‘The Great Halifax Explosion of 1917’ exhibit explained

In his youth, Leon Matthys lived in several towns in Nova Scotia, including Halifax.

He collected stamps as a boy, shelved it for decades, and got back into it as an adult, like most of us. In 2009, his philatelic interest in Canada’s greatest—though largely unknown—disaster began. The genesis of his exhibit started with the purchase of multiple reference materials.

“The more I studied the explosion story, the more I wanted to know,” he says.

About 15 books later, the first edition of the five-frame open class display made its debut for public consumption at the Spring 2015 North Toronto Stamp Club Exhibition.

Around this time, the suggestion was put forth to Canada Post’s Stamp Advisory Committee to create a Halifax Explosion commemorative stamp; their reply indicated a stamp was in the works.


With great feedback and a huge desire to get the story out in time for the 100-year anniversary of the historic event, Matthys prepared a companion multi-media slideshow. Since then, about a half dozen or more stamp clubs in the Greater Toronto Philatelic Association have been booked for an evening presentation to highlight the making of the exhibit as well as the retelling of the epic Canadian tragedy.

Leon Matthys’ five-panel Halifax Explosion exhibit was displayed at Novapex 2017 in Nova Scotia.

The improvements to the 80-page display were seen at Fredericton’s 2016 BNAPEX showing, where it caught the attention of both history buffs and stamp collectors from the Maritimes. This led to it being invited to the Nova Scotia Stamp Club exhibition at Dartmouth, also known as Novapex 2017, where it earned a regional gold and an American Topical Association award. Further improvements were suggested by the judges “Down East” and also by the Royal Philatelic Society London international judges, Chris and Birthe King, who visited and gave exciting exhibiting lectures in Toronto this summer.

By October, at London, Ont.’s Canpex, the revised exhibit included new ephemera and artifacts such as a Halifax Reconstruction coat pin and a firefighter’s uniform decoration. This earned it both a BNAPS Research Award for the 2,300-plus hours put into the work and a national gold ribbon.


Matthys “road-show” presentation begins by explaining he “had the extra challenge of creating a stamp exhibit on a story where no stamps existed on the subject.”

Meanwhile, collectors in the room are kept on their toes with items like old newspapers, magazine articles, books and other period pieces, which are passed around for examination as Matthys retells the story inside an hour.

“Each time I make this presentation, it’s always a different story,” he says, adding “there’s always something new to tell, and so many different facets of the Great Halifax Explosion of 1917 that can be told” while catering to the live interactive audience’s questions and commentary.

On certain slides, brief movie clips of related news stories are presented on-screen, including the familiar Historica/Canada Post vignette where doomed telegraph operator Vince Coleman saves the lives of those on an inbound passenger train. Artifacts such as commercial covers, postcards and letters whose messages highlight the emergency response and social-history at the time make up the key attention-getting items. Back then, the postcard was king, and analogous to today’s text message.

Prior to the finale, a comparison between New York’s Twin Towers’ monument at its Ground Zero is made with that of Halifax’s non-existent equivalent. The loss of life in both tragedies are comparable, yet in Halifax, a large shipyard superstructure today occupies the not-so-sacrosanct place where the Mont-Blanc’s explosive cargo detonated.


On Nov. 6, Matthys attended the private stamp launch of Canada Post’s domestic rate commemorative stamp, “1917-2017 Halifax Explosion,” held at Government House on Barrington Street in Halifax. In attendance were the city’s mayor; top brasses from the navy, police and fire departments; federal and provincial politicians; authors; staff from the stamp’s designers Burke and Burke; folks from the municipal Halifax Explosion Committee, representatives from the Stamp Advisory Committee; the media and Canada Post; and of course, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, the Honourable Arthur J. LeBlanc.

Canada Post issued a domestic-rate Halifax
Explosion commemorative stamp on Nov. 6.

After the Queen’s dedication was read aloud, LeBlanc unveiled a poster of the new commemorative stamp. In addition, a special framed gift to the Lieutenant-Governor was revealed. It contained an enlargement of the stamp and the front and back of both the booklet and the first-day cover, plus an engraved plaque to His Honour.

Unfortunately, no special fancy cancel was available at the launch. Perhaps one will be created in time for usage today, which is the anniversary of the explosion.

Thanks to the helpful postal employees of the Bedford Row Post Office, two pictorial cancelling devices could be used to frank cards and letters on the day of issue. The official first-day cover has a gold cancel which resembles the timepiece found in the ruins whose hands were frozen at 9:04 a.m. It also appears “recto-verso” on the first-day cover.

The front cover of the Novapex 2017 booklet.

Seven months earlier, Hugh Rathbun, of the Nova Scotia Stamp Club, created and sold out the 40 show covers and 11 booklets of Picture Postage stamps for the Novapex 2017 show and bourse. Oddly enough, the official stamp of Nov. 6, resembles Hugh’s design, having used the “Halifax Wrecked” newspaper headline. The show booklet cover coincidentally resembles the official first-day cover with the surviving SS Imo leaning on its side in the shallows.


In wrapping up the presentation, Matthys evangelizes the necessity of spreading out of philately and postal history beyond, to other audiences, especially into the realm of museums, historical societies and other “history conscious” demographics.

He has had some prior success with another, yet smaller, exhibit entitled “Before the Causeway – The Mails of Port Hastings,” which can be perused in the Port Hastings Museum upon entering Cape Breton.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic will host the philatelic exhibit ‘The Great Halifax Explosion of 1917’ early next year.

In early 2018, staff at Halifax’s prominent Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has plans to set aside one of their Tuesday evening talks for Matthys’ presentation as well as to show the exhibit to the general public.  Readers are encouraged to watch this space for the upcoming talk at maritimemuseum.novascotia.ca/events.

Matthys can be reached by email at Matthys.Leon@gmail.com.

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