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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Where to find old photos of your house

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Queen Anne house on South Turner Street in Victoria, ca.1903. Image courtesy of Barb Little.


Some of my favourite pictures in Sensational Victoria are the then and now ones in James Bay. There’s a fabulous archival shot of Carr House on Government Street taken in 1869 and a current photo that doesn’t look all that much different—143 years later. Another find is of the Queen Anne house on South Turner Street built in 1889.

Derek Hawksley, a set builder and his wife Maureen MacIntosh a prop builder, moved into this funky James Bay house in 1984. The old house had suffered through some horrible renovations over the years and Derek wanted to see what it originally looked like. “When we bought it, the walls and the floors were all going in different directions. We signed the papers on the table in the living room, and I put down the pen and it rolled right off,” he told me. “We both decided it’s the kind of place you’d want to come home to.”

Skene Lowe and James Hall, two well-known photographers of the era, had built the house as a rental property. Through the city directories Derek found that nearly a hundred people had lived there at one point or another, but mostly they were renters and few stayed for more than five years. The few former residents he located weren’t able to help and there were no archival photos on record. Then one day he found an old photo of his house taken around 1911 and its inhabitants left in his mail box. “The person who was standing on the porch was a gardener at Butchart Gardens where I worked for years and years doing the fireworks, so there was a connection there.”

The photo of Derek’s house (above) was given to me by Barb Little. She tells me that her husband’s grandparents (Matthew James Little and Mary Jane (Parsell) Little lived here for four years following their marriage in 1903. The folks on the porch, she says, are Mary Jane’s brother Robert Parsell, an engineer with BC Cement with his kids Ella May (born 1899) and Thomas Norman (born 1900).

Old pictures can really help tell the story of your house. There are thousands of historical photos available through libraries and archives, many are available online. In Vancouver, Special Collections at the VPL has over 90,000 historical photographs. BC Archives has an impressive collection of five million photographs, and the City of Vancouver Archives about 1.5 million. Most municipal archives also have collections. Don’t just stop at your house address though, check under the name of the house if it had one, the street and names of previous owners. It’s worth checking nearby parks, commercial buildings, hotels, schools and other landmarks as early photographers such as Philip Timms and Leonard Frank used to roam the province shooting streetscapes and may have caught your house.


Eve Lazarus is a writer with a passion for history and heritage houses. She is the author of At Home with History: the secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage Houses and blogs obsessively about buildings and their genealogies at Her latest book Sensational Victoria: bright lights, red lights, murders, ghosts & gardens launched December 2012.