Sunday, 4 January 2009

Transcribing the 1861 Census of Toronto

This is not a New Year’s Resolution, but a New Year Decision: it’s time to build a blog!

Since 2005 I have been transcribing the 1861 census of Toronto. So far I have completed the three wards on the east side of Yonge Street (about 25,000 people) and I am currently working on the ward with the largest population west of Yonge Street—St John’s Ward.

When I started I worked with a hand-held computer (or personal digital assistant) which held a copy of Excel. I borrow the microfilms through the Church of the Latter Day Saints and view them at my local Family History Centre. After a day’s transcribing I would come home and upload my files to my desktop computer and add a few additional columns of data which are useful at later stages of the analysis. It was a slow job—on a good day I would complete 25 folios or households. Nevertheless, two wards were completed that way.

In summer 2007 I decided to see whether my digital camera could take pictures off the microfilm reader screen. Once I got a tripod the results were good enough that I switched over to taking pictures at the FHC and transcribing the details from my photos to my spreadsheet at home. I continued to write down the data for each head of household on my PDA while at the Centre. This was in case anything went wrong with the pictures and I had to repeat some shots. But my entry speed moved from 25 households to an average of 60, and I finished off the third ward at a speed that felt like a cloud of dust!

The three eastern wards were complete by October 2007. I then moved the data to Access where it was easier to inspect my findings on a household by household basis. I spent the following year building up my database and comparing the families with the people listed in Caverhill’s Directory of Toronto of 1860 and Mitchell’s Directory of Toronto of 1864. This part of my research is still incomplete but I have reached the letter S. I feel a lot more ahead than when I had only completed up to L.

Since I am not one to take pictures day in and day out, my camera took “a holiday” over several months, and when I brought it out again it had ceased to work. I sent it away for investigation and possible repair. Once I heard the cost of repair I decided that buying another camera was a better option. The second camera is physically smaller than the original but holds a greater number of pixels. This means that I can comfortably lean my hands on the top of the microfilm reader box instead of using a tripod. I use about three shots for each form or schedule. I now consider the pictures I am taking part of my archive, whereas when I first started, they were just a means to an end. Production speed has now moved up to 70 houses per day, but because the FHC is not open as much as it was I am only working two days a week.


  1. Hi,

    I really enjoyed reading your census transcribing journey. I really wish I could have joined you on it. Maybe I should start a blog too......

    Happy New Year.


  2. Hi,

    Congrats on tackling such a major undertaking. I've worked on transcribing early census returns for Aberdeen city and county and know how cross-eyed it can make you after a while. If ever you come across any DUFFUS families in Toronto they will be part of my tree & I would be interested to hear of them. Happy New Year from New Zealand, Carol Veale.

  3. Hello

    I find your blog very fascinating. I live in a house in the gerrard and river street are (don street at river). I am trying to discover the history of the house which appears to have been built in the 1850's so 20 to 30 years older than the other victorian houses in the immediate area. I cannot find any information that goes that far back. If you can be of help I would love to speak to you. thank you.

  4. I am looking for photographs of houses like yours. Can you send me one? When it comes time to publish I would like to have a few illustrations.

    If you tell me your house number--privately--I can look it up in the city directories and see it the owner or resident was also in the census. But it is amazing just how sparsely populated this area was in 1861. It was just being settled so there were a lot of spaces between the houses.