Big Ben serves as a reminder of naval career

Reprinted from The Packet, May 29, 2019
by Lester Green

(Click on images to enlarge)

Seaman Benjamin Smith, Gooseberry Cove. Photo courtesy of Smith family)

Benjamin was one of the last men to enlist for the war still raging overseas in May 1918. He spent one year serving his King and Country overseas helping to protect the motherland. His service may have been shorter than others but no less important than his comrades from the Southwest Arm area.

Gooseberry Cove, like its neighbouring town of Southport, had a number of sailors who enlisted that were brothers and first cousins. The pride felt by these communities were on display in newspapers of the day such as The Advocate. In 1918-1919 it carried items entitled Gooseberry Cove Roll of Honour, Notes from Heart’s Ease and Southport Notes describing the number of individual men and the ultimate sacrifice by some during the Great War.

The founding family for the Smiths at Gooseberry Cove, Benjamin and Rachael, had five of their grandchildren enlisted, along with one great-grandchild. All but one returned at the end of the war.

Luke, son of Joseph and Martha Smith, lost his life when the Laurentic sank in 1917 off the coast of Lough Swilly, Ireland.

Benjamin and Lydia Ann Smith had one son, Benjamin, who enlisted near the end of the war. He became one of two sailors from Gooseberry Cove who were the last to enlist on May 20, 1918.

Newfoundland Royal Navy Reserve Certificate Book for Seaman Benjamin Smith, Gooseberry Cove. (Photo courtesy of the Smith family)

He completed less than two weeks of training at HMS Briton in St. John’s before being deployed overseas on June 2. Upon his arrival he reported to the HMS Pembroke I, an accounting base at Chatham, England.

Pembroke I was not the same as a fixed base, like Pembroke, the RN Chatham barracks. Sailors at Pembroke I were more likely to be on detached duty. This meant that the men were physical not at the base but serving on a river boat, on shore assignments, or in small vessels patrolling the waters.

Seaman Smith’s records do not indicate the name of the vessels he was assigned to but likely he spent time aboard a minesweeper during the seven-month period at Pembroke I.

It was during this time he purchased an oval tin painting of Big Ben that he brought home to Gooseberry Cove. This painting hung on their wall as a memento of his service overseas and a focus point to initiate discussion about his experience with the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.

Tin painting of Big Ben, London, England. (Photo courtesy of Smith Family)

Today the oval tin painting is proudly displayed at the home of his son, Edgar John, and serves as a focal point of his father’s service. It is a family heirloom that will be passed on to Edgar John’s son, Freddie Dale.  It provides a reminder of a dark time when war raged overseas, and Freddie Dale’s grandfather served King and Country.

Ben was transferred to the accounting section at HMS Vivid III, Devonport on January 21. This facility was used primarily for the Royal Naval Division Trawler Section. There were a number of other sailors from the Random area that were also at this base all waiting for their final orders home.

Ben received his orders on March 29, 1919 and boarded the SS Caronia. He was going home.

The St. John’s Daily News carried the headline 100 Sailors Coming Home on April 10, 1919. The article explained that a large number of sailors had arrived at Halifax from overseas aboard the SS Caronia. The steamship Sagona was departing Halifax for St. John’s with 100 of these sailors aboard.

Newfoundland Royal Navy Reserve Certificate Book for Seaman Benjamin Smith, Gooseberry Cove. (Photo courtesy of the Smith family)

The list of sailors onboard contained the names of seven sailors from the Southwest Arm area. Among the names, Ben Smith and Peter Conway, the last two sailors who sailed overseas. They would soon be home to step on their native soil.

Ben spent another month at HMS Briton before receiving his demobilization orders on May 12.

He returned to Gooseberry Cove and resumed his courting of Minnie May, daughter of John and Catherine Spurrell of Butter Cove. They were married at the Anglican Church Gooseberry Cove on November 4, 1919. They settled at Gooseberry Cove and raised three children.

Ben and Minnie lived to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on November 4, 1969 and were blessed with longevity to reach their 60th anniversary.

Medal awarded to Seaman Smith. (Photo courtesy of Lester Green)

Ben passed on May 25, 1982 at the age of 92 years and was followed by Minnie three years later on March 11, 1985. Both are resting next to each other at the Anglican Cemetery, Gooseberry Cove.