New Westminster · Vancouver · Victoria

British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company

Now that I’ve introduced John Bowerman Ferguson, Thomas Robson Pearson, and David Robson, three of the founding partners in the British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company (J.A. Hart was the fourth), let’s continue the story about this firm.

A Promising Start…

Beginning in May 1886 with Pearson’s and Ferguson’s existing book and stationery stores in New Westminster, Vancouver, and Victoria, Robson’s British Columbian newspaper and printing operation in New Westminster, and $50,000 in capital (1), BC Printing and Stationery seemed strongly positioned to compete in the province’s burgeoning bookselling and publishing industry.

…Followed by a Series of Unfortunate Events

But only three weeks after the new firm was incorporated, the Great Vancouver Fire of June 13, 1886, destroyed the company’s Vancouver branch —the same inferno that devastated Seth Tilley’s book and stationery store. BC Stationery and Printing was located on Water Street adjoining the Granville Hotel, and its losses were estimated at $5,750 (2).

Just like Tilley, the firm wasted no time in rebuilding, this time on Cordova Street.

The BC Stationery and Printing Company was back in business less than two weeks after the Great Vancouver Fire (Vancouver Weekly Herald, June 22, 1886; author photograph)

Just as things were settling down in Vancouver, another fire, this one on September 1 in Victoria, destroyed the company’s store on Government Street.

Fortunately, much of the firm’s $25,000 worth of stock was removed as the blaze spread, and insurance partially covered the rest (3). “[The company] will resume business in a few days, and doubtless do a good trade, as they have done heretofore,” declared Books and Notions (4).

And at first it seemed this prediction was right. Through 1887 and into 1888, BC Stationery and Printing’s enthusiastic ads in the Daily Colonist and elsewhere gave no signs that the company was in any distress.

BC Stationery and Printing ad in West Shore magazine (vol. 13, 1887)

But the company was, indeed, in financial difficulty. In January 1887, the partnership between Ferguson, Pearson, and Robson broke apart when Pearson withdrew from the firm, taking his Vancouver and New Westminster branches with him. BC Stationery and Printing also lost the British Columbian and David Robson when the newspaper was sold to a joint stock company controlled in New Westminster (5).

Ferguson tried to press on alone, but in the spring of 1888, BC Stationery and Printing Company declared bankruptcy. Ferguson issued a statement saying that the losses from the Vancouver and Victoria fires in the company’s first year of business, “some serious losses through our jobbing trade,” and “heavy expenses attendant upon the closing up of two branches” had left the firm unable to meet its financial obligations (6).

T.N. Hibben & Co., the company’s staunchest competitor in Victoria, bought the stock of the bankrupt firm at 57½ cents on the dollar, and Ferguson sold what was left of the business to Robert Jamieson (7).

As for John Bowerman Ferguson…

John Ferguson left Victoria in November 1888 and headed back to Winnipeg, where he once again opened a book and stationery store. But again, bad fortune seemed to follow him. First came the death of his wife, Harriett, in November 1891. And then came another bankruptcy, which prompted Books and Notions to conclude that “Mr. Ferguson has a poor record” (8).

But Ferguson didn’t give up. In 1894, he not only remarried, to Helen Walsh, but also reentered the book trade, incorporating Ferguson & Co. once again (9). In 1895, he sold the book and periodical side of this business to Alex Taylor and carried on as a wholesaler of wrapping papers, printing and lithographing papers, and office and school supplies (10).

Then in August 1896, Ferguson left Winnipeg—and the book and stationery business—for good. Over the next dozen or so years, he participated in some mining ventures in the Kootenays, was manager and local treasurer for an American life insurance company in Vancouver, was general manager of the Western Oil and Coal Company, and was  involved in the Stave Lake Power Company with Charles Hibbert Tupper (a member of Parliament and son of former prime minister Charles Tupper Sr.), among others (11).

By 1911, Ferguson had returned to his home province of Ontario. He died there in 1919 and is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto (12).



(1) “The B.C. Stationery and Printing Company,” Daily Colonist (May 22, 1886): 3.

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

(3) “Fire on Government Street,” Daily Colonist (September 1, 1886): 3.

(4) Books and Notions (September 1886): 28.

(5) “The British Columbian Printing Company,” Daily British Columbian (January 28, 1887): 2.

(6) The Commercial, vol. 6, no. 32 (April 30, 1888).

(7) The Commercial (April 30, 1888); Books and Notions (December 1888): 87.

(8) “Ferguson & Co.’s Failure,” Books and Notions (December 1893): 6.

(9) “Wedding Bells,” Manitoba Morning Free Press (May 9, 1894): 6; Books and Notions (June 1894): 14.

(10) American Stationer, vol. 38 (1895).

(11) “Off for Rossland,” Winnipeg Tribune (August 26, 1896): 5; Vancouver Daily World (December 2, 1897): 8; “May Prove an Ore Gusher,” Daily Colonist (December 30, 1905): 6; “Extension Granted,” Vancouver Daily World (January 23, 1902): 2.

(12) Memorable Manitobans: John Bowerman Ferguson;


New Westminster · Vancouver

Thomas Robson Pearson: New Westminster and Vancouver Bookselling Pioneer

Before I continue the story of the British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company and John Bowerman Ferguson, let’s meet the other bookselling partner in the venture: Thomas Robson Pearson.

Establishing T.R. Pearson & Co., New Westminster

Born in 1858 in Oshawa, Ontario, Pearson came to Victoria in 1877, and then to New Westminster in 1879 (1).

Soon after settling in New West, Pearson entered the book and stationery trade, establishing T.R. Pearson & Co. on Columbia Street.

Thomas Robson Pearson established a book and stationery store in New Westminster in about 1880 (ad from R.T. Williams, British Columbia Directory for the Years 1882-83, p. 1888)
Connection to the Robsons

Pearson’s middle name, Robson, came from his mother Isabella’s family. Isabella Robson Pearson was the sister of John, David, and Rev. Ebenezer Robson, all of whom were actively involved in the development of BC in the province’s early days.

John Robson, of course, was premier of British Columbia from 1889 to 1892. But before becoming a politician, John was a journalist, serving as editor of the original British Columbian newspaper in New Westminster in the early 1860s, and then as publisher of the new British Columbian from 1882 to 1883. David Robson was also involved in the reincarnation of the newspaper, and when John left to pursue his political career in Victoria in 1883, David took over management of the paper (2).

It is unclear whether Pearson and his uncles were partners in T.R. Pearson & Co. and/or the British Columbian (a February 1883 notice in American Stationer suggests that Pearson and John Robson might have been partners in the book and stationery company [3]), but the two enterprises shared the same premises, as seen in this photo from the City of Vancouver Archives (4):

T.R. Pearson & Co. on Columbia Street, New Westminster, ca. early 1880s (City of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Out P482)
Expansion to Vancouver and Formation of BC Stationery and Printing Company
Pearson’s ad in the Vancouver Weekly Herald, April 30, 1886, p. 4

By January 1886, T.R. Pearson & Co. had expanded to Vancouver (actually still called Granville at the time) (5), and then in May, Pearson folded his New Westminster and Vancouver stores into the newly formed British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company. David Robson also partnered in the venture, bringing in his British Columbian Printing Company. And J.B. Ferguson brought in his book and stationery firm in Victoria.

As I’ll cover in my next post, the BC Stationery and Printing Company turned out to be relatively shortlived. So was the remainder of Thomas Robson Pearson’s bookselling career.

The End of Pearson’s Bookselling Days
Thomas Robson Pearson (British Columbia Pictorial and Biographical, vol. I, p. 292; UBC )

In 1887, Pearson married Edith Eleanor Major, daughter of C.G. Major (who was brother-in-law to George Clarkson, a New Westminster bookseller in the late 1860s—I’m telling you, the connections between these early booksellers form an intricate web!).

Also in 1887, Pearson withdrew from the BC Stationery and Printing Company, sold his New Westminster bookstore to David Lyal (6), and entered a partnership with his new father-in-law. Operating as Major & Pearson, the firm dealt mainly in real estate and insurance. When the Dominion Trust Company was established in 1906, Major & Pearson was incorporated into it, and Pearson became a director and manager of the new company (7).

Pearson was widely esteemed in New Westminster business and social circles, and he and Edith had three children. He died in 1947 at the age of eighty-nine (8).



(1) Biographical information about Pearson is mainly from British Columbia Pictorial and Biographical, vol. I (Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Montreal: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1914), 289–295.

(2) From description of the Columbian Company Fonds at the New Westminster Archives.

(3) American Stationer (February 22, 1883): 263.

(4) The City of Vancouver Archives dates the photo as 189_, but I believe this is an error, as T.R. Pearson & Co. was no longer in operation after 1887.

(5) Ads in the British Columbian for T.R. Pearson & Co. starting in January 1886 show “New Westminster and Granville” as the company’s locations.

(6) “Announcement: Change of Business,” Daily British Columbian (March 1, 1887): 2.

(7) British Columbia Pictorial and Biographical, vol. I., 293-294.

(8) “T.R. Robson of Royal City Dies at 89,” The Province (November 24, 1947): 2.


Vancouver · Victoria

John Bowerman Ferguson: BC Bookseller with a Winnipeg Connection

I was in Winnipeg (my hometown) for a few weeks this summer, and that got me thinking about a BC bookseller with a Winnipeg connection: John Bowerman Ferguson.

Part of the BC bookselling scene from 1885 to 1889 in Victoria and Vancouver, Ferguson was originally from Ontario. But before establishing himself in BC, he spent close to a decade in Winnipeg, initially as a school teacher and then principal at the Central School from 1876 to 1882 (1), and then as a partner in Parsons & Ferguson.

Building on the wholesale stationery business started by Silas R. Parsons in 1878, Parsons & Ferguson not only dealt in stationery, but also acted as agents for the sale of mining stocks, farms, and other property.

In March 1884, Ferguson’s intention to move to Victoria was announced in the British Colonist. Calling Ferguson “a leading stationer of Winnipeg,” the Colonist noted that he had leased the building formerly known as the Brunswick on Government Street and would soon be opening a “first-class stationery and fancy goods establishment” (2).

Located at 325 Government, three doors south of the post office, J.B. Ferguson & Co. opened on May 31, 1884, with an initial stock of books, stationery, and fancy goods valued at $18,000 (3). Later that same year, Ferguson raised his market profile by publishing Illustrated British Columbia, a book of lithographic prints of Victoria.

(Daily Colonist, May 30, 1884, p. 3)
(Cover image from

In May 1886, Ferguson took a huge competitive step in the BC bookselling scene when he partnered with Thomas Robson Pearson, David Robson, and J.A. Hart in forming the British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company. The new company absorbed Ferguson’s Victoria concern as well as T.R. Pearson & Co. in New Westminster and Vancouver.

“All the gentlemen are practical stationers and full of energy, and we predict for the new organization a bright and very prosperous future,” declared the Daily Colonist (4).

A series of setbacks, however, would challenge this prediction and ultimately prompt Ferguson to move back to Winnipeg. I’ll pick up from there next time.


(1) Memorable Manitobans: John Bowerman Ferguson.

(2) “The Brunswick Leased,” Daily Colonist (March 28, 1884).

(3) Books and Notions (December 1884): 78.

(4) “The B.C. Stationery and Printing Company,” Daily Colonist (May 22, 1886): 3.


Books for Sale · Vancouver

Lily Alice Lefevre: First Female Book Author Published in British Columbia

It is BC Book Day and International Women’s Day, and what better way to honour both than to highlight this milestone in BC’s bookselling history: the 1895 release of Lions’ Gate and Other Verses by Lily Alice Lefevre, the first book (I believe, though I stand to be corrected) written by a woman and published by a BC publisher, Province Publishing (1).

Lily Alice Lefevre, 1890 (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Port P129)

Calling the book “a little work of about a hundred pages,” the review in the Daily Colonist was full of praise: “The title poem and some twenty-eight others are the products of the pen and the genius of Mrs. Lily Alice Lefevre of Vancouver” (2).

Born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1854, Lily Lefevre came to Vancouver in 1886 with her husband, CPR district surgeon Dr. John Lefevre (3) (whose surgery on Carrall Street was just down the block from Seth Thorne Tilley’s first Vancouver bookstore).

The title poem of her book first appeared in the Vancouver Daily World on December 31, 1889, as “The Lions’ Gateway,” published under her nom de pleume, Fleurange. The first stanza is shown here, but the entire poem (and the complete book) can be viewed and downloaded at the Internet Archive.

One of the things that touched me most when I looked through her first volume of poetry was Lily’s dedication of the book to her mother:

Dedication page from Lily Lefevre’s Lions’ Gate and Other Verses, 1895. (Digitized book from Internet Archives)

In a 1909 Daily Colonist article entitled “Women Writers of the Coast,” Lefevre is featured as “a clever polished writer of either prose or verse.” The article also notes that one of her sonnets was included in a volume of poetry compiled by Lord Dufferin (former governor general of Canada) due to his admiration of Lions’ Gate and Other Verses. “Among the eminent contributors to this book were Tennyson, Browning, Sir Edwin Arnold and Rudyard Kipling, so the honor paid the Canadian lady was a very high one,” the passage adds.

After her husband died in 1906 (they had no children), Lily became a great patron of the arts in Vancouver. She “helped found the Vancouver Art Gallery, and made her home, ‘Langaravine,’ a local gathering spot for writers, painters and academics,” notes the entry about Lefevre in SFU’s digital collection, “Canada’s Early Women Writers.”

In addition to Lions’ Gate and Other Verses and a few publications of the title poem in other forms (such as in a limited-edition album of scenic Vancouver photos), Lefevre published a book of poetry in London with A. L. Humphreys in 1921; a Toronto publisher released the book a year later. “Despite this,” notes Glennis Zilm, “knowledge of her work is not common today even among students of B.C. literature” (4).


(1) In her master’s thesis, Glennis Zilm includes a chronological list of the books published in British Columbia. Lily Lefevre’s Lions’ Gate is the first listing by a female author (Glennis Zilm, “An Overview of Trade Book Publishing in British Columbia in the 1800s with Checklists and Selected Bibliography related to British Columbiana” [master’s thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1981], 277). ABC BookWorld notes that Lefevre “qualifies as the second female author who lived in B.C. [emphasis added] after Althea Moody had a book published anonymously in London in 1894.” Since Lefevre’s book was published by Province Publishing, this corroborates the fact that she the first female author to be published in British Columbia.

(2) “The Lions’ Gate,” Daily Colonist (July 25, 1895): 8.

(3) “Lefevre, Lily Alice Cooke,” SFU Digitized Collections,

(4) Zilm, “An Overview of Trade Book Publishing in British Columbia,” 143.


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 · 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.