The Carnell Family has an extensive history in this Province. It’s business roots can be traced back to the 1780’s in St. John’s when only a few thousand stout souls called St. John’s home. The first family member, who was believed to have come from the British Channel Islands, was Gilbert Carnell.
As a millwright and wheelwright, Gilbert made carriages and sleighs and opened premises on the Corner of Duckworth and Cochrane Streets. During his tenure, the demand for salt fish grew and, as a result, so did immigration and St. John’s boomed. With this type of growth, the Carriage Factory no doubt prospered. Therefore, in 1804 Gilbert’s Carriage Factory was formally incorporated as Carnell’s Carriage Factory.
Gilbert, the pioneer, was followed in the business by his son Samuel. As the community grew, so did their needs. With staff, carpenters and materials, the community turned to them when a death occurred to build caskets and arrange burials. With carriages and sleighs, the only mode of transportation back then, they supported the community by transporting the deceased loved ones from the hospital to their homes where the wake was held and then to the church and cemetery. Therefore, Samuel was the first to oversee the early beginnings of the undertaking trade in the late 1820’s.
John T. Carnell
Samuel’s son John T. Carnell, the 3rd generation, would continue in his father’s footsteps. The majority of the caskets, made of wood, were being covered with cloth and the odd one painted. There was still no embalming, which meant, the only way in which the body could be preserved while the family gathered for viewing, would be to keep the deceased in a room where the windows were open, leaving the temperature down to stave off decomposition.
In 1888, the population of St. John’s had reached approximately 30,000 and the town was granted municipal government status. This was an important event for the Carnell Family as John T. Carnell was one of the first City Councilors elected to the new City of St. John’s and served in that capacity for 8 years.
As this story evolves, it’s evident that each generation brought something new into the business, both in the manner in which it operated, and in the character of its owner.
Andrew G. Carnell, C.B.E.
John T’s son Andrew G. Carnell, C.B.E., born on April 10, 1877, entered the family business at the age of 18. In 1901, Andrew decided to travel to Chicago to learn the trade of embalming. A year later, in 1902, he was awarded a first class certificate as an embalmer by the U.S. School of Embalming. He was the first qualified embalmer in Newfoundland and Labrador. A preparation room was added to the rear of the Carriage Factory so the deceased could be suitably embalmed, restored, washed and dressed before casketing and viewing.
The following year, Andrew succeeded his father as manager and subsequently became proprietor of Carnell’s Carriage Factory and Funeral Home. As the era of the horse and carriage was beginning to diminish, the manufacturer of sleighs and carriages had to make a paradigm shift. A full page ad in the 1924 Street Directory symbolizes this shift by pointing out Carnell’s Carriage Factory’s over 100 years in business, Pioneer Builders of All Classes of Vehicles, Motor Cars Painted and Repaired and finally Undertaking and Embalming, a Specialty.
With the automotive age here to stay, Carnell’s Carriage Factory introduced an Upholstering Department where car tops were covered, cushions were made, hoods and linings repaired. There was also a paint and sign department where wagons and sleighs were given decorative identification and an auto department where cars and trucks were repaired, painted and sprayed.
There were other changes. After WWI, Carnell’s started to import polished caskets from Canada and for a while were the Newfoundland Agents for Dominion Caskets. About that time, commercial chemicals became available and metal caskets entered the market place.
Andrew “the Undertaker” was the purveyor of change and progress for Carnell’s Carriage Factory, but “Andy” as he was fondly referred to, was also a beloved politician. After serving on City Council as a Councillor and Deputy Major on March 31, 1932 on the death of Mayor Howlett, he became acting Mayor, and in the civic election in 1934 he was returned as Mayor by acclamation.
His years of Mayor were prosperous ones for St. John’s. However, after more than 16 years of service (1934 – 1949) he was defeated in his bid for a 5th term in 1949.
Andrew (Andy) Carnell, C.B.E. Commander of the British Empire, was often referred to as the “Mayor of Newfoundland”. For 15 years from the dissolution of the House of Assembly and the introduction of Commission of Government in 1934 to the election of a new House of Assembly in 1949, he was the highest ranking elected public official in Newfoundland.
Geoffrey. C. Carnell, Sr.
When named as mayor in 1932, Andrew resigned as President of Carnell’s Carriage Factory to fulfill the duties of Chief Magistrate. He was succeeded by his son Geoffrey C. Carnell, Sr., who became President and Managing Director. Geoffrey Sr. was only 17 at the time having conducted his first funeral when he was 15 years old.
In 1937, the firm was incorporated as a limited company. Shortly after World War II started in 1940, Geoffrey Sr., a big man, was one of the first 400 volunteers to serve in the British Army and join the Royal Artillery to fight for King and Country.
Geoffrey Sr. served with the 166th (Newfoundland) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery for over 3 ½ years. While in North Africa, one of the quads he was in with his gun crew was hit by a tank and knocked over an embankment. This resulted in him being hospitalized for several months and due to the extent of his injuries was sent home arriving back on Christmas Eve 1943.
While overseas, his older brother Bertrum (Bertie) oversaw the daily operations of the business as Andrew continued to serve as Mayor. So upon his return, he resumed his duties as President and Managing Director of the company while Andrew continued his public service until his defeat in 1941. Two years later, in 1951 Andrew died. He was 74 years old.
While at the helm of the family business, Geoffrey Sr. was instrumental in bringing significant change in the way it operated. By the mid-1950s, Carnell’s Carriage Factory added a forge to its operations which allowed them to manufacture and install leaf and coil springs, shocks and other suspension parts for all makes and models of cars and trucks. Thus began Carnell’s Spring Shop.
As skilled carpenters, the staff were also able to build wooden frames and platforms for light weight and heavy duty trucks. The truck chaises were brought to the Carriage Factory where flat beds, wooden framing and canopies were added to make them functional.
In addition to caskets, the company also became agents or wholesalers of many other products including a variety of toys, fishing boxes and equipment for the fishery and even swimming pools. The operation was known as Carnell’s Agencies.
Carnell’s was also the first to have a motorized hearse for funerals which was added shortly after WWI, but it was only in the late 1930s that it entered into common use. Before that, families would always specify horse drawn vehicles and the Funeral Director would walk with the minister at the head of the procession to the church and then the cemetery.
Traditions die hard in Newfoundland. It was only in the early 1960s did the concept of a “reposing room” in a location other than the deceased’s home became popular. In 1956 after moving to a new home, Geoffrey Sr. converted his old family home on the corner of Cochrane Street and York Street into a funeral home.
During this time there was a lot happening on the corner of Duckworth Street and Cochrane Street, and Geoffrey Sr. realized that after 160 years, it was time to make changes. During those times, Geoffrey Sr. became the 3rd generation of the Carnell Family to be elected to the St. John’s City Council where he spent 4 terms or 16 consecutive years, until defeated in 1976.
While on Council, he witnessed the significant growth of the city and the construction of its first mall, the Avalon Mall. At the time, commercial property in the area of Freshwater Road was available. In 1966, Geoffrey Sr. opened Carnell’s Funeral Home and Memorial Chapel, the first fully integrated funeral home and chapel in the province at the corner of Freshwater and Crosbie Roads. Designed by Architect Angus Campbell of Cummings and Campbell, the new funeral home contained 4 reposing rooms, a casket showroom, preparation room, arrangement office, family lounge, 2 car garage, and a large parking lot with landscaped area.
At its peak with 35 employees, including salesmen who travelled across the province selling products distributed by Carnell’s Agencies, it became obvious the remainder of the business had also outgrown its Duckworth Street Location. Therefore, in 1975 Geoffrey Sr. opened a new pre-fabricated office and warehouse located in the city’s first Industrial Park on 13-15 Pippy Place, a short distance from the Avalon Mall. He called it the Carnell Building.
With the growth and expansion of the business, Geoffrey Sr. changed the name of the company from the Carnell Carriage Factory Ltd. to Carnell’s Ltd. The new company had various divisions including the funeral home, agencies, spring shop and muffler shop. As things changed so did the company and in 1983 he shut down the Agencies and sold the remaining inventory. The vacant warehouse space was then rented.
Geoffrey C. Carnell Jr., P. Eng., CFSP
Geoffrey Sr. died suddenly on February 15, 1987. He was 72. On the Thursday before his death, he conducted his last funeral. On Monday the following week his son Geoff Jr. went to the funeral home to arrange his father’s funeral as the new owner. Geoffrey Jr. served on the Board of Directors of the company but never worked in the business. Geoffrey Sr. encouraged him to get a good education. As a result, Geoffrey Jr. graduated from Memorial University in 1977 with his Bachelor of Engineering Degree (Civil). He practiced in his profession for 10 years. For the first 3 years, he was Staff Engineer and then Development Engineer with the City of St. John’s. He then left the City and joined Earle and Associates, a Municipal Engineering Consulting Firm owned by Bill Earle, as a partner where he stayed for the remaining 7 years until the sudden death of his father.
It took almost 10 months for Geoff Jr. to transition out of his consultancy practice, so on January 4, 1988 he joined the family firm on a full time basis as the 6th generation owner and operator of Carnell’s Ltd. Eight months prior to Geoffrey Sr.’s death, Geoffrey C. Carnell III was born so he knew another potential heir had arrived.
When Geoff Jr. finally took over, after the transition period, he realized something had to be done. Their call volume in the funeral home was dropping, the new funeral home after 20 years was showing its age and the 1st crematorium in the province had been installed in Mount Pearl.
The first issue on his agenda was the crematorium. This is when the Engineer took charge. The first call he made was to Architect Angus Campbell, the original designer of the building. It was rare for the Architect of record to be invited back to assist on renovations of the building he or she originally designed. They worked together for many years.
By August of 1988 Carnell’s performed its first cremation in its own crematorium located at the entrance of its facility. Over a 12 year period, Geoff Jr. completely rebuilt the funeral home. In addition to the crematorium in 1988, the garage was also extended to accommodate 4 rather than 2 vehicles. In 1991 offices were added to allow the management team of Carnell’s Ltd., including himself, to leave the Carnell Building and move to the funeral home, which was the firm’s main source of revenue. In 1993, the reposing rooms on the main floor were completely renovated with an extension added to the eastern end which provided a much larger reposing area, a new family lounge and an administration office. In 1994 Geoff Jr. and his wife Cindi were invited with other Canadian Funeral Home owners by the largest casket manufacturer in North America, Batesville Casket Co., to their head office and manufacturing plant in Batesville, Ohio, U.S.A. As part of their presentation, they were shown various merchandise display showrooms. Finally they were shown the new Partnership Marketing Showroom (PMP) where each of the caskets were displayed on their own shelving space with special signage, lighting, etc. The décor, including the carpeting, signage boards, etc., were all colour coordinated. But more importantly it was more functional than any other showroom they had seen or could imagine.
By the Fall of 1994, Carnell’s Funeral Home was the first independently owned and operated funeral home in Canada to install Batesville’s new PMP showroom. At a cost of approximately $100,000, Geoff Jr. believes to this day it was one of the best business decisions he has made. It is very warm and comforting for families making a very difficult decision less stressful and intimidating.
In 1997 while expanding and reconfiguring their chapel unsuitable material was encountered. However, instead of refilling the area, the existing showroom was extended to include a Cremation Options Showroom dedicated solely for cremation families. Carnell’s was the first funeral home in Atlantic Canada to add a showroom dedicate only to cremation products.
Prior to that, in 1995 a large foyer and portico was added and the original family lounge, featuring a propane fireplace, was added in 1996. Finally in 1999, the preparation room was modernized and in 2000 reposing rooms in the lower portion of the building were expanded and reconfigured.
The $1 million renovations, expansion and enhancements completed over this 12 year period distinguished Carnell’s as one of the top funeral homes in Atlantic Canada.
While the modernization of the funeral home was ongoing, Geoff Jr. started to learn about his new profession by documenting every facet of funeral service. It was his specification for the profession. This led to writing a monthly column for Colin Jamison’s 50+ The New Age Senior Publication, as well as, publishing a book entitled “When the Sun Sets, A guide to Funeral Planning”.
Geoff Jr. also got very involved as a volunteer in his new profession. At his first meeting of the Provincial Funeral Service Association in 1988 he was elected to the Board of Directors. From 1991 – 1993, he served as President of the Association and by 1996 he was the first Newfoundland Funeral Director to be elected President of the Funeral Service Association of Canada. As time progressed, he also served as President of the Canadian Independent Group of Funeral Homes and Chairman of the Funeral Profession Coalition Council of Canada. To date, the only Canadian Funeral Director to head all 3 organizations. In 2005, he received the Award of Merit presented annually to a Funeral Director in Canada “for outstanding contributions to the enhancement of the Canadian Funeral Profession through a distinguished career in funeral service” by the Funeral Service Association of Canada.
After Geoffrey III arrived in 1986, Geoff Jr. and his wife Cindi welcomed the birth of their second son Gregory in 1989. As they grew older, it became important to review the current business model to ensure the family was protected should anything unforeseen happen. This led to another corporate reorganization in the mid 90’s when Carnell’s Ltd. was divided into 2 companies, namely Carnell’s Funeral Home Ltd. which operated the Funeral Home and Carnell Management Inc., which operated Carnell’s Spring Shop, which was later sold in 2007 to a former employee Mr. Tony Hiscock, and the rental property associated with the Carnell Building. The sale of the Spring Shop and the old forge marked the end of the Carnell Family’s historic manufacturing roots that originally brought them to Newfoundland.
Geoffrey C Carnell III was born in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador in June of 1986, to Cindi and Geoff Jr. He is the 7th generation of Carnell’s to enter the family business and was raised in his family’s home on Pringle Place. Geoffrey has one younger brother Gregory, who is a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Officer.
Geoffrey was educated at Memorial University and was awarded a Degree in Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA). He is also a proud Gonzaga Viking, Class of 04.
After high school, while studying for his degree, Geoffrey worked in numerous landscaping positions. He also worked for 6 years as a camp councilor and tennis coach with the city of St. John’s. Growing up, Geoffrey was heavily involved in hockey, tennis, soccer and golf. He still plays recreational hockey, along with golf.
Geoffrey feels that it is very important to continue the family business into the 7th and 8th generations. This business has stayed in the Carnell family throughout its over 200 year history and Geoffrey intends to keep it that way. Geoffrey is continuing a promise made by his father to his grandfather, which was to continue the family business into the future. He believes this would have made his grandfather and grandmother very proud.
Geoffrey is currently the Vice President and manager of funeral home operations. He has been in the family run business for four years and is a member of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).