If you have ever wanted to know about the history of your home and the people who occupied it before you, James Johnstone is who you want to track down. Over the years he has researched background information for over 800 houses in Vancouver and 300 of those in East Vancouver alone.
His research is extensive and includes the creation of information booklets that you can even display in your home. These information kits include a historical demographic overview of your home, an explanation of nearby street names, how the house was built (and by whom), a year-by-year outline of who lived in your house (including their occupations), and where they were born.
I caught up with Johnstone over email and asked him a few questions about his very unique occupation.
How did you get into this line of work?
“For most of my life I have worked in Japanese tourism. I majored in Asian Studies (Japanese language and history) at UBC and actually studied at Okayama University in western Japan for a total of two and a half years, part of that time on a Japanese Ministry of Education (Mombusho) Scholarship. While in Japan, my area of study was the development of Castle towns in the 16th and 17th century. I had to learn to read 500 year-old, brush-written primary documents called Komonjo. It was really interesting. When I came back to Canada, I chose to work in tourism, rather than do post graduate studies. After years of living in apartments in the West End, I moved into an old Edwardian house on Odlum Drive in the East End. The basement stairs whispered when you walked on them. The basement walls were incised here and there with cryptic graffiti that hinted at the stories of past residents. It was obvious to me that the house had tales to tell. To find out what they were I trundled off to the City of Vancouver Archives and dove into the wonderful world of house history research. Well, my first forays weren’t dives so much as enthusiastic wades into a pool of knowledge that got deeper and more rewarding the further I explored its depths.
After I had finished my first draft of the history of my house, I got curious about context and wondered what connection my house and the people who lived in it had with the histories of the neighbouring houses. So next I researched all the houses on my side of the street. When I was finished that, I researched the houses on the other side of the street. This entire process was repeated after I moved to our present home on Hawks Avenue in Strathcona in October of 2000.
When September 11 happened, Japanese tourism to Canada tanked. My consulting contract with the tour company I worked for was terminated. I was left with no income and nothing to give my new friends and neighbours on our block for Christmas. The only thing I had to give was a copy of the house history research I had done for the block. It was when one of my neighbours commented while thumbing through the pages I had given her, “You know, you could do this sort of thing as a business,” that I began to look at what had been my hobby as a possible career path.”
Have you always been passionate about local history?
“I have always loved history, period. When I was very young I was into ancient Greece and Rome. I was born in Victoria and brought up in Kamloops and Richmond. I suppose my appreciation for old houses got its start in Victoria. In my teens and twenties I began to read about Vancouver’s history. I loved Chuck Davis‘ history columns in The Province and bought all his subsequent books. I would have to say that it was Chuck’s passion for Vancouver’s history that really made me appreciate what we have here in our city. (In 1985, I had the honour of escorting Chuck and a group he organized on a trip to Japan for the Expo in Tsukuba.) Eric Nicol and Michael Kluckner’s books were also influential. After I moved to Strathcona, I read Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s collection of East End oral histories called OPENING DOORS and from that moment on I have become particularly passionate about Vancouver’s East End’s history. It’s like I have always been an East Ender… …People who come on the tours are always blown away at the richness of the history here and its not just about our Victorian and Edwardian architectural legacy, its the stories of the people who lived in them that makes a visit to Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood so compelling.”
What are some of the interesting facts that you discover when researching homes?
“When I do a house history I go pretty deep. It’s like I feel I owe it to the ghosts of residents past, somehow. When I am slogging through the hundreds of birth, marriage and death records I have to go through to research any given house, sometimes I wonder, Am I the only one who is remembering you right now? And even though I know I have gone way overtime on a project with a limited budget, I can’t stop or leave things out. There’s almost a spiritual aspect to the work.
On a basic level I find it fascinating to see just to what ends people would go to keep a roof over their head and look after their families. Particularly in the working class East End, there was no such thing as job security in tough times, and people changed jobs often. It totally blows me away how fragile life was back then, particularly for women. I can remember hundreds of instances of women dying during childbirth or shortly afterwards from infection. The number of people who died from TB, whole families in fact, one after another, was a huge shock.
When you come right down to it, it’s not the earth shattering big events of history I find compelling so much, rather the fact that sometimes just making it here to Canada for a new start, staying alive and feeding your family, was a huge triumph. The more I learn about the people I am researching, where they came from, what propelled them to come here, who they married, and how they ended up, the more I want to know. With every piece of history uncovered, another mystery is revealed. I think that is what is so fascinating about working in this field.”
If you could live in any house in Vancouver, which would it be?
“That’s an interesting question. I have to say I actually love where I live. I have only lived here in Strathcona, the old East End, for ten years, but I consider myself an East Ender. Even with all its problems and challenges, Strathcona is a real neighbourhood, deeply rooted in its history and proud of its diversity. It’s not for everyone, but I love it… and maybe that’s part of why I love it…. and the more I love it, I find the more it loves me back.”
Where Vancouver Museum, 1100 Chestnut Street (Vanier Park)
When Thursday, November 18, 2010 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm
Admission $5.00 Non-members; Heritage Vancouver members free