Women’s Work in the Second World War, as told through the handwritten account of the Oshawa Fire Department

By Kes Murray, Registrar

With the start of the Second World War, women from all over Canada joined various volunteer groups. The best known is the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) which was formed in 1941 and aimed at replacing men in non-combat duties, freeing up men to serve at the front. However, many other volunteer women’s groups existed before the official formation of the CWAC. Reading through the handwritten account of the history of the Oshawa Fire Department, I came across some these women’s volunteer organizations.

With the war clouds ever darkening and the possibility of aerial bombing of our own land becoming more acute, organization of the Civilian Defense Committee A.R.P. began in Oshawa in April of this year [1941], however during April and May only the organization and selecting of a proper Executive was accomplished, but during which time speakers were present each week to assist in the ground work. In June of this year with an enrolment of 25 Members the auxiliary fire Services came into being under the direction of the newly named Controller of Fire Services, Chief Elliot. Classes were held once weekly and included lectures, hose and ladder evolutions, chemical and their various uses, and fire department tools and their uses. A class in First Aid and artificial resuscitation was also started and this class was largely attended by the members of the C.A.T.S. an newlyformed volunteer Womans Organization. The membership of the auxiliary fire service increased to some 80 members in 1942, with ten members of the C.A.T.S. being attached to the fire services, and participating in every phase of the work.

A019.2.7 Pg. 175

In this excerpt from 1941, we are introduced to two organizations. The Civilian Defense Committee A.R.P., or the Air Raid Precautionary, was a civilian defense organization created by the federal government to prepare civilians for an attack. Roles for volunteers included auxiliary fire fighters, fire-aid roles like driving ambulances and general care for casualties, and auxiliary police. The efforts of this organization were to train civilians for any situation.

What stood out to me in this passage was C.A.T.S., described as a newly formed volunteer women’s organization. C.A.T.S., or the Canadian Auxiliary for Territorial Service, was based off the British Auxiliary Territorial Service (A.T.S.). A Globe and Mail article from May 18, 1945 states that C.A.T.S. serve in any useful capacity to any branch of the Service anywhere. It went on to list the work these women participated in: transport, A.R.P., food administration, welfare, and clerical activities. Through this 1941 passage, some of the C.A.T.S. members were auxiliary fire fighters.

Black and white photo of a group of 15 Caucasian people, all wearing hats and overcoats.
Civilian Defense Firefighters 1942. Four women are standing in the front row. Oshawa Fire Department Collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection (A019.2.275).

The excerpt from the fire department shows us a snapshot of what home life was like for civilians during the war and the incredible volunteer legacy that women had.

Tales of the Nose Neighbour: Oshawa and the Moustache

By Savannah Sewell, Registrar

I was inspired to write this blog as I shuffled through seemingly endless negative film images of Oshawa Fire Department staff. The collection, which has now been entirely organized and accessioned, has a large selection of images taken in the field, at the hall, and during events. Not shockingly, the collection sports an enormous variety of absolutely stunning moustaches. Therefore, I thought that it would be MOST appropriate to display some of the beautiful moustaches we, at the Oshawa Museum, have the privilege of enjoying, both within the Oshawa Fire Department Collection and the rest of our historical images.

History of the ‘stache

Fashionably shaped facial hair is not a modern concept, and many individuals have sported a combination of beards, moustaches, goatees, and side burns for most of human history. Most historical and archaeological records indicate that facial hair has been styled since the days of early humans, often with a variety of implements such as sharpened shells or stone tools.

Facial hair has been associated with religious or community groups, but it has also been very important in the identification of military personnel. The BBC history article, The Moustache a Hairy History, details the importance of the differentiation between war and post-war times.

“When the war ended in 1856, returning soldiers were barely recognizable behind their vast crops of facial hair. Deciding that beards were the signs of heroes, British men started once again to grow their own. Beards were everywhere and moustaches were lost amongst the general “face fungus” (as Edwardian novelist Frank Richardson termed it). It was a dark time for the moustache.”

War also had a lasting impact on Canadian leadership and their facial hair. Sir Robert Borden, the 8th Prime Minister of Canada, had a very recognizable moustache. Most people would recognize him as the face on the Canadian $100 bill. Borden served from 1911 to 1920, and World War I subsequently turned his moustache a stark white from the stress. (https://canadaehx.com/2019/11/04/penny-sized-history-great-moustaches-in-canadian-history/)

Some leadership even took it into their hands to change the entire face of a population with facial hair. Peter the Great desired for Russia to present a more modern European nation during his reign. This meant that examples of the style of clothes that he desired for the population to wear were hung outside the city gates, on mannequins, and that a task force was employed to ensure that the people were following new orders. This task force when as far as to rip and cut long beards from men’s faces often against their will, as Peter deemed the look of a long beard to be too stereotypically associated to the old fashioned Russian. 

Oshawa Fire Department

According to the website Firefighter Now, a blog written by a Cleveland firefighter/paramedic, the recognizable firefighter moustaches were an early form of smoke filtration, prior to oxygen masks. The firefighters would moisten their moustaches before entering a smoky area to process the air as they breathed.

There are several reasons why firefighters still wear the stylish ‘stache: a sense of identity, fashion, and it’s often their only option for facial hair. The moustache is a symbolic image of firefighters and, as such, both in reality and popular media, provide a sense of identity and inclusion within the community. Some individuals really enjoy the look, and it’s often the only facial hair that firefighters can have! The oxygen masks that are worn in the field cannot create a tight seal when there is facial hair such as a beard, therefore, the old cookie duster is the only option.


Thomas E.B. Henry, a member of our Henry family, was an actor and had a spectacular array of images taken for his acting portfolio from various shows that he performed in. One of my personal favourites is this Western looking garb, complete with a fantastic moustache. Though I cannot be certain that the moustache is real, it can still be appreciated in all of its glory for truly transforming the actor. Some of the other images include a dapper tuxedoed Thomas E.B. Henry, complete with eyeliner, a military uniform, and even a man caught in a fight, including a sword and fake wound on his arm.

Black and white photo of a Caucasian man, wearing a western costume and striking a pose
Thomas Eben Blake Henry; from a private collection of the Henry Family

Another fantastic example of the cultural significance that moustaches have had through history is this china cup. The white china decorated with pink flowers has been designed with a special shelf. This shelf, that sits on the inside lip of the cup, was an addition meant to protect the drinker’s moustache from being dampened by the liquid that they were consuming.


This is Richard Elwood Hastings Welch, who married Ruth Eunice Robinson and served as the Customs Officer of Port Oshawa. He is buried in the Port Oshawa Cemetery. This image of Mr. Welch with this fantastic example of the “mutton chop” moustache was published in The Oshawa Daily Reformer with the caption,

“Capt. Richard Elwood Hastings Welch, who was in H.M.S. Customs as Landing-Waiter at Port Oshawa at the time of Confederation and was Captain in the Third Battalion of the Durham Militia. He was the father of Miss Welch and Mrs. Samuel J. Babe of this city of the late Vicars H. Welch.”

Black and white photo of a Caucasian man
Richard Elwood Hastings Welch; Oshawa Museum archival collection

It was difficult to choose just a few photos from our collection in order to represent the complete variety of moustaches at the Oshawa Museum. If you are interested in exploring more of the content within our archive and collection, please visit the virtual database on the Oshawa Museum’s website.

Works Cited

Baird, Craig. Penny Sized History: Great Moustaches in Canadian History. Canadian History Ehx, 2019.

Hawksley, Lucinda. The moustache: A Hairy History. BBC: Culture, 2014.

Soth, Amelia. Peter the Great’s Beard Tax. JSTOR: Daily, 2021.

Student Museum Musings: The Oshawa Fire Department Fonds

By Christine G., Summer Student

Hello again everyone! I hope you are all enjoying this summer as much as I am. As you learned from my last blog post, I have been working with a recent donation from the Oshawa Fire Department (OFD). As a quick update on how far along we are with this donation: we have digitized, catalogued, and accessioned almost all of the photos from the collection and have organized all of the newspaper clippings. There have been so many interesting files, photos, articles, and information.


One of the most interesting files that I have come across is an arson investigation file. The file is extensive in demonstrating how an arson investigation works as well as demonstrating the damage done. Since I found this file so interesting, I thought I would share the story with all of you. Hope you find it as interesting as I did.

In the early morning hours of December 4, 1988, the Oshawa Fire Department got a call for a fire at a building located at 184 Bond St. W. as it was smoking. This was not uncommon seeing as they are the City’s fire department, but this call would be different from their routine calls. It would come to light during the Department’s efforts to put out the fire that this was not an accidental fire. Faulty wiring, overheated electronics, or any of the other normal causes of fires did not cause this fire. 184 Bond St. W. was destroyed by arson.

However, before I get too far ahead of myself let us start at the beginning. A waitress at a restaurant called “The Warehouse” initially spotted the fire. The fire was then called into the OFD by her co-worker at 2:03 am. The first fire trucks arrived on the scene at 2:04 am – only one minute later, but by that time the fire was already out of control and firefighters could not safely enter the building. The OFD reports note that the fire continued to spread rapidly due to the combustible nature of both the building and the contents.

The reports from responding personnel indicate that the smoke level was heavy and a dark grey. The reports also indicate that there was a large volume of flames for the type of fire. Initial reports also state that the front window had been broken in with a garbage pail and that the main west central entrance doors were unsecured and open upon arrival. While the OFD was fighting the fire, fire fighters were approached by a man who indicated that he had seen the start of the fire at about 2 am and saw a smoking garbage can that he then removed before going over to The Warehouse and learning that the fire department had already been called.


While investigating a woman came forward regarding two men that she observed while shopping in Wallpaper City that she said did not appear to be customers. She thought that the two men might have been casing the building as they were opening other doors and inspecting the area. The woman also saw them enter another store – Bernie’s Cameras – while she was working four days later and found it suspicious that the two men did not buy anything or talk to anyone except each other.

The fire investigation file also contains a note that there was another arson investigation at the location six years before. There is no other information on this fire, but it does make you wonder as you read the file if the two arsons were connected…

The damage done by the fire was extensive. The damage to the building was $300 000 and the lost and damaged contents of the buildings were $500 000. The total damage was $800 000 which in today’s world would have been over $1 500 000. Much of the building was lost in the fire as were the contents of the buildings. Stores lost their entire inventories, as well as losing their store space.

The amount of damage that a single fire can bring is not small and cannot always be measured monetarily. Lives can – and often are – lost, businesses destroyed, livelihoods threatened, senses of safety and security shattered and so much more. While we all think a fire cannot happen to us, it can happen to anyone. This is why we must always remember to be diligent in our fire prevention activities at home, work and school. Make sure you have working smoke alarms throughout your house and know how to use your fire extinguisher. If you are unsure of how to best protect yourself from fire check out the Oshawa Fire Department’s fire prevention and fire safety tips online!

We thank the Oshawa Fire Department and its staff for their courage, dedication, and commitment to the safety of all people and the risk they take every time they put on their uniforms. The OFD goes above and beyond in their efforts to protect Oshawa and help all citizens protect themselves and their loved ones. We also thank the OFD for this amazing donation to our Museum and I know I cannot wait to learn more about the history of the OFD.

If you found this interesting, be sure to check out the August podcast coming out at the end of the month as I discuss the fires that destroyed two arenas in Oshawa! Also, feel free to make a research appointment to check out the collection if you are interested in finding out more about the Oshawa Fire Department!

Student Museum Musings – Christine

By Christine G., Summer Student

Hello! My name is Christine and I am the Archives Assistant at the Oshawa Museum this summer! It is my first summer here at the Oshawa Museum, but I already love it here! My first project was creating and finishing a finding aid for some of our land deed records and inputting the information into our catalogue. There were a total of 49 items to catalogue that ranged from 1859 to 1933 and spanned both Oshawa and the Township of East Whitby. The most interesting part of this project was seeing just how much information these deeds and mortgages provide to researchers! The deeds and mortgages include information on more than just the land transaction as they include occupations, relationships, and town plans. All of this information can be used to understand city growth patterns, genealogical information, occupational titles and actions, land prices, economic trends, and so much more!

My beautiful picture

My current project involves working with recently donated files from the Oshawa Fire Department. We received a large donation of archival material from the Department and are currently trying to sort through all of the files to find out what we have been given. There are thousands of photos, slides, negatives, newspaper clippings, and official documents, and let me tell you, there are so many cool files and photos. For example, the Department provided us with arson files that contain hand written notes, statements from witnesses, official reports, photos, floor plans, and so much more! The photos in this collection are so incredibly awesome. There are photos of the Oshawa Arena fire, house fires, vehicle fires, fires downtown, fire trucks (so many cool photos of fire trucks), construction of fire stations, the firefighters, and that to name a few! If you like photos of trucks and seeing how vehicles change over time, this is definitely a collection you will have to check out!

My beautiful picture

The collection of newspaper clippings range from the 1860s all the way to the end of 1999! In these clippings there are articles on different fires, emergencies, crashes, outreach activities, and fire prevention. The clippings also include articles on relations between the Oshawa Fire Department and the municipal council. These articles include union and wage negotiations, a councillor calling Oshawa Firefighters out of shape, and the debate surrounding Bob Rae’s Social Contract Bill.

My beautiful picture

The Department also provided over 1000 slides that are being digitized and cataloged. In the slides there are fire prevention and safety presentations, as well as instructions on how to use a fire extinguisher. One of my favourite presentations within the slides is a training for the firefighters on how to spot the signs of arson while fighting a fire. It goes through finding the flash point of the fire (where it started), weird smells, odd flame colours, different colours of smoke and so much more. It is really informative in fire safety and in seeing how the fire department has changed over time. Honestly this is such an amazing collection to have in our archival collection, and I can’t wait to see what else turns up as I complete the project!

My beautiful picture

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