William John James

About the Artist

William John James was born in 1870 near the town of Fordwich, in Huron County, Ontario. His family had originally settled in Perth, Ontario, where his father was a blacksmith, while also running a machine shop. After a serious disagreement with his business partner, the senior James decided to move to Huron County.

William James’ father also was the first in the family to experience the west, as he enlisted in Lord Wolseley’s Red River Expedition in 1870, right after the first Riel Rebellion. He arrived back in Fordwich just in time for the arrival of his first son, William.

The younger James seems to have inherited something of his father’s restless spirit. He decided to move to what was then known as the Northwest Territories (which at that time included Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Yukon and Nunavut, as well as the current Northwest Territories) when he was 19, and probably chose Prince Albert because it had a lumber industry. James had worked at a sawmill at Fordwich in his teen years, and likely felt he would find a similar job at Prince Albert. James’s granddaughter later wrote: “I don’t know why W.J. went west – aside from an obviously itchy foot that took over from time to time throughout his life.” (Silversides, 1986)  James seems to have settled into the community fairly well, working at the James Sanderson sawmill. His family joined him after 1893. His father also worked as the Sanderson sawmill, and continued there until his death in 1911.

The younger James eventually left the mill and dabbled in barbering for a while, but appears not to have been successful at it. He seems to have taken up photography soon after arriving in Prince Albert, because there exists a photo by him of the first train to enter the town, in September 1890. Biographer Brock Silversides notes that the photo, “…appears to be a most professional job and makes one wonder, even though there were no photographers in Fordwich in the 1880s, whether he did apprentice at one time." (Silversides, 1986)

In late 1894 James and itinerant photographer W. J. Jackson became partners, operating a photographic studio and a barbershop from the same location. The two services at first might seem like an odd combination. For many frontier residents, however, the most likely time they would have a bath and get a haircut would be when they had their picture taken.

The partnership with Jackson lasted only a year, and information about James’ activities is sparse for several years. He was frequently in and out of the photography business, operating under his own name or City Art Studio. In 1900 he established the Phoenix Barber Shop and Bath House adjacent to his studio.

For a time James gave up control of his business to a Samuel Gray. Gray provided an introduction to his best friend, Theodore Charmbury, who was serving his photographic apprenticeship in Aldershot, England. James offered Charmbury two years employment in his studio, which was accepted. It turned out to be a fortuitous combination. James had the pioneer’s drive and knew the country. Charmbury exposed James to the history and fine art applications of photography.

Having a trained photographer in the studio enabled James to travel to other communities in search of new business and to take advantage of special events in those communities. James traveled on the North Saskatchewan River by steamboat and on the Qu’Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railway, and even by stagecoach to communities as far west as Battleford, north to Green Lake and east to Mistatim. He also made stops along the route to Saskatoon, and south to Wakaw. He established regular circuits at lumbering operations and camps throughout the region.

Charmbury left after his two-year contract, but the two remained friends. With the collapse of the community’s economy in 1918 Charmbury left Prince Albert to continue his career in Saskatoon.  With Charmbury’s departure, and James’s marriage to Maudie Courtney in 1904, he traveled less frequently. The Courtneys has a relatively affluent farm and stock raising operation south of Prince Albert. The couple had four daughters. Mrs. James became involved in the business and in 1920 was listed as a photographer in her own right.

James’s photography business survived, but always remained a modest one. The failure of the La Colle Falls project bankrupted the community of Prince Albert, and the city fathers passed the burden of the failure primarily onto the backs of small business people like James. By 1919 James could not pay his property tax bill and had to sell the business. However, by 1927 the Prince Albert region was experiencing another settlement boom, and James returned to the photographic studio, this time with his youngest daughter Norma as clerk and photographer. She worked with her father until he retired in the mid-1930s. He died of a heart attack in 1944.


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