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Beaton Institute Archive Essay

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Updated: Aug 26th, 2020


The present work is aimed at exploring the collection of the Beaton Institute Archive and is divided into two parts. The first part examines the Abbass Studios Collection, which was deposited in the Beaton Institute Archive and represents the storage of photographs and graphic materials created by Abbass Studios Ltd. The collection was founded by the members of the Abbass family, who continue as owners of the business. Therefore, the first part of this study explores the Abbass Studios Ltd. fonds through the story of the family and close observation of the selected works that constitute the chronicle of Sydney and all of Cape Breton Island.

The second part is dedicated to the First World War and the role of the island and its population during the conflict. The difference between the collection that shows Cape Breton during World War I and the Abbass Studios selections can be noted in the accumulative nature of the first. The First World War collection, with several contributors, offers records consisting of various materials such as printed, written, and graphic, while the Abbass Studios Fonds is exclusively represented by the medium of photography in the form of negatives and photographs.

Biographical Information on the Abbass Studios Collector

The founder of the collection is Abbass Studios Ltd., established by three brothers: George, John, and Anthony (Tony). The Abbass family immigrated to Cape Breton Island, Canada from Lebanon at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jobe Abbass, the father of the family, along with his wife Lilly, built a house on Townsend Street in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The household where the Abbass children grew up became the first headquarters of the family business (Beaton Institute, n.d., para. 1).

The history of the Abbass Studios takes its roots from the brothers’ employment at Meyer’s Photography. George was the first of the brothers to start his apprenticeship at Meyer’s; after some time, John accompanied his sibling, thus, the two of them had the opportunity to master the art of photography. Once they had gained sufficient experience, the brothers started a cooperative venture with two newspapers: The Post Record, a local newspaper based in Sydney and with a circulation that covered the entire island, known today as The Cape Breton Post (Cape Breton Partnership, n.d.), and The Chronicle Herald, a broadsheet located in Halifax, Nova Scotia with distribution coverage across the Atlantic provinces (The Chronicle Herald, n.d., para. 4-8).

The two brothers’ endeavors had to be postponed during the Second World War because they, along with Joe and Ferris, two other Abbass boys, were assigned to the military service. While the older brothers were in the army, Tony continued the work that they had initiated and provided photography to the Post and Herald. After their return from the war in 1946, the brothers received the governmental allowance for their military service and founded their own company, Abbass Studios.

Primarily, the studio functioned as a portrait atelier; however, the brothers and the other employees of the workshop covered various events as they fulfilled the studio’s agreements with the newspapers. Thus, the studio-recorded Sydney’s daily routine, such as the everyday life of miners and steelworkers, graduation ceremonies, sports teams, and individual sportsmen, and schoolchildren who were either in classes or getting around after lessons. Their photographs are a portrayal of Cape Breton Island’s life and activities from a rare-for-the-community perspective, seeing that “most of Cape Breton history has been so focused on the upper class and the wealthy. This is one of the first attempts to show what working-class life is like” (as cited in Pottie, 2014, para. 11).

Description of the Abbass Collection

The nitrate film negatives, portrait and group photographs, and records of events and factories’ operation that constitute the Abbass Studios Ltd. Fonds are deposited in the Beaton Institute Archive. To be specific, the collection is divided into seven parts: Portraiture (P), DOSCO, and A, B, C, D, and N series. For example, the DOSCO sequence shows the industrial side of the community. Pictures were taken by John Abbass in the 1950s display the work of the Dominion Steel and Coal Plant. The DOSCO series photographs demonstrate not only coal ovens and other industrial items, but also employees of the company in social settings such as group photos of bowling teams and social events.

The Abbass Studios A series tells the story of the 1960s through pictures of the Eskasoni Fire Department and the community’s manual training. The B series includes around twenty-five thousand photographs of Highland Village and its population, along with records of the following events in Eskasoni: closing night school celebration, school groups’ photos, and commemoration of a new chief at the Eskasoni Reserve. The 1970s, reflected through the pictures of Leni Denny’s Store, the Eskasoni Oyster Farming Association, designs, and traditional outfits, were deposited in the C set of photographs.

This series includes the portrait of a boy who saved a girl from drowning during the summer of 1971 and a picture of a new police car. Another decade is preserved in the D series. Most of these are the community’s school pictures in color. The N set of photos commemorates the 1940s with numerous group and individual pictures of the dwellers of Cape Breton. Bus drivers, steelworkers, babies, brides and grooms, a hockey team, and unemployed citizens portrayed by the Abbass Studios tell viewers what life was like during the forties (Beaton Institute, n.d., para. 7).

Historical Context of the Abbass Collection

The collection was created by the Abbass Studios with a title that commemorates the name of the founder. Initiated in the 1940s, the fonds preserve the life of the Cape Breton community over a span of seven decades. The latest contributions to the collection were made in 2014 and 2015. The Abbass Studios provided a set of school photographs and portraits during the last two years. Thus, the heritage of the founding brothers and the works of their employees and successors demonstrates the life of the community.

Abbass Studios Ltd. is still a family business. Blaise, a son of John, the founder of the studio, and John Abbass manage the business these days. Contemplating the role of their photography atelier as a preserver of history, Blaise reflected on the fact that they aimed to demonstrate the life of the people who live on the island and to save these glimpses of reality for present and future generations of Cape Breton, saying, “My father [Johnny] was so well-known just from being at most events. We photographed quite a bit of Sydney” (as cited in Pottie, 2014, para. 5).

The Significance of the Collection

The Abbass Studios Fonds have vital importance for Syndey and all of Cape Breton because the photographs of the studio represent the various aspects of life on the island over decades of time. They show the daily routines of factory workers, schoolchildren, local heroes, celebrities, memorable events, and scenes of the rural and urban territories of the community. Moreover, these pictures represent the life of several generations. Present viewers can see their parents or grandparents. In addition, the collection provides information about every decade; thus, an attentive observer can learn about social events of the past, crucial moments for Sydney and the island, and even the fashion of different time periods.

The Abbass Studios Collection provides a fascinating insight into the history of Cape Breton and Sydney. During the work with the archive materials, I understood how the actions and events in the everyday life of an individual or group of people contribute to the history of a particular place.

Cape Breton During World War I

What is different about this project is its accumulative nature. It gathers various archive materials under one theme and covers the First World War from the perspective of Cape Breton’s input. For example, it provides information about life during this time of warfare both on the island and abroad. Considering the conventional basis of the selection, the number of contributors and collectors whose materials have been used by the Breton Institute Archive for the project is diverse. Various media sources constitute the archival records of the collection. They include published or written materials, such as books, maps, notes, pamphlets, biographies, manuscripts, and reports, as well as photographs, scrapbooks, and audio-visual items.

The collection has a lot of items, and the names of contributors are sometimes unknown, especially considering the nature of illustrative materials. Therefore, the focus on one specific collection is the most effective way to understand Cape Breton’s role in the warfare of the time. The Percy Charles Willmot Fonds provides an insight into the issue through letters, scrapbooks, and photographs. The particular interest in this collection is justified by the fact that it includes textual materials that are helpful in understanding the First World War, at least, from two perspectives: The first deals with the updates and thoughts from the battlefield, and the second is the response from home.

Biography of Lieutenant Percy Charles Willmot

The creator of the collection is Lieutenant Percy Charles Willmot who, originally from Birmingham, England, having immigrated as an adolescent to Canada, was an employee at Crowell’s Ltd., a real estate agency. In his late twenties, Percy Willmot enlisted in the military and served with the 25th Battalion for five years, from 1914 to 1919.

The bulk of the collection is constituted by the letters from Percy to his sister Dorothy. In his correspondence, Willmot describes his experiences and makes notes about other Cape Breton residents who went abroad for military service. For example, he mentions John Pringle and Lieutenant Johnson (Beaton Institute, 2014, p. 51). The other parts of the collection include military papers, scrapbook, journal, photo album, and military memorabilia.

Description of the Collection in Detail

Lieutenant Percy Charles Willmot sent around two hundred pages of correspondence to his family members in general and his sister, in particular. Moreover, the display includes military documents, such as a request for a first-class train ticket, paybook, Christmas cards, song lyrics, Willmot’s agenda, journal, scrapbook, and photographs. Not only pictures, but also clippings, postcards, and even family letters can be found in Willmot’s photo album. For instance, an item “Letter to Dorothy Willmot from Emily Johnston” is a one-page note in which Emily expresses her condolences for Percy’s passing (Beaton Institute, n.d.). Working through Lieutenant Willmot’s correspondence, a careful observer can easily discern that Percy and his sister Dorothy were close. This sister was a confidant for Lieutenant Willmot, to whom he could openly talk about everything that was going on in his life.

Another interesting part of the collection is Lieutenant Willmot’s journal. It does not provide any information about the war because its entries span a period fo time from 1908 to 1909, but on the other hand, it tells the story of Percy crossing the Atlantic to visit his motherland and come back to Canada. The journal has photographs of his family, some clips, and maps replicated by the lieutenant. In addition, his military papers include Christmas greeting cards from officers and staff of the 25th Battalion. Moreover, Willmot’s documents contain lyrics of the song “It’s a Lie,” a war-related song of the time (Beaton Institute, n.d.). Therefore, the items provide a glimpse of personal perception of the war: The words of the songs and the numerous cards demonstrate the importance of civilian relationships during the war.

Historical Context for the Collection

All of the archival materials related to the collection have different dates of creation. Some items—for example, Willmot’s journal—were initiated before the war and do not have any direct relation to the conflict, but simply offer the descriptions of various things, events, and individuals made by Percy Willmot at the time he observed them. These kinds of sources can help in understanding the personality of the collector: What did he like to do? Why did he prefer one activity in comparison with others?

Although most of the documents connected to warfare were created in the time period between 1914 and 1919, several letters had been written at the end of the twentieth century. For example, the correspondence to Gladys Smith, a niece of Willmot, expresses gratitude on behalf of the Army Museum in Halifax Citadel for her assistance in providing materials and transcripts and organizing all the documents, thus, it was easier to build up the collection. The Lieutenant Percy Charles Willmot Fonds was established in the 1980s, while the majority of the documents had been collected by the lieutenant during the First World War.

Importance of Willmot’s Collection

The significance of the materials accumulated by the lieutenant and his family is in the descriptive nature of the documents: They offer information about the conflict, the battlefield experience, personal thoughts, fears, and hopes. In comparison, for example, with the Abbass Studios collection, which gives insight into the community life during seven decades, Willmot’s selections provide a view on the war through the perception of a Cape Breton resident (Cook, 2015).

Looking at the illustrative and text sources of the World War I project, the recognition of the importance of the community becomes more prominent. For example, the Dominion Coal Company, represented in the photographs created by John Abbass three decades after the First World War, contributed to the warfare by its production of coal (MacKinnon, 2013).


Two collections, the Abbass Studios Ltd. Fonds and the Lieutenant Percy Charles Willmot Fonds, give an opportunity to look at Cape Breton and its residents’ lives during almost the whole twentieth century through various media such as photography and text materials. The collection related to warfare is perceptive in conveying the idea that the island’s industry and community were involved in the conflict. At the same time, the Abbass collection narrates the story of the peaceful life of residents of Cape Breton, even though the founders of the studio went through the next war (the Second World War) as well.


Beaton Institute. (n.d.)..

Beaton Institute. (n.d.). Percy Charles Willmot Fonds.

Beaton Institute. (2014). .

Cape Breton Partnership (n.d.). .

Cook, T. (2015). “I will meet the world with a smile and a joke.” Canadian Soldiers’ Humour in the Great War. Canadian Military History, 22(2), 48-62.

MacKinnon, L. (2013). . Acadiensis.

Pottie, E. (2014, May 20). Abbass Studio Collection Tells Story of Family, Cape Breton. The Chronicle Herald.

The Chronicle Herald (n.d.) About Us.

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