing, bril­liant, fear­less gifts had been poured out lav­ishly in bat­tles fought for them. … They re­mem­bered his al­most count­less vic­to­ries in their be­half.”

Mourn­ers wept openly

The crowd, Small­wood re­ported, was far larger than Holy Mar­tyrs could ac­com­mo­date. But the mourn­ers waited pa­tiently through­out the ser­vice that was “just as sim­ple as it was beau­ti­ful.” Inside the church, “many … could only with­hold their tears with dif­fi­culty — oth­ers wept openly.” And when the ser­vice ended, the fu­neral pro­ces­sion moved slowly through Port Union again, and made its way to his tomb. Here, too, they learned that Coaker did things his own way.

Coaker’s body was brought to a pri­vate grave­yard that had been prepared some years ear­lier at his com­mand. The cas­ket con­tain­ing his mor­tal re­mains was low­ered into the mar­ble sepul­chre he had de­signed. A sym­bolic hand­ful of earth was thrown upon it.

“There we lin­gered awhile,” Small­wood wrote, “and silently crept away, leav­ing him and the great banks of flow­ers to the God who had cre­ated both.” (The bronze bust of Coaker was placed on the tomb years later.)

The Fish­er­men’s Ad­vo­cate pub­lished a spe­cial edi­tion to de­scribe the fu­neral. Small­wood’s story — without a by­line — graced the front page. Two other pages were given over to un­stinted phrase of Coaker in all his en­deav­ours — “New­found­land’s Great Son,” “Coaker the Man,” “Coaker the Or­ga­nizer,” “Coaker the Ora­tor” and “Coaker the States­man.” There was a list of the “vis­i­tors to Sir Wil­liam’s fu­neral,” and scores of let­ters and tele­grams laud­ing the man and his work.

Lady Coaker missed fu­neral

But nowhere in the eight pages of The Ad­vo­cate was there any men­tion of Coaker’s wife, Jessie, or his only child, Camilla. The ex­pla­na­tion for their ab­sence was to be found in a story in a St. John’s news­pa­per, which told its read­ers that:

“Con­sid­er­able sym­pa­thy is felt for Lady Coaker and her daugh­ter, Miss Camilla G. Coaker, upon their in­abil­ity to leave the city at this time, due to the se­ri­ous ill­ness of Miss Coaker … who has been for­bid­den by the doc­tor to leave her bed.”

Some at least of those who at­tended the fu­neral or read an ac­count of it in The Ad­vo­cate may have known the full story. Coaker and Jessie were mar­ried in 1901, at Fogo. The fam­ily lived for some years at Coak­erville, the is­land in the Dildo Run where Coaker had cre­ated a farm, but by 1908 Jessie and Camilla had moved to St. John’s. The fam­ily never again lived to­gether, al­though Camilla spent her hol­i­days each sum­mer with her fa­ther in Port Union.

Lady Coaker — who never used the ti­tle, ap­par­ently — died in 1947. She is not men­tioned in Coaker’s will, al­though he did make pro­vi­sion for Camilla. Mother and daugh­ter are buried side-by-side in the Angli­can ceme­tery on For­est Road in St. John’s. Their tomb­stone makes no men­tion of Coaker.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gover­nor from 2002 to 2008.

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