A conservation clinic, Captain Frank Page’s letters and a mystery

Last week, retired school teacher Desley Affleck attended a State Library Q ANZAC 100 Caring for Collections clinic at Redcliffe Museum, cradling a large black photo album and a precariously wrapped brown paper package.

State Library Conservator Kelly Leahey imparting preservation tips to Desley Affleck at Redcliffe Museum.

Inside Desley’s album were original photographs, newspaper clippings and various letters written by, or to, her Great Uncle, Captain Frank Page, who died from wounds received in action at the 9th Red Cross Hospital, in Calais France on 29 October 1917. Frank received those fatal wounds at Passchendaele Ridge, 17 October 1917.

Desley inherited the album from her late father, Bob Page, who was the original custodian of his Uncle Frank’s First World War records. Although Bob was born after Frank died, he was proud of the uncle he never knew and held on to all of Frank’s letters.

Captain Frank Page. Image from National Archives of Australia.

The photo album was created about 15 years ago as a way to preserve the precious family records that Desley, now hopes to pass on to her grandchildren.

Indeed, the album pays tribute to a man who took part in the landing of Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 and was awarded the Military Medal (Frank enlisted as a private in 9th Battalion A.I.F. in 1914 in Brisbane and sadly never saw his family again).

It also illustrates the type of man Frank was – a thoughtful man who remembered birthdays and sent gifts, a man who generously bequeathed money for music lessons to a young girl (the daughter of a friend in Roma), and a caring man who wrote home regularly to his parents in Boreen Point near Pomona.

Frank’s letters and postcards were markedly different to each parent; to his mother the letters were more circumspect, while the ones to his father were more honest in their description of war.

Gwen Soutter’s thank you letter to Captain Frank Page’s father.

Perhaps the most touching letter in the entire collection is from a young girl named Gwen Soutter, the girl who was left money for music lessons. The letter is to Frank’s father and follows:

Roma, May 25th (possibly 2018)

Dear Mr Page,
I have been going to write to you so many times since your nice kind letter came to me, but sometimes I feel too sad and have to run away and leave them unfinished. I will try and finish this one then if you answer it I will always write to you. I miss dear Frank’s letters so much and can’t help longing to see him again. I could not tell you how good he was to me no matter how naughty I used to be but he would take my part. Now I do try to be a good girl Because I know he can see me and wants me to be a little lady.
Thank you for letting me keep my Soldier boys ribbons, I felt that you should have them. I will keep them and love them forever. They are with all my other treasures packed away in my draw. (sic) Frank always told me not to cry if he did not come back but it is very hard. Write to me soon I am sure I would be very fond of you and Frank’s Mother if I only knew you. Come and see us someday we would love to have you both.
Love to all,
From your loving little friend.
Gwen Soutter
I hope that you are not feeling too sad we will all see our dear Boy some day. Mother tells me every night that if we are good we will so try not to fret.

The materials in the album were relatively stable and in surprisingly good condition given their age according to Kelly Leahey, State Library Conservator, who was providing advice at the clinic.

The brown paper package however, when it was unravelled, revealed a sad state of deterioration – it had been stored in a backyard shed for many years.

Kelly was able to reassure Desley that it may be salvaged and walked her through a number of strategies to approach the material. Kelly recommended storing the material in a good quality storage box as a first step to provide a more stable environment to slow down the deterioration before jumping straight in.

Approaching DIY conservation can be overwhelming, so taking small manageable steps was advised. For more information preservation guides are available online.

Investigating the deterioration of original materials.

As an aside, after a little internet searching, we found copies of Frank’s letters that have been transcribed and are publically available to read via a genealogy page here.

The mystery is Desley doesn’t know the connection or how the letters have ended up online. She’s pleased that there is an online record but is intrigued by this new postscript to Great Uncle Frank’s letters.

State Library’s Niles Elvery delivering his final QANZAC 100 regional workshop at Redcliffe Museum.