Nelson, B.C. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Nelson, B.C. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

LETTER: Nelson’s revealing 1931 census

From readers Patricia and Robert Malcolmson…

When people reply to census enumerations, they are assured that what they say about themselves is confidential. But this assurance lasts for only so long.

On June 1, the 92-year rule for confidentiality governing Canada’s census in 1931 expired, and all of us can now learn a lot more about individuals living at that time, including those in Nelson. All this information is readily available online, for free.

We have glanced over some of these details. They are presented on pages with spaces for the names of 50 people, with 37 columns attached to each name to enter specific facts. These include address; size of household and whether it had a radio; the monthly rent or the value of an owned property; the place of the person’s birth; age; religion; employment and sometimes pay; and details on recent unemployment (if any).

Those who examine these enumerators’ records are likely to have certain questions in mind – perhaps about a particular family, or hotel, or section of the city. We were surprised to discover the size of Nelson’s prison population. In June 1931 the provincial jail (now demolished), just north of the courthouse, housed the warden, William Jarris (paid a generous annual salary of $2,250), his wife Martha, their 19-year-old daughter May, and 33 prisoners.

Only 14 of these prisoners were Canadian-born, 12 in B.C. The rest were foreign-born: England, Scotland, the U.S., the former Yugoslavia, China, Germany, Austria, Poland, Russia, Wales, Ireland and Italy.

Like most historical evidence, the census returns are not cut and dried. No doubt some people fibbed; others may innocently have provided incorrect information. Still, this evidence offers a revealing and evocative perspective on Nelson’s society 92 years ago.

Patricia and Robert Malcolmson