Early London book cover

London: the 'Oil Capital of Canada,' the nation's second-largest cigar-producing city and the Forest City.

All of these identities have been part of London's past, as explored by local author and historian, Jennifer Grainger. In Grainger's book, Early London 1826-1914: A Photographic History from the Orr Collection, Grainger reveals London's history at the turn of the century through dozens of captioned photographs.

A Londoner since age 13 and Western alumna, Grainger's interest in her locality shines through in the well-researched and visually appealing book that can show students a forgotten side to London. 

Early London includes familiar images of locations that are identifiable today, such as Blackfriar's bridge, St. Joseph's Hospital and the old courthouse. Though Grainger includes photos of buildings that are still standing, the research-intensive process brought to light the number of historical buildings that have been demolished in the city without plans for repurposing.

“What I find interesting — because I’m interested in architecture — is just how many buildings we have lost,” Grainger says. “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.”

Kingsmill’s department store on Dundas Street is a recent example of this phenomenon. The store opened in 1865 and closed in 2013, but the repurposing of the building remains a contested topic, much like the closure of Honest Ed’s in Toronto.

“It’s going to be a downtown campus for Fanshawe,” Grainger says. “I believe that most people believed it was going to be renovated, but actually all they are doing is saving the façade… it’s not a renovation by any means.”

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. The Rebellion of 1837 happened shorty after the relocation and resulted in the creation of a British military garrison at what is currently Victoria Park in an effort to control future uprisings. With the garrison came new businesses, such as bakeries and taverns, and military families that helped to grow the population of the city. 

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.

Industries such as oil and manufacturing also spurred the growth of London from the 1850s onward, but were pushed out of the downtown core toward the east end of the city around 1900. London eventually developed as a financial centre at the turn of the century and grew into the more service-based centre we see today.

Grainger herself works and lives downtown and appreciates the art scene that modern day London has to offer, but notes there is a lack of engagement with the city that once characterized the bustling downtown centre pictured in Early LondonWhile the streetscapes in Early London show the downtown core as a place to gather, the same cannot be said about the city today. 

“I don’t think we promote downtown very much, and I don’t think that we promote the museums or galleries as much as we could,” Grainger explains. “I think there are opportunities in the city for students to get more involved but I’m not sure they realize what’s out there.”

To discover more about London’s history through a journey of photographs, pick up a copy of Grainger's Early London from Attic Books


Annie is a culture editor for volume 110. Previously, she was a staff writer for volume 109. She is in her fourth year studying English and political science. Contact her at annie@westerngazette.ca or follow her on Twitter @annierueter1.

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