All posts by Corina Harris

About Corina Harris

As a Cambridge, Ontario native, Corina's passion for her community shines through photography and promotion of all that is great about this city.

1931 Census and a Scandal

Canadian family history enthusiasts were a buzz on June 1, 2023 when the 1931 Census became public. Let’s face it, so was I. In the days leading up to it being indexed I could feel a little bubbling under the surface.

Census records are a huge deal. They are a snapshot in time that shows where someone lived, who they lived with, what their ages are, education level, marital status. It will often indicate where someone was born, along with both of their parents. It will tell you what year someone emigrated to the country, what languages they speak and their occupation. I find them fascinating.

There has been a huge jump in technology since the 1921 census was released. 10 years ago the 1921 census took months of people painstakingly going through every record trying to decipher what was written. This year, Ancestry believes they’ll have it indexed within a couple weeks.

But was I going to wait a few weeks? No. No I wasn’t.

Searching the 1931 census

I’ve been logging in every night to check Waterloo Region first. I was hoping to find my father’s mother – Margaret Porter along with her parents. I knew from other records I have that they had lived in the city of Galt and just outside the village of Hespeler during different periods. I started my focus there.

Galt had 14 different sub districts, each with approximately 22 pages of names. Each page has around 50 names. I decided to start there. I looked for common names in my family that lived in the area: Porter, Dryden, Hyde. I didn’t find any Porter family but I did find some of my extended cousins on the Dryden side, and a great-uncle on the Hyde side that was living as a boarder.

I didn’t let that hold me back and quickly found myself going through Hespeler. It was much smaller with only 3 sub districts. Saw some last names I recognized, but none of my direct relatives.

Next I went through page by page for North Dumfries – as I know that I have Dryden’s that lived in North Dumfries over generations. Found one or two, but they weren’t my direct relatives and there weren’t any Porter’s.

A Hill is coming

On a whim, I logged into the South Dumfries 1931 census. I went through the first sub-district and didn’t find anyone. Then opened the second one. I scanned line by line and then saw a familiar name on line 49 of page four.

Hill, Albert, hired help, Male, Single, Aged 29, he and both of his parents listed as born in England. He emigrated to Canada in what could be 1906 or 1908. His citizenship is listed as Canada, nationality English, religion Anglican. He states he can read and write English. His occupation is farm laborer on a general farm. His class of worker is “W” and he made $350 in the past 12 months. They even verified that he was at work on June 1, 1931.

Hmmm…. Albert Hill is the name of my grandfather. The information matches. I wonder if he came to South Dumfries to find work on Archie Ferguson’s farm? The farmhouse is a single detached home made of brick veneer. It has 9 rooms and they even have a radio according to the census.

1931 census record - part one for: 1931 Census record for Archie Deans Ferguson, Lily Ann Rebecca Ferguson, Helen Ann Ferguson, Roert Duncan Ferguson, Albert Hill and Ruth Elizabeth Hodgson
1931 census record - part two for: 1931 Census record for Archie Deans Ferguson, Lily Ann Rebecca Ferguson, Helen Ann Ferguson, Roert Duncan Ferguson, Albert Hill and Ruth Elizabeth Hodgson
1931 Census record for Archie Deans Ferguson, Lily Ann Rebecca Ferguson, Helen Ann Ferguson, Roert Duncan Ferguson, Albert Hill and Ruth Elizabeth Hodgson

I flagged it as a document under Albert Hill and decided to look further onto the next page.

Picking out the Porters

Imagine my surprise when I found my grandmother, her twin brother and their parents only 9 houses away from Albert!

My grandmother Margaret and her brother Walter Porter were both 13 at the time of the census. They are students, who upload the Presbyterian faith. Their home is a single detached home with 9 rooms made of wood. The home does not have a radio but it has been valued at 2000.

My 56-year-old great-grandfather William (which I wrote about here and here) has a father born in England and a mother born in Ontario. He can read and write English, not French and works as a Farmer on a general farm that he owns.

My 46-year-old great grandmother Margaret (Maggie) is a homemaker at this time. Both her parents were born in Ontario, as was she. Her racial origin is listed as “Scotch” but she is a Canadian citizen.

1931 Census for William Porter, Margaret Porter, Walter Porter and Margaret Porter
1931 Census for William Porter, Margaret Porter, Walter Porter and Margaret Porter
1931 Census for William Porter, Margaret Porter, Walter Porter and Margaret Porter

A love story or a scandal?

So what makes this scandalous? My grandmother Margaret was only 13 when she met my 29 year old grandfather. That’s one heck of an age gap!

Oh sure, she could’ve just been a school girl living in the same area he was working, but they were married within the next 3 years. My grandmother was 16 and lied to say she was older so they could get married.

marriage record for Albert Hill and Margaret Porter
Marriage certificate for Albert William Hill and Margaret Porter on June 23, 1934.

And as a further scandal – my oldest uncle was born 5 months later!

Having known my grandmother and her fun personality, I can picture her falling in love with Albert and not taking no for an answer. I picture her wearing him down until he finally agreed to marry her. He was a handsome man after all – who can blame her?

Albert Hill and wife Margaret Porter along with their three oldest children - Arnold, George and Jessie on the hood of their car in the early 1940s.
Albert Hill and wife Margaret Porter along with their three oldest children – Arnold, George and Jessie on the hood of their car in the early 1940s.

I don’t hold their ages against them. From everything I’ve been told, my grandmother was smitten with her husband Albert. They had 9 living children and stayed married until his early death in 1960, long before I was even born.

They had a family and a farm with lots of animals – every kind if you talk to my father. There was love there. I’m sure of it.

Today, I salute the scandal that helped shape my family and the love that brought these two together. Much love to Albert and Margaret whose spirits are together again.

Black and white photo of a couple holding a cake - Margaret Porter and her husband Albert Hill
Margaret and Albert Hill on their 25th wedding anniversary – June 1959.

Death is about the Living

I’ve been thinking a lot about death and dying lately.

The single most defining moment of my life was the loss of my mother. Being one of the best people I have ever known made the loss of her so hard for me. But she isn’t the only one that I’ve been thinking about.

I keep thinking back to other times. The loss of my grandfather when I was 8 and how I didn’t have the same reaction as other people did. The loss of someone I knew in high school and how I didn’t grieve in the same way my classmates did.

I didn’t cry. Is something wrong with me?

When I lost my grandfather, my little 8-year-old brain just completely got it. Grandpa wasn’t in pain anymore. He had been so uncomfortable for years. I don’t remember him ever being healthy. I have distinct memories of his pill box with multiple pills, for multiple times of day every day of the week. I remember his knobby joints and just generally not being well. He was older and he passed. It made sense. He was at peace and I was at peace with him.

Others in my family didn’t really feel the same way. They had years more of memories with him. They knew him when he was young and healthy and it was harder for them to come to grips with the fact that he was gone.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved my grandfather but felt much more relaxed about his death than any other person whom I’ve ever known. It was his time. I believed it completely with all my heart.

In high school, a boy in my class died in an accident. He was riding his bike wearing headphones and got hit by a car. From what I was told it was completely his fault as he wasn’t paying enough attention to the road. We didn’t really wear helmets back then, but I don’t think it would’ve helped him anyway. My classmates, for the most part, were devastated. This boy was incredibly well liked and was an integral member of our football team. For weeks after he passed there were people crying in the hall.

I never cried.

I remember asking my mom about that, because she was always my go-to person to talk about all things emotional. I wanted to know why I couldn’t cry – why I wasn’t as sad as others. This is what she said.

“Death isn’t about the person who died. It’s about those that are left living.” She also said “Those people that are sad are having a hard time seeing their life without that person.”

I really sat with that for a long time. It made sense. This boy was in my grade and I had a few classes with him, but I wouldn’t say he was really a friend. I was involved with the football team but it wasn’t that he factored into my life that much. I liked him in that he was a genuinely nice guy, but his loss didn’t affect me. I didn’t cry because my life was not really changing.

Later on when a family member died I ended up talking to my mom and she used the same language again “Death isn’t about the person who died. It’s about the living.” Only this time she was talking about the funeral plan. It wasn’t the person who died that decided how or when the funeral was going to happen. It was the people left living that had to figure out how to go on and what to do. Her words were so true.

When my mom was dying, those words came back to me. The sentiment was there only this time I didn’t know how I’d go on. I didn’t know what life would look like without her. I always talked to my mom about small things and she was my go to when I needed to talk about the big things. Let’s face it – I have a lot of BIG thoughts and BIG feelings and sometimes need someone to help me navigate them.

The doctors at the hospital gave her 2 weeks to live so we took her home. I worked out a deal with my job that I could work half days for the first week so that she had someone to care for her in the afternoons. I did the best I could and brought her anything she needed. But mainly, I talked with her. We talked about the big and the small things. The memories. I asked her questions about her childhood. The last time we talked I knew it was near the end because she was struggling to get words out. She asked me about family and we started talking about growing up and different memories. I started talking and she smiled and laughed at the stories until she couldn’t talk anymore. She fell asleep peacefully as I continued to talk and talk. I was the last to hear her voice as she slipped into a deep slumber that she would not wake up from. That night she slept while the rest of us had a pizza party – no one had the energy to cook. It was all good stories and memories with her just in the other room. Everyone slipped in at some point to sit with her for a bit, but we all knew what was coming.

The morning after she died I cried deeper than I ever had before. I don’t think I’d ever been so distraught. My husband just held me and let me cry as long as I needed. Losing my mother was the worst.

Planning her funeral became something that I needed to be involved in. I needed to do the best I could for her – but it was truly for me. I was at her house daily going through photos and trying to get them organized into a slideshow. I designed her funeral booklet and went with my dad to arrange what to do with her body now that she wasn’t using it anymore. I even did a eulogy to a packed church where there was standing room only.

I tried to do the best I could. I needed to do that to find closure.

About 6 months after my mom died, I wasn’t handling it well. I had retreated within myself and felt like I was going through the motions in my life but not actively participating in it. I knew I had to do something and after talking to my Dad, decided to have both of us sign up for different sessions with the Coping Centre.

It changed my life and became a big part of my healing journey. Sitting in a room with strangers helped me to understand that the dead are not meant to be elephants in the room that we no longer talked about or acknowledged. That it was okay to be angry at them for dying or for the circumstances of their death. When I talked in the group about all that I did for my mother’s funeral they were in awe and made me feel like I was 10 feet tall. They didn’t think they would’ve been able to stand up and talk about their mothers in the same way that I did. When they lost their loved ones (partner, sibling, father) they were far less clear in what to do.

I learned that no matter how much you know that death is coming you are never truly prepared.

My mother’s cancer went from May until September 2021. We saw it rapidly advance through her body and we knew that the end was coming as she was already stage 4 by the time it was found. But I wasn’t truly ready for her passing.

My Aunt came to me the day my mother died and held me in the tightest hug. She whispered in my ear that my mother loved me so much. That single moment has stayed with me every single day. I could feel my mother in her arms and I could hear her words through my aunts. I can close my eyes and still see the light shining off the deckboards on that incredibly bright fall day.

That aunt passed away after a car accident less than 6 months after my mom died.

At the funeral I went to each of her three children and I told them that I need to hug them in the same way their mom had hugged me. And I told them the exact same thing she said to me. I hope that they know how much that hug was truly from her. She gave it to me to give to them – of that I truly believe.

Since my mom’s death, I’ve had many friends and relatives experience what it’s like to lose a loved one. Some have lost a parent or grandparent that I have also known. I’ve found myself fully feeling for them and knowing what they will be going through. I know that nothing I do or say is going to change anything for them, but I can give them a hug and let them know that they were loved.

I’ve spoken at a few funerals too. Something I’ve been happy to do when asked for someone that I cared for. If I can help ease that burden and help take the pain away even for a little bit, I’ll do it. It’s not about the dead after all, it’s all about the living.

The dead are at peace. No matter how they went, they are no longer suffering. The only ones suffering are us – those left to go on.

Tomorrow I’m heading to another funeral. A dear uncle has passed on. My Dad and I are going to hit the road and head north together to pay our respects. I’m sure there will be lots of stories and memories shared but what I’m looking forward to most will be the hugs – the ones with his kids where I tell them the same thing my aunt told me, that they were loved. I can’t take their pain away, but I can at least do that.