‘Knight of the Brush and Broom’ and Curator of What Would Become MOA

UBC Archives Collection. “Old Bill” Tansley (far right) talking with some of the students on UBC’s Fairview campus. 1920.

William Tansley (1859-1951) was a UBC janitor starting in September 1916, in the period when the school was located in the Fairview district (at what is today Vancouver General Hospital). When Tansley accepted his position at UBC, it was another in a succession of several jobs that he’d held. Doubtless, he didn’t suspect that he would retire from UBC as the Curator of its museum.

A Varied Resume

Bill Tansley was born in England at Stoke-on-Trent, the son of a pottery maker, William Sr., and Emma Stanway. His grandfather sent him to a branch of the School of Science and Art in Hanley, England for a couple of years. His love was art. Unfortunately, he didn’t have too much additional formal training. But I suspect he would say that he had all the training he needed to get along. Much of his later learning was self-taught.

His resume of jobs was varied (Province 14 Jan 1939), to put it mildly:

1870s: Left England for North America. Spent a couple years at Cranford, NJ working as a terracotta worker, a printer and felt maker.

ca1878: Contracted malaria and spent some time in St. Luke’s Hospital, New York. Once he recovered, he shoveled coal and loaded pig iron on the docks at Perth Amboy, NJ. When dock workers struck for higher wages, he returned to NY where he worked as a decorator of toys.

1886: Returned to England, working at Milton where his family was living, as a house painter and decorator. Married Annie Elizabeth (1866-1930). (Bill married his second wife, Bessie, a year after Annie’s passing).

1890: Worked for a greenhouse manufacturer and was later made foreman of the glazing department.

ca1891: Went to London where he worked for a bicycle manufacturer. He lived near the Hugh Myddleton School, which offered university extension classes. He attended classes in French, economics, geometry, and art.

ca1900: Opened his own bicycle shop in Yarmouth, England.

1903: Left England for Canada, settling in Dundurn, SK where he was a house decorator and taught art at night school.

1904: Left Saskatchewan for Vancouver, where he worked in the carriage works of Tupper and Son and later for Lobb & Muir, blacksmiths, on Westminster Ave. (Kingsway). He left that job after he became ill with lead poisoning.

CVA Bu P669 – Group portrait in front of Lobb and Muir Blacksmiths at 2410 Westminster Avenue (Kingsway). ca1906. This is about the time that Tansley was working for them; the gent standing just behind the little girl appears to me to look like Bill Tansley.

1910-1914: He next worked for A. M. Ross & Co. Realtors for a while. Realty was booming, so he opened his own office; his health failed again, and he was forced to withdraw from realty work.

ca1915: Worked for awhile for BC Telephone and BC Electric (doing what isn’t known, but it seems likely it consisted of painting — one of the few themes — and one of Tansley’s loves — among several of his jobs).

’Knight of the Brush and Broom’

In September 1916, Tansley took a job at the recently opened UBC. He was a night watchman and janitor in the Arts/Library Building at Fairview. He assumed this job at the age of 57 — an age at which most men would be thinking of retirement.

William Tansley pictured in UBC’s Third Annual, 1918. Tansley was sometimes referred to as a ‘Knight of the Brush and Broom’ and on other occasions as ‘Curator of the Dustpan’. UBC Archives.

In 1917, he went onto the day shift. That meant that he could have more contact with the students (and get a decent night’s rest)!

“I enjoy the association with the students here,” he said in answer to a question. “I like the conversation and the discussions which university men often promote when they get together, and I have made many valuable friendships in the course of my work.”

The Province. 4 March 1922.

It seems the sentiment was mutual. Male students referred to him, affectionately, as “Old Bill”. Female students reportedly called him “Mr. Tansley”, with equal regard. At the end of the 1920-21 session, the students took up a collection for Tansley, presenting him with a bucketful of money. He invested the cash gift in a set of books called Original Sources (The Province. 4 March 1922).

Curator of Nascent Museum of Anthropology

In 1927, Dr. Frank Burnett donated his sizable collection of materials from the South Seas to UBC and Tansley was made the curator of the collection. How did Tansley and Burnett connect?

Mr. Tansley had first met Dr. Frank Burnett when he arrived [in Vancouver] from Dundurn [SK] with a letter of introduction to the firm of Burnett, Horne & Co. [Insurance Brokers]. When the doctor left his valuable collection of native curiosities to the University in 1927 what was more logical than that his old friend “Bill” should be placed in charge of it.

The Province. 14 January 1939.
CVA Out P647 – Dr. Frank Burnett surrounded by his collection of South Seas’ artifacts. 192-.

The Burnett Collection was established on the first floor of the Main Library and was formally known as the Burnett Ethnological Museum (sometimes referred to casually as the UBC Museum) The Burnett Collection would later form the core of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA). It consisted of “curious relics, rated as the most complete representative Polynesian collection in the world . . . . Among the exhibits are figures of Polynesian gods, native implements, several skulls, and samples of native dress” (UBC Student Handbook: 1929, p. 73).

Tansley made his own contribution to the UBC Museum. He offered a scrapbook compiled during each of his years at UBC (1916-33) showing newspaper and other information pertaining to students, former students and events at the University over the years. I see that his scrapbook and one of “Old Bill’s” paintings are now part of the William Tansley fonds at the UBC Archives.

In 1941, Tansley retired from UBC after 14 years as curator and 11 years as janitor. He was 83. He died almost a decade later at 92. He was survived by his second wife, Bessie Cox (1884-1963).

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