South Ward

The boundaries of the ward extended to Commercial Inlet on the north, Victoria Road on the west, and Robins Street on the south. The eastern portion of South Ward followed the shoreline along Esplanade Street to the Number One Indian Reserve where many of Nanaimo's First Nations people resided. The South Ward consisted mostly of small residences, with a few stores, hotels and churches. The Nanaimo's principal coal mine, the Number 1 Shaft of the New Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company [NVCMLC] , was also located here. The mine entrance was at the foot of Dickson Street, close to the edge of the harbour.

In 1891 the South Ward of Nanaimo was home to 1, 732 people. According to the census, 604 of South Ward residents were born in Canada; 525 born in England and 136 in Scotland. American-born residents numbered 188 while 74 South Ward residents were born in Finland. The census reveals that members of various ethnic groups tended to live according their national origins. Thus the Irish lived with the Irish and Finnish residents with other Finns. With respect to age, it's interesting to note that residents of European descent were generally older than residents born in Canada, the United States or Australia.

The family structure in South Ward households indicates that this was a working class community. The majority of the residents were unmarried men who had come to the ward in search of work and prosperity. But there were also many married couples living here and, as the census suggests, many families had moved from place to place before they came to Nanaimo. This is evident by looking at information relating to place of birth. For example, in a typical South Ward family, the parents may have been born in England, but their oldest child may have been born in Nova Scotia, then their next oldest may have been born in the United States, and the youngest born in British Columbia. In this way, was can trace the family's route to Nanaimo. A good example of such a family would be the William Alder family, listed in the 1891 census under Family 257. Several widows and widowers also lived in this part of Nanaimo. Some of the widowers may have lost their wives before they settled in South Ward, but it's likely that many of the widows lost their husbands in mining accidents, including the devastating mine explosion of 1887 which claimed the lives of 148 men.

Of the 762 adult males who resided in Nanaimo's South Ward, 539 or 70% were miners. Most of the miners shared accommodation with other miners in cramped, cheaply constructed homes. Even boarding houses were small and crowded. Consider, for example, the boarding house run by Mrs. Elizabeth Aitken, a South Ward widow. The boarding house consisted of two floors and six rooms. It accommodated Mrs. Aitken and her six children, a servant girl and seven miners.

Although the majority of work was in mining, 169 other men made a living performing tasks that didn't take them underground. Twenty-three South Ward men in the area were self employed, including Laurence Manson, who operated the general store on the corner of Haliburton and Farquhar streets. Other businessmen included Gus Steffin, manager of the Italian Hotel (now known as the Jolly Miner), Samuel Hague, owner of the Dew Drop Inn (aka the Patricia Hotel) and John Hough, proprietor of the Balmoral Hotel. (All of these hotels were located on Haliburton Street.) Engineers, labourers, house builders, teamsters, blacksmiths, engine operators, butchers, clerks, and longshoremen also resided in the South Ward. Of the thirty women who indicated an occupation other than homemaker, several worked as dressmakers, nurses, waitresses or domestic servants. However, one woman, 22 year old Isabel Brown, was a school teacher. She lived with her 50 year old widowed mother, a younger brother and two younger sisters.

Despite the predominantly blue-collar atmosphere of the South Ward, some socially prominent people lived here. Most of them resided on Esplanade. They included J. P. Planta, justice of the peace, Thomas Keith, MP, and Harry Cooper, supervisor of the No. 1 Mine. Nanaimo's most important man, Samuel Robins, who was the superintendent of the New Vancouver Coal Company, also lived here amid a splendid garden near the corner of Esplanade and Irwin Street.

As noted earlier, 539 miners lived in the South Ward. We were able to locate 374 of them - or about 70% - in the 1892 Williams' British Columbia Directory. Since the Directory includes street names, we were able to determine the relative location of the miners within the South Ward. The following summary offers a good general picture of where the miners lived in this neighbourhood and the high concentration of miners on South Ward streets:

  • Nicol Street
    Total residents listed in the directory = 144; number of miners = 87 [60%]
  • Haliburton Street
  • Total residents = 229; number of miners = 150 [66%]
  • Irwin Street
    Total residents = 94; miners = 56 [60%]
  • Fry Street
    Total residents = 41; miners = 25 [61%]
  • Esplanade
    Total residents = 22; miners = 14 [64%]
  • Gillespie Street
    Total residents = 13; miners = 9 [69%]

Gillespie Street had the highest concentration of miners. Appropriately, Tully Boyce, who was president of the Miners and Mine Workers Protective Association, lived on this street.

Most of the South Ward residents were Protestants. Within the community, 422 people identified themselves as Anglicans, 422 were listed as Presbyterians, 405 residents were Methodists, 111 were Lutherans, and 65 residents were Baptists. Roman Catholics numbered 224 people while a handful of other religions were also represented.

There were four churches in South Ward. St. Alban's Anglican Church was located on Nicol Street on the site of the present day Caprice Theatre. The congregation had separated from the main parish of St. Paul's Anglican Church. St. Alban's did not last long, but St. Paul's still flourishes on Church Street. In 1891 the Haliburton Street Methodist Church — which today is the Tillicum House Friendship Centre Health Unit — was built as a branch to the Wallace Street Methodist Church. Lutherans attended a church located on the corner of Milton Street and Victoria Road. The Baptist church was located on Crace Street. Presbyterians and Roman Catholics attended religious services in neighbouring Middle Ward. Presbyterians worshipped at St. Andrew's Church on Fitzwilliam and Wesley; Catholics attended mass at St. Peter's on Wallace Street.

The South Ward was definitely a working person's community and in many ways it was the heart and soul of Nanaimo. This part of Nanaimo is still a working class community and many traces of South Ward in the 1890s are still evident.

Researched and written by
Ryan Evans, Shane Hyde and Bill Yoachim, History 358, November 2003

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