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Paul Sparkes: The ‘Other Grenfell’

A group of orphan Labrador children gather for a photograph. Note especially the expressions on the faces of the boys – they are almost like determined, hardened men. The photo (c.1909) is reproduced from “Labrador” by W.G. Gosling, published in 1910.
A group of orphan Labrador children gather for a photograph. Note especially the expressions on the faces of the boys – they are almost like determined, hardened men. The photo (c.1909) is reproduced from “Labrador” by W.G. Gosling, published in 1910. - Contributed

Journalist John Alexander Robinson in 1920 referred to Rev. Henry Gordon’s work in the midst of a horrendous epidemic on the Labrador coast as evidence of heroism and devotion to duty “almost unparalleled in the history of missionary effort.” That was no small praise, especially as by that date (now nearly a century in the past) Dr. Wilfred Grenfell was renowned for his super-human effort in bringing medical service to the people of that coast and for his work on the root causes of poverty and ignorance there.

Robinson was Postmaster General of Newfoundland at one time; a teacher early in life and a journalist through his founding The Daily News, a long-successful publication that for many years ran neck-and-neck with The Evening Telegram.

When Henry Gordon’s Labrador diary was turned into a book, mildly titled “A Winter in Labrador,  1918-1919”, then Governor Alexander Harris had noted in his preface that when Gordon kept the diary there was no thought of publication. That, of course, made the book all the more sincere. I think it is fair to say that in the diary, nothing was withheld; there was no thought needing to go easy on the constitution of “the gentle reader”.

Overwhelming sadness
Gordon’s book tells a story of overwhelming sadness and of tragic neglect. While I would dearly like to have a copy to take its place in my small Newfoundland collection, I have been able to read what must have been some of its contents by means of “The Labrador Parson” issued by the Provincial Archives in 1972. Before I give you an extract (as given by Robinson in a column of his published Jan. 17,  1920) I would like to point out that although Governor Harris, in heaping great praise upon Henry Gordon, noted the deprivation experienced by livyers on the coast, he did not betray even a slight twinge of conscience. For his part, Dr. Grenfell never hesitated to point a finger at the merchant and politician cluster in St. John’s to show that much of Labrador’s problem started there.

If you are interested in this part of our history, you can do no better (in my opinion) than to read Ronald Rompkey’s book, “Grenfell of Labrador: A Biography.” 1993. You could build a library on books by and about Wilfred Grenfell. But it wouldn’t be complete without Rompkey’s contribution.

In providing his readers with a sample from Gordon’s book of the consequences of the great influenza epidemic along the Labrador coast, John Alexander Robinson wrote, “We have just passed another New Year’s Day with its rejoicings. It was a very different anniversary that Mr. Gordon spent on New Year’s Day of 1919. The entry in his diary reads in part”:

“Wednesday, January 1, we felt like getting home today if we possibly could. Two more bodies yet remained to be buried ... Jim woke me at 2:00 a.m. and we got a bite by candlelight. I felt so miserably cold that I set off straight away on foot whilst the others were collecting their dogs. The going was very poor.  It was just daylight as we took the hill over the Cape neck. About 7:30 a.m. we reached the little shack where so much misery had been endured. I must confess that I distinctly disliked the ordeal before me. Herbert had been dead close to two months and his little girl for six weeks. They were both in the same bunk, just as they died. The first thing we did was to take out the window and open the door so that the frost could get inside. We then entered and found the bodies side by side, an old sail forming a sort of screen. This we spread on the floor and caught hold of Herbert to lay him on it. To our dismay we found that the little girl was frozen on to him, so that the two came up in one piece.  Thus we wrapped them round with the sail, and thus we laid them in one grave.”

“The story of last winter’s epidemic on the coast of Labrador, despite its horrors, has not left the impression on the public mind that a story far less awful and far less gruesome would have done had the scene been laid within the boundaries of our Island home.”
John Alexander Robinson

In this next portion from the Provincial Archives’ book, Gordon first encounters the epidemic. It was upon his sailing into Cartwright, one late October day in 1918: “Even before I ran alongside the wharf I had a feeling that something was wrong ashore. There was not a sign of anyone about, and an almost death-like stillness pervaded the scene. I dashed up to the factor’s bungalow, and there I got the dreadful news. The epidemic, which later we came to know as the Spanish ‘flu, had struck the settlement with the suddenness of a cyclone, and almost the entire population was prostrate. Whole families just lay on their floors, completely helpless. No one complained of any particular pain, but of feeling completely exhausted. So far there had been no deaths, but by the look of some of them, it was obvious that they were pretty far gone.”

If we should ever need an example of the mindset (“out of sight, out of mind”) to which can be attributed much of the grief of the Labrador coast in those days, this paragraph by Robinson in his 1920 column will, sadly, do very well:

“The story of last winter’s epidemic on the coast of Labrador, despite its horrors, has not left the impression on the public mind that a story far less awful and far less gruesome would have done had the scene been laid within the boundaries of our Island home.”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail: psparkes@thetelegram.com

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