New Westminster

George Clarkson of Clarkson & Co., New Westminster Bookseller

After Seth Tilley sold his Colonial Bookstore in New Westminster to Victoria’s Hibben & Carswell in 1863, they took on a local partner named George Cubitt Clarkson, who operated the store as Clarkson & Co.

Born in Ontario

Born in 1843 in Ontario (or Upper Canada, as it was then called), George was the eldest child and only living son of William and Jane Clarkson. William was quite a well-known pioneer in New Westminster, arriving in 1858, with his family following shortly thereafter.

William and Jane Clarkson, with their children (l-r) Mary, Hannah, George, Sarah, and Kate, ca. early 1860s (New Westminster Archives, IHP0856)

William became the first president of New West’s municipal council in 1864 (he is sometimes called the city’s first mayor), and he remained politically involved throughout his life. He also ran the New Westminster House (a boarding house), acted as a real estate agent, owned an apple tree nursery, and amassed significant land holdings. Clarkson Street in New Westminster is named for the family.

A Five-Year Bookselling Career

George was twenty when he became a bookseller, and he reportedly did very well. He carried on the Columbia Street store much as Tilley had, advertising a large range of books, stationery, newspapers and periodicals, maps, musical instruments, toys and games, and other goods.

In March 1868, George added a circulating library to his store, and on June 10 that same year, the British Columbian applauded him for the “business energy and push” that had increased the circulation “of useful periodical literature throughout the mainland to double what it has been heretofore.”

The partnership between George Clarkson and T.N. Hibben & Co. was dissolved on June 20, 1868. At first George carried on Clarkson & Co. on his own, but by October, he had a new partner in his brother-in-law, John Stillwell Clute, who had married George’s sister Sarah in 1866.

Clute & Clarkson sold much more than books and stationery, operating more as a general store. Charles Major (another of George’s brothers-in-law, married to Mary Clarkson in 1867) joined the partnership too.

Called to the Church
George Clarkson, ca. 1872 (Chilliwack Museum and Archives, PP500453)

In 1870, George left business life when “the bent of his mind led him to adopt the church as his mission,” as his later obituary put it. He went to Ontario to attend Victoria College, where he prepared to enter the ministry. He also married during this time.

When George and his new wife returned to British Columbia, he served as a Wesleyan Methodist missionary in Chilliwack and Sumas. Now known as Reverend Clarkson, he remained in Chilliwack for two years.

The End of a Short Life

Voting records for 1874 and 1875 list George as a “trader,” so presumably he left the ministry and returned to New Westminster. In 1877, he was appointed as a customs collector in Burrard Inlet. He would not hold the position for long.

On May 15, 1877, George died of paralysis (likely meaning a stroke) at the age of thirty-three. “His upright and kindly disposition had implanted…great respect and regard in a large circle of acquaintance, by whom his loss will be surely regretted,” his obituary in the British Columbian read. “For his bereaved family and young widow, we know that the strongest sympathy is everywhere felt. Mr. Clarkson leaves no children.”


Books for Sale · New Westminster · Victoria

At the Bookstore, 1861: Chambers’s Information for the People

(British Columbian, February 21, 1861)

Chambers’s Information for the People, one of the volume sets featured in an 1861 ad for Seth Tilley’s Colonial Book Store in New Westminster, offered everything “that is requisite for a generally well-informed man in the less highly educated portions of society”—or so claimed the book’s preface.

“Designed in an especial manner for the People, though adapted for all classes,” the preface continued, “the work will be found to comprise those subjects on which information is of the most importance … The ruling object, indeed, has been to afford the means of self-education, and to introduce into the mind, thus liberated and expanded, a craving after still further advancement.”

Astronomy, geology, meterology, geography, botany, zoology, natural philosophy, mechanics, optics, acoustics, electricity, chronology, chemistry, textile manufacturing, mining, metals, the steam engine, engineering, architecture, agriculture, animal husbandry, health, food preparation, and more: all these were covered in volume 1 alone, which ran to a hefty 824 pages:

(Source: Hathi Trust.)

Volume 2 packed a similar wallop, covering topics such as history, language, society, military and naval organization, countries, the human mind, phrenology, logic, theology and major religions, morality, political economy, commerce, education, social statistics, grammar, mathematics, drawing, gymnastics, indoor amusements, rhetoric, printing, engraving, and household hints.

The regularly updated reference work was edited by brothers William and Robert Chambers and was targeted at the working and trade classes. It played a role in the increasing influence of science and philosophical thought as a challenge to religion. To put the 1860 edition shown above in context: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published only one year before, in 1859.

Fort Hope · New Westminster

The Colonial Bookstore: First in New Westminster

New Westminster viewed from the Fraser River, 1861, about a year after Seth Tilley arrived and opened the Colonial Bookstore on Columbia Street. (New Westminster Public Library Historical Photo Database, 371)

When Seth Thorne Tilley opened the Colonial Bookstore on Columbia Street in April 1860, New Westminster was little more than a rough clearing hacked out of the towering cedars and hemlocks, a scattering of wooden residential and commercial dwellings lining the Fraser River.

Born a world away, in Gagetown, New Brunswick, in August 1836 to a family descended from United Empire Loyalists and even further back from American settlers who had arrived on the Mayflower, twenty-three-year-old Seth Tilley was no stranger to the pioneer adventure. In 1855 he had joined his eldest brother William in Grass Valley, California, to try his hand at gold mining. The 1858 gold strike along the Fraser River had drawn him north, and he had staked a claim on Strawberry Island, above Hope (1).

(British Colonist, April 10, 1860)

Ultimately unsuccessful as a prospector, he opened a stationery store in Fort Hope in 1859. Then, on April 10, 1860, the British Colonist carried an announcement that he was setting up shop in New Westminster.

Through 1861 and 1862, Tilley’s ads in the New Westminster newspaper the British Columbian indicate an increasingly robust business (click on any ad to enlarge it; you may have to click it twice):

Tilley’s entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Well-Known British Columbians says that he made “a great deal of money” as a bookseller and stationer in New Westminster (2). But in January 1863, he announced in the British Columbian that he had sold the Colonial Bookstore to Victoria’s (Thomas Napier) Hibben and (James) Carswell, who were the most prominent booksellers in that city.

Seth Tilley sold the Colonial Bookstore in January 1863 to Thomas Napier Hibben and James Carswell, the prominent booksellers from Victoria. (British Columbian, January 23, 1863)

A newspaper notice in December 1863 tells us that he was “sojourning” in New Brunswick (presumably visiting his family or taking care of family matters). By January 1864 he was back in New Westminster, though he did not resume his work in the book trade there. Instead, he became the town clerk, assessor, and collector, as well as a partner in a furniture business with David Withrow (3). With politics in his extended family blood (his second cousin was Samuel Leonard Tilley, who would soon become one of the fathers of Canadian Confederation in 1867), he successfully stood for election as a member of the New Westminster municipal council in 1865. He resigned this position in 1866, though, and once again departed from New Westminster.

As I posted earlier, Tilley reappears in BC’s bookselling history in Vancouver in 1886. During the twenty-year gap, Tilley took another short stab at mining in the United States (4) before opening a book and stationery store in San Francisco. He subsequently moved to San Joaquin, where in 1870 he married Jeannie M. Bracken (5) and where his first child, Charles, was born in 1871 (6). Next he opened another bookshop in Santa Barbara in 1874, selling this business in 1876 (7). Tilley’s second child, Jennie (sometimes recorded as Jeannie) was born in Santa Barbara during this period (8).

The Tilleys returned to British Columbia between June 1880 and sometime in 1881, and Seth took on a series of demanding and mobile roles as government commissary between Port Moody and Kamloops, then in the same position for Andrew Onderdonk, who was overseeing construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and then on the Dominion Land Survey (9).

The Tilleys appear in the 1884-85 Directory of British Columbia as living in New Westminster; Seth’s occupation is shown as timekeeper for the CPR. With the completion of the railway becoming a near-term reality, perhaps he was already making plans to re-enter the book trade, this time in the city that he and many other speculators imagined would soon rise at the CPR’s terminus.


(1) John Blaine Kerr, Biographical Dictionary of Well-Known British Columbians (Vancouver, BC: Kerr & Begg, 1890), 305.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid., 306.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.; Hand-book and Directory of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Kern, San Bernardino, Los Angeles & San Diego Counties (San Francisco: L.L. Paulson, 1875), 120, 163.

(6) 1880 US census.

(7) American Bookseller, vol. II (July–December 1876), 327.

(8) 1901 US census.

(9) Kerr, Biographical Dictionary of Well-Known British Columbians, 306.


Fort Hope · New Westminster · Vancouver

Seth Thorne Tilley: The First Bookseller in the BC Lower Mainland

“What was the first bookstore in Vancouver?” This was the question that started the journey that has become this blog, A Most Agreeable Place. 

As it turned out, it was not an easy question to answer. Some of the resources that I regularly turn to when writing family history books either were silent on the question or started with much later stores like Duthie Books. And a simple Google search returned unhelpful results.

But then, through more digging, I started to come across references to S.T. Tilley, who turns out to be Seth Thorne Tilley (his middle name sometimes appears as Thorn in archival sources).

S.T. Tilley’s ad in the first issue of the Vancouver Weekly Herald, January 15, 1886, p. 2. (UBC Rare Books and Special Collections; my photograph)

In his invaluable Early Vancouver, first city archivist Major James Skitt Matthews records how paper, pen, and ink for the first council meeting of the newly incorporated City of Vancouver were purchased at the last minute at Tilley’s (1).

S.T. Tilley also appears in an ad in the first issue of the Vancouver Weekly Herald in January 1886. Located on Carrall Street between the Tremont Hotel and the Herald office, the building housing Tilley’s store on the street front was also home to the city’s first post office at the back; the only telephone in Vancouver at the time was located in Tilley’s shop as well (2).

Tilley’s book and stationery store was next door (at right in this photo) to the Tremont Hotel on Carrall Street in early 1886 Vancouver. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Hot P29)

But then, in newspaper accounts of the devastating fire that levelled Vancouver in June 1886, a new contender for the claim of first bookstore in Vancouver appears in references to the losses suffered not only by Tilley but also by the British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company on Water Street (3).

In future I’ll write more about the events touched on above and try to unravel who indeed was the first bookseller in Vancouver. But first I want to share what I found out about Tilley that told me that, while he may not have opened Vancouver’s first bookstore, he is in all likelihood the first person to have done so in the BC Lower Mainland (4).

Notice how Tilley’s ad in the Herald says that he has many years’ experience in the business? In fact, Tilley had been in the book and stationery trade since at least 1859, when he operated a store in Fort Hope (5). And then, in April 1860, Tilley opened the Colonial Book Store in New Westminster, the first such store in what was then the capital of the Colony of British Columbia (6). That’s where I’ll pick up in my next post.


(1) Major J.S. Matthews, Early Vancouver, Vol. 3 (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2011), 189.

(2) Major J.S. Matthews, “The Burning of Vancouver,” Vancouver Historical Journal 3 (January 1960): 19.

(3) Vancouver Weekly Herald (June 22, 1886): 2; Books and Notions (July 1886): 174.

(4) The bookstore trade in Victoria was well under way by the time it started on the mainland. I’ll be covering the Victoria scene as well in future blog posts.

(5) John Blaine Kerr, Biographical Dictionary of Well-Known British Columbians (Vancouver: Kerr & Begg, 1890), 305.

(6) British Colonist (April 10, 1860); Margaret Lillooet McDonald, “New Westminster, 1859–1871” (master’s thesis, University of British Columbia, 1947), 283.