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).
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, Crosbie, 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.