Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Tony Matassa was in love. With a woman he had never met, nor spoken to. She wasn’t even on the same continent. But one look at her picture and he was smitten.
Tony came to West Kootenay from Italy to seek his fortune as a miner. The object of his affection, Rosina Harper, lived 6,000 miles away in Tregrehan Mills, a village in Cornwall, England.
In 1908, Tony’s co-worker, also from Tregrehan, showed his colleagues a postcard of Rosina, taken by a travelling photographer at the village’s summer festival the previous year.
Tony, 20, was besotted with the 16-year-old brunette and couldn’t get her face out of his mind. He begged his friend to enclose a note to her in his next letter home.
We don’t know exactly what Tony wrote — or did the friend write it for him? — but whatever form it took, Rosina was sufficiently intrigued to write back.
Tony Matassa, date unknown. This postcard might be one he sent to Rosina Harper when they were exchanging letters in 1908-09. Courtesy Tony Crosbie
It seems too perfect, but Antonio Matassa was born on Valentine’s Day 1889 — either in Rome or Frosinone, depending on conflicting sources. We know little about his family or upbringing. His father, Jem, was a farm labourer, but his mother’s name is not known. Tony had at least two siblings: a brother, Louis, five years his elder, and a sister, whose name is unknown.
It’s not clear whether Tony and Louis immigrated together or separately, but Tony lived in the US for a short time before coming to Canada around 1904, age 14 or 15. He and Louis settled at Erie, near Salmo, and found jobs in the mines. Louis owned many claims and was a perennial champion at rock drilling competitions.
Tony also got work with the Great Northern Railway. In the 1905 civic directory, he was listed in Erie as “Toney Mottassaa,” a section hand. In 1907, “T. Matassa” of Erie was a guest at Nelson’s Tremont Hotel, and the following year, “A. Matassa” of Salmo stayed at the Grand Central in Nelson.
Rosina, meanwhile, was the daughter of Thomas James Bice and Mary (Pollie) Tregilgas Harper. She was born at nearby St. Blazey on Dec. 8, 1892, the fourth of seven children. When she began corresponding with Tony, Rosina was an assistant in a drapery business.
Tregrehan (pronounced tre-grain) was populated by tin and clay miners. Its most famous landmark, Tregrehan House, dates to the 15th century. Both of Rosina’s parents were born and raised nearby; her Cornish roots can be traced to 1735 on her father’s side — and to 1480 on her mother’s side.
Tony Matassa does his best impression of a western gunslinger. Courtesy Tony Crosbie
The postcard that so entranced Tony was one of several snapshots taken by an enterprising but unidentified photographer. While some reports claimed Tony’s colleague, Joe Phillips, received the photo from his mother in Tregrehan, Rosina said she sent it herself.
Tony and Rosina exchanged two or three letters. Then she sent him another photograph of herself and he sent her a photo of himself. Friendship blossomed into something more. Tony’s friend Andrew Rowe, a former Erie miner living in Greenwood, was due to marry another woman from Tregrehan Mills, Ethel Hobbs. This gave Tony the excuse he needed to visit England. (I don’t know how Andrew and Ethel connected; Andrew’s parents were both from St. Austell, Cornwall, but he was born in Butte, Montana.)
Ethel and Andrew Rowe at St. Austell, 1909.
One account says that upon arriving, Tony went sight-seeing, while another said he “did not seem particularly anxious to visit the Tower and Stratford-on-Avon.”
From Liverpool, he travelled to London and wrote to Rosina, asking if her parents would consent to him coming to Tregrehan Mills. They did — not that it would have mattered. Tony was to be the best man at Andrew Rowe and Ethel Hobbs’ wedding at a St. Austell parish church and Rosina a bridesmaid.
Tony sent Rosina a telegram confirming his impending arrival. Rosina, for her part, “lost no time in preparing to meet her unknown lover.”
They were soon engaged.
The couple caused a sensation in Tregrehan — and, to a lesser degree, around the world. The story of Tony and Rosina’s unusual courtship appeared in newspapers in England, Scotland, Canada, the US, and New Zealand.
One of the earliest news stories yet discovered, in the Aberdeen Press and Journal (seen below), told of the “picture postcard romance” and the long journey Tony made to see Rosina.
Crowds flocked to the village for the wedding, which took place on July 10, 1909 — five weeks after the Rowe-Hobbs nuptials that brought them together.
An hour before the ceremony, the local chapel was already packed. The village was a “a mass of flags, fancy mottoes, and confetti,” and its entire population greeted the couple as they entered, Rosina leaning on her father’s arm. They were, as one account put it, “the objects of excited curiosity as they went through the ceremony.”
That the groom was Italian and the bride Cornish would have resulted in some general unease, as there was prejudice against such a coupling. This was solved through some subterfuge around Tony’s parentage. He claimed his mother was English. Is this what he told Rosina? Or what they told her parents? Or simply what they told the press? It’s what the newspapers all reported, and it seemed to make them feel better about the arrangement. While it’s not inconceivable that his mother was born in England, there is no evidence to support it. Census records suggest both of Tony’s parents were born in Italy.
This postcard was mailed from Tregrehan Mills less than two months after Tony Matassa and Rosina Harper were married there.
The bride wore a dress of cream cashmere and held a huge bouquet. The groom was described as of “ruddy of complexion, has pleasant features, and stands nearly 6 ft.”
According to the Cornish Telegraph, Tregrehan “rose to the occasion and the event was surrounded with all the accompaniments of an ideal marriage. Flags and bunting were flying, with messages of welcome and mottoes wishing the happy couple God-speed.”
Tony’s best man, Fred Hancock, accompanied him from BC, although he is absent from the rest of the story. He was Andrew Rowe’s maternal uncle, so he presumably came for that wedding, not expecting to be pressed into service at another. (Before long, Fred got married himself. He wed Tregrehan native Dora Alberta Harris at St. Austell on Oct. 14, 1909.)
Andrew Rowe and Fred Hancock, date unknown. Like Tony Matassa, both married women from Tregrehan Mills in 1909. Courtesy Stu Roberts
The crowd showered the couple with confetti and rice as they left the chapel, and followed them to Rosina’s cottage, where they crowded the door and spilled out into the garden and roadway. Photographers snapped away and “amid a hurricane of cheers,” the wedding party departed in carriages to Fowey, south Cornwall.
Lucky for us, the photographers included one for The Daily Mirror , which published the following images.
At left, Tony and Rosina Matassa on their wedding day. At right, “an old Cornish fisherman tying a shoe to the back of the carriage.” The inset photo is the actual one of Rosina that Tony fell in love with.
The story of the lovers separated by 6,000 miles (9,600 km) but united by a postcard was considered an evergreen, meaning there was no urgency for newspapers to run it. It could — and did — appear months after the fact. It was in the Vancouver Daily World, New York Sun, and Nashville Tennessean in August. It appeared in the Washington Post, Indianapolis Star, and Philadelphia Inquirer in September. Then in January 1910, Alabama papers took it up anew. As late as October 1910, they were still reporting it as though it had just happened.
Yet in the Kootenay it barely registered. It only appeared in the Cranbrook Herald on Aug. 12, 1909 — without mentioning where in BC Tony was from. It escaped the attention of the Nelson Daily News entirely. The Greenwood Ledge reprinted an item from a Cornish newspaper about Andrew Rowe’s wedding, but didn’t do the same for Tony and Rosina.
The marriage registration reveals Tony’s father had already died by 1909.
From there on, as far as the newspapers were concerned, Tony and Rosina lived happily ever after. But what actually happened to them?
Tony returned to BC, hoping to make his fortune before sending for his bride. He sailed from Southampton and arrived in Philadelphia on Sept. 25, 1909. Curiously, the passenger record listed his nationality as English. A mistake, or was he was maintaining the ruse around his parentage?
Tony went to work for the CPR as a laborer at the shipyards and later as a locomotive engine repairman.
More than a year and a half after their wedding, Tony finally sent for Rosina — or maybe it just took that long to receive her parents’ blessing to go. She sailed aboard the Royal Edward, which departed Bristol on June 28, 1911 and arrived in Montreal. She finally reached her husband in Nelson on July 10, their second anniversary. At first they lived in Fairview on Third Street, near Gordon Road. Around 1914, they moved to a home at 718 Nelson Ave.
Their first child, Violet Myrtle, was born on March 27, 1913 and named after Rosina’s sister. Rosina and Violet left for England on May 24, 1914 and finally returned to Nelson on Sept. 21, 1916, the visit perhaps extended due to the outbreak of war. During their absence, Tony found work at the Jewel mine near Greenwood. A second child, Tony Jr., was stillborn on Aug. 26, 1917 and buried in an unmarked grave in the Nelson cemetery.
Rosina Matassa, seen in a Foncie Pulice photograph, taken in Vancouver sometime between 1935 and 1950. Courtesy Tony Crosbie
Tony and Rosina lived a quiet, community-minded life in Nelson.
Tony tended his garden, grew grapes, and made his own wine. His other hobby was lawn bowling — he was elected president of the Nelson Carpet Bowling League in 1932. He was also an active worker in the Church of the Redeemer Anglican Parish and a member of the Knights of Pythias for 50 years, while Rosina belonged to the Pythian Sisters Nelson Temple.
However, there was tension between Tony and daughter Violet, with whom he frequently clashed while she was growing up. Violet once angrily declared that she wasn’t the son he had hoped for, an accusation that was probably accurate. However, they were able to work through their difficulties.
At some point Rosina contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium. When she came home, she was still weak, so Tony expected Violet to keep up the household chores, much to her dismay. Rosina’s sheets had to be washed regularly, scrubbed with the rest of the laundry. Violet was also tasked with picking raspberries in the backyard. She would much rather have spent the summer swimming in Kootenay Lake.
Violet married New Denver native Ken Crosbie at Trinity United Church in Nelson on May 7, 1935. They moved to Trail, where Ken worked for Cominco, and then to Castlegar in 1941. They had two children, Diane and Tony — who was named after his grandfather.
Undated snapshots of the Matassa family. From left, Tony and Rosina with granddaughter Diane; Tony and Diane, possibly at the Matassa home in Nelson; Rosina and Tony with daughter Violet and granddaughter Diane; Tony with daughter Violet and grandchildren Diane and Tony, at 427 Main Street in Castlegar. Courtesy April Williams
Rosina made at least one other visit home to England, travelling there by herself in 1936, possibly the last time she saw any of her extended family. She suffered from rheumatic heart disease and died of congestive heart failure on Aug. 11, 1950, age 57. She was buried in the Nelson cemetery. She and Tony had been married for 41 years. In addition to her husband, daughter, and grandchildren, she was survived by her parents and two sisters in Cornwall.
After his wife’s death, Tony ate at the same restaurant every evening. Curiously, while there is no sign of him having accompanied Rosina to visit family in England, following her death, he went three times. On separate trips in 1955 and 1956, he was listed as staying with Rosina’s sister and brother-in-law, Violet and Charles Chesterfield, at Tregrehan. He also went to the UK for two months in 1955, that time giving his address as Canada House, London — the office of the High Commission of Canada.
Tony returned to Italy to visit family at some point as well, but even though Nelson had an Italian community, he could no longer speak the language. Even at the time of his wedding, a report said he had no trace of an accent.
Although he was very young when his grandmother died, Tony Crosbie got to know his grandfather, and remembers the party held upon his retirement from the CPR in 1954, after 42 years’ service.
“My sister and I used to visit him,” he says. “But we never really talked about family. No one ever did.”
He had no idea how his grandparents met — much less that it had been international news. While he knew his grandfather came to Canada with a brother, he didn’t know Louis, and wasn’t sure how close they were.
Louis, who still lived in Erie, died on March 13, 1953 at Mater Misericordiae hospital in Rossland of a lung condition at age 69. He was buried in Nelson. A lifelong bachelor, his modest estate went to Tony.
When his own health started to fail, Tony moved in 1968 to live with his daughter and son-in-law in Kinnaird at 707 7th Ave. (later renumbered 2309 Columbia Ave.). Tony died of a heart attack in Castlegar on Jan. 3, 1973 at age 83. He was buried in Nelson next to Rosina. Violet died in Castlegar in 1983 at age 70.
The old Matassa house in Nelson was demolished to become the parking lot for a Tastee Freez built next door. It’s now Leo’s Greek Taverna, formerly the Bogustown Pub.
Tony and Rosina Matassa are buried in the same plot in the Nelson cemetery, but while her grave is marked, his is not.
Tony and Rosina presumably remained friends with Andrew Rowe and Ethel Hobbs, whose wedding was the impetus for their own. Andrew and Ethel had five children, the first in St. Austell in 1910 before they returned to BC. The rest were born in Nelson, Greenwood, and Rossland.
Sadly, Ethel died in 1917 in Rossland age 27, although I don’t know the cause. Andrew remarried in 1921 and died in Montana in 1945. The last of their kids, Dorothy Cote, died in Nelson in 2015 at age 98.
The Tregrehan Methodist Chapel, where Tony and Rosina got married, is still standing. It opened in 1857 and was expanded in 1881. It closed in 2000, was sold, and is now a private home. Worship continues in the Sunday School opposite the chapel.
I’m indebted to Colin Short, the circuit archivist and chair of the Cornish Methodist Historical Association, for taking the pictures of the chapel seen here.
The former Tregrehan Methodist Chapel, now a private home, seen in July 2020.
Side view of the chapel from across the village stream: just visible of the left-hand side is the small apse which may have contained an organ.
Front of the old chapel, as seen from the Sunday School across the street.
The plaque above the front door.
While searching for the identity of a postcard photographer one night in 2017, I came across one of the news stories about Tony and Rosina’s wedding. Although it said Tony was from BC, it didn’t say exactly where. But it didn’t take long to discover that it was Nelson — which gave me goose bumps.
Efforts to find Matassa descendants initially left me stumped, but an inquiry on the Lost Kootenays Facebook site quickly paid off when great granddaughter April Williams of Cranbrook replied and put me in touch with her uncle Tony Crosbie in Toronto.
Tony sent me the portraits of his grandfather seen here, at least one of which I am willing to bet was mailed to Rosina when they were courting by mail. But I was not able to locate any of their wedding photos nor the postcard that initially connected them. So I was thrilled to get a message in May 2021 from Stu Roberts, whose daughter recently moved to Tregrehan Mills. In looking for a photo of her house, he came across my blog post.
“As my partner Liz is related to almost everyone within a 10 mile radius, after a bit of research I found she is fifth cousin twice removed to Rosina,” he said. This led him to do some research of his own on Tony and Rosina, and to the article and photos in The Daily Mirror. My first thought was that Rosina looked rather serious in the portrait that Tony fell for, but smiling in photos was frowned upon at the time, or at least was uncommon. In the wedding photo, I can’t get over the size of her hat!
Any contact with Tony Matassa’s family in Italy was lost with his passing, although Tony Crosbie had an address for a Charles Sivori of Rome. His brother-in-law perhaps? Crosbie sent a letter to a relative in Tregrehan, however, and received a reply. Rosina’s sister Violet was the last surviving sibling, and probably the last to attend Tony and Rosina’s wedding: she died in 2000, age 94.
— With thanks to Tony Crosbie, April Williams, Kay Smith, Colin Short, John Keast, Stu Roberts, and Ron Shearer
Updated on July 31, 2020 to state that Tony’s first railway employer was the Great Northern, not the CPR; and on May 10, 2021 to add the photos from the Daily Mirror; and on June 1, 2021 to add the pictures of Fred Hancock and Andrew Rowe, the image of the Matassa-Harper marriage registration, and the name of Tony’s father.