Who Was Major Matthews?
Born in Wales in 1878, Matthews moved to Vancouver in 1898, twelve years after the city’s incorporation, and quickly became a champion for Vancouver’s history. His personal collection of artifacts, photographs and in-depth interviews with Indigenous people and early Vancouver settlers documented the growth of a rapidly changing city. Unlike academic historians of his day, Matthews didn’t just focus on political history and elites; he sought out stories from ordinary people of diverse backgrounds. He worked closely with Squamish Chief August Jack Khatsahlano to record his knowledge of Squamish sites and history before the arrival of white settlers, resulting in his book Conversations with Khatsahlano 1932-1954.
Matthews obtained the rank of Major during his service in the First World War (he would use the title for the rest of his life) and worked with Imperial Oil and in the tugboat business before turning his full attention to collecting and documenting Vancouver’s history. Donna Jean MacKinnon, who worked at the Archives, described him as “a natural archivist, keeping meticulous track of his activities and of those around him who he thought were making an impact on society… he developed his own cataloguing system, in the end amassing more than 500,000 photographs and hundreds of civic records and personal papers.”
The Major’s House: Vancouver’s First Unofficial Archives
Matthews built his home in Kitsilano Point in 1911, six years after streetcar service to Kitsilano began and two years before the provincial government evicted the remaining Squamish residents from the nearby Kitsilano Indian Reserve. The house at 1343 Maple Street (which exists today) was the home in which he raised his three children as well as the collection that would become the basis for the City Archives. The home encouraged his quest, “as he became the recipient of old unwanted documents and photographs, took in outdated military uniforms and weapons, and filled to overflowing the basement of his little house with the so-called ‘junk’ that would one day take on a far greater significance,” writes Daphne Sleigh in The Man Who Saved Vancouver, her biography of Matthews. In 1923, Matthews and his collection moved to 1158 Arbutus Street (the current townhouse dates from 1984) across from Kits Beach.
Matthews decided to find a permanent home for his growing collection and was determined to oversee it. In 1931, he convinced Vancouver City Council to give him a space in the temporary City Hall at 16 E. Hastings and in 1933, Matthews was appointed the city’s first archivist. This made Vancouver the first city in Canada by more than 20 years to have its own archives. During his tenure, Matthews battled constantly with City Hall to acquire more funding and storage for the Archives, often paying for acquisitions himself. The collection moved from city site to city site and sometimes, in moments in which he disagreed with city council, back to his home. Matthews died in 1970, after a 40-year career as the city’s archivist.
Major Matthews’ Legacy
Major Matthews’ work continues to have a huge impact on Vancouver’s historiography. “No day passes at the Archives when we don’t mention Major Matthews or appreciate his legacy,” wrote City Archives employee Megan Schlase in 2006. “The results of his efforts to document and collect the historical records of Vancouver’s development form the cornerstone of our holdings, and the importance of his role as advocate for their continued care and preservation cannot be overstated.”
Even today, one of the most popular resources at the Archives is Early Vancouver – a collection of Matthews’ interviews with Vancouver’s pioneers, along with annotated photographs and maps. The collection has been has been transcribed and digitized to make it accessible to the many historians, filmmakers, bloggers and other creatives who access his work almost daily.
Named in his honour, the Major Matthews Building at 1150 Chestnut Street opened in 1972 and was the first municipal archives repository in Canada to be built for the sole purpose of housing a city’s archives. “His dedication, dogged persistence and guerrilla tactics were instrumental in preserving Vancouver’s history,” writes Sleigh.
- City of Vancouver Archives website
- Daphne Sleigh, The Man Who Saved Vancouver: Major James Skitt Matthews, Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd.; 1 edition (March 1 2008)
- Marek Bula, “History of the Archives.” AuthentiCity: The City of Vancouver Archives Blog. June 6, 2013.
- Viviane Gosselin, “Major Collector: Major James Skitt Matthews – A Q&A with Heather Gordon.” MOV Blog. March 17, 2017.
- Donna Jean McKinnon, James Skitt Matthews and the Vancouver City Archives.
- Stephen Hume, “James Matthews became Vancouver’s first city Archivist.” Vancouver Sun, Feb 10, 2017.
- Megan Schlase, “About Major Matthews,” from City of Vancouver Archives Newsletter, October 2006.
- Vancouver Heritage Foundation. Historic Kitsilano Map Guide.
On June 12, 2014, we celebrated Major Matthew’ legacy at the current location of the Vancouver Archives, 1150 Chestnut Street. See the facebook album. The plaque was later installed on a pole at the Northwest corner of Cornwall Avenue and Maple Street to reference the house at 1343 Maple down the street.
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