While a lot of Vancouverites might be familiar with celebrated local archivist Major James Skitt Matthews (aka “The Man Who Saved Vancouver”), there’s plenty to know about his wife and partner, Emily Matthews. Though not always recognized as such, “Mrs. J.S. Matthews” was James’ right hand in the organisation of the preliminary archives, and played an important role in procuring and cataloging Vancouver’s first recognized collection of reference documents. What’s more, she was a noted medical professional, too!
Emily Eliza Edwardes was born in 1879 and trained as a nurse at Vancouver City Hospital. After graduating in 1905 she moved to New York, where she ran the operating room at the Brooklyn Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. An ambitious and capable worker, she was quickly promoted to “Lady Superintendent”, but the long hours and stress of hospital planning (and an ambiguous abdominal tumor) caused her to fall very ill indeed. Once recovered, she returned to Canada for rest. Soon thereafter, however, the First World War broke out and she was called upon for service once again. In 1915 Emily joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), joining the 2,411 Canadian nursing sisters enlisted overseas. She served in England, Egypt, and Salonika, and is noted as one of the survivors of the 1916 German torpedo attack on the Braemar Castle ship in the Aegean Sea. Emily was eventually discharged in 1919, recognized for her service and awarded the General Service and Victory Medals, among others.
James and Emily first met at the Vancouver City Hospital in 1902, when she worked as his nurse during a bout with typhoid. It wasn’t until 18 years later that they reconnected. A chance encounter at St. Paul’s Hospital caused him to reveal his admiration for his favourite nurse (she remembered him as a difficult patient). Emily had chosen to focus on her career rather than romance, so had never married. She was busy working as a massage therapist (at her own clinic, naturally), with James reeling from drawn-out divorce proceedings with his previous wife. True love eventually prevailed, and the two were married in September of 1920, three weeks after James’ divorce.
Their marriage came to be defined by their mutual involvement in the collection, organization, and development of historic Vancouver documents. Acting unofficially in his duties until a civic appointment in 1933, James kept the growing number of documents in various spots, including their modest home on Arbutus Street. Following a series of negotiations with City Council pertaining to the ownership and operation of the archives, these documents were ultimately incorporated to the City. Emily wasn’t just a mother (to their two cats, Jack and Jill), she was ultimately James’ partner, and her name features next to his on documents transferring ownership of archive materials. She also bequeathed a vast number of her personal documents, including wartime photographs, to the public archives.
In 1948, at the age of 73, Emily Matthews passed away after a battle with breast cancer. In her memory, Major Matthews designed and commissioned a stained glass window for Christ Church Cathedral, where her funeral took place. The Nurse Window, completed in 1950, stands as a tribute to nursing in Vancouver, and a vibrant memorial to Emily’s passion for caregiving. The City of Vancouver Archives acknowledges Emily as a co-founder and features a large bronze bust in her image, along with her husband. Because you know what they say: the couple that archives together stays together.