When Gilbert Carnell, a wheelwright and carriage builder, opened a carriage factory on the corner of Duckworth and Cochrane Streets in St. John’s in 1780, little did he know that he was establishing a dynasty. Six generations later the name Carnell is synonymous with industriousness and leadership in the Province’s business community and the Carnell family is still at the helm of this prominent company.
It often happens when one starts out to pursue one course, the natural progressions and spin-offs lead in quite another direction. It was almost a quarter of a century after Gilbert started his carriage works that he officially established the business as Carnell’s Carriage Factory, manufacturer of horse drawn carriages and sleighs. For the first one hundred years that was the major occupation, but during the next ninety-one years other pursuits evolved.
As skilled carpenters, they were often asked by people in the community to build wooden coffins. In delivering these to the homes where the wake would be held, and from which the funeral would take place, they were often asked to take charge of the funeral and burial services.
By this time Andrew G. Carnell, a graduate (1902) of the United States School of Embalming in Chicago with a first-class certificate, steered the company in the undertaking and embalming area, adding mortuary rooms to its general wheel-wrighting business on Duckworth Street. He was the first licensed embalmer in Newfoundland.
Retiring in 1937 to devote his life to politics, he served as Mayor of St. John’s for nineteen years, having first been elected in 1932. Another generation of Carnells took the helm. Andrew’s son, Geoffrey C. Carnell, Sr. became the new President and Managing Director and incorporated the firm as a limited liability company.
The year 1966 marked a milestone when the funeral operation moved to an ultra modern building at the corner of Freshwater and Crosbie Roads. This was the first fully integrated funeral home in the province with comfortably furnished reposing rooms and lounges, and a beautifully designed chapel serving all faiths.
In 1974 the name was changed to Carnell’s Limited and operated five divisions: the funeral home, spring shop, muffler shop, agencies for toys, pools etc., and office/warehouse rental. The next year Geoffrey Sr. opened the second building, located on Pippy Place in the O’Leary Industrial Park. The Duckworth Street operations moved to this new building in 1975, and, very appropriately, was named “The Carnell Building.”
As the automobile replaced the horse and carriage, so did Carnell’s move with the times. Today Carnell’s Spring Service continues to operate its garage and forge, manufacturing, repairing and installing leaf and coil springs for the new age vehicle. Geoffrey Sr. left the management of the Spring Service to his loyal staff, and spent most of his time in the funeral home where he served for 55 years until his death in 1987.
His only son, Geoffrey C. Carnell Jr., a professional Engineer, then took the reins. He left his partnership in an engineering consulting firm to become President and Managing Director of the company. Also a licensed Funeral Director, Geoffrey Jr. continues the pattern of evolution. He introduced a crematorium and committal area in 1988; new offices in 1991, and in 1993 enlarged and refurbished the reposing rooms and lounges. In 1994 a new state-of-the-art casket display room was opened and in 1997 as part of the reconfiguration and enlarging of the chapel a new cremation option show room was added, a first for Atlantic Canada. In 2016 Geoff added two new offices to the freshwater road location.
Recently, a corporate re-organization has been effected, splitting Carnell’s into two companies. Carnell’s Funeral Home Limited, devoted to the operation of the funeral home and crematorium, and an agent for headstones and plaques, with a staff of twelve, six of whom are licensed Funeral Directors and/or Embalmers. The other company, Carnell Management Inc. (CMI), with the sale of Carnell’s Spring Service in 2007 now operates the property rental division.
Clearly, a company with such longevity has something to pass on to other entrepreneurs. Geoffrey Jr. sums it up succinctly: “Our company has earned the trust and respect of the people it serves for its deep commitment for 21 decades. The constant adaptation to change has been a major factor, and last but not least, good management combined with a loyal, trusted and dedicated, caring staff, is a recipe that will ensure Carnell’s remains at the leading edge in our field.”
Geoffrey Jr. should have nothing to fear about the future, for he and his wife Cindi have ensured that Their two sons, Geoffrey III and Gregory, have big shoes to fill.