Death Practices in the Mining Years
Traditionally in many Newfoundland communities, the work of preparing the deceased for burial was shared by family and friends, men preparing a man, and women, often midwives, looking after a woman, and that was also the case on Bell Island up to about the 1960s. The wake usually took place at the deceased's home in the parlour or “front room” as it was commonly called. If you noticed a house with the blinds pulled down during the day, you knew there had been a death in the family and a wake was taking place there. For three days, friends, relatives and co-workers would drop by during the afternoons and evenings to view the body lying in its coffin and to pay their respects. Women close to the family would bake extra bread and sweets and bring meals to help the family out in their time of mourning. They would also help with the household chores. Young children of the stricken family would sometimes be farmed out to relatives until the funeral so as not to be underfoot with all the goings-on. Horse-drawn hearses were in use into the 1950s. The mining company had an enclosed, horse-drawn hearse which was stored in a small garage on the St. Cyprian's Anglican Church property on Church Road. It was mainly used for Protestant funerals. From about the mid-1930s through the mid 1960s, a teamster with the Company, Bill Andrews (c.1915-?), would be taken off his usual work to drive the hearse, which was pulled by a Company horse to the church and cemetery. He was not an undertaker as such.
Several men served the Bell Island population as undertakers during the mining years, usually along religious denominational lines. Undertaking seemed to have been a side-line, as several of the ones mentioned here listed their work as being mining-related in census returns. No one gave "undertaker" or "mortician" as their occupation. Andrew Murphy (1872-1953) of The Front was a Customs Officer and farmer who served the Roman Catholic community for many years as the driver of the Roman Catholic Parish hearse, an open carriage, which was stored at the Star of the Sea Hall (located on Memorial Street, just opposite the Roman Catholic Cemetery). Walt Jackman and William Stone also drove the hearse on occasion. Andrew Murphy is seen below driving Dean McGrath and the Bishop. This would have been sometime before 1939 as Dean McGrath died in 1938. Photo from John W. Hammond, The Beautiful Isles, 1979, p. 16.
Andrew's son, James Murphy (1904-1970), took over from him after his death in 1953, transitioning from a horse-drawn to a motor hearse. The younger Murphy worked for DOSCO as a traffic controller, directing Company drivers and their vehicles to wherever they were needed. He was also a partner in the Wabana Motor Supply Co. on Bennett Street, which was listed in the telephone directories in the 1950s through to 1966, but he had no listing for funeral or undertaker services, which seems to have been on a word-of-mouth basis. As with his father, there was no funeral parlour; people were still being waked in their own homes. He sold caskets out of the basement of his residence; there were four models for people to choose from. His brother-in-law, William J. Stone and, subsequently, nephews, Harry, Angus, Jim and Dan Stone, all worked with him in preparing bodies for burial and driving the hearse. In the photo below, William Stone is driving the Roman Catholic horse-drawn hearse.
The two photos below are believed to be of the funeral procession for the victims of the September 5, 1942 sinking of the ore carrier S.S. Saganaga by a German U-Boat in The Tickle. Of 29 victims, only four bodies were recovered. They were buried in the Anglican Cemetery. The bodies had been laid out for viewing at the Police Station and are seen here being transported east on Bennett Street, then south on Main Street towards The Front of the Island. Three-horse drawn open carts, each transporting a coffin, can be seen in the first photo. The second photo shows a close-up of one of the open carts. Photos courtesy of Sonia Neary Harvey.
The Company Ambulance
For the first 33 years of mining activity on Bell Island, injured mine workers would be transported to the Company Surgery in the back of a horse-drawn, open, 4-wheel wagon with a box about eight inches high, filled with hay. The stretcher with the injured miner would be placed in the wagon and covered with blankets, but otherwise all open to the elements as it went over the unpaved roads to the Surgery. When the mines were going through a particularly turbulent time in 1925, the Union was threatening strike action over several grievances. One of those was dissatisfaction over the manner in which injured men were conveyed from the mines to the Surgery. The open cart was likened to "the tumbrels of the French Revolution, rumbling over the cobblestones of Paris on their way to the guillotine." The Union demanded that a covered ambulance be provided. Relief did not come for another two years when, on December 15, 1927, a horse-drawn covered ambulance arrived on Bell Island "replacing the eye-sores of the open carts." Sources: Addison Bown, Newspaper History of Bell Island, V. 2, 1925, p. 9 & 1927, p. 21; and Harold Kitchen, personal interview, 1984; John Skinner, personal interview, Nov. 8, 1991.
Arthur Clarke (1911-2004) moved to Bell Island from St. Thomas, CB, when he was 17 and started working as a miner in 44-40 Surface Pit. He eventually got a job in the East Barn (of No. 2 Mine) teaming horses. When there was a mine accident, one of the 16 teamsters would take the horse-drawn ambulance cart to the scene to remove the injured and bring them to the surgery for treatment. The dead were taken directly to the Dominion Fire Hall to be prepared for burial. Al O'Brien of Topsail often drove the ambulance. Around 1935, when Al became ill and could no longer work, Arthur Clarke moved into his job on the day shift. There was a "dressing station" in each of the underground barns and that's where anyone who got hurt would be brought to be cared for while awaiting the ambulance. There was a horn on the outside of the East Barn that would blow to announce an accident. Someone from the barn in the affected mine would call the East Barn to summon the ambulance. Once the call came in, the horse would have to be harnessed. It took five minutes to reach No. 3 Mine and 12 minutes to reach No. 4, the furthest away. Arthur's only training for this part of his job was some first aid courses. He was mainly the driver, getting the patient into the ambulance and then to the surgery for treatment, but he assisted the doctor in whatever way he could, and was witness to some terrible scenes. Besides the emergency ambulance driving, he would also drive the Company doctors to their house calls, sometimes after work. He would also be called out to drive midwives to home deliveries, which were often done without a doctor in attendance. The ambulance emergency work was not an everyday occurrence and most of the time was taken up with looking after the horses of No. 2 Mine, cleaning out the barn, liming it, cleaning and mending harness, keeping track of the 17 or 18 horses, some in the mine, some in the barn, some on the surface. Sometime in the late 1940s, the Company contracted the ambulance work out to Bert Rideout, who had purchased Bell Island's first motorized ambulance. Arthur continued working with the horses in the East Barn until No. 2 Mine closed down in 1950, at which time he went to No. 4 Mine as a blacksmith's helper. (Source: Arthur Clarke, personal interview, July 15, 1991.)
Bert Rideout (c.1906-1988), who was a mine superintendent, began operating his ambulance service on Bell Island about 1948. As well as driving the ambulance, he was an undertaker who also sold coffins and had a small parlour for visitations in his private residence, although right into the 1960s, the wake usually took place at the home of the deceased person. Harold Kitchen, a foreman in No. 3 Mine, assisted Bert in this work. They mainly served the Protestant community. Rideout's ambulance service was listed in the Bell Island telephone directories in the 1950s, through the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, although the service to the mining company ceased in 1965 when that contract was taken over by Frank Pendergast. Bert stopped working as an undertaker about then as well.