Author Tags: Art, Biography, History, Local History
Daphne Sleigh's biography of Walter Moberly is intended to revive the status of one of B.C.’s 'forgotten heroes' who helped create the Dewdney Trail and contributed to the transcontinental railway, both as a visionary and as an intrepid explorer.
Father Dunstan Massey dropped out of high school and dedicated his life to God at the age of 18. For five decades since then, as one of the few remaining fresco artists in Canada, he has adorned the walls of the Benedictine monastery near Mission where he lives, and created sculptures for the grounds. The Artist in the Cloister (Heritage 2013) by Daphne Sleigh introduces the artist and his art as an illustrated biography.
Sleigh was born in Ewell, Surrey, England on January 8, 1927. She gained her M.A. from Somerville College, Oxford; married an architect in 1950; and came to Canada and Vancouver in 1957. A former librarian at the Royal Institute of British Architects, she became interested in B.C. history during the 1971 centennial for which she co-wrote a history of Maple Ridge.
Sleigh was curator of the Maple Ridge Museum (1975-1981 and received the B.C. Historical Federation's Lieutenant-Governor's Medal for historical writing in 1984 for her book Discovering Deroche. Daphne lives in Deroche, B.C., with her husband, Francis.
BORN: Ewell, Surrey, England
EMPLOYMENT: First curator of the Maple Ridge Museum (1975-1981)
EDUCATION: MA Oxford University, England
1984 winner of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal awarded by the BC Historical Federation for a book on BC history
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Man Who Saved Vancouver: Major James Skitt Matthews
Maple Ridge, A History of Settlement, Published by the University Women’s Club of Maple Ridge. Contributor/co-author. Edited by Sheila Nickols. (Fraser Valley Record, 1972)
Discovering Deroche, From Nicomen to Lake Errock (Self-published, 1983)
The People of the Harrison (Self-published, Abbotsford Printing, 1990)
Go Ahead or Go Home, The Trethewey Story (Vicarro Publishing, 1994)
One Foot on the Border, The History of Sumas Prairie and Area (Sumas Prairie and Area Historical Society, 1999)
Walter Moberly and the Northwest Passage by Rail (Hancock House, 2003)
The Man Who Saved Vancouver: Major James Skitt Matthews (Heritage House, 2008)
The Artist in the Cloister: The Life and Works of Father Dunstan Massey (Heritage House 2013) 9781927051405 $26.95
[BCBW 2013] "Local History"
Walter Moberly and the Northwest Passage by Rail (Hancock $14.95)
Christopher Columbus died ignominiously in 1506, feeling discredited and disheartened, having once been dragged back to Spain in irons. The conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortéz, died of dysentery, a bitter and chronic complainant, long suspected of murdering his first wife. So when Walter Moberly died penniless and friendless in 1915, one of the ‘forgotten heroes’ of B.C. was in good company. In 1914 he had tried to immortalize his reputation with Blazing the Trail Through the Rockies: The Story of Walter Moberly and his Share in the Making of Vancouver in which he emphasized his many achievements since Governor James Douglas had encouraged his engineering bravado in 1858. Self-proclaimed as the founder of New Westminster (back when it was still named Queensborough), Moberly also claimed to be the original pre-emptor of land in the West End. But his great achievements were non-urban, in eastern B.C. and the Interior. He had built part of the Cariboo Highway between Lytton and Cache Creek and he had created the Dewdney Trail with Edgar Dewdney. More important, Moberly discovered Eagle Pass, the gateway through the Selkirk Mountains.
It was always Moberly’s ambition to find a Northwest Passage—by land, not by sea—to allow for an all-Canadian route, by rail, across the continent. As a government surveyor, he had realized his dreams by trudging Cortéz-like through the snow-covered mountain ranges of the province. Eagle Pass allowed the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway to reach the West Coast via Revelstoke, thereby linking B.C. with the rest of the nation. “Walter Moberly…must occupy a place in our picturesque history second only to that of [George]Vancouver himself,” the Vancouver Province once wrote. The Toronto Mail described him as ‘the pioneer of pioneers,’ a man on par with Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and Edgar Dewdney. But posterity has been far from generous to Walter Moberly. There’s a Moberly school in Vancouver, a Moberly Road near False Creek, a Moberly Pub north of Golden, a Moberly Peak, a Moberly Theatre at Three-Valley Gap and a Moberly Park in south Vancouver, but precious few people know his first name.
A serious biography was always been lacking. In her even-tempered appraisal of her subject, Walter Moberly and the Northwest Passage by Rail (Hancock $14.95), former Maple Ridge museum curator Daphne Sleigh concludes the engineer’s personality limited his fame, even during his lifetime. “Touchy, opinionated, careless with money and prone to self-importance,” she writes, “he antagonized many people in spite of his sociable and generous nature… Yes, Walter Moberly was a flawed hero, but which of our heroes is not?”
The Man Who Saved Vancouver by Daphne Sleigh (Heritage $19.95)
from Joan Givner
The remarkable and often amusing story of how a blustery amateur historian named Major James Skitt Matthews single-handedly created an archival record for the early years of Vancouver has finally merited a biography, Daphne Sleigh’s The Man Who Saved Vancouver.
That a self-taught historian with no formal credentials should have accomplished a task of such magnitude is a heroic story, but it is comic in its account of a colourful eccentric, almost a Dickensian caricature, in the grip of an obsession.
Matthews was an unstoppable juggernaut who vanquished or outlasted so many opponents that the will to oppose him often simply evaporated.
Matthews’ apoplectic rages were legendary. One visitor recounted that he once became so enraged in railing against the maple leaf flag that he tumbled from his chair to the floor. It took two people to haul him back. A “restorative” had to be administered by an experienced assistant to help him regain his equanimity. A heart-attack personality for sure, one would have thought, but he lived to the age of ninety-one.
Matthews’ final triumph was his refusal to leave the civic stage after the Library Council gave up all its efforts to unseat him. “I have no intention of retiring,” he said in 1969. The next year he died and was given a hero’s funeral. His coffin, in one last defiant gesture, was draped with the Union Jack.
When Matthews began his monumental task of generating an extensive public archives for Vancouver, at age 50, he was a war hero, having survived trench warfare only to find his position with Imperial Oil was to be less prestigious than the one he had left prior to the fighting. Matthews did not take kindly to this demotion and so, after a series of other unsatisfactory jobs, he decided to work on his own family history, and amass the nucleus of a collection of City of Vancouver memorabilia.
After Matthews persuaded Edgar Robinson, the city librarian, to allow him to occupy a caretaker’s room in an attic, and work there without a salary, he took possession of “the dirtiest room in Vancouver” (cobwebs, peeling wallpaper, fallen plaster) in 1931, brought furniture and memorabilia from his home, and put a handwritten sign saying ARCHIVES on the door. Having got a foot in the door, he gradually expanded his territory and generally became the bane of Robinson’s life. When he received a grant of $100 to be spent “under the direction of the librarian,” Matthews ignored the librarian and recklessly overspent on acquisitions.
Matthews scored a major triumph by having a British MP and a president of the British Museums Association visit both his attic in Vancouver and the Provincial Archives in Victoria. After his visitor was shocked by the contrast, Matthews, adept at manipulating the media, exploited the situation to the full. As a consequence, he was given a salary of $30 a month out of the library budget and operating costs of $390.
One final issue led to open warfare between him and Robinson. Although Matthews was instructed to use library notepaper, he had his own crested stationery printed. THE ARCHIVES stood out in Gothic letters atop the city’s coat of arms, while Vancouver Public Library appeared below in miniscule print. When Robinson returned from holiday to receive an invoice for 250 letterheads, he was outraged. He informed Matthews that his work would terminate at the end of the year, whereupon Matthews removed the whole collection back to his own home—carting boxes back to his overflowing basement for a whole month.
Robinson declared the archives in Matthews’ house were the property of the city, and ordered his solicitor to charge that the goods were stolen. Matthews, however, had his own loyal supporters, chief among them being John Hosie, the Provincial Archivist in Victoria, whom he regularly bombarded with letters. The outcome was that the library board appointed Major Matthews as City Archivist and absolved the board from any future responsibility for the Archival material.
Battles continued—over the location of the Archives, over acquisitions, expenditures on printers and embossers, extravagant purchases of paintings and sculptures of important events and figures. No matter how admirable the projects, nothing seemed to be accomplished without controversy. The statue of Lord Stanley near the entrance to Stanley Park was one such project. He conceived and executed the plan for it in 1952, optimistically expecting 5,000 donors to cover the $4,500 cost. Luckily, in this instance, the funds eventually materialized.
Along with Matthews’ tempestuous career as an archivist, Sleigh provides another linked narrative, his inner personal story. It begins in Wales where Matthews, the middle of three sons, was born. The key figure of his childhood was the mother he idolized. A strong-willed dominant woman of great beauty, seven years older than her husband, she was notable for her restless energy. She had already instigated moves from house to house in Wales when she decided that the family should emigrate. They moved to New Zealand when Matthews was nine. He remained there after their farming venture failed and his parents began another series of moves—Wales, South America, a return to Wales, back to New Zealand, a final settling in Wales—that would continue throughout their lives.
Matthews himself left New Zealand for the United States when he was twenty and soon arrived in Vancouver. He often described it as a “magic city” growing out of a forest of trees taller than the monumental buildings. Along the way, his story includes his early loss of a young sister and then a brother, the departure of his first wife in spite of his strenuous efforts to keep her, the loss of the most beloved of his three sons, a second harmonious marriage, the attempt to make a home in Vancouver for his widowed mother, her sudden flight from that home and the pain of being disinherited by her.
Now, thanks to Sleigh’s diligence, every biographer, historian, and amateur genealogist can easily recognize Matthews’ achievement in preserving documents, no matter how apparently insignificant, and in recording interviews with minor as well as major figures.
It is a moving story but I wish the author had pushed a little further than merely retelling it. Biographers often hesitate to veer into psychobiography or medical case history, yet the connection between these two highly idiosyncratic figures—Matthews and his mother—bears going into, especially since a rich collection of personal letters provides ample scope for analysis. Was his compulsive behaviour, his tendency to swing between euphoric energy and uncontrollable rage, the perpetual dissatisfaction (Sleigh calls him “an inveterate grumbler”) related to his mother—an effect of her influence, an inherited temperament, or even a mental disorder? Since many exceptional and creative people suffer from bi-polar or similar problems, such considerations in no way diminish his great achievement or detract from his personal courage.
--review by Joan Givner
[BCBW 2008] "History"