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The Man Who Saved Vancouver: Major James Skitt Matthews

By Daphne Sleigh

Review By Terry Eastwood

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 160 Winter 2008-2009  | p. 142-143

The publication of Daphne Sleigh’s biography of James Matthews coincides with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the City of Vancouver Archives, which he founded. The work is remarkable for being the first book-length biography of a Canadian archivist. Sleigh presents as complete a picture of the man as, one imagines, it is possible to present, from his youth and family life in Wales and New Zealand to his arrival in Vancouver in 1898, his family and work life, his service in the Great War, and, above all, his avid interest in the history of his adopted city. All of this is told with considerable sympathy for the man and his times.

In the winter of 1929-30, being fifty years old and at loose ends, Matthews began to consider making a career of his long-time habit of collecting historical material. Sleigh estimates that he had a ton of it by 1930. “His antiquarian pursuits, his historical writing, his family research, and his dabbling in heraldry”(100), along with encouragement from friends in the Vancouver Art, Historical and Scientific Association and the provincial archivist John Hosie, propelled him to seek to establish the city’s archives. Sleigh covers Matthews struggles over the next forty years to gain the support of an impoverished 1930s city council, to establish a foothold in the Vancouver Public Library, and to have himself appointed city archivist and installed in a city office. He also wrestled with officials over innumerable issues, particularly the city’s recognition of his title to parts of his collection (this was finally resolved by agreement with the city in 1938). He interviewed important people in the city’s history, hired assistants, and continued collecting and organizing holdings of printed material, transcriptions of interviews, private manuscripts, portraits and photographs, and artefacts that evoked his vision of the city’s past. Sleigh is right to honour him for establishing Vancouver’s city archives, which were established far earlier than were those of any other city in Canada, and for building the foundation of an institution that would, three years after his death, occupy its own building – one that was built exclusively for this purpose. Vancouver’s archives are still the only ones in the country to be housed in such a building. She also brings to light the man’s many contributions to the Vancouver’s understanding and appreciation of its history. That Matthews could be a difficult man there is no doubt (for instance, the city had to go to court to exert control over “the unruly Archives”(167), but his persistence and single-minded devotion to his cause overcame various obstacles and ensured that, unlike many other cities, Vancouver would not ignore its archives.

In one way Matthews himself was an obstacle, although Sleigh cannot bring herself to admit it. Throughout his tenure as archivist, he expressed no interest in preserving records of the city, and, given his obstinate behaviour, officials were absolutely against giving him any. In Matthews’ day, Canada’s public archival institutions all preserved both public and private records. On the private side, he collected odd documents here and there, and pursued his fascination with Vancouver’s early days. There is no doubt that, as Jean Barman observes in her foreword, Matthews himself created documents, notably his notes of interviews, providing precious information about the early days and people of Vancouver that is not available from any other source. However, as reports to City Council after his departure made clear, the archives needed to move into the mainstream.

In the early days, in communities all over North America fervent collectors like Matthews began various programs whose purpose was the preservation of archives. Naturally enough, like Matthews, they were transfixed by the origins of the still youthful communities they served. They concentrated on preserving documentation of all kinds that would memorialize the people and events of the founding era of their communities and become the core holdings of institutions that would mature as time passed. Sleigh paints an exceptionally vivid and interesting picture of how this happened in Vancouver and of the pivotal role Matthews played in the outcome – a very favourable one indeed in the long term, for the city and its people now have one of the best municipal archives in the country and, indeed, the world. And this is Matthews’s lasting legacy.