Trap door opens young sleuth’s quest to solve ‘history mysteries’ at Victoria school

A steel trap door, painted over and sealed shut in the brick walls of Margaret Jenkins Elementary School, opened a three-month research quest for one of the school’s students.

Eight-year-old Nelson Currie asked about the steel door and learned it was an old coal chute. The Grade 3 student didn’t stop there. Nelson kept digging through libraries and archives.

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His research turned up errors in the school plaque and local history books: The school opened in 1916, not 1915, and the real Margaret Jenkins was the third, not the first, woman to sit as a Victoria school trustee.

Nelson’s work filled a thick binder that he presented Friday to the Victoria Hallmark Heritage Society at the South Vancouver Island Regional Heritage Fair, where the other exhibitors were mostly high school students.

Helen Edwards, a longtime Victoria history buff and Hallmark board member, received Nelson’s research with gratitude for its new information.

“This,” said Edwards, holding up the binder to assembled adults and teens, “is the real history of Margaret Jenkins School.”

Edwards remembers receiving a call months ago about a student interested in the Hallmark Society’s files to research the history of his school.

Edwards told the caller she would be glad to assist. But she was stunned when Nelson, then only seven, arrived. “He was so young,” Edwards recalled.

Hazel Currie, Nelson’s mother, said she shuttled her son by car and even took him out of school a few times to work on his project. She saw it as rewarding education.

“You don’t find many courses in historical architecture in B.C. elementary schools,” she quipped.

They started at the Victoria Public Library’s central branch. Nelson sat for hours in front of microfilm readers looking at old newspapers and documents.

They moved on to the City of Victoria Archives and the library at the legislature. They even dug up old blueprints at the Greater Victoria School District archives.

During a recent visit to the Ross Bay Cemetery, they located the grave of Margaret Jenkins, marked with the dates Aug. 4, 1843 - June 6, 1923.

Between looking at documents and walking around the Margaret Jenkins building, Nelson also solved what mother and son called “history mysteries.”

Where was the gymnasium when the school opened almost a century ago? It’s now the library.

Throughout, Hazel said she drove the car and assisted at times. Librarians and archivists were always delighted to help. But the work was really Nelson’s.

He checked dates, fetched files, read through microfilm and returned again and again to the building.

Hazel said buildings, especially historical ones, grab Nelson’s interest. Outside, he looks at rooflines. Inside, he picks out details adults take for granted.

“He just sees things differently,” his mom said. “When we are outside, he is always looking up.

“He will walk into a room and he sees where all the vents are or all the electrical connections.

“It’s his passion.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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