In 2002, a donation arrived in the archives related to a gentleman by the name of Jack Humphreys. At the time, what drew me to the collection were the images of Camp Samac, the Boy Scout camp located in north Oshawa. The images showed the camp during the 1940s from the perspective of the campers and was a gap in the collection. The collection was also interesting in that Mr. Humphreys was feted in Oshawa for several years for being the oldest citizen in the City.
In November 2019, I came across a caption in the Toronto Star noting that Mr. Humphreys was a veteran of two wars: the Boer War and World War I. Immediately after reading this, I went back to the collection to see what more I could learn about this aspect of Mr. Humphreys. What I found was a fascinating life, a story about bravery, potentially tall tales and a long life lived to its fullest.
Learning more about the life and adventures of Mr. Humphreys was amazing and highlighted the unending opportunities for research offered by archival and curatorial collections. In an ideal world, when the collection arrived at the archives in 2002, it would have been researched during or shortly after the processing of the collection, and a finding aid developed. However, given the size of staff in our archives and curatorial departments, one in each, the vast majority of collection research occurs in relation to research requests or exhibit development.
In this case, further research into the collection was due to a happy accident when I bumped into the caption. This research was then used to write a short article looking into the extraordinary life of Mr. Humphreys. Collection research also forms the basis of finding aids and resources to make searching the archival collection easier for researchers.
Even collections that have been fairly well researched offer opportunities to learn more and to add further context. For example, the correspondence of Pvt. Garrow has been well researched. The World War I correspondence collection has been transcribed, a finding aid created for it and an online exhibit sharing the collection is available through the Museum’s website. This research actually connected with research I was doing into early Black history in Oshawa. It turns out that both Garrow and Albert Pankhurst were at the Battle of Mount Sorrel. This connection has added further context to Garrow’s letters and helped to better understand the enormity of the battle.
Collection research is a vital part of life in an archives or museum. It provides context and provenance. Research shows connections between collections and artefacts. It can make a collection of photographs showing life at Camp Samac fit into the story of the Boer War and World War I.
This November I was fortunate enough to speak to about 500 people about wars and remembrance in Oshawa. Each November, the Oshawa Museum launches a Remembrance-themed lecture series available free to community groups and schools.
Stories From the Homefront: Oshawa During the Second World War is based on a memory book project that was completed for the 65th Anniversary of D-Day. Local citizens that lived in Oshawa or had to stay home for some reason, tell us their stories about things like Camp X, knitting, rubber and other salvage drives, rationing etc. I have delivered this lecture many times over the years and am always amazed as new stories emerge. This year I met the niece of one of our participants. I was able to ask her a few personal questions to get a better understanding of her stories she contributed. A man also told me about the time a pilot clipped the old water tower and wires near OCVI, and that OCVI had big drums in the gym for fats and scrap salvaging. I joked about how bad the smell must have been and he confirmed my suspicions. Apparently, you could smell it throughout the entire school!
William James Garrow Jr., from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
The Letters From the Trenches lecture was developed by Archivist, Jennifer Weymark and features four people who all entered the military for different reasons. Their one connecting thread is that they were all from Oshawa. Two men volunteered, but one was black, a nursing sister also volunteered. The last man faced conscription. Did you know that ‘zombies’ are what the conscripted men were known as? I learned this from one of our Homefront participants. It is fascinating to hear how their stories intertwined and experiences contrasted.
Finally, Wars & Remembrance highlights institutions such as the Ontario Regiment and city landmarks that include the war memorial and band shell in Memorial Park. It also discusses the reason why some of the street names have a poppy beside them. Since 2003, it has been a policy of the City to name streets within new subdivisions for people who lived in Oshawa and died fighting for their country. These streets are usually north of Taunton Rd. E. and west of Harmony Rd. N. There are also a series of streets with names highlighting different aspects of the various wars. For example,
Festhubert Street, Courcelette Avenue, Vimy Avenue, Verdun Road, and St. Eloi Avenue: northeast of the Ritson Rd. S. /Olive Avenue intersection, these roads have been named for battle sites in France during World War I.
Normandy Street, Dunkirk Avenue, Dieppe Avenue, Sedan Court, Brest Court, Sterling Avenue: located northwest of Wilson Rd. S. and Highway 401, the above street were named after battle sites in France during World War II, with Sterling Avenue possibly named after the Sterling Armaments Company, a company which manufactured weapons during WWII.
Kitchener Avenue, Monash Avenue, and Currie Avenue, Montgomery Street: northeast of Ritson Rd. S. and Highway 401, they are named after officers during World War I. Kitchener Avenue refers to Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, British; Monash Avenue is after Sir John Monash, Australian; Currie Avenue after the Canadian Arthur Currie; and Montgomery Avenue is after Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, British.
I have never been in a situation where I felt the call to enlist in the military. With the exception of grandparents, no one else has served. This last month has renewed my interest in wartime history. Researching family history, researching more of what happened in Oshawa during the Second World War, and even watching shows like Band of Brothers. I feel privileged that I am able to talk about these things with my kids and share with them things that their ancestors experienced. All four of their Great-Grandfathers fought in WWII – US Navy, Canadian Army and German Army.
After my last outreach lecture yesterday (November 29 at time of post), myself, the teacher and students had an engaging conversation – trading family histories, talking about WWI-themed video games as teaching tools and resources that they can use to continue explore this genre of history. I left feeling proud and looking back on the last month feel proud of the impact the Oshawa Museum has made on our community. It was always a goal of ours “to present the results of the project through different means of access.”
“This final objective is very important to us. Our project team was committed to ensuring the results of our project would be effectively used and a plan in place to ensure accessibility to the material. We had seen too many community projects designed with good intentions in mind only to have the finished project languish in boxes in an archives. That is where the second part of our goal comes in – to ensure there is a plan in place for the presentation and dissemination of the knowledge. We wanted to connect our research with the community, to find the commonalities that bind us together as a community.”
If you would like to find out more about William Garrow and some of the industries that existed in the 1940s, please check out the Oshawa Museum’s online exhibits at
For several years, the City of Oshawa has had a policy on naming new streets, with an emphasis on names paying tribute to Oshawa’s war dead and veterans. These streets, as well as others which relate to World War I or World War II, are denoted with a poppy on the street sign.
If you’re driving around the Oshawa, southeast of the Rossland/Harmony intersection, you’ll encounter Coyston Drive and Court, named after Robert Henry Coyston who died in 1916.
Robert was born in London, England on 4 March 1892, to Arthur and Clara (Wells) Coyston. The family, which included siblings William, George, Alice, Ethel, and Laura, immigrated to Canada in April 1906, settling in Oshawa, Cedardale specifically. On October 30, 1913, he married Ethel Millicent Hudson, and on December 4, 1914, they welcomed their son, Albert Robert. Less than two years after their marriage, Robert enlisted into the military; his attestation papers are dated 12 June 1915, and they reveal that Robert had previous experience, serving for eight years with the militia. His attestation papers also tell us that he stood at 5 feet 7 inches in height, had a medium complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair.
Robert arrived in France on Mar 16, 1916, serving with the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada. By all appearances, he was seeing success with the army, being promoted to sergeant on July 19, 1916. A few short months later, Robert went missing in action during the Battle of Courcellette on October 8, 1916; he was later declared ‘Killed in Action.’ His wife received a memorial plaque and scroll, and his mother received a Memorial Cross.
After the end of WWI, the Adanac Military Cemetery was established in Miraumont, Departement de la Somme, Picardie, France, the name taken from spelling Canada backwards; as per the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, “graves were brought in from the Canadian battlefields around Courcelette and small cemeteries surrounding Miraumont,” and this is where Robert is laid to rest.
Robert Henry Coyston was one of 134 Oshawa citizens who went overseas in the First World War who never made it home. His name is included on the monument in Memorial Park. He was one of over 60,000 Canadians who were killed during the war.
This November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and is commemorated as Remembrance Day in Canada and other Commonwealth Nations. May we always remember the sacrifices made by those who came before us.
The Andrews family has been a research focus of mine since 2011. The history of the family helps to tell an under researched and overlooked aspect of Oshawa’s early history, the history of black settlement in the community. The research has traced the family from the 1790s in Vermont, through Lower Canada in the 1840s and finally Oshawa in the 1850s to the 1980s. Like most research projects, this one is ongoing and from time-to-time, I write about an interesting aspect of the family that has emerged.
As my research moved into the early 1900s, I began to focus on where two of the descendants, Albert and Ward Pankhurst, were during the period of World War I. What I found was a story that fit into the much larger narrative of race and service during the war.
Eldest brother Albert enlisted on April 23, 1915 with the 28th Battalion in Portage La Praire, Manitoba where he had moved to after 1911 to work as a farm labourer. His attestation paper, the form filled out upon enlisting, provides some interesting information about Albert particularly when compared with the information collected on his brother Ward.[i]
On Albert’s attestation paper there is information that may seem inconsequential until you know that his family is interracial. The first interesting tidbit is that it notes that Albert has previously served with the 34th Ontario Regiment for three years. This regiment was an infantry battalion and would not have been desegregated. How then did Albert end up serving with the regiment? It appears that he was able to identify with his father’s ethnicity and sign up to serve.
Black men were not particularly welcome in the armed forces, and this was true during WWI. Black men wanting to enlist were met with backlash and protest, even after the federal government declared that those wanting to enlist could not be denied based on race. Even with the backlash, a few Canadian combat units did have black volunteers in their ranks. One of those units was the 116th Battalion, a battalion associated with the 34th Ontario Regiment. [ii] The vast majority of black men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during WWI served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion. This segregated battalion faced racism in the form of difficulty finding a commander, hostility from white officers and enlisted, and forced to serve through conscription after being turned away when they volunteered.
After basic training, Albert boarded the S.S. Missauabie and set sail from Montreal on September 4, 1915. The 28th Battalion arrived at the Front and took part in both the Battle of St. Eloi and the Battle of Mount Sorrell. On June 6, 1916 Albert was reported missing and by July 19 he was officially a Prisoner of War being held at Dulmen, Germany.[iii] During his time as a POW, Albert was held in three different camps. The first was Dulmen, followed by Wahn and finally Limburg. It is from Limburg that Albert was able to escape. According to his personnel file, Albert escaped from Limburg POW camp on March 3, 1918 and arrived back in England by March 14.
While Albert was held prisoner in Germany, his brother Ward found himself in Detroit when the United States entered WWI. Ward became part of the first wave of men registered for conscription in WWI. His draft card notes something interesting and would impact where he would serve as he prepared to head overseas.
On the draft card, under race, Ward is listed as being Caucasian. However, that notation was scratched out and Black written above it.[iv] A draft card did not equal time served and I am currently working to determine if Ward actually served. If he did serve, his experience would have been far different than Albert’s due to Ward being listed as Black.
Much like Canada, when the U.S. entered the war, black men enlisted or attempted to enlist, in large numbers. The U.S. already had four all black regiments when they entered WWI. These regiments had a long history, dating back to the end of the Civil War. Within one week of declaring war, black men volunteered in such large numbers that the War Department had filled these regiments and stopped accepting black volunteers.[v]
When the U.S. government determined that they would not be able to raise a large enough army through volunteering alone, the Selective Service Act was passed on 18 May 1917. Ward was officially registered on 5 June 1917 and his name put on the list from which names were drawn to call to military service. While the act had a provision in it that no one was exempt based on class or group, the draft boards did not necessarily follow this. It has been argued by historians that draft boards comprised of wealthy white males, did in fact exempt those of the wealthy class. It has been argued that the draft boards chose men who dis-proportionality represented immigrants, rural farmers and blacks to military service.[vi]
Research is ongoing to determine if Ward was selected for military service. If he had been selected, the change of race on his draft card would have impacted his experience. Black soldiers in the U.S. faced segregation, substandard uniforms and social services. This experience was not unlike the Canadian one, where the majority of black soldiers who enlisted with the C.E.F. were placed with 2nd Construction Battalion.
Both Albert and Ward survived World War I and returned to Canada. Albert received a letter from King George V recognizing his time spent as a POW. Upon returning home, Albert married Martha Wiggins, an Irish immigrant, in June 1920. The couple emigrated to the U.S. in 1923, eventually settling in California where Albert lived until his death in 1977.
Ward remained in Oshawa and lived with their sister Greta until his death in 1978. Prior to his death, Ward took the time to speak to members of the Oshawa Historical Society. He was asked to recount his days growing up in Cedardale and to share memories of life in Oshawa. Unfortunately, few of the memories shared are about his family.
“This is the most heavily photographed episode in the history of Oshawa.” So claimed Thomas Bouckley, photographic historian in his adored Pictorial Oshawa Vol II.
On April 22, 1918, between 5 & 6 o’clock in the evening, a pilot lost control of his plane, and it crashed into the northwest corner of King and Simcoe Street. Miraculously, only one person was injured in the incident. A woman named Mrs. Guy was leaving Porter’s Dry Goods at 8 King Street West and was struck on the shoulder by a falling brick. Thankfully, her injuries were minor.
To take the plane off the side of the building, the wings were removed after ropes secured the fuselage, and it was then lowered and slid down piles placed against the building. The plane was removed by staff of the Leaside Training camp, with the military refusing to let the local firemen do the removal.
Naturally, an event like this was covered in the local media. Despite gaps in Oshawa’s historical newspapers, the newspaper after this incident survived, and the Ontario Reformer featured this story on its front page of the April 26 edition. The Reformer called it a “as fine an exhibition of aeroplaning as will be seen here for many a day,” and the pilot who “swooped up and down over the town like a bird” was acting in a manor “we are told…is mild compared with what aviators in the battle squadrons at the front are called upon to do when in action.” The Reformer went on to report “something went wrong with the engine… [The pilot] tried to land on the street but was unable to do so on account of the wires.” He ultimately ended up on top of the Dominion Bank building, and wires which acted as a net for the plane were so badly damaged that power in Oshawa and Whitby was knocked out.
The reporting of the Ontario Reformer seemed to take a light-hearted approach to the story, as though it was a unique sense of excitement. Reviewing other news reporting of story seems to perhaps take a harsher view. The headline of The Globe reads “Airman Makes Two Towns Dark,” demonstrating the outcomes from the incident, while the Reformer has the headline “Oshawa Sees an Areoplane (sic) Light on Bank Building” focusing on the incident rather that its outcome.
The Globe makes mention of the pilot was “entertaining practically the entire population of this town with his various stunts – looping the loop, figure eight, flying upside down” and the crash was a result of “misjudging the distance” and crashing into the Dominion Bank.
Both the Reformer and Globe say the pilot refused to give his name; The Toronto Daily Star, however, reported that the actions of Cadet Groom of the Leaside Camp would be investigated by the RAF (in Pictorial Oshawa, Thomas Bouckley named the pilot as Cadet Weiss). Of note, the Star’s reporting on the incident was the shortest of all three papers reviewed.
This incident occurred during wartime; World War I was raging on across the Atlantic, and it was the first major conflict where the skies served as a battlefield. Looking locally, there were flying fields for training pilots in Leaside and Long Branch, and according to Bouckley, ‘several mishaps occurred in Oshawa.’ The Oshawa Museum’s archival collection features not only photographs of the ‘infamous’ Four Corners crash, but also of a crash that occurred in 1916 at Alexandra Park, a plane that landed on the lawn of Parkwood, and a crash at the Golf Links on April 28, 1918.
While it may no longer be ‘Oshawa’s most heavily photographed incident,’ 100 years have passed and the Four Corners plane crash remains a captivating story from our past.