Matilda and Deni: subject & photographer

Mrs. Matilda Boynton poses for the camera in February 1960 just prior to her 103rd birthday. Photo: Deni Eagland, CoV Archives, Port P1622

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. As well as, 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 orginal print:

Reverse of print. Photo: Deni Eagland, CoV Archives, Port P1622

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 very 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 facinating 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 celeberity, 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 photo shoot:

The actual version of the Deni Eagland photo that appeared in the Vancouver Sun in 1962. Caption reads: Definitely unimpressed by Swedish campaign against smoking is 103-year-old Mrs. Matilda Boynton, 4135 Fraser. She still smokes four cigars every day, does her own housework. “Cancer?” she says, “if I got it I don’t know about it'”, her ambition is to better family age record of 110. “She will.” says 84-year-old husband, “as long as she gets odd tot of rum.”

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, reminicient 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.

Marlene Dietrich in a sultry “smoking glamour” portrait.

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”


Article from 1963 written by Aileen Campbell about Matilda Boynton.

Two newspaper clippings about Matilda Boynton from 1964 and 1965, on the event of her death.

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 Feburary 13th, 1858. The same year that British Columbia offcially became a British colony. She died in Vancouver at the age of 107 on 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 asterix ‘*’ 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”.  Eventhough 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 1968 when the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that state laws prohibiting miscegenation were unconstitutional.  Because of their racial differences, I have to wonder what their personal experiences were, living as a couple in Vancouver, during the first half of the 20thC?  This is the part of Matilda’s life story that I would have liked to been able to have known more about. I’m very curious about people’s life experiences and how they live within their communities.

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.


Photographer Deni Eagland

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 photgrapher. 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.

Two of Deni Eagland’s photos. L: Foncie Pulice – August 28, 1970 Deni Eagland (The Vancouver Sun 70-1931) and R: 1960 Portrait of John Koerner by Deni Eagland.

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 humor 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 mxed company!  Some of the “PG” stories about Deni include him: fishing with dynamite, accidently 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 type 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 asterix ‘*’).

Matilda and Edward Boynton (with cat) in 1961. Photo: Chuck Jones / PNG







Her name was Lulu, she was a showgirl

Lulu Island (Richmond)

Lulu Island (Richmond) – Detail, Map 879,  CoV Archives.

Ever wonder how Lulu Island (on which the City of Richmond now sits) got its “fanciful” name? Lulu Island was named after a showgirl, but not just any showgirl. Miss Lulu Sweet was a young stage actress from the US who, along with the theatrical troupe to which she belonged, performed in Colonial British Columbia in the early 1860s. Lulu Sweet appeared locally on stages in New Westminster and Victoria. Much praised in the press, her demeanor, acting, and graceful manners were so admired that even Colonel Richard Moody, Commander of the Royal Engineers stationed in New Westminster, was smitten. As it was he who named the largest island in the estuary of the Fraser River after her.

Miss Lulu Sweet.

Miss Lulu Sweet ca. 1860s.

Not much is known about Miss Lulu Sweet, but I was able to cobble together a little bit about her and the story of the naming of Lulu Island. The exact details sometimes vary or are vague, according to several sources (including Thomas Kidd, Chuck Davis, Chad Evans, Art Downs, Richard Wolfenden and the Daily British Colonist) the basic story is as follows:

Miss Lulu Sweet was a member of the Potter Troupe, an American Music-Hall troupe from San Francisco. The troupe “of fifteen Ladies and Gentlemen of acknowledged talent and respectability” first appeared in Victoria on October 8, 1860, at the Colonial Theatre. Miss Lulu Sweet (about 16 years old) and her mother Mrs. E. Sweet were in the cast that performed that evening. The troupe arrived in Victoria from San Francisco aboard the steamer, Brother Jonathan.

Arrivals in Victoria showing the Potter Troupe and Miss Lulu Sweet, Daily British Colonist October 8, 1861

Miss Lulu Sweet, something of a child star in San Francisco in the late 1850s, was a theatrical triple threat. In the press she was extolled as “the beautiful Juvenile Actress, Songstress and Danseuse”– who became the darling of the Victoria and the New Westminster theatrical scene (such as it was).

Praise for Miss Sweet in the press from the other side of the border:

Miss Lulu Sweet, familiarly known as “Sweet Lulu”, though quite young has already earned a flattering reputation as songstress and danseuse – Oregon Argus, June 16, 1860


Miss Lulu Sweet is well known to the people hereabouts; she has improved much since we last saw her, and grown womanly. Instead of seeing her as in days before, la petite Lulu, we see her as a grown and accomplished actress, with all the charms incident to her beauty – Red Bluff Beacon, 13 July 1859


I liken her popularity in colonial British Columbia to that of a young Mary Pickford, who was one of the most popular film actresses of the 1910’s and 1920s.

After a three-month theatrical run in Victoria, the Potter Troupe set sail on December 20, 1860, for New Westminster and the Pioneer Theatre. Capt. John T. Walbran, who wrote British Columbia Coast Names, noted that the Potter Troupe was the first Theatrical troupe to ever appear in New Westminster.

It is important to note at this point in the story that Colonial British Columbia was a rough and tumble place and mainly a land of men (and not necessarily gentlemen). With nothing of a society to speak of, I imagine having talented, young gentile ladies (actresses) coming to town would have been quite a big deal to those socially starved residents (like the officers in the Royal Engineers). Her appearance in the area, according to Thomas Kidd, no doubt added to “the gaiety of that part of the British Nation”.

New Westminster ca. 1863.

New Westminster ca. 1863, at least two years after Miss Lulu Sweet first appeared in the Colony of British Columbia.

This first series of appearances of Miss Lulu Sweet and the Potter Troupe in New Westminster ended January 11, 1861. According to Chuck Davis, Lulu Sweet became one of the favourite performers of the Royal Engineers, who were stationed in the Lower Mainland and built much of the infrastructure of the young colony on behalf of the British Empire.

After their successful engagement in New Westminster, the Troupe (including Miss Lulu Sweet) then traveled back to Victoria on January 12, 1861,aboard aboard the steamer Otter. It was on this trip that the tale of how Lulu Island got its name took place.

Daily Colonist January 15, 1861. Lulu Sweet arrives back in Victoria aboard the Otter.

Daily British Colonist January 15, 1861. Lulu Sweet arrives back in Victoria aboard the Otter – there is no mention of the Emily Harris*.

While the steamer Otter (some accounts name the steamer Emily Harris*) was en route to Vancouver Island. Colonel Richard Moody of the Royal Engineers (Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works in the Colony of British Columbia), was also on board the steamer. It seems that Col. Moody had been to several of the Potter Troupe’s performances at the Pioneer Theatre (in late December 1860 and early January 1861), where he had become quite enamored of Miss Lulu Sweet, “the lovely ingénue who had captured the heart of New Westminster”.

Col. Richard Moody

Colonel Richard Moody of the Royal Engineers.

The story goes that Col. Moody accompanied Miss Lulu Sweet on deck as the Otter (or Emily Harris) traveled the Fraser River on its way to Victoria. While he was pointing out various landmarks to her, they passed by a large island. Miss Sweet asked him what it was called. The Colonel replied that it had no name, “but in tribute to you we shall call it Lulu Island”. It has also been suggested that Colonel Moody exclaimed: “By Jove! I’ll name it after you”. Whether by Jove or in tribute, several accounts corroborate that Lulu Island was indeed named in honour of Miss Lulu Sweet. By 1862 (1863) Lulu Island was officially on the next British Admiralty chart of the area.

Col. Moody was only one of Lulu’s admirers. “Come back to us” noted the Daily British Colonist Newspaper, August 25, 1862. “Lulu Sweet or ‘Sweet Lulu’ as the Oregonians appropriately call her, arrived on the Oregon and will appear this evening as Pauline… Lulu is a charming little actress, and used to take Victoria by storm a year and half ago.”

Daily Colonist September 8, 1862. Sweet Lulu is back in town.

Daily British Colonist September 8, 1862. “Sweet Lulu” is back in town.

“Her conduct, acting and graceful manners gave great satisfaction” Lieutenant-Colonel R. Wolfenden (of the Royal Engineers under Col. Moody) assured Captain John T. Walbran, “and were appreciated to such an extent by her friends and patrons that the island was named after her”. Capt. John T. Walbran wrote British Columbia Coast Names originally published in 1909, reprinted in 1971.

Lulu Sweet (actress) is listed in the San Francisco city directories (1862-64) as living at 30 John Street.  Sweet stayed with the theatre until 1865 when she married Mr. Smith in San Francisco. She died in 1914 in Burlingame, California.



Fun Fact: Early residents (farmers mainly) of Lulu Island used to be known as Mudflatters. Much of Richmond was muddy and swampy, and their greatest concern was the building of dikes and obtaining potable water.