Old Bill

A UBC janitor, loved by students and admired by faculty, became curator for one of Canada’s most important museum collections.

In its early days, UBC was as well known for some of its characters as for its academic life. There was “King John” Ridington, the first university librarian, who allegedly instructed students to walk only on the black tiles of the library floors, as they were easier to clean than the white ones; Lionel Haweis, who officially worked as a library clerk but was a self-described black sheep from a family of eccentrics and was equally well known as a writer, photographer, and patron of student literary efforts; and Garnett Sedgewick, autocrat of the English Department for many years and arguably UBC’s leading scholar, raconteur, and wit, who would play both Romeo and Juliet while lecturing on Shakespeare.

A lesser known character from those early days – although one who would be instrumental in the development of one of UBC’s most important programs – was William Tansley. Known to students over the years as Old Bill, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, in 1859. Apprenticed in a lawyer’s office at age 12, Tansley soon left that position for one as a coach-builder’s apprentice. After four years he changed positions again, working in his grandfather’s warehouse. But Tansley’s main interest was art. He hoped to teach drawing and was good enough to qualify for a tutorial position. Unfortunately, illness prevented him from accepting the job.

Tansley immigrated to Canada in 1903, living first in Dundurn, Saskatchewan. The following year he moved to British Columbia and worked at a series of jobs before coming to the university in 1916. Working at first as a janitor in the Fairview campus’ Arts/Administration/Library building, he later assumed responsibility for general maintenance and repairs and also served as a night watchman.

Well-read and a natural storyteller, Tansley was popular among students and faculty alike. Professors who stopped to chat often found him almost as knowledgeable about their subjects as they were. Students called on him to open jammed lockers, paint signs advertising a campus event, or even just lend a sympathetic ear. Every Christmas a collection was taken to buy him a present – one year a set of books, another year a gold watch.

Tansley was given another responsibility in 1927 when Dr. Frank Burnett donated his extensive collection of artifacts and artwork from the South Pacific to the university. Tansley and Burnett were friends; supposedly, Old Bill knew the collection so well that when it was donated to UBC he was automatically given the position of curator.

Housed on the first floor of the library, the Burnett Collection included weapons, tools, items of clothing, idols and other religious artifacts, human skulls and bones, and many other curios. Numbering nearly a thousand pieces, it was at the time one of the largest such collections in the world. Tansley was responsible for maintaining the collection in its display cabinets, and for conducting tours for interested students and staff.

Over the years, other materials were added, including artifacts from First Nations groups in BC. The combined collections became known as the University Museum, and Tansley served as curator until his retirement in 1941. He was succeeded by Dr. Ian McTaggart Cowan of the Department of Zoology. The museum continued to evolve, and began shifting from the collection of curios towards supporting serious research and study – especially after 1947 when anthropologists Harry and Audrey Hawthorn were appointed director and curator, respectively.

William Tansley died in 1957. The museum he helped establish was eventually renamed the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). Since its transfer from the library to its current site on Marine Drive in 1976, MOA has become a world-famous centre for anthropological research and education, and one of the university’s most important landmarks.

William Tansley - According to His Friends

The library functioned somewhat as the campus social centre also, especially the Smoking Room for men in the basement. There the studious janitor Bill Tansley held clinics on philosophy…

Dr. William C. Gibson

Everyone knows “our Mr. Tansley.” If you want to open a stubborn locker, if you’ve lost the only note book you ever valued, if you must have a poster that will arouse universal interest and curiosity, “Ask Bill,” and your worries will vanish. But perhaps everyone does not know that Mr. Tansley found time to aid the French Red Cross by painting several charming posters for their recent entertainment. The Countess d’Audiffret was so pleased with the cleverness and skill displayed in his work that she has taken the posters away with her…

The Ubyssey, 26 October 1922

W. Tansley is perhaps the most erratic gentleman around college (and that is saying something). He may often be heard waxing enthusiastic over some extract from the classics, or seen brush in hand, laying up a libel suit for himself at some future date. His picture shows him at one of his innumerable tasks – removing some of the corruption from the Men’s Common Room.

1918 Annual

William Tansley - In His Own Words

Although acting as janitor, part of whose duties are as a watchman and the other part as sweeper and cleaner, in the long night and morning hours my brain and imagination are at times very busy, especially as I pass through the library and look on the seemingly endless rows of books.

Here is Froissart, truly in every sense a chronicler, and as I turn over the pages richly illuminated and illustrated in the quaint mediaeval way, I am reminded forcibly of Sir John Fastolf and Caister Castle in Norfolk….

I have many times visited the old castle, the first brick castellated and moated structure erected in England. The outer walls and tower still remain, also remains of the old staircase to the tower summit….

Another volume, Visitations of Norwich, brought a flood of reminiscences to my mind of old Benet’s Abbey, founded by Canute the Dane, the monks of which, at Sir John Fastolf’s death, were specially barbered and shaved for the funeral obsequies.

Gray’s Elegy – yes, with its pathetic lesson for all. “The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep” – and, wearied with the long and hard night’s work, as I seat myself among this vast array of history, romance and philosophy, the severe modernity of the stacks seems to soften, the old, old monastic arches take shape, and the narrow spaces resolve into scriptorum, with the painstaking monks laboriously inscribing those glorious pages on vellum. But this dreaming will never do – a janitor’s job is to clean and dust and make the place presentable when the institution opens for the students in the morning.

William Tansley, The Ubicee, February 1917

The Frank Burnett Collection at MOA

The son of a sea captain, Frank Burnett’s life was bound for adventure. At age 14 he left his home in Liverpool to begin an apprenticeship aboard a sea vessel. Travelling as far as Egypt and South Africa, he landed on Canadian shores in 1870. He eventually lived in Winnipeg for a number of years with his young family and worked variously as a farmer, a grain dealer, a private banker, and police magistrate. After 15 years of mixed fortunes he packed up and moved west to Vancouver, where he made his fortune.

By 1901, at the age of 49, Burnett was ready to retire but he continued to explore many areas in the South Pacific collecting more than 1200 objects from the people he met there. Along with Inuit objects from the collection of Ian M. Mackinnon, the 1200 pieces were installed by Frank and his daughter, Nina, in a first-floor room in Main Library, where they remained for 20 years. The artifacts formed the base collection for the Museum of Anthropology when it was founded in 1947, but were placed in storage until the museum moved to its current premises in 1976.