Gordon J Kelly
Gordon J Kelly: Calm, Kind and Fair-Minded
1918 Pandemic Claims Beloved BC Labour Leader
Researched and written by Donna Sacuta
The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 hit BC in three waves. By the end of January 1919 at least thirty percent of the population had contracted the disease and almost 800 people in Vancouver – out of a population of about 100,000 – had died.
The pages of British Columbia Federationist – a weekly labour newspaper – were packed with names of union members and officers who were either ill or had died from the flu. Many left behind spouses and young children.
In a single week of November 1918, the Boilermakers Union identified 11 members who had died. The Longshoremen’s Association of Vancouver (ILA Local 38-52) listed 9 members who had died. A further 6 members of the ILA freight handlers’ auxiliary died. Plumbers, typographers, carpenters, and machinist unions all reported deaths. 1
No loss was felt more by the labour movement than the death of longshoreman Gordon J. Kelly on November 9, 1918 during the flu’s second wave.
Thirty-nine years old and unmarried, Kelly believed in strengthening working people and was well respected in the labour and political movements of the province . Kelly came to BC from the industrial city of Birmingham, England in 1905 and worked as a longshoreman on Vancouver’s docks. In 1917 he was a business agent for ILA Local 38-52 where he navigated many bitter disputes between the union and waterfront employers.
In early 1918 Kelly was acclaimed as President of the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council. At the time of his death Kelly was President of the Longshoremen’s Pacific Coast District Council which represented dock workers from Los Angeles to Prince Rupert. He was also President of the Federated Labor Party, a socialist party intended to “voice the political aspirations of all workers”. 2
As Labor Council President, Kelly tried to form an alliance with the Great War Veterans Association and returning soldiers who “were realizing that they might be exploited, and it was on that basis that returned soldiers and industrial organizations could get together”. 3 Though conducted in good faith, Kelly’s efforts failed to prevent the ransacking of the Labor Council offices by 300 returning soldiers during a one-day general strike in August.
During the Great War, while working as a union officer, Kelly was bribed by a German agent to finance a waterfront strike that would prevent the shipment of munitions out of American ports. Remaining “cool and collected” Kelly reported the bribe to the secret service. The story of “one of the most stupendous bribery offers of the Germans” was revealed upon his death. 4
Gordon J Kelly died shortly after midnight on November 9, 1918 in Seattle. His last words were “for the cause in which he labored.” 5
Since there was no family in North America, Kelly’s body was returned to Vancouver by his longshore brethren. Despite the influenza panedemic, hundreds paid respect in the union hall on Pender Street, where the casket was lavishly surrounded by floral tributes in designs of an anchor, harp and a gate.
In the afternoon of November 13, 1918, the casket was carried down the narrow stairs into a pelting frigid rain where thousands walked four abreast along Main Street. It took two trucks to carry the flowers.
The parade was led by the Musicians’ Union Band who played the “Marseillaise”, Chopin’s “Funeral March” and finally “The End of a Perfect Day”.
Mourners shivered at Mountainview Cemetery as James McVety delivered a powerful eulogy to his friend who had become an international leader. It contained a timeless message of solidarity and resolve to “strengthen the bonds of fellowship”.
A Roman Catholic priest lauded Kelly as a man “who had devoted his life to the cause of Labor. He was fair-minded and in consequence thought well of by all classes in the community. May you follow his examples.” 6
- British Columbia Federationist 1 Nov 1918 doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0345449
- Garment worker organizer Helena Gutteridge was Treasurer; George Casey was a regional Vice President. The Province, 4 Feb 1918, 9
- The Vancouver Sun, 2 Feb 1918, 7 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/50876700/the-vancouver-sun/
- The Province, 9 Nov 1918, 18 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/50877443/the-province/
- Vancouver Daily World, 14 Nov 1918, 12.
- British Columbia Federationist 15 Nov 1918, 1 http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0345515