Downhome Magazine

A Family's Loss

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On June 20, 1925, Gladys (Spurrell) and John (Jack) Bishop Smith of Gooseberry Cove, Trinity Bay, gave birth to their first child, Ernest. As he grew up, Ernest was no stranger to hard work, beginning at a young age to help his father in the fishing boat. By 1942, Ernest's two younger brothers, George age 12 and Andrew, age 10 were now old enough to join their father at the fishing trade.

With WWII raging in Europe, Ernest did not hesitate to do his part. He headed into St. John's and, lying about his age, he enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment on May 27, 1942. It would be almost a month before he would reach the age of 17. Basic training continued in St. John's into the summer and fall of 1942.

The Knights of Columbus Hostel on Harvey Road was the place for military personnel to go on Saturday nights. It was here on December 12, 1942 that Pte. Ernest Smith, along with many of his fellow serviceman, attended Uncle Tim's Barn Dance. On that fateful night, with approximately 350-400 servicemen and civilians in attendance, a fire broke out shortly after 11 pm. The fire spread rapidly and in the panic to escape, pandemonium erupted. With the war on, blackout regulations were in effect. Means of escape were few with shutters nailed to the windows and doors opening inward, and the building was quickly engulfed in flames. Many of the attendants were overcome by the smoke and fire. Of the 99 who died that tragic night, 80 of them were military personnel.

That night a neighbour in Gooseberry Cove had been listening to Uncle Tim's Barn Dance Band on VOCM radio and reported the incident to Jack and Gladys the next morning. Little did they realize then that the news would come later that day that their beloved 17-year-old son was one of the fire victims. To add to their devastation, their boy was not to be brought home to be buried next to their baby daughter, Elizabeth, who had died in 1928, but he was to be laid to rest at Mount Pleasant Cemetery along with his fellow servicemen who had perished in the fire.

Back in Gooseberry Cove the family mourned the tragic loss of a dear son and brother. Gladys was eight months pregnant with her ninth child when her beloved Ernest died. One month later, on January 18, 1943, she was delivered of a healthy baby boy and it was only fitting that she name him Ernest after the son she had lost. The name 'Ernest' was a painful reminder to the parents of a son who could never be replaced, so the new baby was nicknamed 'Smitty', the name he was often referred to by his family and friends.

The following year, Gladys, gave birth to her tenth and last child, Robert (Bob). Shortly after this, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the dreaded disease plaguing Newfoundland at that time. With Gladys unable to care for her newborn son, a childless couple, Edgar and Julia Avery of Southport, offered to take him and it was with them that Bob went to live. Fourteen-year-old George helped his parents as much as he could, but when his father, Jack, was also stricken with tuberculosis it was an impossible task for a teenager. Jack and Gladys' daughter, Laura, had been working in St. John's as a domestic servant. With both parents being ill, Laura returned to Gooseberry Cove to care for them and her younger siblings. As Jack's and Gladys' illness progressed and the greater burden fell on Laura's shoulders, the decision was made for some of the children to go live with relatives. Thirteen year old Andrew was sent to Queen's Cove to live with his uncle and aunt, Abraham and Elizabeth Spurrell. Eleven year old Sam went to nearby Butter Cove to live with uncle and aunt, Jim and Mary Spurrell. Besides Laura and George, there were still three younger children at home - seven year old Arch, five year old Bill and one year old Smitty. Sadly, Gladys succumbed to tuberculosis on April 20, 1946. Following her death Arch and Bill were sent to live with a foster family in Torbay. Two-year-old Smitty was taken in by neighbours, John and Dinah Smith.

Jack, died of tuberculosis on July 3, 1947, just over a year after Gladys' death. The Smith children had already known heartache and separation, but now they had also lost both parents. Less than five years after the tragic loss of their brother Ernest, their parents were now gone and the brothers and sister were separated. Laura returned to work in St. John's and her brother George followed her. Andrew grew up in Queen's Cove and later moved to St. John's. Sam grew up in Butter Cove. Arch and Bill stayed with their foster family in Torbay until they were old enough to be on their own. Arch made the decision to move to Ontario and Bill soon followed him. Bill followed in his older brother Ernest's footsteps and joined the armed forces. He enlisted in 1958 and had a distinguished career for 30 years in the Canadian Army. He was part of the recovery team when the American military plane, Arrow Air Flight 1285R, crashed in Gander on December 12, 1985. Ironically, it had been the exact date 43 years before that his brother had died in the K of C fire.

Smitty moved to Sunnyside with the Smith family who raised him. Bob stayed with the Avery family in Southport and Edgar Avery's widowed mother, Sarah (Avery) Newton helped care for the young child. Sadly, Edgar's wife, Julia, had passed away only one year after they had taken Bob in. Bob was only 16 when he moved to Ontario to live with his older brother, Arch. Of all the Smith children, only Arch and Bill had the privilege of growing up together. All the others were scattered and living in different communities. The death of their oldest sibling, Pte. Ernest Smith, was only the beginning of the tragedy and heartache that was to befall the Smith family. In later years, the Smith siblings did try, as much as possible, to connect with one another, but they were always haunted by the years they lost as a family.

This is the story of just one of many Newfoundland families whose lives were devastated and torn apart by tragedy and disease.

Elaine Spurrell

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