William Harrison and the B.C. Book Store

I’ve previously published quite a lot about Seth Thorne Tilley, one of Vancouver’s first booksellers (if not the first; click here for the beginning of Tilley’s story).

We know that Tilley operated a store in Vancouver prior to the Great Fire of June 1886, and that he rebuilt on Cordova Street following the fire. This image from 1887 shows his new store on the near right of the scene:

Cordova Street, Vancouver, 1887. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P353)

But click on the photo and enlarge the view, and you will see that Tilley had some competition right across the street, from the B.C. Book Store (its partially hidden sign is about a quarter of the way down the block, to the left of the round clock).

At first I thought that the B.C. Book Store might belong to the British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company, founded by Thomas R. Pearson, John B. Ferguson, and David Robson, and in operation on Cordova Street in 1886/87 (the company also had branches in Victoria and New Westminster). And in fact it seems there might be some truth to this, at least as far as that Cordova Street location was concerned.

The 1887 Mallandaine B.C. directory shows C.Z. Perry (Charles) as the company’s Vancouver manager:

But a year later, in the 1888 directory, Perry appears as the manager of a store in the same location, but bearing a different name:

And the same directory carries an ad for the B.C. Book Store, showing W. Harrison as the proprietor:

Here’s what I think might have happened. We know from newspaper reports that the British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company broke apart in January 1887 and that Pearson took over the Vancouver and New Westminster branches, while Ferguson carried on in Victoria.

We also know that Pearson sold the New Westminster store in March 1887, and that he entered the real estate and insurance business in partnership with his father-in-law. I haven’t found any reports about what he did with the Vancouver store, but it’s not far-fetched to assume that he sold it as well.

I’m guessing—and this really is only a guess—that Harrison, formerly a bookseller in Victoria and Yale, was the buyer of the Vancouver outlet, and that he changed the name to the B.C. Book Store.

W. Harrison was a bookseller and stationer in Victoria before running the B.C. Book Store in Vancouver (Daily Colonist, May 4, 1873, p. 2)

Harrison and Pearson even had a previous bookstore-related connection. On April 11, 1883, the British Columbian reported that Harrison had sold his Yale book and stationery business to Pearson. That same article reported that Harrison was on his way to Cobourg, Ontario, to visit his parents.

When Pearson wanted to get out of the trade in Vancouver, perhaps Harrison was ready to get back into the business. It’s a theory.

Wherever the truth lies about how Harrison ended up owning the B.C. Book Store, own it he did until November 1889, when Books and Notions reported that he had sold it to Webster & Co. and was once again on his way to Cobourg. By this time, the B.C. Book Store was located in the rear of the Wilson Hall block on Abbott Street (Harrison had moved there in June 1889).

In June 1891, Harrison shows up as a bookseller in Steveston, and then in 1894 as a stationer in Kaslo, and from there it appears that he left the book business behind and invested in a Slocan-area mine.


One Year of A Most Agreeable Place

A Most Agreeable Place launched exactly one year ago today, so I’m just going to take a few minutes to mark the blogiversary.

Mary Stewart, ca. 1915 (BC Archives, D-07481).

Interestingly, one of the only posts I wrote about a woman turned out to be the most popular: Mary Stewart, a clerk at T.N. Hibben & Co. around the turn of the 19th century, was said to know more about books than anyone else in Victoria.

Seth Thorne Tilley (Vancouver Daily World, June 20, 1896).

The series about Seth Thorne Tilley, first bookseller in the Lower Mainland, was also popular. My article about Tilley was also a cover feature of BC History.

Third-most popular on the site was the running timeline that shows when each bookseller I’ve covered so far entered and exited the BC bookselling scene.

In its second year, Agreeable Place will feature many more interesting characters from BC’s bookish past. For now, thanks for following!


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.


The Final Years of the S.T. Tilley Book and Stationery Store in Vancouver

The only known photo to exist of Seth Thorne Tilley. Even with the grainy image, Tilley’s sharp eyes and handlebar mustache are distinguishing features. (Vancouver Daily World, June 20, 1896, p. 16)

Judging by his ability to rebound after losing his Vancouver book and stationery store to fire not once, in June 1886, but twice, the second in February 1889, Seth Thorne Tilley must have been a man of spirit and some financial means. The losses he suffered in the fires were not adequately covered by insurance, yet he was able to rebuild and restock quickly and get right back into business.

Judging by his ability to rebound after losing his Vancouver book and stationery store to fire not once, but twice, Seth Thorne Tilley must have been a man of spirit and some financial means.

In May 1889, Tilley could once again be found at 11 Cordova Street, the same site as his second burned-out store, in the newly built Ferguson Block (1). Developed by A.G. Ferguson, the building would soon also house the popular Boulder Saloon, which opened in November 1890 (2).

View of West Cordova from Carrall Street, showing brick buildings on either side of street with tramcar on road.
The Ferguson Block, right, at the corner of W. Cordova and Carrall Streets, about 1891. The Boulder Saloon is on the corner, and S.T. Tilley’s shop is behind the third awning, next door to G.L. Allan’s boot and shoe store. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P344)


The Ferguson Block is still standing in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, seen here in 2016. A third storey was added at some point after the building’s initial construction. (Lana Okerlund photo)

Noting the “splendid stock of goods” in the article announcing the bookseller’s reopening, the Vancouver Daily World encouraged the public “to look at Mr. Tilley’s store for their purchases” (3). Tilley’s store continued to receive the support of the newspaper, and a December 21, 1889, article gives us an excellent picture of what the establishment was like:

Newspaper clipping about Tilley's store from December 1889.
The Vancouver Daily World was exuberant in its praise for Tilley’s book and stationery store. (Vancouver Daily World, December 21, 1889, p. 4)

“Among Vancouver’s most energetic citizens” and one who took “a strong interest in everything affecting the city’s progress” (4), Seth Tilley was a member of Vancouver society. In 1892, when Edgar Dewdney, newly appointed as lieutenant-governor, arrived in Vancouver aboard a private train car, greeting him were the mayor and city officials, along with “Mr. Dewdney’s pioneer friends—David Oppenheimer, Isaac Oppenheimer, James Orr, S.T. Tilley, and John McLennan” (5). Said Walter Graveley to Vancouver archivist Major Matthews in 1936, “The only time I saw Sir William [Van Horne, president of the CPR] in Vancouver was when he took Mrs. Tilley of the book store to supper at a Hotel Vancouver ball” (6).

(Vancouver Daily World, August 6, 1891, p. 8)

Seth’s son, Charles (Charlie) joined his father’s business as a partner in August 1891, with the store becoming known as S.T. Tilley & Son. “[Charles] is an estimable young man, having many good social and business qualities,” read a notice in the trade periodical Books and Notions (8).

But their partnership would be fairly short-lived. In April 1894, Tilley announced that he had sold his store to Harold Clarke and J. Duff-Stuart, both former clerks at one of Tilley’s competitors, Thomson Brothers (9). Tilley was not yet fifty-eight years old, and he would go on to participate in various business ventures for the remaining decades of his life (10). But it was the end of his bookselling days, and the end of the S.T. Tilley Book and Stationery Store in Vancouver.


(1) “Tilley’s New Bookstore,” Vancouver Daily World (May 27, 1889): 3.

(2) “A Handsome Resort,” Vancouver Daily World (November 1, 1890): 2.

(3) “Tilley’s New Bookstore,” 3.

(4) John Blaine Kerr, Biographical Dictionary of Well-Known British Columbians (Vancouver, BC: Kerr & Begg, 1890), 306.

(5) “The Lieut.-Governor Arrives” Vancouver Daily World (November 8, 1892): 8.

(6) Cited in Major James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, Vol. 4 (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2011), 189.

(7) “Co-Partnership Notice,” Vancouver Daily World (August 8, 1891): 8.

(8) Books and Notions (September 1891): 16.

(9) “New Firm,” Vancouver Daily World (April 12, 1894): 3.

(10) Tilley died on August 20, 1910, just shy of his seventy-fourth birthday. He is buried in Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery. His son, Charles, predeceased him, dying of an unspecified illness in 1898 (Daily Colonist [February 17, 1898]: 1). Tilley’s wife, Jeanne, died in 1931 (Major James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, Vol. 4, memo of conversation with Mrs. Jennie Beck [Mrs. N.D. Tilley Beck], April 20, 1937). Their daughter, Jennie (sometimes recorded as Jeanne), died in Vancouver in 1971.


“Phoenix-Like”: S.T. Tilley Reopens Vancouver Bookstore after Second Fire

Following the devastating fire that destroyed his first Vancouver book and stationery store on Carrall Street in June 1886, Seth Thorne Tilley built a new store at 11 Cordova Street, at the corner of Carrall. A year later, when the first official train arrived at the Vancouver terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he and other merchants showed off their new brick-and-wood premises in such a display of pageantry that it seemed as though the fire had been just a blip on the way to their present prosperity.

Cordova Street merchants, including S.T. Tilley, whose store can be seen here, celebrated the arrival of the first official CPR train by decking out their storefronts with banners and trees brought in for the occasion. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: LGN 459, enlarged detail)


In the first Vancouver city directory, Seth Tilley promoted himself as not only a bookseller and stationer, but an old pioneer of British Columbia. (City of Vancouver: Terminus of the CPR, 1887, p. 69)

By 1888, Tilley’s store was receiving kudos as “one of the finest book and stationery establishments” in Vancouver:

The premises are large and commodious, and the stock, which is complete in every detail, consists principally of a large assortment of books, stationery of all kinds, pictures, engravings, artotypes, etc., also a full line of artists’ materials and fancy goods of every description. Mr. Tilley is a thorough and most reliable man of business, and is highly esteemed in his community. (1)

But just as suddenly as it had the first time, fire once again wreaked havoc with Tilley’s livelihood. In the early morning of February 9, 1889, flames and smoke were noticed coming from a building on Carrall Street, a few doors down from Cordova. The barber shop of Roy and Phillips was soon up in flames, and the fire service was summoned. The fire engine was immediately taken to the water tank at the corner of Water and Powell, but faulty valves rendered it useless, unable to take on any water.

“Although the firemen were on the spot with alacrity, nothing could be done to save the buildings from the devouring element,” read the newspaper account of the blaze (2), which soon spread to the building known as Campbell’s Corner, and then to Tilley’s shop and G.L. Allan’s boot and shoe store next door.

By this time, the fire engine from the Seymour Street fire hall had arrived, but the fire had now been going for 45 minutes and the heat was described as frightful.

Despite the efforts of the fire crew, the Campbell’s Corner building suddenly “fell down with a crash, amid the crackling of timbers, the shouts of firemen, the smashing of bottles and glass, and the thickest of smoke and stream … A number of men with hose got on the roof of the G.L. Allan brick building and fought the fire there and prevented it extending any further” (3). Tilley’s building, however, while not totally demolished, was “only fit for kindling wood and [would] have to be torn down and removed” (4).

It was a hard blow for Tilley. “The well-known and popular stationer,” the Daily World article reported, “is probably the heaviest individual loser, he having just added to his stock, which was valued at about $8,500, and on which he only carried an insurance of $1,000. The telephone company’s service, the central office of which was at the back part of Tilley’s store, is also wrecked and at a standstill” (5).

Seth Tilley’s card of thanks for the help he had received after another fire destroyed his book and stationery store in February 1889. (Vancouver Daily World, February 18, 1889, p. 4)

Mrs. Tilley, who had fainted and been carried out of the building during the early part of the fire, was still “quite prostrated from the shock” of the event several days later and was recovering at St. Luke’s Home, “where every kindness and attention [was] given to her” (6).

But Seth was undefeated. “Phoenix-like,” read the Daily World one week after the fire, Tilley “has again arisen from the flames and ashes, and announces that he is to be found in the Byrnes’ Block, with a full line of goods in stationery and fancy goods” (7).


(1) The New West (Winnipeg: Canadian Historical Publishing, 1888): 181.

(2) “Very Destructive Fire This Morning,” Vancouver Daily World (February 9, 1889): 4.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Vancouver Daily World (February 11, 1889): 4.

(7) Vancouver Daily World (February 16, 1889): 4.


Tilley’s First Vancouver Book and Stationery Store Goes Up in Flames

Looking up Carrall Street at the junction of Carrall, Water, Powell, and Alexander Streets, about May 1886. Tilley’s Book and Stationery Store was located on Carrall next door to the Tremont Hotel (see below for an enlarged view of the Tremont/Tilley section). (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P83)

By the time the above photo was taken in the spring of 1886, Seth Thorne Tilley’s book and stationery store was an important part of Vancouver’s “civic centre,” as Vancouver archivist Major Matthews titled his description of the photo:

Here stood the famous “Maple Tree.” Under its shade or shelter, in sun or shower, pioneers held public meetings, impromptu concerts, or tied their horses. On the trunk proclamations were posted; the square right patch is a notice to electors that our first civic election will take place on May 3rd, 1886. Here the candidates for civic office spoke to the electorate. …

The first Canadian Pacific Railway offices were on the upper floor of the Ferguson Block, on left, erected 1885, the first and only office building. Here the first plans of the city were drawn; the first land sales made; the staff was three. The surgery of Dr. J.M. Lefevre, C.P.R. doctor, was in the next room. James Hartney’s general store is on the street level beneath. Beyond, down the street, is the new “Tremont Hotel,” and next door, “Tilley’s” stationery store within which was the “POST OFFICE, VANCOUVER.” Further down, our first newspaper, the “Vancouver Weekly Herald”…On the extreme right edge, men, on the steps, are leaving “Gassy Jack’s” historic “Deighton Hotel.” (1)

Enlarged detail of photo above shows the Tremont House sign; Tilley’s was located next door to the Tremont, and though we can’t make out the wording on the sign hanging over the right shoulder of the man on the carriage, it likely is Tilley’s. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P83)

Now forty-nine years old and having opened bookstores in more than one boomtown over the past two and a half decades, Tilley may have felt that the decision to do so yet again was paying off. But then came June 13, 1886.

Now forty-nine years old and having opened bookstores in more than one boomtown over the past two and a half decades, Tilley may have felt that the decision to do so yet again was paying off. But then came June 13, 1886.

Much has been written about the Great Vancouver Fire that decimated much of the newly incorporated city. Lisa Anne Smith’s Vancouver Is Ashes is a riveting minute-by-minute account of that terrible day. One of the stories she shares is of Tilley and his son, Charley, who raced against time to save what they could from their store before they had to run for their lives. The account is largely based on an 1892 article in the Vancouver Daily World that looked back on the day of the fire:

[S.T. Tilley] and his son Charley went into their store on Carrall Street to get out some articles which they desired most to save, but before they were aware of the nearness of the danger, the store was on fire at both the front and rear, and they had to rush out through flame and smoke. In the rush Mr. Tilley lost his hat. They then had a long fight with flame and smoke before they reached False Creek, and several times Mr. Tilley sank exhausted but was encouraged by his son’s “This way, father,” to renewed efforts until the shore of the waters and fresh air were at last reached. (2)

Smith asserts in Vancouver Is Ashes that one of the things Seth and Charley managed to save was their Gilliland telephone exchange, “about the size of a large medicine chest, but twice as heavy” (3). Despite these efforts, Tilley’s losses were great (as were the damages suffered by so many others). The June 22, 1886, issue of the Vancouver Weekly Herald estimated that Tilley had lost $2,500 in inventory and property, a huge sum at that time (4).

Historical accounts of the Great Fire marvel not just at the devastation caused on June 13, but also at how quickly rebuilding occurred. “On the evening of Sunday the 13th inst., Vancouver was a heap of ruins, on Sunday the 20th inst. about one hundred buildings had risen from its ashes,” read an article in the Weekly Herald. “The fire has demonstrated one thing, and that is, the indefatigable energy and pluck of the Vancouverites” (5).

Another newspaper reported that Tilley, “who was amongst the heaviest losers” in the fire, “was the first to commence rebuilding. He was at work before breakfast on Monday morning” (6). Within five weeks of the fire, Tilley’s book and stationery store was once again open for business, this time at 11 Cordova Street.

Cordova Street looking west from Carrall, July 1886, five weeks after the Great Fire. Tilley rebuilt his book and stationery store and telephone exchange office at 11 Cordova, at the extreme right of this photo. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P7)


By 1887, Cordova Street at Carrall looked as though the Great Fire had never happened. S.T. Tilley’s sign is clearly visible at the right of this photo. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P353)



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

(2) “Sunday, June 13th, 1886, Was the Date of Vancouver’s Big Fire—A Few Reminiscences,” Vancouver Daily World (June 13, 1892): 3.

(3) Lisa Anne Smith, Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886 (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2014), 54.

(4) “Losses,” Vancouver Weekly Herald (June 22, 1886): 2.

(5) “Vancouver,” Vancouver Weekly Herald (June 22, 1886): 1.

(6) Daily News (June 18, 1886), quoted on S.T. Tilley file card at City of Vancouver Archives.

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.