Sir Sandford Fleming: a great Canadian

By Andrew Elliott

The year 2017 marks the 190th anniversary of the birth of Sir Sandford Fleming (1827–1915). Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Fleming became a truly great Canadian. He was a successful surveyor, draftsman, and engineer. Among many accomplishments, he is noted for designing one of the first Canadian postage stamps, for helping to link Canada together by directing construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and for bringing international standard time to Canada and the world.

An oil painting of an older man with a white beard wearing a dark suit with a red cravat and a brown fur coat.

Sir Sandford Fleming, painted by John Wycliffe Lowes Forester, 1892 (MIKAN 2895065)

Like his British contemporary Charles Dickens, Fleming had an abundance of energy and productivity that would put a 21st-century individual to shame. Fleming recorded every aspect of his life, and was a great collector. He had a fine library and the walls of his house were covered with European art. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is fortunate to hold the vast majority of records pertaining to Fleming’s life. It is a rich collection of text, photographs, and art, and has been with LAC since 1915.

After receiving an education in Kennoway and Kirkcaldy from the Scottish engineer and surveyor John Sang, Fleming immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1845. To finish his certificate in engineering, Fleming prepared maps of Peterborough, Hamilton, Cobourg, and Toronto in 1849. After this, Fleming’s career took off.

In 1849, Fleming helped found the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, a professional society of architects, surveyors, and engineers. At the age of 30, in 1857, he was appointed engineer-in-chief of the Ontario Northern Railway.

Six years later, in 1863, the Canadian government appointed him chief surveyor of a proposed route for the Intercolonial Railway linking Upper Canada and Lower Canada to the Maritime colonies. He subsequently became chief engineer.

A black-and-white studio photograph of a group of men in various poses, facing in different directions.

The Intercolonial Railway group with Sir Sandford Fleming seated on the right. Photograph by William James Topley, March 1870 (MIKAN 3378651)

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Guest curator: James Bone

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are?

Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


A square sepia stamp. Each corner has the number three indicating the cost. A ring around the center reads, “Canada Postage Three Pence” with a crown between the top words. In the center of the circle is a beaver beside running water with a mountain and trees in the background.

The Three-Pence Beaver designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, 1851 (MIKAN 2184475) ©Canada Post.

The beaver was seen as a good stand-in for the average Canadian: industrious, tenacious… and with great building skills. This is one reason why it appears on the nation’s first postage stamp.


The Three-Pence Beaver designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, 1851

Tell us about yourself

I acquire and process philatelic archives from private, or non-governmental, sources. Although LAC holds the extremely important Post Office Department fonds containing the records of Canada Post, the study of philately is one that happens entirely in the private sphere. So to complement the official records, LAC also collects the records of stamp designers, engravers and artists along with those of printing companies, Canada’s philatelic study societies and prominent philatelic researchers and exhibitors.

I recently represented LAC at the 2016 British North America Philatelic Society Exhibition in Fredericton, New Brunswick where I sought to foster knowledge of LAC’s holdings and how to use them, while also making a pitch that members of the society could have archival records of interest to LAC’s growing collection.

I did not entirely expect to find myself at LAC. After completing my undergraduate studies in 2006, I received a full scholarship for a year to continue my studies in Chinese language at Beijing Normal University in preparation for a planned MA program in Chinese history. However, illness and a change of direction brought me into the workforce. I worked in technical support in London, Ontario and later supervised a technical support team in Montréal for several years before returning to graduate school. Continue reading