Mystery of WW I medal unravelled

Old-fashioned sleuthing and some well-timed media exposure have helped shed light on a man whose First World War medal was found in a Chatham, Ont., chicken coop 40 years ago.

Medal found in chicken coop 40 years ago

Old-fashioned sleuthing and some well-timed media exposure have helped shed light on a man whose First World War medal was found in a Chatham, Ont., chicken coop 40 years ago.

The medal was awarded to Lance Cpl. William Evlyn Skinner, who died in the Battle of Amiens on Aug. 8, 1918, and is buried in Villers, France.

Until now, little was known about Skinner, who was just 18 when he enlisted in 1915, unmarried and likely childless.

His story came to light in November, when the man who found his medal 40 years ago, Andy VanDerMolen, brought it to Dave Benson, the director of the Chatham-Kent Museum.

Census turns up clues

Laurel Van Dommelen of Wallaceburg, Ont., was living in England when she heard Skinner's story. An avid genealogist, she went through census records and found a William Skinner whose age and birthplace matched those of Cpl. Skinner.

She also found the names of parents and siblings and discovered an older brother James, whose next of kin was listed as Florence Brown of Chatham, the city where the medal was found.

This was "the first eureka moment," Benson told CBC News on Thursday.

The second came after two other genealogists, Carol and Eugene Lusk, who own the property where the medal was found, also got to work.

They discovered that William, James and their sister Florence had all travelled to Canada in the early 1900s as British Home Children, part of a large-scale program that sent more than 100,000 destitute children to Canada from Great Britain between 1869 and the early 1930s to work on farms and as servants.

James, who was in the army, saved enough money to pay his mother's fare to Canada. Eleanor Skinner settled in Detroit, the city where William was living when he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915.

Finally, the genealogists found Florence's daughter, one Dorothy McNaughton, a 91-year-old resident of London, Ont.

When Benson contacted her, McNaughton confirmed what little she knew of her mother's family: that her grandmother, Eleanor, had lived in Detroit but had returned to Chatham after the war to settle with Florence. She suspects Eleanor brought William's medal with her to Chatham.

How the medals ended up in a chicken coop may never be solved.

Kept in a box for years

VanDerMolen found the medal in the 1960s as he gathered eggs in a chicken coop in the backyard of his parents' home.

"I thought it was kind of neat and interesting," VanDerMolen told CBC News in November, when the story first came out. "I took it to school and showed the kids, then I pretty much lost interest in it and put it away."

He put the medal in a tin box for safekeeping, along with some old coins and other medals. He didn't pull it out again until late 2009, when he contacted Benson at the museum.

The medal, Benson discovered, was a Victory Medal, a circular copper medal given to "all ranks of the fighting forces" who served in the First World War, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.

On one side, the winged figure of Victory stands holding a palm branch in her right hand. On the other, the words "The Great War For Civilisation" and the dates "1914-1919" are inscribed, surrounded by a wreath.

Skinner's rank, name and service number are inscribed on the medal's rim.

"It's personally very satisfying," Benson said of cracking the mystery.

McNaughton and her son have told Benson they would like to see the medal. He will present it to them at a private reception on Jan. 22.