Oak Bay Archives’ Caroline Duncan and local paper conservator Jean Topham with the newly restored Hampshire Road Methodist Church Roll of Honour commemorating 24 men from the congregation who fought in the First World War. The tattered document was covered in dirt until Topham washed it and pieced it back together for preservation, at which time it became legible. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

Historic document discovered in Oak Bay attic

Paper conservator restores century-old document, reveals 24 names of Oak Bay First World War vets

It took Oak Bay archivist Caroline Duncan and a team of volunteers five years to create an Oak Bay Roll of Honour for the 50 local men who lost their lives in the First World War.

With the surprisingly successful restoration of a tattered document found in the attic of a Carnarvon Road house, that number has climbed to 74.

This week paper conservator Jean Topham visited Duncan in the Archives and revealed the restored document, a circa 1918 Oak Bay Roll of Honour for 24 men who were part of the Hampshire Road Methodist Church and who served in the First World War. It lists their first initials, rank and battalion.

READ MORE: Archivist places certificates on graves of Oak Bay soldiers who died in the First World War

“This is just so exciting, to be able to put these names back into the community,” Duncan said. “I am so grateful for the find and for the work [Topham] did.”

The work began in the same 2014-18 window that Duncan, Alan McKinlay and Leona Taylor were researching and preparing what was presumed to be Oak Bay’s first Roll of Honour for those who died in the First World War (the project led to all 50 names being recited at the Nov. 11 cenotaph centenary for the 1918 armistice).

Duncan was brought the variety of historic belongings which were found in the attic of a Carnarvon Road home. The items were clearly associated with Jack Collett, who was once the secretary of the Hampshire Road Methodist Church. However, despite their attempts to locate the current generation of Collett family members, they could not, and opted instead to donate the goods to Oak Bay Archives.

The pieces were the usual suspects: an antique hair pin, comb and perfume bottle, and also a variety of family photos from the late 1800s up to the First World War. There were also some unique certificates in very good condition, one a child’s from Sunday school and another for junior-aged first aid. There was also a Women’s Institute manual of domestic science. And amongst it all was the tattered, illegible document on black paper that Duncan had a strong suspicion about.

Duncan spread the word that she was sitting on something interesting.

Over time, the Archives received a series of generous donations that Duncan needed to hire Topham, who she believed could help.

READ ALSO: Oak Bay salutes veterans during emotional marking of armistice centenary

“As a paper conservator I’m not a restorer. My job isn’t to make something look pretty, it’s to preserve it,” said Topham, who apprenticed as a paper conservator at Oxford’s Bodleian Library before moving to Canada. Here, she set up labs in the Vancouver City Archives early in her career and then again at the B.C. Land Titles and Survey office. Topham’s preserved plenty of art, including the prized find of Emily Carr sketch books and other Group of Seven work.

However, conservators do not restore works, she insists, and so it was only happenstance that in Topham’s preparation to wash and preserve the paper it removed so much grime that the writing became legible.

“And she was able to put it back together like a puzzle,” Duncan said.

As Topham explained, over time paper degrades as it becomes acidic, and a conservator’s role is to stop that process from happening. That’s done with chemical treatments, either aqueous or solvents, to neutralize the acids. It deposits a benign buffering (alkaline) agent in the paper that stops it from further deterioration.

Fittingly, descendants of the Collett family have since responded and Duncan will return most of the goods when members of the family visit in July.

Duncan will share this find with the Oak Bay United Church which inherited the Hampshire Road Methodist Church congregation following the 1926 amalgamation with St. Columbia Presbyterian Church. The two churches amalgamated on March 7, 1926, under the newly formed United Church of Canada and held their first joint service as Oak Bay United Church at Granite and Mitchell streets.

The Hampshire Road Church building later became Hampshire Hall and was used for Oak Bay United Sunday school classes until 1947. It was then used by another church, sport groups and other organizations before being demolished in 1967 to make way for a medical/dental clinic. However, neighbourhood protests stopped the building of a clinic on the property and instead a house was later moved onto the property.

Roll of Honour

All 50 Oak Bay men who were included on the Roll of Honour created by Oak Bay Archives for the 2018 armistice centenary died in action. At least one of the names in the newly found Hampshire Methodist Church Roll of Honour survived, suggesting others may have too (Duncan only began researching the names this week).

(Duncan only began researching the names this week).

Sgt. J.A. Hibberson lived until the 1950s. His and other attestation and service records can be viewed online at Library & Archives Canada.

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