By David Frank
I came across the file when I was doing research in Immigration Branch records in Ottawa in the 1970s. Those documents told the sad story of William Ambrose John, a young coal miner from Wales, who shot himself at the Salvation Army hostel in Saint John, New Brunswick in September 1920.
He, and his companion Robert Johnson, were among a group of workers recruited that year by the Dominion Coal Company for work in the Cape Breton coal mines. When they received their first pays, they found they were not earning the wages they were promised by the company’s immigration agent. Ambrose was convinced he would never make enough money to send for his wife and child. They left for New Brunswick, where they took work at the sugar refinery in Saint John. Johnson went to work in the mines at Minto, while Ambrose made plans to return to Swansea for his family and make a new start in the United States.
During his last days, however, Ambrose became despondent. He received news from home and wrote heart-rending letters to his wife: “If I had wings I would fly over the Atlantic in order to take you in my arms and comfort you.” And in another: “your Ambrose has been through hell this last six weeks.” According to the Saint John coroner, those letters were never sent. Ambrose also left a letter addressed to the local police: “will you please try to stop the Dominion Coal Company from luring any more men from the Old Country under false promises.”
The case attracted public attention, including newspaper editorials, protests by veterans and unions, an investigation by immigration officials – and a defence of company practices by Roy Wolvin, the new president of Dominion Steel. To this historian, Ambrose John’s situation illustrated the relentless impersonality of the transatlantic labour market, particularly as it existed in the Maritimes at that moment of transition into the decade of the 1920s, when the ravages of regional underdevelopment would be recognized as a central social, political and economic challenge for the people of the region.
A few years later, when I was writing a chapter for the regional history edited by Ernie Forbes and Del Muise, I recalled one of my friends saying that the philosopher Walter Benjamin considered suicide to be the ultimate act of individual protest. I was never able to find the reference to Benjamin’s comment, but I used the Ambrose John story for the opening paragraph in that chapter.
History is never over, nor the writing of it. Several years ago, I heard from one of the descendants of Ambrose John’s widow. She had been in touch with the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick and had also come across the reference in my chapter. Georgina Howden’s connection was through her grandmother Kathleen, who had married Ambrose in 1918. Her Aunt Margaret, born in 1919, was their child. Kathleen later remarried and had several more children. Very little was said about her grandmother’s first marriage, but Mrs. Howden recalls that Margaret occasionally visited relatives belonging to her “other family.”
Mrs. Howden had done much painstaking work on her family history. We exchanged several documents, and thanks to her cooperation, I am able to offer a supplement to my original account.
First, I learned more about Ambrose’s background. When he married Kathleen Muriel Griffiths in March 1918, his own mother and father had recently died – his mother in May 1915 at 45 years of age, and his father, who had worked in the pit for one of the steel companies, two years later, at 53, in a workhouse infirmary at Swansea. Ambrose had two sisters and two brothers, one of whom died in 1915 at Gallipoli in one of the early disasters of the Great War. As Mrs. Howden commented, “William Ambrose was only 16 yrs old when his mother died and his father two years later, he was very young really wasn’t he and had to grow up quickly and learn to look after himself.”
Kathleen, who had worked as a streetcar conductor, gave her age as 19 when they married; Ambrose gave his as 21, though in fact he was a few months short of 20. In one of those final letters, Ambrose wrote feelingly about his life with Kathleen: “I had a good splendid wife, a nice home and we loved our baby and one another. It was a perfect home of love until I got persuaded to try my luck in Canada in the coal mines.” After Ambrose’s death, the widowed Kathleen worked in an ammunition factory as a shell dismantler. Through a cousin she met a man who was a fireman in the merchant navy. They married at Swansea in 1923 and later moved to Lincolnshire.
I also learned more about Ambrose’s military service. At the time of his death, it was known that he was a veteran. His effects included a service medal, and he was buried at the Cedar Hill Cemetery by the local chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, who also collected funds to send to his widow. From Mrs. Howden, I learned that Ambrose enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry in October 1915. He exaggerated his age to do so and for this reason was discharged early the following year. Once he turned 18 in 1916, he joined the Army Service Corps Mechanical Transport. He was listed as a motor driver, but a year later, in 1917, was discharged as “no longer physically fit for war service.” There were no details concerning his condition.
Within a year or two, Ambrose was in the coal mines. His friend Robert Johnson told investigators that he knew him to be “a competent coal miner” and worked with him at the Copperpit Coal Mine at Morriston before they left for Canada. At the inquest, it was also mentioned that Ambrose had worked as a fireman. He was considered a man of good habits, not a drinker, usually cheerful. The local marine labour agent, who was attempting to secure him a position on a returning vessel, called Ambrose “a very intelligent young man – a splendidly built young man.”
There are other questions, possibly to be asked and explored by other researchers. What more can be said about the recruitment practices of the coal company at this time? And what was the fate of the other men who travelled to Cape Breton in that group of twenty-eight miners who sailed on the Victorian in July 1920? Did they remain, return, or move on? Robert Johnson, for instance, was an older man, 42 years of age; embittered by the experience, he returned to his wife and children in Swansea. Then too there are the cryptic remarks Ambrose is said to have made the night before he died: “He said he was a Spiritualist. . . . He said he was going to have interviews with the spirits or something to that effect.”
Finally, I was pleased that Mrs. Howden was able to share photographs, including one of Ambrose and Kathleen. It was in the pages of her grandmother’s bible, and she thinks it was taken prior to their marriage in 1918. It seems to be the only surviving photograph of this working-class couple. In this image, Ambrose and Kathleen do not know what the future holds, but their shared gaze reaches out to us across the century, ambitious, capable, eager to make their way in a difficult world.
David Frank is a professor emeritus in Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick.
 See “The 1920s: Class and Region, Resistance and Accommodation,” in E.R. Forbes and D.A. Muise, eds., The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation [: A History] (Toronto/Fredericton: University of Toronto Press/Acadiensis Press, 1993), pp. 233-71. The source is noted at p. 555. In the present note, I refer to him as Ambrose, which was the name he used to sign his last letters.
 Mrs. Howden noted that in the genealogical documents the spelling is Johnson. My earlier account, based on references in the coroner’s report, used Johnston. She has also found indications that he and his wife Martha may have emigrated to Alberta at a later date and died there in 1937 and 1938 respectively.