Attic find offers glimpse into life — and size — of opera-singing ancestor

An old trunk found in a Bouctouche house shocked members of the Leroux family when they discovered clothing from the 1800s inside its dusty walls.

Ornate 19th-century gowns belonged to Scottish opera singer who married and moved to Bouctouche

Beth Leroux examines the bodice that belonged to her tiny-waisted great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Porter. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

An old trunk found in a Bouctouche home shocked the Leroux family when they discovered clothing dating back to the 1800s inside its dusty walls. 

Among the ornate whale-bone bodices and lace-trimmed skirts, one item stood out, a black and gold chevron-patterned neck insert.

"I kept looking at it, thinking it reminds me of something, it reminds me of something," said John Leroux.

"Well, the formal photograph of her and my great-great-great-grandfather, when they got married — she's wearing this."

The discovery was made while Leroux and his mother were digging through 150 years worth of belongings stored away in the old family summer home in Bouctouche. But the Fredericton architect is known for seeing value in old things, having written a number of books on New Brunswick architecture and its history.

This dress belonged to John Leroux's great-great-great grandmother, who lived in Bouctouche. Inga Hansen is working to clean and stabilize the items. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

His mother, Beth Leroux, said her son used the same keen eye when going through the old home.

"He made an edict that nothing, nothing in the house was to be thrown out or put aside until it went through him," she said with a laugh.

But they both agreed there was no question of throwing out the trove of garments found in the attic. 

"We found a series of formal gowns, we found some tops, some skirts, boots, skates," Beth said.

With some knowledge of family history, they quickly came to the conclusion that the dresses belonged to John Leroux's great-great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Douglass. 

An old trunk found in a Bouctouche house shocked members of the Leroux family when they discovered clothing from the 1800s inside its dusty walls. 1:27

There were two clues.

The first was the elegant and ornate gowns. According to Beth Leroux, "we knew my great-grandmother came over from Aberdeen, Scotland, in the late 1800s and she was a trained musician and opera singer."

Douglass, then a Porter, met Beth's great-great-grandfather in Boston. They married and settled in Bouctouche.

"We think it was in pristine condition because there wasn't a big call for opera singers in Bouctouche in the late 1800s," she said.

The other clue was how tiny the gowns were. Douglass was a notoriously small person.

A bodice found in the Leroux family home in Bouctouche. Inga Hansen dates the item to the mid-19th century. (Tori Weldon/CBC)
To get a better of idea of how old the clothes were and what year they'd been made, John Leroux turned to family friend and textile conservator Inga Hansen.

"He passed it on to me to work on, which is  kind of a dream project for a conservator," Hansen said. "In terms of the size and scope it's pretty significant."

Altogether, Hansen said, she has 50 items she is dating, documenting and putting into proper storage. She plans to clean and repair items if necessary but said the collection is in fantastic shape.

"Some of the pieces are in excellent condition, really very little damage, so part of that is probably luck, but a great part of it I think is the fact that the Leroux [family] found it and recognized it as being important."

Mary Ann Douglass wears the neck insert the Leroux family found in the attic of the family home in Bouctouche. John Leroux said it would be amazing to tell his great-great-great-grandmother, 'Guess what, one of your dresses and your photograph, in 130 years, will be shown in the new world.' (Submitted)
Hansen said clothing from decades past is sometimes thrown out or used as costumes, and it's a shame the items aren't deemed valuable.

"I think just not throwing it away is important," she said. "And people need to recognize that what they have is special and rare because they aren't making dresses from the 1880s anymore."

While John and Beth Leroux are excited about the historical value of their find, they said it also helps them feel connected to their heritage. Beth said after reading through old love letters and poems, she better understands where she came from.

This home in Bouctouche has been in the Leroux family for 150 years. (Submitted)
"I'm getting goose bumps now thinking about it because it personalizes who we are and kind of where some of the passion comes from that we still have about the place, and the family and kind of who we are."

Mother and son plan to keep the items they've discovered, as a way of remembering who they are, and how families used to live.