Social media sleuths help return lost bracelet — 75 years later

With help from dozens of sleuths on Facebook, it took just 12 hours to track down the daughter of a woman who lost a bracelet in the Ottawa River about 75 years ago.

Metal detector used to find bracelet buried in Ottawa River next to Britannia Beach

Wendy Philpott, left, holds her mother's silver bracelet from about 75 years ago. It was found in the Ottawa River by Joan Balser, right, with her metal detector. (Laurie Fagan, CBC )

After about 75 years on the sandy bottom of the Ottawa River, a bracelet lost at Britannia Beach decades ago has been returned to its owner's family.

On Aug. 16, while metal detecting in waist-deep water near the public beach in Ottawa's west end, Joan Balser's device started beeping.

"I was out in the water and I got tired after two and half hours of not getting hits, but then I got a hit," she said.

After digging down 15 centimetres, Balser pulled up the bracelet. It was covered in about six millimetres of black tarnish. 

After a good clean, Balser was able to make out the name Wanda Hutchings engraved in the bracelet, along with the words "Elmwood School" and "Rockcliffe Park."

On the back, etched in cursive, was the name Denny.

From left to right, views of the front and back of the silver bracelet. Balser says she wants to find out who Denny is. (Laurie Fagan)

Balser searched the website for Elmwood — a private school for girls in Ottawa's Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood — for information and found Hutchings in a 1944 yearbook photo. She was then a 16-year-old member of the junior badminton team.  

At that time, streetcars travelled to the popular beach at Britannia, dropping off swimmers and picnickers.

"I believe she was swimming and the clasp is missing so [the bracelet] was lose and it must have fallen off," Balser said.

She knew her silver find was gold because in nine years of metal detecting, she's found very few pieces of jewelry with someone's full name etched into it.

And she was determined to find the owner.

"It doesn't mean that much to me, but it means so much to them and it's not about the money," said Balser. "I get a thrill,  it's like Christmas."

Wanda Hutchings, whose bracelet was found in the Ottawa River about 75 years after she lost it, is pictured in the back row on the far left. (Elmwood School )

On Tuesday morning, Balser posted a photo of the bracelet and Hutchings's school picture on a Facebook group called Old Ottawa Past - Forgotten and Fond Memories, in the hope someone might recognize the teenager and help track her down.

Almost immediately, the post lit up with replies from people saying they hoped she'd find the owner, while others searched genealogy and other websites and shared their findings.

They discovered that Wanda Hutchings died in 2011 at the age of 82, and that her married name was Philpott.

"I couldn't believe what people were doing," said Balser. "They want to hear a feel-good story and a happy ending, and it made me happy to see that."

While using her metal detector, Joan Balser found a tarnished bracelet under 15 centimetres of sand and silt. The bracelet belonged to Wendy Philpott's mother Wanda Hutchings, who may have lost it while swimming at the beach in the 1940s. 1:03

Wanda Philpott's obituary listed a daughter, Wendy. Balser searched the name on Facebook and found a Wendy Philpott living in Ottawa.

The entire search — including finding Wendy Philpott and returning her mother's bracelet — took just 12 hours from the time Balser first posted the image of the bracelet online.

"My heart was pounding," Balser said about returning the item. "It was like the last piece of the puzzle and I was excited and happy for her."

'Touched so many people,' daughter says

Wendy Philpott was completely caught off guard when she started receiving online messages from strangers asking if she was Wanda Philpott's daughter.

Then Balser contacted her.

"It's the kind of thing that came out of the blue," Wendy Philpott said. "This is a random act but it's somehow meaningful that it's touched so many people."

The two women met at Britannia Beach on Tuesday night.  

"Who would think waking up yesterday morning that by that evening we'd be having that discussion and exchanging this bracelet?" Wendy Philpott said. "It's not something I expected at all."

Wanda Philpott in a 1986 photo. (Wendy Philpott)

She said her mother never mentioned the silver bracelet to her.

"Mother often spoke of her love for Britannia Beach and taking the streetcar there for dances. She loved it there," her daughter recalled. "I think it really meant freedom and joy. It was special, for sure."

The CBC's Laurie Fagan met up with Joan Balser at Britannia Beach to hear the story. 4:42

Her mother also never mentioned a friend named Denny, the name engraved on the back of the bracelet.

Wendy Philpott isn't sure if she'll wear it, but said it's "precious" to her.

Officials at Elmwood School have invited Balser and Philpott to share their story with students on Friday.

As for Balser, she said the mystery is only half solved. Now, she wants to find out who Denny was.

Balser used her metal detector to find the silver bracelet in the water next to Britannia Beach along the Ottawa River. (Laurie Fagan)


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