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Taxing Work

Ronen and I have been poring over some more city directories lately, looking at who lived where, what they did for a living, who they worked for. Our focus right now is Alma, Redan, and Sydenham Streets, in preparation for our walking tour of that area next week. To the framework from the directories, we add information from the “Children’s Census,” a list of all school-age children and which school board they belonged to that was collected until 1943. Recently we’ve been delving into Tax Assessment Rolls as well. They are confusing, but they give us better information on boarders and temporary residents, on who owned buildings, and they give the ages of some adults. While in the long term we can imagine doing quantitative analysis of this data, for now it is all about getting a set of hints about relationships and community life in the past. It helps us formulate questions for further research in the archives and through talking to people.

But some of these questions I can see already we will never answer. I have to admit I rather like those ones. Sometimes being aware of the inescapable elusiveness of the past is what historical research is all about. And the hints and gaps allow us to play with speculation in a rather delightful way. I’ve never been one to like historical fiction. But I do like more temporary daydreamy private fictions that don’t get pinned down — that are more in the realm of “what if” than “once upon a time.” Ronen likes them too; he admits to making up half-stories about the people we find and lose in the records.

Let me show what I mean.

This week we were working with the 1930 Tax Assessment Rolls for Frontenac Ward. Physically, these records are in the form of a big ledger book that the assessor would carry around the neighbourhood, door to door, with pencil in hand. It’s cumbersome. Not like the kind of handheld gadget the UPS man has today. I think in fact that given the neat handwriting, the assessor must have been invited into the house to write at a table.


We do not know the name of the assessor for Frontenac Ward in this year. We do know when he did his job (is it right to assume it was a he? I wonder) and how long it took.


It seems to me that compared to other assessors whose work I have seen, this one was a little nosy or OCD, or his boss unusually demanding: in the “Remarks” column at the right, he collected information on childrens’ names and ages, which did not have an impact on tax charges. Lucky us! Besides identifying human beings we might not have known of, this column gives us a glimpse of the assessor’s interactions with people. Consider this snippet from Stephen Street:


One day there is “1 on the way,” and another day the baby is “Here.” I can imagine the proud father hailing the assessor as he worked the other side of the street, saying, “It’s a boy!” and the assessor duly noting that down when he had a chance, with a smile on his face.

Here’s another interesting annotation:


What is that name doing there up in the corner, floating free of the columns? Well, for one thing, it isn’t in the assessor’s handwriting. I propose that he asked his informant to write their own name so he’d get the spelling right. There are other Easter European names in various hands elsewhere in the ledger:


You can imagine the assessor scratching his head, and saying, “OK, you write it.” We don’t know if he did that in impatience, in curiosity and respect, or just out of an officious obsession with getting things “right.”

If it seems farfetched to imagine the emotional life of a tax assessor, consider this:


June 11, 1929. “My God, what a day!” Underlined no less, pressing hard on the page. What happened that day? Bad day at work? Good day at work? Bad news at home? Gorgeous weather? Vicious dogs? See, we will never know. But we do know that this paper-pusher was a person.

— Laura Murray


  1. Skot Caldwell

    This is wonderful! I love this tantalizing snapshot into our neighbourhood’s past. Thank you for revealing the human footprints in these mundane columns. Where are these

  2. Skot Caldwell

    oops…I meant to finish: “Where are these ledgers kept? Can anyone in the community go and look through them?”

    • Laura Murray

      They are at Queen’s Archives. They are quite difficult to work with… the first place to look for info on your house for example would be the City Directories. If there is interest I would be happy to run a workshop on researching your house…

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