Well done is better than well said.
Benjamin Franklin

Major J. S. Matthews

Major J. S. Matthews first archivist of the city of Vancouver

They usually say that those who work in archives are spinsters: kind of an elderly and short lady wearing old-fashioned glasses. These people are also called office drudges. When on a walk with my kids in Vanier Park, Vancouver, near the Vancouver Museum I came across the city archive building with a memorial tablet in honor of James S. Matthews, the archivist. Intrigued I did some research, and that’s what I found about this extraordinary person.

In March 1971 city council announced Vancouver’s choice of a centennial project – the construction of an archives building and museum storage at Vanier Park as a memorial to Major J. S. Matthews: the man who had done so much to preserve the city’s history. Many people describe him in a different way like he was peppery, difficult, dedicated, courageous, colourful, controversial and single-minded. He was all of these.

Major J. S. Matthews, adventurer, innovator, and first archivist of the city of Vancouver was born September 7, 1878 in Wales; he emigrated with his parents to New Zealand in 1887 and in 1898 he came to Vancouver “to make a fortune”. He and his first wife literary fell in love with the city and made up their minds to stay here for good. In Vancover he became one of the first employees of the Imperial Oil Co.

In 1902 Matthews fell ill with typhoid and was in Vancouver General Hospital for three months. There he met the woman who years later would become his second wife.

After recovering, Matthews was frequently out of town because of his work for Imperial Oil, or on militia duty during the miners’ strike in Nanaimo in 1913. He had joined a local militia unit in 1903 but when war broke out was transferred to the regular armed forces, serving in Europe from February 1916 to May 1918. Matthews led the first and second waves of a trench attack near Ypres, becoming something of a hero.

After distinguished service in World War I overseas, he returned to Vancouver and went into business for himself. Eventually he took over management of the money-losing Western Cordage Co. of New Westminster and turned it into a profit-making organization. He had donated many military relics to the city museum, and on retirement in 1929 he and his wife began in earnest to collect general memorabilia relating to Vancouver. These included everything from journals, papers, letters, to paintings and Indian artifacts. When the Matthews’ home became inundated, the public library board allowed him to use the attic on the top floor of city hall, then on Main St. He was given a primitive office with cardboard cartons for filing cabinets, a broken chair and rickety desk; it was dirty, unlighted and unheated – during the winter, Matthews worked in his overcoat – and certainly there was no telephone and no staff. Yet, with no funds to work with and the only equipment that which Matthews’ imagination could create or his persuasion borrow, the nucleus of an institution dedicated to Vancouver’s past emerged.

For years opposition from the library, who would have preferred to organize the collection themselves, and indecision on the part of city council on how to proceed with an archival project, greatly hampered the Major’s efforts. Antagonism arose over ownership of the memorabilia. Matthews argued that since his own time, effort and money had created the collection, it was legally his property. But the library and city council maintained that the official recognition given the archives in 1932, at the time they granted Matthews an honorarium of $30 a month, transferred ownership rights to the city. At this point the Major, on the advice of the city solicitor, removed the collection from city hall and continued the archives in his home. Unfortunately this problem of custody and ownership retarded development of an archives policy and delayed construction of a permanent home for the collection. Finally in 1933 Matthews was appointed City Archivist by city council.

Over the years the Major gave unstintingly of time and money. He recorded conversations with many pioneers, collected and documented many thousands of photographs, interviewed Indians of the Vancouver area for their legends and folklore, and completed nearly 40 publications including a 7-volume history of the city. Early Vancouver. He corresponded with people from all parts of the world and often was in hot water with the city for making decisions on his own before communicating them to the council. At last, in 1935 the council agreed to “accept the collection of historical material and give assurances to Major Matthews that it will be preserved for public benefit, and as soon as finances permit, proper storage and exhibition facilities will be provided.”

Thirteen years later the archives were officially incorporated under the Societies Act and the Archives of Vancouver Society was born. But more delays took place in the selection of a permanent site and Major J. S. Matthews died in 1970 before seeing his work properly housed. He was 92 years old. For 41 years his indefatigable efforts had gone into preserving those historical records for – in his words – “the benefit of those who come after and injustice to those who have gone.” He would have been especially proud of the fact that as the result of his concern. Vancouver became the first city in Canada to erect a municipal archives building.

It’s never late to start a new career even if you are past fifty. That’s about major Matthews who dedicated his entire life to the noble occupation: history of Vancouver. He also belonged to free masonry and contributed a lot in charity activities.

Mitch Grigori

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