Burma Star still shining, but for how long?

Burma Star

The remaining members of the Burma Star Association at Kingston, Ontario have laid up their colours. With numbers dwindling, they will continue to be active but will no longer parade as a group.

When I was young, Second World War Veterans were everywhere. Every second chap over a certain age, and some of the women, too, had military pasts. At social gatherings, no one became excited to meet a fellow veteran. One became excited when one met a fellow veteran from the same unit, who served in the same theatre. There were so many Second War veterans then: so few remain.

And now, they are leaving us.

Holders of the Burma Star served in Burma (Myanmar), Bengal, Assam or off the coasts of Sumatra, Sunda and Malacca or in the Bay of Bengal between December 11, 1941 and September 2nd, 1945. Burma is the land of the infamous Irrawaddy River, and this is the campaign of “Bridge on the River Kwai” fame: the campaign of the Burma Road.

The Burma Road linked Myanmar to China and was used by the British to supply Chinese loyalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. The road was lost to the British when the Japanese over-ran Burma in 1942. After Pearl Harbour, the U.S. became our partner in battling the Axis. They absolutely insisted that the British should find a way to re-open the Burma supply route to China as part of the Commonwealth contribution to the fight with Japan. The Americans were no doubt thinking that the Commonwealth had more jungly wallahs and owned the expertise about Burma, but as it happened it was an American officer, the famous “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who recaptured northern Burma and built a new road there, the Ledo Road.

The Burma campaign is poorly documented in Canadian institutions, largely because young historians fail to see much of a direct Canadian connection. Of course many British immigrants to Canada after the War were Burma veterans and later became Canadian citizens. However, we also supplied Canadian-born doctors, pilots and radio operators. The pilots and radio operators were taken on strength by the R.A.F. and so disappeared from our radar (that’s a joke, son). Canadians with Japanese language skills served in the famous “Force 136” with British Intelligence. (Many of these brave men were Japanese-Canadians, which is a story for another day.) Astonishingly, the Veterans Guard of Canada were involved in the Burma Campaign, bringing in mules to supply local operations.

Because there is no Canadian unit tactical involvement, the contribution of our Burma Star veterans is often overlooked. Even the dealers in militaria sometimes obviscate the Canadian aspects by describing the Star as having been awarded to the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, which fails to explain the medals turning up across small-town Canada in the way that they do.

Unfortunately, the Burma Star is one of many decorations which are not inscribed with the name of the recipient. It is heart-breaking to see so many Burma Stars now on the militaria market, with the connection to the original brave owners and their colourful stories now completely lost. If we really care about the contribution given to us by our fighting forces, we should insist that no future decorations be awarded unengraved. It is a matter of national pride, as well as history.

The Burma Star may be recognized from a distance by the distictive ribbon. The center stripe is red, and stands for all the forces of the Commonwealth who were involved in the campaign. On either side are orange stripes, which represent the hot, jungle sun.

I am not among those who believe that sending high school students to interview veterans is a way of capturing our past. Or even university students, for that matter. Although this may be useful from in a social sense because it encourages respect and awareness from another generation, these interviews simply do not capture the special stories and the details which would otherwise be forgotten. I cite my years of transcribing oral histories as evidence of my authority in this regard. The kids simply don’t know the right questions to ask or when to shut up. They certainly don’t recognize when a veteran has something to tell which is not documented elsewhere. They interrupt at the darndest times.

Our veterans should be interviewed by adults with a background and a passion for the conflict or theatre concerned. Our veterans should preferably be interviewed when they are still hearty. If the job were properly done we should have no need to torment the few survivors in their twilight years.

The Kingston Branch of the Burma Star Association withdrew from the order of battle on July 2nd, 2010. Other Second War cohorts of heroes are slipping away. And we never said good-bye.

________

Medal illustration from Veterans Affairs Canada.

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Mercury Glass Candlestick from Herring Glassworks

Napanee, Ontario

Herring Candlestick

Mercury glass is the descriptive term often used for ninteenth century pieces which consist of two layers of glass with a compound between to make them appear “silvered”.

No records remain from the Herring Glassworks (Napanee) which was in business only for a short time (1881-1883).   Without records, it is difficult to define the output of this factory.  The challenge is greater because it seems that the products had no manufacturer’s mark — or at least none have so far been discovered.

A strong family tradition claims that the above candlestick was purchased from Herring Glass.  It is about 9 1/2″ tall (24.2 cm).   The plug which sealed the base after the silvering was accomplished is, alas, missing, so we do not know what device the Herring craftsmen were using to close the hole.   Local tradition also maintains that Herring was selling mercury glass balls (so-called witches’ balls) which were popular as ornaments.  The question is, were they made at the Works, or did Herring import and re-sell them?

By the 1880’s, domestic lighting was no longer accomplished by candles.   Pieces like this one would have been purchased as decorative objects.  The appearance of silver was a welcome touch of luxury in the rural farmhouse or village church.  Candlesticks were almost always sold in pairs.

 
The candlestick is in the collection of the Lennox and Addington Historical Society, at the Lennox and Addington County Museum at Napanee.

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The Barriefield Debate

Barriefield

Barriefield Village

Kingston agonizes over development in old Pittsburgh township.

The City of Kingston has given approval for a new assisted housing development which will be constructed on an old pasture bordering on the historic village of Barriefield.

The site is poorly served by public transport and is located far from major amenities.   Significant economic incentives in the form of a bargain land deal and promised government grants seem to have persuaded Kingston Council.  Many Barriefield residents opposed the plan.  Unfortunately, this has prompted insults from the usual morons who seem to lie in wait to drag any sensible debate into the gutter.   It has been insinuated that Barriefield defenders are secret snobs with a grudge against anybody living on social assistance.

The real problem is that there is weak provision in Ontario at present to encourage preservation of early architecture and heritage districts.    Municipal heritage committees have little power, and it is mostly left to enthusiastic private citizens to purchase, restore and preserve built heritage.  Municipal grants are few, small, and often come with strings attached.  Maintaining heritage properties is expensive.

The community gains significantly from the investment of  sympathetic owners of heritage properties.   In addition to providing landmarks which enhance our recognition of neighbourhoods and encourage a feeling of  respect and belonging,  built heritage  contributes to the uniqueness of municipalities.  History and heritage enter corporate decisions when it comes to establishing new offices, but more important, history and heritage are significant generators of tourism income. 

Cities like Toronto, which have the misfortune to look like any city in North America, are forced to continually generate and maintain events to convince visitors to spend time there.  Cities with significant amounts of built heritage have the luxury of using events as enhancements, as (assuming that the heritage assets are known) visitors will come anyway.

In the case of Barriefield, we are asking property owners to preserve a rare asset — a village of the 1830’s with streetscapes little changed from Upper Canadian days.     

In theory, assisted housing should not be a threat to Barriefield village, but Barriefield residents are to be forgiven if they worry that something might effect ultimate property values, leaving them without resources to recover their investment.  It is unfortunate that the silly accusations of snobbery could not be tossed out to permit a rational discussion of this concern.

September 8th: Kingston City Council turned down the Barriefield Village Assisted Housing project (by one vote). Council was persuaded by a Staff report which showed that millions of dollars of investment in infrastructure would be required before the site would be ready for the project. (Duh!) I was very pleased by this decision, but I was even more happy to hear that Council has directed staff to look at alternative sites closer to central services. Kingston needs more assisted (and senior assisted) housing. (JB)

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Was this apothecary jar made at the Napanee Glassworks?

apjarThis glass jar of a type used in drugstores surfaced in Michigan.  It has lost its lid.  It is hand-blown, with two applied rings.  The rings are rather crude and of the type known as overlapped seam.    There us a  pontil mark (pontil scar)  on the base.  The jar is 8 inches tall, and the body is 5 inches in diameter.   In appearance, it is certainly similar to several other examples from Ontario, which have been tentatively attributed to the Napanee Glassworks, but without any confirming proof.

The dealer says that this apothecary jar shows a strong, yellow florescence under “black light”, which (he tells me) means that there is a high level of magnesium in the glass. 

The Napanee Glassworks was a venture of John Herring, 1818-1896.  Herring was a very successful foundryman who manufactured farm implements.   The 1870’s were economically challenging years for Napanee.  Herring conceived the idea that a glass factory would create jobs and help end the recession.  He thought that the city fathers would  joyfully get behind the endeavour, but unfortunately the idea failed to capture local imagination.  Herring found himself over-extended financially.  He also was unable to satisfy the master glass-blowers whom he had hired to teach local men the craft.  To add to Herring’s difficulties, the Bay of Quinte Railroad (ie., the Rathbuns) cut off the south entrance of the works, resulting in a law suit. 

So, the Napanee Glassworks was only in business for under three years, 1881-1883.  It is gone and nothing of it remains.

From historical research and from the shards found during an archaeological assessment, we know that the Herring works was making bottle glass and whimsies.  A glass cane at the Lennox and Addington County Museum has the strongest claim to be from the Napanee Glassworks due to provenance.  Local tradition says that Herring also sold mercury balls (so-called “witches’ balls”) which were popular ornaments at the time, but it is unclear whether he made them or imported them for resale.

After years of effort trying to associate specific glass products with the Napanee factory, we must conclude that all of Herring’s products were unmarked, so it would be a great thing if we could connect even a single item to the factory by chain of ownership or other evidence, such as an invoice.

There is nothing to say that this apothecary jar is not from the Napanee Glassworks, but if so, how did it get to Michigan?  Did Herring’s short-lived, struggling endeavour succeed in competing in American markets?

Incidently, I come from a long line of foundrymen myself.  My father told me that in the 18th and 19th century, the men would dip their mugs into the water which had been used to cool the heated metal.  This water was believed to have special strengthening properties, and it probably did, being rich in iron.  However, as industrialization progressed, other less desirable elements were in the foundry water, resulting in cancers.   John Herring died of stomach cancer, so one wonders.

Many thanks to Tom in Michigan for allowing me to use his photograph.

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Maria M. McLaren, Winchester, Ontario

N2009-031This little photograph dates from the 1890’s.  It was taken by N.W. Trickey, who was also one of the barbers in the town.   Although the picture is clearly identified on the back, it is a challenge to find her family history.  There are many “Mary McLarens” in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, but none living in Winchester, and none of suitable age or location called “Maria”.

I have a theory that this is the Mary Morrison McLaren, widow, who died in Lochiel, Glengarry on 28 September, 1896.  She would have been born in circa 1822-4.

This Mary McLaren stands out for me because her daughter said that she was born in Quebec.  This would account for the spelling of her name, “Marie”.

However, looking back on the 1871 and 1881 census, we find that Mary McLaren, while living, said that she was born in Ireland.

Also, Lochiel, Glengarry is rather distant from Winchester.  Why would she have her photograph taken in Winchester?  And what about  her clothing, which seems rather nice for a poor widow.  However, the Mary McLaren of Lochiel made her living as a seamstress, and it is tempting to think that she made her own elaborate cape and bodice.

If anyone has family connections with Marie M. McLaren,  and has helpful information, I would be interested to know.

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Home not a Castle

House with stepsides

House with stepsides

In Ontario it is sometimes said that the unusual stepped walls along the edge of a roof are clues that the building has military connections.  Alas, this colourful idea is not true.

The walls which project above the roof at either end (which look rather like steps) are properly called “corbiesteps”.  In the US, they are also called crowsteps, or catsteps, which is rather evocative and colourful I think.   In Ontario they are  called stepsides.

Corbiesteps are an urban northern European phenomenon.   In crowded mediaeval towns, it was all too easy for fire to spread from one roof to another.   Therefore, the walls which divided townhouses were built up above the gabled roof to form a fire barrier.  As with many other architectural devices, people became familier with the appearance and felt that the building just didn’t look quite right without the corbiesteps so it became a decorative convention as well.

Although architectural reference books often say that corbiesteps were obsolete after 1700, I have seen them on 18th and early 19th century urban buildings in the British Isles, particularly in Scotland.

The idea seems to have come to Ontario with early 19th century masons.  Corbiesteps were used here  on brick and stone town buildings up to the early 1850’s.  After that,  their use was more exceptional and perhaps a symptom of taste formed from an earlier time.

Corbiesteps may also appear in retro designs today, as a deliberate attempt to evoke a nostalgic appearance.

The example shown above is a building in Napanee, Ontario.  The corbiesteps are poorly proportioned: they are big and clumsy in execution.  The house is not joined to other structures.  (In fact, it towers over its neighbours.)  This suggests to me that the motivation was  not fire barriers but taste.  Perhaps this was the owner’s concept of  the appearance of an important town building.  I also think that the builder was not a skilled mason with European roots, but a local tradesman who was yielding to the wishes of his client.

Although these stepsides are clumsy, they give character to the building, which would be a much poorer piece of architecture without them.  Because it is difficult to  incorporate corbiesteps in modern renovations, they are too often chopped away.  Numbers are dwindling.  Every effort should be made by Heritage Committees to assist owners in keeping stepsides.

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Another Historic Building Lost: The Walker House Hotel, Odessa, Ontario

Walker House circa 1900

The charming main street through Odessa will soon have another big gap, when the Rebekah Lodge Building (which burned in mid August) is demolished.   This structure was originally the Walker House Hotel, and has a long history.  The site was purchased by Johnston Walker in 1847 for 55 pounds.   At that time 55 pounds was a reasonable price for a lot with little or nothing built upon it.  Johnston Walker was the son of Weedon Walker who owned a hostelry at concession 3, lot 8, Kingston township known as “Five Mile House”.   His son may have gained his hotel-keeping experience there.   

Johnston Walker built the original, handsome symmetrical red brick building, probably in the 1840’s —  early 1850’s  as the twelve-over-six fenestration and entrance treatment suggest.   The Walker family owned the Odessa building until 1871.  It then passed to the Wycott family, who changed the name to “The Royal Hotel”.  They sold to the International Order of Oddfellows (IOOF), Lodge 361, in 1914.   The Oddfellows were a very popular fraternal society in Odessa.  The ladies’ arm of the IOOF are the Rebekahs, and both the male and female societies met in the building with the two coming together to share a sumptuous dinner annually.   The old Walker House has another connection to many local families.  In the 1940’s, when rural young folk no longer liked to have  granny’s wake in the parlour, the front room of the old hotel was often rented for that purpose.

Odessa was once one of the most thriving villages of Ernestown Township and has survived nearly in tact.  Ironically, the other major loss on the main street was another hotel, the old Stagecoach Inn.   The sign from the facade of the Stagecoach Inn and attached spoolwork elaboration now hang at the Lennox and Addington County Museum in Napanee.

Ernestown Township became part of Loyalist Township in 1999, and there is an active Heritage Committee, but it is doubtful that anything can be done to encourage a sympathetic replacement for either hotel.  The lesson is that we need to respect, care for and enjoy those old buildings which remain to us, as their numbers dwindle every year.

I am grateful to Philip Smart and Ross Babcock for sharing their research with me.  I also wish to acknowledge the late Glenn Robertson who shared his family photographs with the community, including the one above which shows the Walker House when it was the Royal Hotel, circa 1900.

Below, after the fire.

After the fire, August 2009

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Built Heritage and the City of Kingston (Ont.): the struggle continues

None of those with any interest in built heritage were in the least surprized when the final Bray Heritage report recommended the creation of an Heritage District out of Old Sydenham Ward.  In fact, I think that most of us would have tumbled off our chairs had it not done so.

It is a fine report, well-researched, with quality content.

However, after thirty years watching and participating in heritage in this neck of the woods, perhaps I may be forgiven a deep sigh.  All of our efforts, beginning with the redoubtable Margaret Angus, and continuing with efforts of well-connected locals like Jim Bennett have resulted in so few victories.

Ontario Street is a case in point.  With the old industrial structures no more,  the City had the opportunity to protect the interface between Old Sydenham Ward and the Lake for the people and instead we have a wall of mundane towers and acres of concrete.  In my opinion, this was totally unnecessary as the old city is still relatively small with lots of  land north and west which could have been used for high density development.  Some of those parcels have spectacular views.  That land is also close to the 401 corridor and there was the opportunity to plan properly for the automobile traffic which high density always generates (no matter what the developers tell you). 

The planning objection to moving the high density north seemed to be the cost of extending utilities.   I wonder how much the recent sewage spills and  flooding of lower Princess street properties had to do with the huge impact of all those new, downtown towers on aging urban infrastructure?  But I digress.

My point is that, despite great public input and energy in the past, we have just not been able to stop the inexorable intrusion of very commonplace late twentieth century forms into the unique limestone part of the city.  I don’t care what the architect’s name is, most of the newer stuff is  functional vernacular.  I would not drive to Kingston to look at, nor in my opinion would anyone else.

We can successfully persuade home-owners to select sympathetic surface elements and restore, rather than replace, Victorian fenestration, but what good is that going to do when an unrelieved red brick wall or a monolith looms at you from the foot of the road?

I need persuading that the City would not once again fold within days of an application from a developer to push back the boundaries of protection… “just a little”, “just a block or so”.  The usual wheeze is to quietly acquire a number of buildings on the edge of the district, allow them to run down and then argue that they aren’t worth saving and never should have been included in the district.  Will the City stand up to this?  Oh, I would so like to think so, but based on my experience, I think not.  All a developer has to do is claim that the City is unfairly standing in the way of someone making a whacking return on investment, and the heritage folk are trampled in the rush to compromise.

Thus, our irreplacable heritage assets are continually eroded away.

The Bray Report acknowledges this in Recommendation 8:

“It is recommended that the City initiate a parallel process to that of the current study to address issues of cultural heritage resource management. The proposed process should have a mandate to establish robust cultural heritage programs with sufficient capacity to address the current Provincial heritage policies and the resultant increased workload.”

Note the word, “robust”.  I wonder how that survived to make it into the final report?

The Bray Report is worth reading and contains some splendid photographs.  The City has posted it so you can read it  at http://www.cityofkingston.ca/pdf/culture/heritage/SydenhamHeritageArea_FinalReport.pdf

Being my cheeky self, though, I will comment that we could have saved the Heritage Committee a good deal of time and money.  Should Sydenham Ward be an heritage district?  Yep.  Now someone please get busy and figure out how we can finally protect our limestone identity, before it becomes more appropriate to call ourselves ‘the concrete jungle’.

 

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Has Genealogy Peaked as a Hobby?

When I worked at the Public Archives of Canada during the 1970’s, the research world was very different.  Most of our clients were “repeat offenders”.  Typically, they were initiated into the seductive world of primary sources as graduate students and continued as our clients and friends into old age.   We did see genealogists, but like their bretheren in history, they were mostly pro’s — old campaigners doing work for clients.

Then, along came “Roots”, the t.v. docu-drama which captured the North American imagination.  (In my opinion, we would have discovered genealogy anyway, and if “Roots” hadn’t been there, something else would have been the trigger.  -But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Now, before someone conjures up the old nastiness about elitist archives being democratized by genealogy I should say that, at the archives where I worked, we wanted and welcomed the general public.  What we weren’t prepared for were the numbers.  Archive budgets were no better in the 1970’s then they are today.  Space and staff were barely adequate.  Moreover, we did not have personal computers back then.  Access was  achieved via paper finding aides or the ubiquitous filing cards.

The numbers of visitors “doing” genealogy grew throughout the 1980’s.  In the early 1990’s, I was working in a small, local archive.   We had previously been open two days a week, usually for two or three clients.  By the early 1990’s, we were open four days a week, and it was not unusual during the summer to find twelve or even fifteen people crowded into the reading room.

There were big changes in the research traffic besides raw numbers, but I think that an important indicator was that over two-thirds of visitors said that it was their first or second visit to our site.  Over half said it was their first visit to us and over twenty percent said that it was their first visit to an archive of any kind.  The result was that staff spent an incredible amount of time with researchers, not only introducing them to our particular collection and institutional finding aides, but also teaching them how primary source research is done.  After a long day or two and the usual comprehension struggle, the clients left smiling and happy, never to be seen by us again.  They moved on to the next archive needed, on their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Few old pro’s.  Few “repeat offenders”.

Now, twenty years later, I see that the traffic at my local archives has changed yet again.  Although the reading room is busy, most of the clients appear to be a local band of  savants.  Engaged on long-term projects, they return day after day, for weeks on end.   They out-number the few wide-eyed first-timers.  In fact, the archives feels much more like it did in the 1970’s.  I see that staff spends much less time teaching visitors the fundamentals as most clients are experienced and know just what they need.

Are there just as many genealogists as in the late 1980’s, but now using the internet instead of visiting archives?  I wonder.   Website data to which I am privy suggests that web traffic consists of a large proportion of skilled “regulars”, coming in and out for different topics.  The one-time-only personal quest folk are still there, but the number of hits (research visits) is equalled or excelled by the repeat traffic.

To me this suggests that genealogy as a general grass-roots passion indulged by nearly everybody is gradually shifting back to belonging to a specific interest group.   This happy cohort of  family history detectives may be larger than it was before ‘Roots’ but a cohort it is, nevertheless.   The needs of these 21st century genealogists will be different from those of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This means that we can expect usage of archives to change, yet again.

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Kingston Conservateur, Alex Gabov, lands mission of a lifetime.

agvOne of our local savants, Alex Gabov, Adjunct Professor at Queen’s, will be part of the team documenting and restoring one of the earliest ritual sites in the world, the “deer stones” in central Mongolia.  The bronze age carvings were made by nomads between 3000 and 700 BC.  The stones have been badly damaged by weather, time and vandalism. 

The Mongolian government plans to save and restore them.

Alex has considerable expertise about stone monuments, but he has always made himself available to colleagues in the Kingston area to consult on a wide range of conservation challenges from cracking leather to rising damp.  His passion for defending Canadian material culture is legendary in our community.

Needless to say, we are all no-end pleased to hear that Alex has landed the trip of a lifetime and the chance to be part of a really distinguished international team. 

For more about the trip, see “Monumental Effort”, Kingston Whig-Standard, July 27, 2009.

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