History of the OEV: Part I – Lilley’s Corners

Excerpt from The People Came. The People Stayed.  From Lilley’s Corner to Old East Village.  –  By Benjamin A. Vazquez, U. E.

East London started with a bang.

The bang in question occurred at 2:40 p.m., on Saturday, the 16th of February 1856, at the southwest corner of Richmond and Fullarton Streets. A boiler exploded.

The Globe Foundry was engaged in building stoves. In the 1850’s, London sat in the middle of miles of farmland in every direction: well-established farms to the south, and newly settled land to the north. Every such farm needed a stove to keep the winter out and the food cooked. On this particular February afternoon, the Globe had been working overtime to fill a spate of recently received orders. Like many such operations of the day, the facility was entirely powered by a single large steam engine to which all machinery was connected by an extensive series of belts. This particular engine was nearly new, having been built only eight months before in Galt (now Cambridge).

Two men were responsible for tending to the boiler. George Brady and Daniel Taylor. Both, as accounts of the time never fail to point out, were “coloured” men. Taylor was, in fact, a fugitive slave from Kentucky who had spent five years as second engineer on an Ohio River steamboat. Both men were given the title of “engineer”. Neither of them had any formal training, but the task of running such an engine isn’t inherently complex, and there seems to be no evidence that either man was incompetent at his job. Indeed, Taylor seems to have been the more competent of the two, and on the date in question he was the man on duty.

There are several things which can cause the boiler of a steam engine to burst. Two of them, however, are far the most common. Either the engine can run out of water, causing the iron to overheat. Or the safety valve can fail to vent excess steam, causing steam pressure inside the engine to build and build and build… The safety valve at the Globe Foundry was mutilated beyond the point of inspection, but from the initial inquest onward it has always been assumed that it was the device at fault.

Water, at least, was certainly not the problem. The Globe’s boiler had been given new water on the morning of the disaster, and the water level had been checked and found to be plentiful only hours before the explosion. An inquest found that the iron hadn’t overheated either. And there is the strength of the explosion to be contended with, one which implies plenty of excess pressure. A three-foot piece of the boiler was hurled over a neighbouring building and still had enough strength when it landed to drive itself four inches into the frozen February soil. Windows were broken a block away, and the vibrations caused by the blast were reported as far east as William Street. The roof of the wooden building was torn from its walls and lifted upwards for several meters. What the explosion set up, gravity quickly brought down, bringing the roof tumbling into thirty-odd people.

To be honest, it’s a bit miraculous that only five people died. Daniel Taylor was standing next to his machine and received more or less the full force of the blast. When found, his head had completely vanished, and it was only with difficulty that he was successfully identified. Douglas Anderson, Murray Anderson’s brother and the manager of the foundry, was also killed along with yet another employee, a customer, and a peddler.

As one survivor rather rudely pointed out, work was finished for the day at the Globe Foundry. At the Richmond Street location it was finished forever. But after the funerals, the inquests, and the raw shock came to an end there was no question that Mr. Anderson would rebuild. To do so, he purchased a new plot of land on the far eastern fringe of the city. In December of 1856, the Globe Foundry opened at the southwest corner of Dundas and Adelaide. East London was born.

For a decade the Glove Foundry gave steady employment to about ten men, and seasonal employment to many more. Wishing to be close to their place of employment, these men settled east of Adelaide, in the area we now call home. Later the Globe was joined by oil refineries, chemical manufacturers, railway yards, automotive plants, and industrial-scale confectioners, all of whose employers would mingle in what became London’s premiere working-class neighbourhood.

Because of this, and because he was East London’s first known resident who wasn’t a farmer, and because he was the first mayor of the Town of London East, Murray Anderson is often referred to as the “Founder of East London”. It’s a title I have no wish to deny him. But recall that this is a social, not an industrial history. So with that in mind, there is another man who deserves to share the title of East London’s Founder: Charles Lilley.

Actually, for some time London East was known instead as Lilley’s Corners, a name which you might recognize, if you if you’ve been doing a great deal of looking up from the southeast corner of Dundas and Adelaide. What initially brought Lilley to Dundas & Adelaide was a decision to move his grocery store at Dundas and Burwell three blocks further east.

By this point – 1869 – the oil industry was beginning to become noticeable, at least to the point where Lilley referenced his move as a move to the “refinery district”. By July of 1872 Lilley had been given the right to operate a post office using the name “Lilley’s Corner”. At the time the presence or absence of a post office was taken almost to mean the presence or absence of a real community. In 1872 postal delivery in Canada was still not door-to-door, obliging people to make daily or weekly trips to the post office to check for mail. Charles Lilley, therefore, saved area residents the long walk downtown and created an instant community hub at the same time. With that done, with industry booming, and with the population of London East having shot well past the thousand mark, incorporation as a village seemed just around the corner.


This is part one of a multi-part series. To obtain your own copy of “The People Came. The People Stayed.”, please email: jo@palacetheatre.ca.


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