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Massey, (Charles) Vincentlocked

  • Martin Thornton

Massey, (Charles) Vincent (1887–1967), diplomatist and patron of the arts, was born in Toronto, Ontario, on 20 February 1887, the eldest son of Chester Daniel Massey (1850–1926) and his wife, Anna Dobbins Vincent (1859–1903). Raymond Massey, the film actor and director, was his younger brother. The family house, 519 Jarvis Street, in Toronto, where Vincent grew up, had been the home of his paternal grandfather, Hart Almerrin Massey (1823–1896), a manufacturer of farm implements. The successful family farm implement business, originally a sole proprietorship, became the Massey-Harris Company, Massey-Ferguson Ltd, and eventually, in 1987, the Variety Corporation. Vincent Massey was president of the Massey-Harris Company from 1921 to 1925. Chester Daniel Massey was both a manufacturer and philanthropist and endowed the University of Toronto with a substantial neo-Gothic building, Hart House (completed in 1919). Vincent's mother, an American by birth and a Methodist of Huguenot descent, died in 1903, and his father married Margaret Phelps in 1907.

Vincent Massey was educated at five different schools (the last was St Andrew's College, a private school in Toronto). At the age of nineteen he enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he graduated BA in 1910, then in 1911 he entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated with a second in modern history in 1913. Between 1913 and 1915 he was a lecturer in modern history and dean of residence at Victoria College, University of Toronto. In 1915 he married Alice Stuart Parkin (1879–1950). Her father, Sir George Robert Parkin, had been the first administrator of the Rhodes scholarships, and she met Vincent while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Alice and Vincent had two sons, Lionel (b. 1916) and Hart (b. 1918).

During the First World War Massey served on the staff of military district no. 2, Canada, achieving the rank of lieutenant-colonel. The war committee of the federal cabinet provided him with administrative experience of government as an associate secretary. After the war he worked on resettling ex-servicemen in domestic employment in Canada. This provided him with further administrative experience that he found valuable in his later diplomatic posts. From 1921 to 1925 he was president of the family business, the Massey-Harris Company.

In 1925 the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, invited Massey into the cabinet. However, he failed to secure a parliamentary seat in the House of Commons and was subsequently made a delegate representing Canada at the Imperial Conference of 1926 in London and then first Canadian minister to the United States, a post he held from 1926 to 1930. It was as president of the National Liberal Federation (1932–5) that he first experienced a strain in his relationship with King. This strain continued, and King later accused Massey of 'self-aggrandizement' (Massey). Massey, nevertheless, found a fitting role for his talents and personality when in 1935 he was appointed Canadian high commissioner to Britain, an appointment interrupted and delayed from 1930 when King's Liberal government was defeated in the general election. It was with distinction, particularly because of his social skills, that he served in this role at Canada House in London until 1946. The post suited him admirably because he brought to it the complex view of what it was to be Canadian, yet he was also an inveterate Anglophile. He savoured the considerable ceremony that went with the post in London, moved in aristocratic and political circles, and enjoyed both London and the English countryside.

King kept Massey in office in London for a considerable time despite their clear differences of political opinion. Their personal and political relationships were always rather formal and tense. The political differences developed over divergent attitudes towards empire and Massey being seen by King at times as rather too pro-British or friendly towards Whitehall. During the Second World War Winston Churchill marginalized Massey's importance by using the British high commissioner in Ottawa, Malcolm MacDonald, for communications with King. With General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the Canadian troops in Britain, having separate wartime military headquarters in London, Massey's influence with London and Ottawa was overshadowed. However, his longevity in office at the high commission would suggest that King was happy with most of his work, and particularly his tireless wartime activities. The Masseys helped to organize two centres for Canadians in Britain during the war, and Alice showed compassion and understanding of the losses being experienced by Canadians at home and abroad, personally corresponding with thousands of Canadian families with regard to Canadian personnel serving in Europe. Through the Massey Foundation, Vincent secured a convalescent home for Canadians, Garnons, in Hereford, and, through his contacts with Waldorf and Nancy Astor, the Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire was made available as a convalescent hospital. The Masseys promoted a positive relationship between the Astors and Canada and procured some useful confidences on visits to Cliveden. Early in the war the Masseys created a Canadian officers' club in London, and in 1940, with less élitism and with a financial cost to themselves, they set up and helped to run the Beaver Club for all enlisted Canadian servicemen in the city. Among Massey's staff at the high commission was the future Canadian prime minister Lester Bowles Pearson.

Massey was a great patron of the arts (trustee of the National Gallery in London, 1941–6; the Tate Gallery, 1942–6; and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, 1948–52), and he presented a substantial collection of his paintings to the National Gallery of Canada. In 1949 he was appropriately appointed as chairman of the royal commission on national development in the arts, letters, and sciences, providing him with the opportunity to diagnose the cultural problems of Canada. This royal commission, set up by the then prime minister, Louis St Laurent, commonly became known as the Massey commission, although it has also been referred to as the Massey-Lévesque commission. Father Georges-Henri Lévesque was a member of the religious order of Dominicans and a crucial French-Canadian representative for the commission.

The mandate of the royal commission included consideration of television, radio, cultural institutions, and federal scholarships. Massey clearly saw its work as concerning broad human activities relating to Canadian life, and that it should not be associated exclusively with the more esoteric notion of ‘culture’. The commissioners attempted to address both urban and rural concerns about the nature of Canadian life and commissioned some forty specialized studies. While the commission tried to be democratic in approach, it was inevitably accused of being élitist. Massey was very proud of the contribution he made in advancing the debates about Canadian life in many forms. Early criticism of the royal commission, notably from the province of Quebec, was that its work and mandate infringed upon the autonomy of provinces. The subsequent report of the commission, which was much debated, recommended the creation of the Canada Council, a body established in 1957.

In 1952 St Laurent appointed Massey the first native-born governor-general of Canada. This was another official responsibility which he held with distinction, and his first five-year term was extended until 1959, when he formally retired. It appeared an entirely appropriate appointment, given his love of all the traditions of the crown and the ceremony that accompanied the position. He also did not stint on trying to reach all Canadians, undertaking trips throughout the country totalling over 180,000 miles by the end of his tenure. These trips included visits to the Inuit and First Nations of Canada in 1956, the photographs of which make him appear much less aloof and less formal than his official position normally warranted.

A number of honours were bestowed on Massey, but the one that gave him exceptional pleasure was the Companion of Honour (1946), though King withheld his own approval of this honour until close to the time of its bestowal by George VI. Massey delivered the Romanes lecture at Oxford in 1961 on 'Canadians and their Commonwealth', a subject of both personal and political significance to him. In his honour, the Canadian Broadcasting Company created the Massey lectures in 1961. A further legacy was provided when he oversaw the creation and construction of Massey College, a college for graduates at the University of Toronto funded from the Massey Foundation.

Although Massey died on 30 December 1967, at the King Edward VII Hospital in London, he was buried neither in England nor in the rather grand family tomb at Mount Pleasant cemetery in Toronto. Instead, after a state funeral in Ottawa on 4 January 1968, his remains were interred on 5 January in the unostentatious cemetery of the Anglican church of St Mark's at Port Hope, Ontario. He had broken from strict Methodism earlier in his life and found a modest resting place beside his wife and elder son, Lionel (d. July 1965).


  • V. Massey, What's past is prologue: memoirs (1963)
  • C. Bissell, The young Vincent Massey (1981)
  • C. Bissell, The imperial Canadian: Vincent Massey in office (1986)
  • The Times (1 Jan 1968)
  • P. Litt, The muses, the masses, and the Massey commission (1992)


  • Massey College, Toronto, papers
  • BL, corresp. with Albert Mansbridge, Add. MS 65253
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook
  • Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark


  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage


  • two group portraits, photographs, 1923–45, Hult. Arch.
  • G. Lunney, photograph, NA Canada
  • L. T. Newton, oils, Government House, Ottawa
  • L. T. Newton, oils, University of Toronto, Hart House
  • L. T. Newton, oils, priv. coll.
  • photograph collection, NA Canada
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)