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Caribou disaster: Loss of husband, father left family impoverished

PORT AUX BASQUES, NL – William Bryne was 34 and carrying a belt full of money when he died.

The fisherman was anxious to return home after a season’s work on a schooner based out of Lunenburg. Unlike Newfoundland boats, which paid primarily in trade goods, the Nova Scotia ships paid cash.

Instead of waiting for the schooner to sail him back to Rencontre East, William decided it would be faster to take the train to North Sydney and cross the Gulf Straits on the SS Caribou. Then he would take the coastal boat back to Fortune Bay.

It was a decision that cost the young man his life and thrust his wife and five young children into poverty.

Joan Osmond, his middle daughter, was only six but still remembers getting the news of her father’s death. Joan had been playing on the beach with a friend and her oldest sister, Kathleen (LeRiche), who was nine.

“It was on a Saturday,” recalls Joan, who first noticed the blinds to an upstairs window were closed, which was highly unusual.

“When we went into the house, the house was full.”

Joan saw her mother lying on an old wooden couch, her seven-month-old brother Bill cradled in one arm, and three-year-old sister Ruby nestled at her mother’s back.

“Kay (Kathleen) said ‘what’s wrong,’ and they said, ‘your Dad has drowned.’” Joan taps her temple, the memory of that moment still so strong.

“I remembers that. That’s locked in there.”

For Bill the clear memories are those of hardship and his mother’s ceaseless tenacity. Like many in rural Newfoundland, 32-year-old Sarah Bryne had little education and even less resources at a time when women were not expected to become a family’s primary breadwinner.

Sarah was thrust into every role, from chopping down trees and splitting logs to firing the stove to keep her children warm and to bake their bread. Her oldest son Harvey, who was 12 when he lost his father, did his best to help out.

“I can remember back at five years old anyway, we never had enough,” says Bill, who witnessed his mother’s efforts to care for her children. “Mom went around door-to-door cleaning for people… whatever she could get. How she done it I don’t know.”

At one point the Newfoundland Rangers came to the door, offering to take her children to the orphanage. Both remember their mother’s emphatic refusal.

“Mom said, ‘No, I’m not putting them in a home supposing I got to go down to that cove there and pick up kelp and cook and give them to eat,’” recalls Joan. “And she didn’t. She kept us home.”

By the time he was seven or eight, Bill would row a dory out to the coal boat in the harbor, and when he returned to the cove his mother would come down into the icy water, her skirts floating around her.

“She would hop in the water with two buckets,” says Bill, who would fill the buckets and watch her carry them up to the house until all the coal was in. “She worked.

“She baked bread every day,” said Joan, and to this day Bill still loves his bread. “That’s the most thing we ate was bread. Bread and tea.”

Bill chuckles as he recalls how his mother used to fire up the woodstove and shove in a loaf of bread to warm, then try to shoo her kids away so the house could warm up properly.

“Poor old Mom used to say, ‘Get away from the stove and let the heat get out.’ I’d be standing on the chair with me longjohns on and say, ‘Mom I don’t want the heat to get out. I want the heat to go in my body’.”

Fight for compensation

When the War Claims department finally offered compensation, Sarah faced a battle to get her family’s share.

One of the complications was that William’s name had been spelled wrong when he registered as a passenger on the ferry, so Sarah had to prove it was her husband who had died on the S.S. Caribou.

“If you only know what my mother went through for the sake of my father being drowned on that Caribou,” says Bill. “I can remember when the investigators came.”

The compensated package valued William’s life at $5,000 (roughly $75,000 today). Eventually they settled on $6,000, but the Newfoundland government immediately seized the money because Sarah had been drawing welfare for years.

“She never got nothing,” remembers Bill. “The Newfoundland government took back every cent they gave her from 1942 up to 1954.”

But all of Sarah’s hard work was not in vain. Her children feel fortunate they grew up to find their own paths to success, which somehow led all five to settle in Port aux Basques.

At 14, Kay left home to work in Port aux Basques and eventually all of her siblings joined her on the southwest coast.

Joan came when she was 16, married at 19, and had three small children with husband Edgar (who likes to be called Eg) when Kay called asking if Bill could join them.

Joan and Eg boarded the 13-year-old in the pantry of their unfinished house until they could build a bedroom on the back.

Eg, who grew up in Cape Ray, remembers when his father, Walter, used to walk to Port aux Basques for supplies, always staying overnight and returning the following morning. He also has a clear, indelible memory of one particular morning his father returned.

“When he come back he told us that the Caribou was sunk.”

After some gentle prodding from Joan he offered one precious memory, about how their father would raise a single finger to one of his disobedient children, and that would suffice to correct unruly behavior.

“He wouldn’t touch you,” Joan recalls her brother saying. “That’s all he had to do.”

And from her mother she heard about how much William loved to dance.

“If there was a dance up in the hall he would go,” says Joan.

Sarah would stay home and take care of the children, but William never missed a dance.

“She said he always dressed up in his brown suit of clothes. He loved brown… and he’d go to the dances. He loved to dance.”

Sarah told Joan she didn’t want to remarry after William’s death.

“I couldn’t imagine me, in her place, with five kids,” says Bill with a soft reverence. “I don’t know how she done it.”

“She dragged us all up somehow,” says Joan, who shares her brother’s admiration. “It wasn’t all fun trying to raise up a crowd of youngsters.”

After her children all grew up and moved away, Sarah eventually returned to Grand le Pierre where she was born. She died at 86, having outlived William by 54 years.

Twitter: @tygerlylly

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