This striking photograph of Mrs. Matilda Boynton was found in the City of Vancouver Archives. This compelling portrait has a definite Karsh-like quality to it – something I wasn’t expecting to find in the holdings of the Vancouver Archives.
Immediately I was intrigued by the subject (the person in front of the camera) – a 102-year-old black woman, smoking a cigar. And, I was curious about the person who created this portrait, the man behind the camera, Sun newspaper photographer, Deni Eagland.
A note in the online catalogue record of this image indicated that there were notes on the reverse of the image, so I requested to see the original print:
This photograph was presented to Major Matthews at the CoV Archives by Reuben Hamiliton. In addition to some biographical information, Hamiliton reported that Mrs. Edward Boynton “still use no glasses, no hearing aid does her own house work” she also “smokes the odd cigar and likes a drink of rum”. At a time when people rarely lived to 100 years of age (let alone 7 years over that), Boynton would have been a noteworthy person indeed.
Intrigued, I wanted to know more about this rum drinking, cigar-smoking, centenarian, and more about the newspaper photographer that took this fascinating image, Deni Eagland – both living and working in mid-century Vancouver.
First, the Subject – Matilda Boynton: Achieving the status of a centenarian is still considered a pretty big deal these days (even with more people than ever making it past 100 years), but in 1960, it was considered a really big deal! Which would explain why Mrs. Boynton was being photographed in the first place.
Since Boyton was a bit of a local celebrity, I was able to find some newspaper clippings about her – including the newspaper feature that was the final result of her February 1960 Deni Eagland photoshoot:
Though the pose is similar in both photos – head tossed back, smoking a cigar – the published photo, in my opinion, is not as striking as the first, unpublished image. The rich tonal qualities and fine detail of the photographic print do not translate to the image that appeared in the newspaper. In addition, Matilda Boynton’s forward gaze, reminiscent of Manet’s “Olympia”, in the original is directed towards the viewer making the first (unpublished) image more compelling than the published image. Furthermore, when I look at the Eagland print from the Archives I am reminded of the late singer, Cesària Évora, who was often photographed with a cigarette in hand, and those iconic “smoking glamour” Hollywood headshots of the past.
In addition to the newspaper clippings I found in the CoV Archives (see below), I was able to locate the following Canadian Press newspaper reference of Matilda Boyton from the Brandon Sun, Feb 15 1965:
Matilda Felt Snake Bite VANCOUVER (CP) – Matilda Boynton remembers being “snake bit” 103 years ago. A rattler bit her left thumb as she was gathering tree bark and she didn’t see or hear it “Felt it, though,” she said Monday in an interview. “They took a chicken, she recounted, beheaded it, gave her intoxicating liquor and put her arm inside the bird “I was ‘out’ for eight days “Guess it saved me,” she said. – It did. For next Saturday Mrs. Matilda Boynton will be 107 ” least they tell me.” A Tennessee girl, born to slaves in Marion County, she, says her parents died when she was a child. Grandparents took on the chore of her. “Before 1910” she thinks, she came to Vancouver with money saved from picking cotton “Good money but hard, on you.” “I had travelling in my mind, so I came here”
These accounts reveal that, prior to her arrival on the West Coast of Canada, Matilda had lived a very different life compared to the average Vancouverite of the 1960s. Her “matter-of-fact” account of her early life makes me believe that Matilda was a strong and independent woman and quite the character. Nevertheless, there are some discrepancies in the newspaper accounts of Matilda’s life; some of the details don’t seem to sync. So, I decided to check some other resources to see if I could clear things up.
Digitized copies of Matilda’s 1965 death certificate, as well as the death certificate of her husband Edward Boynton (also 1965), were available online via BC Archives’ vital statistics. I was lucky, older versions of BC death certificates (like the Boyntons’) offer some extra genealogical information that isn’t available in the later versions. So, here is the point form “biography” of Matilda Boynton (and Edward Boynton) that I was able to glean from all the available resources:
- Matilda Boynton was born Matilda Picket in Victoria, Tennessee on February 13th, 1858. The same year that British Columbia officially became a British colony. She died in Vancouver at the age of 107 in October 1965. She was Vancouver’s “oldest citizen” at that time.
- Matilda was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Marion County three years before the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865). After her parents died when she was young, she was raised by her grandparents.* – Her father was apparently killed during the Civil War.
- A page of the 1860 US Census – “Slave Schedule” shows that there was a slave owner named John A. Picket in Marion County, Tennessee. He owned 13 slaves ranging in age from 50 to 3 months. It is difficult to know if there was any connection to Matilda, but it was common at the time for slaves to be assigned the surname of the slave owner.
- She arrived in Vancouver around 1908 at the age of about 50 *with Edward Boynton.
- Edward Boynton was Matilda’s second husband. One newspaper account states that she was married while she still lived in Tennessee. It also stated that she had a son from whom she was estranged. *- She married a coal miner in Tennesse.
- Unfortunately, it is unknown when (or where) the Boyntons married as there is no record of their marriage in the Vital Statistics records of the BC Archives. * – Matilda moved to Seattle and met Edward there around 1904, where she nursed him back to health. They married and moved to Vancouver.
- City directories list the Boynton’s living at 4195 Fraser starting around 1924 until 1965.
- Edward’s death certificate reveals that he lived in Vancouver since 1905 and worked as a labourer (mostly for the City of Vancouver) for about 40 years. He retired in 1945.
- Matilda’s death certificate lists her occupation as “housewife”, a job she did (according to the notation on her death certificate) for 86 years! She also worked as a cotton picker in the U.S. prior to coming to Canada.
- Edward Boyton died at the age of 92 in January of 1965. He was born in 1872 in Ontario and his death certificate states that his “racial origin” was “White”.
[Note: facts following an asterisk ‘*’ indicate updated information ]
Well, that was an unexpected plot twist. Interracial marriages are a non-event these days, but one has to remember in 1960 (and earlier) it would have been a rare thing – Matilda and Edward would have certainly “stood out”. Even though Canada never had outright laws against interracial marriage, at the time the Boyntons married (in the early 20th C) it still would have been considered by many as socially unacceptable and in many states in the U.S. – illegal. It wasn’t until their personal experiences were, living as a couple in Vancouver, during the first half of the 20thC?
Matilda Boynton certainly lived a very long, interesting, and somewhat mysterious life. I’m sure there is still more to her story, but that will have to be for another time.
The Photographer – Deni Eagland: Of course, we can’t forget about the person behind the camera – the man who took that wonderful portrait of Matilda – Deni Eagland.
Dennis (Deni) Eagland was born in 1928 in Essex and emigrated to Vancouver when he was in his 20s. He was married and he and his wife raised three children. Before he was hired by The Sun Newspaper in 1956, he was the proprietor of “Deni” – Photo and Art Dealers at 2932 Granville Street. Eagland was initially hired as a wire photo editor, but soon joined the group of talented staff photographers at The Sun.
Among his colleagues, Deni was known as a master portrait photographer. The headline from Eagland’s own 1996 obituary reads: “Photographer was the ‘Karsh’ of The Sun”. Fellow Sun photographer, Ralph Bower said, “as far as I was concerned, [Eagland] was the Karsh of the photo department, he was great at portraits”. The comparison to Yousuf Karsh, Canada’s most celebrated portrait photographer of the 20th Century, is high praise indeed.
An award-winning photographer, Eagland was responsible for numerous iconic Sun photographs of the 20th Century. Many of which have recently appeared in former PNG News Research Librarian Kate Bird’s Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from a Decade that Changed the City and her latest book, City on Edge. Both books feature historic Vancouver Sun and Province Newspaper photos and were the basis for two exhibits at the MOV.
Eagland was much admired by his colleagues. Sun columnist, Denny Boyd, once called Eagland a “blithe spirit” and “a plump ball of sunshine warming the chilly newsroom all those years”. In 1996, former Sun fashion reporter Virginia Leeming recounted her experience of working with Eagland as the Sun’s “unofficial fashion photographer” in 1983: “Our weekly sessions in the studio or on location were usually hilarious. Deni’s sense of humour was infectious and he had the model and me in stitches laughing”
Vancouver Sun reporter, John Mackie also worked with “Deni the great” and wrote this 2012 piece about the “hellraisers” in the “good old days” at the Sun’s photo department. Mackie said that Deni was best buddies with Dan Scott, another Sun photographer, “the late, great Ian Lindsay used to tell all sorts of Deni and Danny stories”.
Mackie also got me in touch with Deni’s grandson, Nick Eagland, who currently works for both The Vancouver Sun and The Province under the PNG umbrella. Nick told me he thinks his grandfather would “be in a laughing fit if he knew I’d ended up in the biz”. Proud owner of his “grandpa’s old Pentax 67 camera”, Nick says he loves “going on assignment with our photographers who still have all these great, totally unpublishable stories of my grandpa’s time at the old Sun buildings”.
Known for his great sense of humour, generous spirit, love of flying and many mischievous capers – there are many great stories about Deni Eagland out there, but apparently, most of them are not fit to print in mixed company! Some of the “PG” stories about Deni include him: fishing with dynamite, accidentally eating one of his photo assignments ( a tomato that looked like Winston Churchill), and having free-range cows eat the fabric off the wings of his floatplane while he was off shooting wildflowers.
Eagland worked as a Sun photographer for almost 35 years before retiring to the Cariboo in 1990. Sadly, he died of cancer at the age of 67 in 1996.
Both Matilda Boynton and Deni Eagland are the types of “average joe” personalities from Vancouver’s past that I love learning about and would have liked to have personally known.
UPDATE: So, Matilda’s story (and my story) were featured in the February 17, 2018 edition of the Sun’s “This Week In History” series written by John Mackie. After my blog post was published, he found a “Matilda Boynton file” in the archives at the Sun. New personal information (and some great photos) found that file are presented in Mackie’s piece. I’ve updated my original piece with some of the newly discovered facts (indicated by an asterisk ‘*’).
After John Mackie’s article appeared in the Sun in 2018, I heard from Bill Walters who connected with me through an email to Mackie. In his email, he wrote of his family connection to Matilda Boynton:
Matilda was a close friend of my grandfather, who arrived to Vancouver from England in 1910. Later in life when Matilda was in the last decade of her very long life, she lived with my grandparents and was known to my family as “Aunt Matilda”. I have attached two articles, one circa 1962 and the other one from 1965 mentions my grandparents.
My father, Norman Walters, knew Matilda and he was the one who called her “Aunt”, which I suppose was a sign of respect and endearment. He passed away in 2013, but before he died he told me that he had some of Matilda’s cigars in his attic. I found the two packs of “Trump” cigars and put them in a hall table that belonged to her and was passed down to me. Even though I was only a child when I met her, she left a strong impression on me and I think of her often. I have very early memories, and old photos to prove, of my visits to her home on Fraser near King Edward, now a Chinese restaurant.
I am now semi-retired from working in the Provincial Government, and amongst my many roles I was the Executive Director of Immigrant Settlement and Integration and also had responsibilities for Multiculturalism and Anti-racism. I currently do work around diversity and leadership governance, and frequently site my “Aunt Matilda” as a person who has influenced my beliefs and attitudes about inclusion.