In anticipation of the Huron County Museum’s in-development exhibit Forgotten: People & Portraits of the County, volunteer Kevin den Dunnen takes an in-depth look at one of the many studio photographers to work in Huron County, and traces the professional and personal journey of Irene Burgess.
Hiding within the Huron County Museum’s online and free-to-use newspaper archives are an unlimited number of stories like the one of Miss Irene Burgess. Irene Burgess was a woman that defied societal norms. In a time where women were rarely given the freedom to pursue a chosen career, Irene managed her own photography studio. While many women were expected to marry and have families, Irene stayed single. She was also faced with many tragedies in her life. Neither of her two siblings lived past 32. Her mother passed away at 51. Her niece nearly died at the age of 6. She lost the photography studio after an explosion. Through all of this, the communities of Perth and Huron Counties rose to support her.
Nettie Irene Burgess was born September 20, 1901, in Mitchell, Ontario. Her parents were Nettie and Walter Burgess. She had two siblings – an older sister named Muriel, born in 1896, and a younger brother named Macklin, born in 1912. Her father, Walter, was a long-time photographer in Mitchell and owner of W.W. Burgess Studio. Growing up around photography gave Irene plenty of exposure to the business. This experience would prove to be important in her adult life.
Irene experienced several tragedies throughout her life. By her 43rd birthday, only she and her father survived from their family of five. The first to pass was Irene’s mother, Nettie Helena Burgess, on November 22, 1925, at the age of 51. Irene’s sister, Mrs. D.F. Buck ( née Muriel Burgess) and her 6-year-old daughter Claire had been staying with her parents Walter and Nettie Burgess; Mrs. Buck had been ill for some time. During their stay, Claire became ill with pleuro-pneumonia. On the brink of death for several days, she began to recover with the help of her grandmother, Nettie. While caring for Claire, Nettie contracted pneumonia. Less than six days later, Nettie passed away in the presence of her family and nurse. 6-year-old Claire would live for another 75 years thanks to the care of her grandmother.
The next member of Irene’s family to pass would be her sister Muriel. Muriel was married to D.F. Buck, a photographer from Seaforth. They had three children, a daughter named Claire, and two sons named Craig and Keith. On March 24, 1926, an update in the Mitchell Advocate indicated that Irene would be visiting her sister, Mrs. D.F. Buck, at the Byron Sanitorium. According to the update, Mrs. Buck was “progressing favourably” but had been in poor health for some time. Almost fourteen months later on May 12, 1927, The Seaforth News wrote about the death of Mrs. D. F. Buck occurring the past Friday. While not mentioning the cause, the obituary described her as being “in poor health for a considerable period.”
On July 18, 1944, the Clinton News Record posted an obituary for Irene’s brother Macklin Burgess who passed away from a long-time illness at the age of 32. Macklin was in the photography and radio business. He left behind his wife, Elizabeth May, and three children, David, Nancy, and Dixie.
The next of Irene’s family to pass would be her father, Walter Burgess, in 1957 at the age of 82.
An interesting note in the life of Miss Irene Burgess is that she never married. In the Dominion Franchise Act List of Electors, 1935, Irene (age 34) is listed as a spinster (meaning a woman that is unmarried past the age considered typical for marriage). Whenever Irene is referenced in a newspaper, her title is Miss Irene Burgess. Irene would live until 1991.
The Clinton Studio
Walter Burgess operated a Clinton studio throughout the 1920s. The November 26th, 1925 edition of The Clinton News-Record mentions that Walter had only been spending one day a week at his Clinton Studio being “short of help.” A notice posted in The Clinton News-Record on May 23 1929 by Walter Burgess stated that his Clinton studio would only be open “the second and last Tuesdays in each month.” On October 1 of 1931, Walter announced that his newly-renovated Clinton studio would be open every weekday. His daughter, Miss Irene Burgess, would now be in charge of the location. Walter proclaimed Irene as “well experienced in Photography” and having “long experience with her father.” Not long after Irene became manager, Clinton residents would see the name Burgess Studios much more often in their newspapers.
When Irene began managing the Clinton Studio in 1931, advertisements for the business began increasing. The slogan “Photographs of Distinction” appeared in advertisements from 1937 until the week of the fire. These ads were brief, only including the business name, slogan, Irene’s name, and the services provided. Earlier advertisements include one from 1933: “It is your duty to have a good photograph. Your family wants it – business often demands it.” Another example from 1932 reads, “You have plenty of leisure time to get that portrait of [the] family group taken.” The Clinton studio began under the leadership of Walter W. Burgess, but Irene would soon grow the business larger than her father had the time for– that is, until the explosion.
On the afternoon of Monday, November 24, 1941, an explosion set fire to the second story of the J. E. Hovey Drug Store sweeping the entire business block. This was the place of business for Burgess Studio, Clinton. The fire swept through the building and damaged several businesses including R. H. Johnson Jewelry Store, Charles Lockwood Barber Shop, and Mrs. A MacDonald’s Millinery and Ladies Wear Shop. Irene was not in the studio when the fire started and did not call the authorities. Instead, the fire was discovered by Police Constable Elliot who identified smoke around the second-story window of the J. E. Hovey Drug Store Building. The fire was well covered in local newspapers. Featured on the second page of the Seaforth News more than a week after the incident, it was reported that the fire almost reached the “main business section of the town.” On its front page the week of the accident, The Clinton News-Record described the fire as “one of the most dangerous Clinton firemen have fought for years.” Unfortunately, Irene did not have insurance and was forced to close her business in Clinton. An update written on November 27, 1941 in The Clinton News-Record mentioned Irene’s departure for Mitchell to stay with her father for an “indefinite time.” A week later, on December 4, 1941, Irene posted a notice in the News-Record reading that, “owing to the recent fire damaging my equipment and Studio, I will be unable to continue operation.” She suggested that customers could mail their orders to the new studio. Additionally, customers could drive to her father’s studio in Mitchell and have their travel expenses paid. While this time must have been devastating for Irene, the community came together to show their support for her.
Two weeks after the explosion, the Mitchell Advocate reported about an event held at the I.O.O.F. Hall where Irene was the “honoured guest.” The event was planned by Irene’s friends Mrs. Dalton Davidson, Mrs. Earl Brown, Mrs. Harold Stoneman, and Miss Florence Paulen. Entertainment included skits, piano music by Mrs. A. Whitney, cards, and a “bountiful lunch.” Irene received a “purse of money” and personal gifts from her friends along with their condolences. The rallying support for Irene shows the positive impact she had in the communities of Clinton, Seaforth, and Mitchell. An uplifting end to an otherwise sad story.
Aside from her brother’s passing in 1944, Miss Irene Burgess was seemingly never mentioned again in the Huron County Newspapers accessible through the digital newspaper portal. She would live until 1991 in St. Marys, Ontario.
Huron County’s digitized newspaper collection is a vast historical database where you can find historical stories from our own county. While performing research for the upcoming exhibit “Forgotten: People & Portraits of the County,” I came across this story which piqued my interest. Without access to the digitized newspaper collection, the story of Irene’s remarkable journey would never have been found. This post was compiled using newspaper articles between the years of 1925 and 1944. Birth and death dates were found within newspapers and using external resources.
If you have a photograph by a Huron County photographer you would like to donate or share, please contact the Museum’s archivist by calling 519-524-2686, ext. 2201 or email email@example.com. To learn more about the Huron County Archives & Reading Room, visit: https://www.huroncountymuseum.ca/huron-county-archives/