Photographs of family and friends, poems and jokes lovingly cut out and pressed into the pages and newspaper clippings or important records: All this and more were found inside a brittle, yellowed scrapbook unearthed at Fort Rodd Hill’s collections building in August. The book, bursting with entries, was left behind by a young woman by the name of Joyce Margaret Whitney.
Kate Humble, the curator at Fort Rodd Hill & Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site, had the pleasure of digging into the scrapbook and learning everything she could about Whitney, a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) who served all over Canada and in Europe.
On the very first page of the scrapbook is Whitney’s face, filling a space designated for the book’s owner. A second spot on the page titled “my best girl’s photograph” was left blank.
Through her research, Humble discovered Whitney joined the CWAC in 1942 at the age of 19. She came from the rural municipality of Valjean, Saskatchewan which currenlty has a population of two.
“Joining the CWAC gave women the opportunity to do stuff they just never would have done previously, especially if they were from small towns,” Humble said.
Whitney went through basic training and then trained as a clerk and typist, helping to keep many important records up to date while soldiers were overseas fighting the Second World War.
“CWACS did not do the flashy work, they weren’t on the front lines, they weren’t there to win combat medals. They were behind the scenes,” Humble said. “The Canadian war effort just would not have been as functional without the CWAC.”
Whitney joined the war effort as soon as she could and throughout her time in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, travelled all over Canada and served in London, England as well. Humble said Whitney represents thousands of women who learned new skills, met new people and had an earnest drive to contribute to the fight.
The normal life path of a woman at the time was narrow, with expectations to get married and have children. But the Second World War changed things for women, Humble said, and many jumped at the chance to see new places and meet new people.
“It speaks to the character of Canadian women,” Humble said. “Throughout history they have shown themselves to be determined to do what they could.”
Whitney’s scrapbook includes poems that she chose to keep, sketches drawn by her, photographs of the other women she met and even a photograph of her CWAC softball team, complete with the head of Athena – the goddess of war and symbol of the CWAC – on their jerseys.
One poem titled “Just a Private” includes the lines “I’m just a lousy Private / There are millions more like me / But if there weren’t any Privates / Just where would the Army be?”
Whitney advanced from private to corporal during her time in the CWAC.
After being discharged in 1946, Whitney married and lived in Grand Forks where her two older children were born. She moved to Victoria in 1951 where she and her husband raised their three children. Some of Whitney’s favourite pastimes included knitting, crosswords and playing bridge.
At the age of 96, and two weeks before Humble found her scrapbook, Whitney died in New Westminster, where her nursing home was.
“It felt just a little like someone I knew had died, because her scrapbook was so relatable, so personal,” Humble said.
Whitney’s scrapbook helped Humble form a picture of a young woman in her 20s who had a sense of humour and drive to see and learn new things. It now sits at Fort Rodd Hill in a safe, temperature and humidity controlled area to preserve Whitney’s memories and help tell the story of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, which had several members working at Fort Rodd Hill in the post-war period.
“Even when you’re 95 and you’re doing a crossword in your nursing home you remember,” Humble said. “You remember going to London and the different places, smells and people you met and maybe people you’ve lost. I can’t imagine that wouldn’t change you.”