Speculations on a Black ‘House of Ill Fame’


Crop of Plate 5 of Vancouver Fire Insurance Map Book. Dakin Publishing Co., San Francisco: November 1889. UBC Rare Book Room (not available online). Note: “Negro Ill Fame” near bottom left corner (enclosed by my red box) of this crop.

When I was browsing through a fascinating, very early fire insurance map book of Vancouver in UBC’s rare book room, recently, I noticed a label that took me aback: “Negro Ill Fame”.  I knew what “ill fame” denoted (a ‘house of ill fame’ or prostitution). However, the location of the house struck me as peculiar.

This post is a record of what I’ve learned about the house of ill fame to date. It is not the ‘last word’ regarding the house (I hope!). This post is intended to strike up a historical conversation on the subject.

Here is what I think I know, as of now:

  • It was located, east/west, about halfway between Carrall and Columbia Streets and north/south about a block south of Pender, just about where Keefer would ultimately be.
  • It was a wooden structure, and larger than I would have expected (compare it with other ‘DWG’s (dwellings) and the Chinese laundries in the same alley).
  • It was near the ‘shore’ of False Creek. (The infill of the False Creek seems to have been a more gradual enterprise than I had formerly thought. Compare the shorelines in 1889, 1901 and 1912 maps).
  • It appears to have been accessed via an un-named alley (at least officially un-named; perhaps locals had a name for it). ‘Canton Alley’ and ‘Shanghai Alley’ were nearby. But this lane seems to have been nameless.
  • The block of Pender running parallel to the lane-way had a reputation for being a neighbourhood in which one could readily find a house of prostitution. These houses, however, to the best of my knowledge, were racially non-specific.
  • It appears to have lasted in this location just a brief time. This may have been because the area was taking on an increasingly Chinese flavour and becoming, later, a rail hub for the Great Northern Railway (GNR). It could also be that the location was found to be unsuitable for attracting the clientele the house was, presumably, targeting (black males). It could be that this segment of the population was increasingly being pulled away from this area, perhaps attracted to what would gradually become Hogan’s Alley  – southeast of this location, roughly at Main and Prior.
  • The proportion of Blacks in B.C. in 1901 was much less than 1% (0.003%). I’m assuming that since Vancouver was the largest urban centre by that year, that the proportion was about the same for the city.¹
  • No photos of the house nor its neighbours seem to be avaiable in public archives.

Library and Archives Canada. Crop of Plate 11 of Goad’s Fire Insurance Map of Vancouver. 1901. Note that the area of the former house of ill fame had become even more dominated by Chinese dwellings and institutions. (e.g., there was now a Chinese Theatre in the area).

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Crop of Goad’s Fire Insurance Map: July 1912. From VanMap (City of Vancouver). By 1912, the former home to the Chinese Theatre and Chinese businesses south of Pender had been taken over by railway-related buildings.

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Google Aerial View showing my guess as to the location of the 1889 house of ill fame in Sun Yat Sen Gardens. Note: In 1974, there was a “Keefer Diversion”, which cut through what is now Sun Yat Sen. This traffic shortcut was found to be redundant by the 1980s and so was removed when S-Y-S Gardens was created in 1986.


¹The same source, BC Black History Awareness, shows that population demographics for blacks in BC, as a proportion of the total population, have remained substantially less than 1% throughout census-taking history in B.C. (1871-2016). Indeed, the number of blacks in B.C. only began to exceed 1,000 in 1961. (Thanks to Jenn Friesen for asking a series of questions that led me to pursue this info).

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2 Responses to Speculations on a Black ‘House of Ill Fame’

  1. That northern shoreline of False Creek has been an area of interest for me for awhile. It changed quite a bit from 1905 – mid 1960s, from the infill of False Creek which seems to have started at that early date and went right up until the first World War. As best as I can tell, the infill of False Creek might have been the single largest geographical change to Vancouver that we rarely think about.

    But it’s that corner of North East False Creek that is particularly interesting. The shore, including a canal that used to reach all the way up to Columbia street extended there that provided some room for barges and shipping to pull right into this canal. It extended all the way up to the Gasometer building, and the old viaduct extended a bridge over it that you can see in some well-seen photos of False Creek. That canal appears to have finally been filled in by the early or mid 1960s, though I’ve searched for some specific news of that. Perhaps nobody considered filling in part of a ditch newsworthy. All of False Creek at one time was considered a dirty ditch at one point and as we know there were some proposals to fill the whole thing in up until the Burrard Bridge.
    If Real Estate agents had time machines, you can imagine they would travel back to 1905 and tell the populace to *not* fill in False Creek from Main to Clark–that’s a lot of waterfront property they wish they could have sold.

    But I digress… This is certainly an intriguing and interesting find. One has to wonder what the house was called or if it had a nickname‽ Or if other places on the maps of the time were listed as houses of ill-repute, or perhaps the cartographers at the time simply felt it was ok to list it here as such in this case.

  2. Scooter Johnson says:

    I am sure you know James Johnston – house historian specializing in this area but figured this was also a good plug for his blog:
    Have you contacted him to see if he has any info?

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