Joseph William Mathews, horticulturalist, was the son of Robert Mathews and his wife Mary Elizabeth, born Stockton. He received his training in horticulture at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (near London) and came to South Africa in 1895 to take up an appointment as horticulturalist in the Cape Town Public Gardens. However, he almost immediately set up as a nurseryman and florist in Cape Town. He won many prizes for the flowers he cultivated and for floral arrangements, and is regarded as one of the founders of floriculture in South Africa (Compton, 1949).
When the National Botanical Garden was established at Kirstenbosch in 1913 he was appointed as its first curator, under the director of the gardens, Professor H.H.W. Pearson*. They began to lay out and develop the garden with great enthusiasm, with Mathews continuing the work after Pearson's death in 1916. From 1919 he and the new director, Professor R.H. Compton* continued to expand the garden, despite the meager resources then available. Mathews also dealt with the numerous contributions of plants from an enthusiastic public and was always on call for information and advice. Compton (1949) described him as 'a gardener of the old school, stocky and sturdy in build, a fount of energy, not sparing himself and expecting the same of others, sternly economical, practical to his fingertips in all the multitude of tasks which fell to him for lack of adequate staff, loving his plants first and foremost, devoted to Kirstenbosch'. He introduced many indigenous plants to cultivation, especially bulb plants, some of which were undescribed species, and was one of the first local horticulturalists to encourage the use of indigenous plants. He retired in April 1936.
Mathews published a series of articles on the cultivation of indigenous plants at Kirstenbosch in the Journal of the Botanical Society of South Africa. These dealt with the cultivation of Buchu (1918), Karoo ferns and filmies (1919), South African Iridaceae (1923), succulents (1927), gladioli (1928), the haworthias (1929), lachenalias (1930), and ixias (1931). Other articles by him in the same journal dealt with progress at Kirstenbosch (1923), flowering plants of garden merit at Kirstenbosch (1931, 1934), notes on deferred germination (1933), lawn grasses on trial at Kirstenbosch (1935), and South African conifers for garden use (1935). He also publishes many articles on these and other topics in the journal Veld and Flora. Shortly after his retirement he wrote a book on The cultivation of non-succulent South African plants (Cape Town, 1938), the first of its kind in South Africa. For many years he was the horticultural correspondent of The Cape Argus.
Mathews was elected a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society around 1928 and an Associate of Honour of that society in 1932. He was a member of the Cape Natural History Club in the nineteen-thirties and acted as club consultant for succulents to at least 1939. The Mathews Rockery at Kirstenbosch was named after him, as were the plant species Geissorhiza mathewsii and Tritonia mathewsiana, both by H.M.L. Bolus*.
Mathews was married to Elizabeth Menzies Greenhill in 1906 and they had one daughter.