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How to Research Your New Westminster Home

By Jim Wolf


If you 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!

The first 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 notes organized.


First Stop, the Library

We are 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 working folk.

Go to 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.

Heritage Inventory

The city 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.

The inventory 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.

The City 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.

Heritage Home Tour Database

Heritage 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.

City Directories

The Library 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.

There 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.

Start 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).

Working 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.

Fortunately, 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.

For readers 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).

Fire Insurance Plans

Fire 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 maps:

  • Insurance Plan of the City of New Westminster, B.C. surveyed in 1897, Revised 1905
  • Insurance Plan, surveyed 1907, revised 1914
  • Insurance Plan, surveyed 1907, revised 1919
  • Insurance Plan, 1957

Important Note: These volumes must be requested from the reference librarian. They are also very fragile and require careful handling.

Start 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.

Look 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.

Photograph Collection

The Library 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.

The Library is in the process of making their photograph collection available on the internet and photos already added to the database can be searched at www.nwheritage.org.

You might also be interested in taking a Virtual Tour through the history of New Westminster on the internet at www.nwheritage.org.

Finally, do not be discouraged if you cannot find a photo of your house yet. Remember that the search has just begun.

Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings

The Library 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.

Look 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 or changed.


The Library 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.

Information File

This 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.

B.C. Assessments

Early 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.

After 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.


New Westminster Museum/Archives

Irving 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 to researchers.

Now, 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:

  • Library Directories 1901-1918
  • Insurance Plans 1897, 1907, 1912
  • Library Photographs
    • Houses envelopes
    • City views
  • Library Information File
    • Architects envelope
    • Houses envelope

With 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.

If 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:

Building File

Museum 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.

People File

Filed 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 candidates.


The Museum 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.

Water Connection

The Museum 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.

For this 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.

Fire Insurance Plans

Check holdings at Irving House


Many 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)

Cemetery Records and Obituaries

Because 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

If the 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.

Now, 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.


B.C. Land Titles Office

If you 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.

The gamble 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)

Depending 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 in 1890.

Remember that you will need your legal lot description to search at Land Titles.

The reward 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.

City Hall

Getting 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."

Both 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.

Because 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.

All kidding 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)

Do not 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 Community

Probably 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.

The most 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.


In Conclusion

So, after 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.

Although 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.

When 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.

Finally, 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.

Note: 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.

For more detailed information on local organizations with historical or archival resources check our local history web site: www.nwheritage.org

You 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 Home’s History.
(R971.133 L457a)

To take a virtual tour of historical New Westminster click here.

Page last updated 2012-01-25

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