Olive Matthews
by Emma Warren

Olive Matthews was born in 1887, and her family lived in Camden Town in London. Sadly, her mother died when she was just two years old, and as a result she was brought up by her father and aunts who encouraged her in that great Victorian pastime of collecting. She was given a small allowance of between 2s 6d and 5s a week which she used to create a nationally significant costume collection, now housed at Chertsey Museum.

Olive Matthews. Courtesy of Chertsey Museum.

Miss Matthews was passionate about material culture from a golden age of hand craftsmanship that was felt to be ‘lost’ by her generation, and was therefore keen to collect items which dated up to the early nineteenth century. The majority of the dress she acquired dates from the 1740s to around the 1840s, but there are some notable earlier examples, and a few later ones. In a letter to Bob Trett, the Curator at the time that the collection entered Chertsey Museum, she stated: “I am interested in costumes up to about early Victoria…styles I have known and worn I don’t care about. They are not Antiques to me”.

Olive was blessed with “a good eye” but she also read diligently around her subject throughout her life, later building up a good relationship with curators from the Victoria and Albert Museum. As a result, she had an excellent working knowledge of the history of dress and decorative arts. The means by which Miss Matthews collected her pieces varied during the course of her lifetime. Though she later purchased from dealers and bid for items at auction, as a child she was a regular visitor to the Caledonian Road Market in Camden Town. The stalls contained a variety of antique clothing and textiles, and the young Olive prided herself in finding bargains. She later said that she never paid more than £5 for a piece.

Olive Matthews’ collection came to be part of Chertsey Museum through a variety of opportune circumstances. She and her family had moved to nearby Virginia Water at the outbreak of the Second World. Her collection had come with her and was tucked away in boxes in cupboards around the house and in her garage. During the 1960s Miss Matthews became friends with local antique dealer and fellow collector Sydney Oliver who quickly realised the significance of the collection. Now nearing the end of her life Miss Matthews began to seek a suitable home for it. She approached the V&A, but they wished to select individual items. This disappointed Olive and led her to look elsewhere.

In 1969 the Olive Matthews Collection Trust was formed and a mutually beneficial arrangement with Chertsey Urban District was agreed which enabled the collection to be kept in its entirety whilst combining it with the council’s local history collection as part of a new and more dynamic Chertsey Museum. The Trust purchased The Cedars, a late Regency house on Windsor Street in Chertsey, and the new museum was opened there in 1972. Miss Matthews was at last able to see her pieces displayed in a public museum, with a gallery devoted to her costumes. Sadly she passed away just a few years later in 1979.

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