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Toronto Archives


The do-it-yourself approach to researching your home’s history can be a rewarding experience much like Indiana Jones unlocking the secrets of a long-lost treasure. What’s not so apparent to beginners is the amount of education required to undertake this journey successfully. After all, Indiana Jones was a university professor first and foremost. As you begin your own quest keep in mind that Hogtown House Histories can assist you with techniques and insights that will save time, overcome roadblocks, and reveal insights commonly overlooked by novices.  

The following are some of the most common beginner challenges that can be mitigated with expert advice. 

When consulting the numerous “how to” guides available don’t expect any single guide to provide all the answers. You’ll need detailed instructions for each primary source of historical records including censuses, land registry records, tax assessment rolls, city atlases and genealogical records. Also take advantage of the helpful staff at local archives to locate newspaper clippings, building permits and historical photographs related to your property or neighbourhood.

Be aware that just because many types of records are available online, often in searchable databases, they’re not necessarily simple to use. Some information sources may seem straightforward at first, like looking up your home’s address in old city directories to determine its age. But if your home had a different street number in the past – as many did – you can easily end up researching the wrong house’s origin. Most records, though, can’t even be searched by street address and instead require the home’s corresponding municipal, provincial or federal voting district which is subject to change over the years. Census searches also require the occupant’s name which is frequently transcribed incorrectly in online databases. And in the case of Ontario Land Registry records – the ultimate authority on property ownership – you’ll need to know the property’s “geographic address” which is defined by subdivision plans and lot numbers that also evolve over time.

Once you’ve successfully located the records you’re ready for the next phase of the discovery process: properly interpreting them. To do this you’ll need to return to the DIY guides to learn the archaic terminology and obscure abbreviations regularly used in historic documentation like this description of a property’s boundaries from the Ontario Land Registry:

Finally, there are the critical insights that won’t be found in any DIY guide. How do you even read a scanned document with terrible reproduction quality and/or illegible handwriting like the sample shown above? Is the information in annual records collected the year of publication or the year prior?  Why does ownership information in municipal assessment rolls frequently contradict provincial land registry records? This last oversight actually extends well beyond amateurs: even the esteemed Heritage Toronto has fallen victim in some of their official profiles of registered heritage properties, crediting historic houses’ original ownership to people who were actually just their first tenants. Again, we can help.

So whether you’re just beginning your project and want to get off to a good start, or you’re well into the journey and have hit a roadblock, feel free to drop us a line. Our consultation services are $40 per hour and available on an individual or group basis.

Happy hunting!

property description
abstracts at Ontario Land Registry, Toronto office
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