Victoria 1891 Check Census

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Officially, the population of the city of Victoria in 1891 was 16,841. That figure was determined by the federal government following the 3rd decennial census of Canada. The national census was undertaken in April 1891 and results were announced in July by the Dominion Census Office.

Civic leaders, expecting a much higher number, were convinced that Victoria had been undercounted. Accordingly, Victoria City Council commissioned a follow-up census in September 1891. The municipal "check census" was carried out under the direction of R. T. Williams, a commercial printer and directory publisher. The check census indicated that Victoria’s population was about 23,000 - a figure more gratifying to local residents than the Dominion census. However, the Dominion Census Office was not swayed by the municipal census and the official population figure for the City of Victoria was not altered. Civic boosters in Victoria were disappointed but undaunted. Williams used information from the check census to compile the 1892 edition of Williams' Illustrated Official British Columbia Directory, while local newspapers routinely cited the municipal tally whenever population figures for Victoria were mentioned.

In its finished form, the check census was a type-written alphabetical list of people who represented census households in the city. Usually, in households comprising more than one person, only the head of household was identified by name. The presence of other occupants was indicated by a number entered in a column next to information about the principal householder. A separate column was used to record the number of Chinese or aboriginal people in any household. In most cases, the civic address of a dwelling was recorded; often the householder's occupation and place of employment was recorded, too. A typical entry would appear as follows:

Name [Personal information] "Total"
"Chinese or Indian"
Baker, George Carpenter, 77 Henry St. 1
Gray, John Civil engineer, 39 Cadboro Bay Rd. 6 1
Hing, Kam 45 Cormorant St. 16

In these examples, we can infer that George Baker lived alone in his home on Henry Street; that John Gray’s household consisted of seven people, one of whom was probably a Chinese servant, and that all residents in Kam Hing’s establishment were Chinese.

Canvassers employed on the check census also recorded people living in residential hotels, cabins and tenements, as well as men who lived aboard vessels berthed in the harbour. Many of these residents were overlooked in the official 1891 Dominion census.

With the assistance of research assistants (whose contributions are gratefully acknowledged) the check census typescript was transcribed into a machine-readable format and entries were cross-referenced with a transcript of the 1891 Dominion census and Williams’ 1892 Directory of Victoria.

The viHistory check census database can be searched by surname, given name, occupation and street. By clicking on the plus sign [+] beside each name, researchers may find additional information about the record. In cases where related information is recorded on the 1891 Dominion census of Victoria, a hyperlinked reference to the 1891 census will be displayed. The link will take researchers to more detailed nominal census records.

As might be expected, there were anomalies in the typescript and there are discrepancies between the municipal census and our transcript of the 1891 Dominion census. Researchers are advised that the best way of addressing some of the anomalies is to consult the original records. The Victoria check census is available on microfilm at the British Columbia Archives; the call number is MS-1908. Microfilm copies of the nominal schedule of the 1891 Dominion census are available in many archives and libraries, while digital images of the Dominion census schedules are accessible online at Library and Archives Canada.

Patrick A. Dunae
viHistory editor & project director