Carbery Pushed the Envelope for Newfoundland Women

From the files of The Gazette May 30, 1996.

Ellen Carbery was born in Turk's Cove (near Winterton), Trinity Bay in 1845, the youngest daughter of James Carbery and Bridget Power. Her mother died in 1856; as a result Ellen went to live with her father's cousins, William and Mary Talbot in Harbour Grace. Talbot had been a schoolteacher and served as a Liberal member of the House of Assembly.

It is unlikely that Ellen would have received much, if any, formal education in Turk's Cove. In Harbour Grace, however, there existed some of the best educational facilities outside St. John's. William Talbot recognized the value of education and provided Ellen with the opportunity to attend a highly rated institution, the Convent School operated by the Presentation Sisters. There she received an extensive and quality education, graduating in 1863.

Ellen continued to live with the Talbots until 1865 when she left Harbour Grace for St. John's. There she quickly found employment as a salesclerk in the women's department of Peters, Badcock, Roche and Company. The women's department was under the supervision of Agnes Mitchell, daughter of John Roche, one of the partners in the business.

A Career Begins

Ellen learned her new trade well, and soon became an expert in clothing, millinery and accessories for women. She was recognized as Agnes Mitchell's right-hand person, especially after 1882, when Mitchell became the major shareholder and operator of the business.

By 1886 Agnes Mitchell had turned her father's former general business into an exclusive women's outfitting establishment under her own name. After 20 years of loyal and dedicated service, Ellen Carbery chose this time to embark on a business venture of her own. With Mitchell's blessing, on April 27, 1887, Carbery opened the Ladies Emporium on the ground floor of the Atlantic Hotel.

The major suppliers of women's clothes, hats and accessories to Newfoundland in the late 1880s were British. Most St. John's firms were general department stores. To acquire stock, buyers -- all males -- were sent to England several times each year. On Feb. 22, 1887, Ellen Carbery broke that tradition when she left St. John's for England to purchase her own stock. She felt that she was best suited to meet the needs of her patrons, certainly more suitable than any man.

Thriving Business

Ellen Carbery's Ladies Emporium proved to be a great success. She was an astute businesswoman and was well established when the Atlantic Hotel, and with it her business premises, were destroyed in the fire which ravaged St. John's in the summer of 1892. Unlike many, she saw the need to evacuate her premises early in the evening before the fire reached Duckworth Street and was able to get much of her stock out and stored safely in another part of town. This, coupled with the insurance paid on what had been burned, resulted in her re-opening her business at 13 Queen St. early in 1893. This three-storey building had the dress shop on the first floor, the millinery on the second and a large workroom on the third. Carbery remained on Queen Street until 1901 when she moved to 199 Water St. where she stayed for the remainder of her business life.

War-Time Traveller

Despite the outbreak of the First World War, and the sinking of the Lusitania with great loss of life earlier in the year, on July 15, 1915, Carbery left St. John's aboard the Pomeranian on her regular summer buying trip to England. She spent the summer there, visiting soldiers from Newfoundland and sending news of their experiences home to relatives. Her buying completed, she left Liverpool aboard the Hesperian on the morning of Sept 4. By 8:30 that evening the ship was 70 miles off the coast of Ireland when it was hit broadside by a torpedo from the German submarine U-20, coincidentally the same submarine that had sunk the Lusitania. The Hesperian did not sink immediately, which gave the crew time to get most of the passengers into lifeboats. Ellen Carbery was in one of the first lifeboats to leave the ship, but she was 70 and the incident took its toll on her. She died before daybreak of shock and exhaustion. Her body was brought back to Newfoundland and she was buried in Harbour Grace.

Poet and Writer

While Carbery was best known as a supplier of haute couture, she was also recognized in her day as an accomplished poet and an informed correspondent to various newspapers. Her poems were regularly published in the Harbour Grace Standard during the 1870s, but it was with the establishment of The Newfoundland Quarterly in 1901, that she became best known as a poet. At least one of her poems appears in almost every issue from 1901 to 1915. Her poems were about things she new and often commemorated the life of a friend or acquaintance who had died. On her buying trips to England she wrote letters home which were published in The Evening Telegram. In them she discussed the latest fashions, places she had been, people she had met. Her last letter, published under the title A Visit to our Boys at Aldershot, was written Sept. 3, 1915, two days before her death.

Ellen Carbery's body of work is not large. Approximately 70 poems and 24 articles have been found in local publications. One poem which has survived is Lines on the Death of Rev. M. P. Morris, about the Newfoundland priest who founded St. Thomas of Villa Nova Orphanage and died in the typhoid epidemic in 1889. Carbery's poem was typeset and printed on card stock, gold lettering on a dark burgundy background, by W. H. Goodland. It is ornately decorated and has a picture of Morris overlaid with a cross in the upper left. This rare item was donated to the archives by Gilbert Higgins of Stephenville in 1995, one of the few tangible reminders of a very successful Newfoundland woman.

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