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Before and after: London Ont. 100+ years ago versus today


By Moses Monterroza and Annie Rueter

Since London’s founding in 1826, its identity and cityscape has changed dramatically. Once the ‘Oil Capital of Canada’ and the nation’s second-largest cigar-producing city, London has gone from a small military garrison to an urban centre with a population of almost 400,000.

In Early London 1826–1914: A Photographic History from the Orr Collection, local author and historian Jennifer Grainger reveals London’s history at the turn of the century through dozens of captioned photographs.

In January 2017, Gazette photographers Annie Rueter and Moses Monterroza photographed 11 images, recreating photos from Early London that were taken from the 1880s to 1914. They also spoke to Kyle Gonyou, Heritage Planner at City of London, to gain insight about London’s individual heritage properties and heritage conservation districts.

London through the ages

London’s initial development was spurred in 1826 when the courthouse was relocated from nearby Norfolk County to its current location at the fork of the Thames River.

Old Court HouseWest side of Ridout Street, north of King Street. Museum London sits across from the Old Court House today.

The fork of the Thames River

The Rebellion of 1837 happened shortly after the courthouse relocation and resulted in the creation of a British military garrison in an effort to control future uprisings. The garrison was stationed at present day Victoria Park.

Victoria Park

With the garrison came new businesses, such as bakeries and taverns, and military families that helped to grow the population of the city. London had its own newspaper, The London Free Press, by 1849.

London Free Press

But it was the railway south of York Street that helped London grow from a town to a city. The Great Western Railway saw the first train pass along its tracks in 1853 and subsequent businesses cropped up along the railway. London was named a city shortly after in 1855.

The area of Dundas Street, Richmond Street and King Street was a bustling downtown core. Covent Garden Market opened in the area in 1845.

Downtown core

Covent Garden Market

Industries such as oil and manufacturing also spurred the growth of London from the 1850s onward, but they were pushed out of the downtown core toward the east end of the city around 1900. Today, there are a number of closed factories and properties in the city’s east end.

Infirmary Building, London Insane Asylum

London eventually developed as a financial centre at the turn of the century, growing into the service-based city we have today. Historic preservation efforts are essential to maintain London’s history.

“There’s two types of designations that are enabled by the Ontario Heritage Act,” explains Kyle Gonyou, heritage planner for the City of London. “There’s individual heritage properties and heritage conservation districts … For individual properties, there are three basic criteria: physical or design value, historical or associative value and contextual value.”

St. Peter’s Cathedral at Richmond Street and Queens Avenue falls into the city’s Downtown Heritage Conservation District.

St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica

“I think that [heritage buildings] contribute to our quality of life and our sense of place,” Gonyou says. “And these are places that help to distinguish and differentiate London from other communities in southwestern Ontario, Canada and internationally as well.”

Blackfriars Bridge is another landmark within this district. The wrought iron bridge was constructed in 1875 and is currently under construction, open to pedestrians and cyclists only.

Blackfriar’s Bridge

“I’m always interested in the history of wherever I happen to be living. If I am living in a place I like to know how it got to be the way it is today,” Grainger says about her reason for writing Early London. Grainger has also written about Elgin County.

But despite these preservation efforts, there are a number of buildings that have been demolished.

“What I find interesting — because I’m interested in architecture — is just how many buildings we have lost. When you go through the book, most of what we’ve got has been demolished, some of it burned down. But large numbers of buildings have been victims of progress,” Grainger says.

London Armouries

Gonyou is far more optimistic about the valuation of London’s historic buildings.
He’s even working on his own personal sesquicentennial project showing photos of London then and now.

“I would like to think that we have a culture that respects and appreciates the past,” Gonyou says, “but sometimes I think we need some reminders to help us along with that.

The Gazette would like to thank Jennifer Grainger, Biblioasis and Kyle Gonyou for their cooperation and support during this project.

“Old London” photos courtesy of the Orr Collection, Museum London.
“Modern London” photos by Annie Rueter and Moses Monterroza.
Article by Annie Rueter.
Multimedia treatment by Amy O’Kruk.

Related: “Early London reveals the city’s history through photos” by Annie Rueter