MATHESON, James Alexander 3/2266

Brother of Donald Murray Matheson (71909), George Stafford Matheson (23/821) and Neil McLeod Matheson (4/288).

James was the eldest child of George Stafford Matheson and Monica Heaton, and was born in Dunedin in 1881.  He ran away to sea aged only 14 and sailed around the Pacific, his seafaring days ending when he fell from a mast onto the deck and injured his foot, leaving a slight limp.

He then trained as a compositor and linotype operator with the Weekly Budget newspaper in Dunedin, before moving to Hamilton and later becoming a theatrical agent.  He travelled around New Zealand and to Australia with local and overseas shows, and was also employed by the Kinemacolor Company of Melbourne, promoting films made in ‘Kinemacolor’, the first successful colour motion picture process.

James volunteered for military service in early December 1915.  He was medically examined but due to the problem with his left foot he was graded as ‘Fit for home service’.  He joined the Dental Corps at Trentham Camp near Wellington as an orderly with the rank of private.  He was promoted to corporal in February 1916 and to sergeant-major in April 1916.

James Alexander Matheson and his wife Ethel Matheson

James Alexander Matheson and his wife Ethel Matheson

This portrait shows James Alexander Matheson and his wife Ethel Louisa Gertrude Matheson (née Williams).  Ethel was English, and had migrated to New Zealand in 1913 to be a housemaid.  She already had a small son, Frederick Stanley Taylor, who was living with an aunt in Sydney.  Ethel and James married in February 1917 and first lived in the married quarters at Trentham.  Their first daughter, Monica Ethel Matheson, was born in December 1917.

James’s promotion to regimental sergeant-major was published in the Evening Post newspaper on 28 May 1917.  The promotion took effect from 1 April, so the photograph was probably taken shortly afterwards, given the brand-new appearance of his uniform to which he has not yet attached his Dental Corps collar badges.  Perhaps the Mathesons had come into Wellington from Trentham for an appointment with one of the city tailors who specialised in uniforms.

James was demobilised in early 1919.  The couple had two more daughters: Georgina Adelaide in 1919 and Patricia Muriel in 1922.  Both were named after James’s brothers who had died as a result of war service: George who died of TB in 1919, and Neil (known as Pat) who was killed in action in 1917.

After leaving the army James went back to work as a theatrical agent, picking up casual work as a compositor during slack periods.  Ethel’s son Fred came to live with the family, and in 1923 they all moved to Auckland.  By 1930 work for James was drying up, and all the family had to do what work they could to get by during the Depression.

When the Second World War came James was keen to don a uniform again, even at the age of 58, and entered the National Reserve and worked as a batman and in the quartermaster’s stores.  His health declined and in 1941 he was discharged from the army and returned to civilian work, and he died the following year.

James and Ethel’s eldest daughter was married for the second time to a Scot, John Kidd, and as Monica Kidd was the Clan Matheson Society New Zealand branch’s genealogist for many years.


Fac et spera (do and hope): the Mathesons of Fourpenny, by Monica Kidd

Portrait of James Alexander Matheson and Ethel Louisa Matheson, by Michael Fitzgerald of Te Papa.

Notes about this portrait:

During the First World War, many New Zealand soldiers had their photographs taken before heading off overseas to fight.  In the 1990s more than 100 glass negatives were found in a cupboard in a building in Wellington’s Cuba Street, photographs of soldiers and often their families taken by professional photographers Berry & Company who had been based in that building.

The national museum Te Papa has worked to identify the people in the negatives, discover their stories and if possible make contact with their relatives.  Most of the negatives are identified with a surname, but the identity of only some has been discovered.  This fascinating mystery was the subject of an episode of a documentary about the ‘Berry Boys’, as they’ve been dubbed.

James Alexander Matheson is one of the ‘Berry Boys’.