to Research Your New Westminster Home
own an old New Westminster House, chances are that you have always
wanted to know more about it but may have not known how or where to
look for information. Whether you need to know why the house is haunted
or what that now-demolished front porch looked like, diligent research
is sometimes your only option. Finding historic information in the
Royal City does have its difficulties but if you follow the process
outlined in this article you will never fail in becoming more informed
about the place that you call home. I am going to write this article
assuming you know nothing and hoping that you will become a most serious
and diligent researcher by following my directions exactly. If you
do, the rewards could include discovering a famous resident, architect
or even (if you're lucky) a historic photo to hang in the front hall!
plan of any research attack is to set aside some of your busy life
and make a commitment to do the groundwork. Grab a pencil, paper and
some change to make photocopies. Don't forget a file folder to hold
your research in one place before you head out. If you own a home
computer set up a document to record what you find and keep your research
Stop, the Library
very fortunate to have the New Westminster Public Library which has
made a commitment to preserve and make available so much historical
information. Also handy is the fact that it is open evenings for busy
the Library and proceed to the Reference Department desk on the second
floor. Here you will always find a cheerful and helpful staff member
to direct you to the following sources.
inventory has been published by the New Westminster Planning Department
in a convenient 5 volume set covering most city neighbourhoods. Find
the volume with your neighbourhood and check the index of addresses
at the back to see if your house happens to be listed (or check the
Library's online index). If it is: read the information, admire the
photograph, take a photocopy, and then forget about it. Also do not
be disappointed if your home is not listed, this does not reflect
the value of your home, it just means that it was missed or did not
make the criteria used by the student researchers.
is filled with a myriad of mistakes the size of Buicks and the most
weird and cryptic set of house style names you will ever have the
displeasure of trying to comprehend. Better to use the inventory as
a starting point and conduct your own research. Remember that the
persons who conducted the inventory spent scarce minutes researching
each house and as a result the information, although useful, is sparse,
incomplete, and very often wrong. Do not despair, your job is to be
a history detective and find the truth as it can be determined through
solid research and fact checking.
of New Westminster Planning Department tries to keep a record of changes
to inventoried buildings. The original inventory was completed between
1984 and 1990. In 1995 a draft update was prepared- noting buildings
demolished, houses which have moved or undergone significant changes,
details on supplementary structures, and adding a number of new buildings
to the inventory.
Home Tour Database
Home Tours Database contains illustrations and descriptions of
homes featured on the annual homes tours of the New Westminster Heritage
Preservation Society from 1980 to the present. The Home Tour database is searchable by house name, address, owner,
architect, builder, or by the date of construction.
has a wonderful collection of directories which cover the city from
1860 to the present. Every house in the city is documented in these
volumes which list many of the former residents of your home along
with fascinating personal details.
are several ways to approach research using directories, but being
thorough is a virtue, so here is my method, which never fails. Always
write down everything you find including a page number should you
make a mistake when addresses change and you have to go back to a
directory. Believe me when I tell you that after just five directory
books, everything becomes a blur. Write it down, and don't forget
to note the year of the directory.
by looking up your name and address in the most up-to-date directory.
The first section is alphabetical. Here you should find the name of
the occupant of your house and his/her occupation, address and telephone
number. The second section lists the Lower Mainland's streets alphabetically
with addresses following in numerical order listing names if the property
is occupied. This two section "criss-cross" directory can be used
to trace your house and its owners or occupants right back to 1925.
You can be thorough and list every year. Or just skip two, three,
or four year intervals to see how long a property was owned/occupied
by and individual, and then checking back when a new person appears
to get the year that they moved in. Always look at the directories
carefully, as sometimes New Westminster and Burnaby streets are listed
separately from Vancouver. Remember that directories list occupants,
not owners which are usually indicated by an asterisk. Also note that
in some years numbered streets may be with the numbers (6th, 7th or
8th) or may be spelled out in the alphabetical list of street names
(Sixth, Seventh, or Eighth).
backwards from 1924 in directories does become more complicated so
take your time, be patient and you will hopefully be rewarded. Most
of the directories from this earlier period cover all British Columbia
cities and towns, and so the first thing to do is find New Westminster.
The directories in the library collection which date from 1900-1912
are the most frustrating because they do not contain street directories,
only alphabetically listed names. The best you can do is to take the
name listed at your address in 1922 and try to trace it back to find
out how long that person was at your address. Beyond that trick there
is not much more you can do with this set of directories beyond searching
line-by-line for your address. This is not as hopeless as it sounds,
since it is fairly easy to scan pages quickly for numbers which start
with your particular digits.
there is a set of directories printed by our city's old newspaper
publisher The Columbian Printing Company that does have a street list.
The directory for 1909 is photocopied for handy reference and the
1908 version is on microfilm.
who own Victorian houses, the directories pre-1900 again feature the
handy street address cross reference. However, this set too is fraught
with difficulties, which include different street Numbers and old
street names that have been changed. Pre-1890 directories don't contain
street numbers, just lists of residents compiled in the approximate
order of the houses themselves. For those who own houses in Sapperton,
the West End and Queensborough, remember that because your neighbourhoods
were not originally part of the city, they are often omitted. It might
be easier to come back to the pre-1900 directories after checking
the Fire Insurance Plans. (N.B. Pre-1920 directories are kept behind
the counter and must be requested from the librarian).
Insurance Plans are large scale maps that were compiled for fire insurance
underwriters. These show a detailed outline of all buildings in their
exact locations. New Westminster Public Library has the following
Plan of the City of New Westminster, B.C. surveyed in 1897, Revised
Plan, surveyed 1907, revised 1914
Plan, surveyed 1907, revised 1919
Note: These volumes must be requested from the reference librarian.
They are also very fragile and require careful handling.
your search by looking at the index map for each set which will tell
you which map contains your house lot and neighbourhood. Each map
was continually revised with updates pasted in over the original map.
Hence a map set covers a period of years rather than a single year.
If your house is shown printed on the original mapsheet, the house
existed when the map set was created. A pasted-in section covering
your property could indicate the house was built after the map was
created or was substantially altered.
carefully at the outline of your house. A fire insurance map can indicate
porches and other extensions of your house which have since disappeared.
It can also show garages, sheds, and other subsidiary buildings which
have long since vanished but which may explain certain bits of concrete
in your yard.
has an extensive photograph collection which has been catalogued in
some detail. Start by checking the catalogue cards for your house
address, street and family names found in the directory search. Remember
to look for the street views which might show your home in the distance.
Photographs of houses are contained together in several envelopes.
Take some time to look through the collection for houses of a similar
style to your own-they might prove to be useful.
is in the process of making their photograph collection available
on the internet and photos already added to the database can be searched
also be interested in taking a Virtual Tour through the history of
New Westminster on the internet at www.nwheritage.org.
do not be discouraged if you cannot find a photo of your house yet.
Remember that the search has just begun.
Inventory of Historic Buildings
also has a microfiche inventory of local buildings produced as part
of the Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings. In 1973 over 350
houses and buildings, primarily in the Queen's Park, Brow of the Hill,
Downtown, West End and Sapperton neighbourhoods of New Westminster,
were photographed and put in microfiche format. There are approximately
four to ten pictures of each house, including both wide shots and
close ups. If you are interested in seeing what your house may have
looked like in 1973, check to see if your house was one of those photographed.
carefully, you may be amazed to see just how much your home has changed
and there may indeed be architectural details that are now removed
has most of the British Columbian newspapers on microfilm with some
indexes available for use However, unless you're willing to look through
several years of information, avoid the papers until you have the
construction date for your house or the names of previous owners to
research. The newspaper indexing can then lead you to biographical
information on previous owners of your house. Click
here for a list of indexes to early newspapers.
file includes information on New Westminster collected from newspapers,
magazines and other sources. It contains all sorts of information
on houses, architects, and individuals. Consult the Information File
directory kept at the top of the cabinet for a list of subjects.
property assessment records are available at the New Westminster Museum
and Archives. Researchers need the legal description of the property
to use the property assessment rolls. For a legal description check
the water connection records also housed at the New Westminster Museum
and Archives. You can also find the legal description on the City
of New Westminster’s Property Inquiry online at https://frontcounter.newwestcity.org/nwinfo/webinquiry/frames.cfm.
a few hours at the library, you should have a much better handle on
the approximate date of your house and its many occupants. With this
information in hand you will be ready to tackle Irving House, City
Hall and other sources.
House Historic Centre and the New Westminster Museum/Archives not
only hold a storehouse of local artifacts but also serve as the city's
largest depository of archival records about our history that is available
before you go charging down to the archives and ask a myriad of questions,
there are a few things you need to do. First, organize the preliminary
research that you have gathered and assemble a chronological list
of homeowner' names arranged by the dates when they occupied your
house or property. On a separate piece of paper, write down the legal
property description for your lot. You can easily find this tucked
away with your personal papers as it is written on the deed of ownership
or it is on the B.C. Assessment rolls at the Library. Another good
index to have handy is a short, easily referenced list of your property's
various street numbers and if the name of your street has changed
since the construction of the house. Also make a short list of the
research items that you have consulted:
Plans 1897, 1907, 1912
this information in hand you are now ready to call the Museum (527-4640)
to discuss your research project and make an appointment to see the
archives. The worst thing you could do is make a phone call and say
"What do you have on my house?" Museum staff time is so limited that
there is no possible way they can do the research for you.
have done your library research correctly, all you have to do now
is show up at the appointed time and provide the staff member with
your summaries of research. With this information in hand, this is
what they can do for you:
staff have endeavored to put together a file for every significant
heritage building in the city based on the inventory information.
Filed by address this is a must see for any notes or references that
may have been filed. For most homes however, this will likely just
include a repeat of inventory information. However being thorough
is a virtue so make sure you check your address. The museum also compiled
an inventory of historic buildings in the 1970s and took photographs
which may include now lost architectural details.
by surname these files contain at best anything on anyone that may
have played a role in the city's history. But they do tend to be a
bit hit and miss depending for its contents on what has been photocopied
from a myriad of sources from the archives and library and placed
here. This information tends to be biased towards those that lived
in the city prior to 1950 and who were prominent in social, fraternal
and political spheres of influence. Do not despair, there are also
cards filed with surnames of those that made water connections for
buildings across the city. So you may indeed have some luck here.
Make sure that you focus on the names found in the directory search.
Those individuals that remained in your home for the longest period
of time during the early years of the city may be the most likely
has an extensive collection of photographs which number in the thousands.
With the names and addresses that you have provided they will look
up in their cross-index and possibilities. This search, if you're
lucky, might in a rare case turn up a photo of your house, but in
a more likely scenario will usually provide some portraits or a face
in a group photo that will add an extra dimension to the names culled
from the directories.
staff developed an extensive cross index of the New Westminster city
waterworks hook-up register. By looking up your address staff could
provide you with the date when city work crews turned on the tap to
your house. However, this date can not be relied on with any degree
of accuracy to determine the date of construction for your home. For
example, Irving House, which was built in 1865 does not appear in
the water connection register until 1906. Further research disclosed
that Irving House, like so many other city properties had its own
well and privies in the back yard until a bathroom was added! So the
information although helpful must be compared with building permits
and directories to give an accurate construction date for your home.
search you will need your property description, as many entries are
without an address, just filed with a street name. If your house was
built on a street which has had its name changed, do not forget to
check the old street name in the index or any cross street from which
your property might have been addressed from in the past.
holdings at Irving House
people assume that local archives will contain letters, diaries and
other personal papers of many of the local pioneers that lived in
the New Westminster. Although this is very often the case, unfortunately
New Westminster has very few of these collections. Museum staff will
search the preliminary manuscript indexes to see if any of your names
are represented in the collections. (But you will be extremely lucky
if they have any such documents on your homeowners)
Records and Obituaries
the archives lacks personal information that has been donated by pioneer
families, the museum has compiled an extensive cross index of cemetery
records, obituary notices and biographies found in local newspapers.
Provide staff with your homeowner names and they will search the vertical
file of family names, check the cross-index of obituary notices that
have appeared in the British Columbian newspaper from 1861 to 1940
and also look up names in the Fraser Cemetery record list
museum is unsuccessful in finding your homeowner listed in any of
these sources you can also go online to the
Provincial Museum and Archives website for Genealogical indexes. Use this
amazing database to find any dates of births, marriages or that all
important death date for a homeowner.
before you think I am becoming too morbid, please let me explain the
usefulness of such research. It is with this information that you
can find family information. Obituaries often mention the surviving
relations of the dearly departed and where they are currently living.
I personally have often turned to the telephone directory after reading
an older obituary and found the children, nieces or nephews still
living at the same location. By doing this you go right to the source
and if you're lucky come up with family photo albums and people who
remember living in the house.
Land Titles Office
have the "big bucks" to spend on research, then the B.C. Land Title
Office in New Westminster (88 Sixth Street, Telephone 660-2595) is
the place to be. This office has kept pace with every land transaction
since 1859 and can therefore trace who had title to a piece of property
right back to the original city lot auction. However, if you want
to research your house here, you have to let them research each transaction
individually starting from the file created when you bought the house
and going back in time.
is that if you think your house was built in 1890, the land title
search may require searching 5 to 100 transactions. There is a charge
for each transaction searched and a further change if you want to
have documents copied. (for an up-to-date list of fees, check the
Land Titles web site at www.bconline.gov.bc.ca)
on your budget, you may want to limit the number of transactions to
be searched, what documents if any you want copied, and also let them
know the approximate date you want them to stop. For example, if you
think your house was built c.1892 have the office staff end the search
that you will need your legal lot description to search at Land Titles.
for paying the "big bucks" is that you know exactly who owned and
therefore built your house and financial details from mortgages to
bankruptcies. The drawback to this research is that for detailed historical
searches, you start by contacting Land Titles in person or by letter
and then must wait for staff to be available to complete the work.
If you have really "big bucks" to spend your options do include hiring
one of a dozen private land title search companies that exist (see
yellow/telus pages under: title search ) which will do this search
for a fee.
information from overworked staff at City Hall can also be a frustrating
task that is made easier by having done the background research. It
also gives one great pleasure to tell staff that "...yes, you have
already looked at the library and checked the New Westminster Museum."
the Planning Department (Tel: 527-4532)and the Building & Plumbing
section of the Engineering Department (Tel: 527-4580) can assist you.
Either telephone or drop by at their front counters. This is especially
effective during tax time. Ask them what they have on file concerning
your address. Each department has access to a GIS computer map database
that can tell you all the permits associated with a particular address
and the date the building is believed to have been built. Remember
to compare this information with what you have found as this information
is often incorrect.
building permits began to be recorded at city hall on January 1, 1911,
they should have at least one reference to an addition, electrical
hook-up or other change that has occurred to your house. If they don't,
do not, I repeat, don't, tell them about that basement suite or sundeck
that was added sometime in the 1970's! The last thing you want is
inspectors showing up for a little surprise visit.
aside, city hall staff are usually very helpful. (The fact that I
work for a city department in Burnaby by no means prejudices my opinion
of fellow brothers and sisters of the union)
be surprised if you can find no historic plans for your house at city
hall. Very few residential house plans were ever deposited with the
city. It was not until the 1971 that house plans became a mandatory
part of the city's filing system. But do not give up. Some house owners
have discovered old plans filed with the city with modern additions
pasted over them.
the largest research base ignored by the amateur house researcher
is the community at large. When you begin your research project, talk
to your neighbours about old residents of the house and street. The
most fortunate thing about having such a short history in British
Columbia is that many of the people who have made history are still
with us, and if they have died, there are sons and daughters, grandchildren
and great grandchildren. With some extra sleuthing it is amazing just
what you can discover.
important thing is never to give up. Although it may be essential
that you find an old photograph of the house to restore that front
verandah, the sheer pleasure of house research is the thrill of the
hunt. Finding a relative of the original owner can be a let down,
especially if all you ever wanted was a photograph. Take your time
to enjoy the benefit of knowing the families which once took so much
pride in owning the house you now call home. Invite them over for
coffee and an afternoon or reminiscing. You will always learn something
that will make the history of the house come alive.
some time researching, with a little perseverance and with a bit of
luck, you may be a step closer to understanding the history of your
house. All this without leaving the comfort of New Westminster, our
prosperous and beautiful home town.
you may never be finished researching your home and its families it
is always important to stop and take some time to record what you
have discovered for your benefit. Even if you do not pick up the search
for a few months it is very surprising how your memory can forget
all the details you have discovered. Write it down. You can put your
information on a computer file for ease of later edits. I like to
organize information chronologically from the construction of the
house, with all that you discovered about the first owner and the
architect or builder they chose. Then in succession document all you
know about the families that have lived in your home including; family
information, occupations and any changes they made to the building.
Finally, because you are part of your home's history, add a section
to include a bit about you and your family, why you bought the house
and the changes you have made to your home.
you are finished your great work of research - remember that it is
always nice to share. Let your family read it so they can add their
thoughts and also understand why you have spent so much time away
from home researching. Send a copy to any former residents of the
house that assisted in your research and send a copy to the New Westminster
Archives, in order that a copy can be preserved in the building file
for future generations of home owners and researchers to discover.
remember the New Westminster Heritage Preservation Society is always
there for its members should you have any questions about your house
or get stuck in what can be the somewhat frustrating quagmire of researching
your home's history, you can telephone me at 526-3087.
This article was originally published in The Preservationist, the
Newsletter of the New Westminster Heritage Preservation Society, Spring
1993 and was revised in September 2000 for this publication.
The author, Jim Wolf, is a local historian, author and
heritage conservation specialist who works with the City of Burnaby as a heritage planner. As an active member of
New Westminster's heritage community he serves on the board of the New Westminster Heritage Foundation. He loves
old houses and is currently restoring the 1907 Herbert & Ellen Harrison House located at 432 Third Street with his wife Lauren
and son Griffin.
more detailed information on local organizations with historical or
archival resources check our local history web site: www.nwheritage.org
might also want to consult At
Home With History; untold secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage
Homes by Eve Lazarus. Chapter 12 is called Researching Your Own
take a virtual tour of historical New Westminster click