Category Archives: History

History of the OEV Part III: The Town of London East

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

London East legally became a town on the 26th of December, 1881, with a population of 3,651. Its municipal government expanded accordingly, with the addition of a mayor (the title “reeve” was retained for the mayor’s immediate subordinate), and the expansion of the three-member village council into a nine-member town council. At the same time the town’s boundaries were extended north to Oxford Street and its two wards were made into three.

By this point, the lack of a fire department had become worrying both within and without London East. The question was what to do about it. Fire protection meant fire hydrants, which, in turn mean water mains and piped water. Up until this point the population of London East had produced water from backyard wells. The changeover to city water was generally agreed to be a necessity, but the cost of constructing an entire water system was daunting. London East,  unlike London, wasn’t on the Thames. A pump-house could, presumably, be built on the south branch of the Thames and piped north, but it would have to be pumped uphill all the way, and the pump-house itself wouldn’t be cheap.

To nearly everyone an alternate solution seemed obvious: cut a deal with the city. London already had an excellent water facility at Springbank. Water pipes extended east all the way to Adelaide Street, and surplus capacity was plentiful. Tapping into the existing water supply meant that all that would have be constructed were pipes under London East’s streets – a considerable enough expense on its own.

Among the first by-laws of the Town of London East was to authorize a new water system, pending a referendum on the kind of system to be constructed. the polls opened on the 24th of June, 1882, and closed again with reasonably decisive results. Eleven people voted for an entirely London East water system. One hundred and sixty-seven voted to connect to London’s pipes. It seemed the issue was settled, and the laying of water pipes proceeded quickly, almost every street in the city being supplied with pipes for city water by the end of the year. Pipes, yes – the water itself, no. That would take a while. The fires wouldn’t.

The first disaster was at Imperial Oil. I’ve been bypassing the neighbourhood’s industrial history, but the fact remains that by the dawn of the 1880’s the dozens of oil companies in London East had gone through an extensive process of consolidation, leaving a single vast facility – Imperial Oil. And, on the 11th of July, 1883, Imperial Oil burnt to the ground. Probably nothing could have been done to save the place. The fire had been started by lightning. It’s questionable whether extra water would have helped. The skies were pouring down quite as much water as any fire department could plausibly have done. And any would-be heroes were quite busy being heroic elsewhere.

The fact is that the flood of ’83 is universally recalled as among London’s absolute worst disasters. Prior to the mid-twentieth century the land where Harris Park and Gibbons Park currently lie were occupied by mostly low-income housing, poorly constructed and flooded out annually in the spring even in the best of years. This wasn’t the best of years. The waters rose suddenly, unexpectedly, and with a vengeance. Houses splintered and slid into the river under the weight of the current. Entire streets disappeared. When Thursday morning dawned dozens were dead and hundreds homeless. Schools had been transformed into temporary shelters. Transportation was doubly frustrated by the washing out of most of London’s bridges and the washing out of large sections of railway track in London and Ingersoll.

Amid the chaos in London the burnt ruins of Imperial Oil barely registered as a blip. But Imperial Oil had two facilities – one in London East, and the other in Petrolia. Given the opportunity to centralize, the Petrolia facility was expanded, with the company’s head offices following two years later. London’s place in the oil industry was over. London East lost seventy-five jobs and plunged into the beginnings of a local depression.

Three things happened next.

First, a group of people from London East led by Reeve John Bartlett attempted to convince the town to construct an entirely separate water system. Second, an extraordinarily impressive town hall was built. And, third, yet another fire struck, this time at the Grand Trunk car shops.

The first item is usually discussed with an attitude of incredulity. But the incredulity comes with the benefit of hindsight, and particularly with the knowledge of the disastrous Grand Trunk fire that was to come. Yes, connecting with London’s system made financial sense. And there was even that overwhelming public vote to contend with. But as I mentioned earlier, municipal pride is a force to be underestimated in nineteenth-century Ontario. And waterworks were, in fact, among the chief objects of that pride. The pump-houses that supplied them were still the products of relatively new technology, and the possession of such a facility was tantamount to a declaration of belonging in the modern world. Far from being shunted out of view – as most of our infrastructure is today – the buildings that housed the machinery were often lavished with architectural ornamentation and surrounded by acres of landscaping. Thus are the origins of London’s Springbank Park and St. Thomas’ Waterworks Park, to name only the nearest two among their thousands of cousins across North America and Western Europe. Bartlett no doubt imagined a similar facility spreading out from Adelaide and the Thames.

Frankly, I see the strongest evidence for this view of the waterworks question standing today on the southwest corner of Dundas and Rectory. Today’s Aeolian Hall was initially built as London East’s town hall. I see no justification for the building beyond civic pride. To begin with it was unnecessary. Up until the construction of the new town hall, London East’s town council had met in rented quarters above the stables of the London Street Railway. Not terribly prestigious quarters, but they served their purpose, and there is no evidence to suggest that they were either inadequate or unduly crowded in 1882. For another thing the architect retained to design the structure – George Durrand – was the most prominent architect between Toronto and Detroit. And, lastly, the building’s size was utterly out of proportion to the actual use it was to be put to.

As it happens, the new town hall was also utterly out of proportion to London East’s capacity to pay for i. $40,000 had been spent laying pipes in the streets – pipes that were still empty of water. Another $14,000 had been laid out to construct a new town hall, double the initial estimate. More was proposed to construct a new waterworks. Add two zeros to get some sense of these numbers in 2013 terms, and reflect that the town expected to pay the bill was scarcely over five thousand inhabitants. The proposition would have been tight even if there had been fire protection. Tight, but probably doable. But on the 20th of September, 1884, the car shops burnt.

This is part three of a multi-part series. To obtain your own copy of “The People Came. The People Stayed.”, please email: or look for the author, Benjamin Vazquez, at the OEV Block Party on Saturday July 19th to purchase a copy!


History of the OEV Part II: The Village of London East

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

I have been able to discern very little information about the proceedings leading up to the incorporation of London East. The traditional account takes a rather bleak view of the process as a power-grab by London East’s wealthiest industrialists. I see no evidence to support that thesis. For one thing, the individuals who appear to have most actively supported incorporation were a diverse lot. They included Murray Anderson and Charles Lilley, to be sure, but they also included a grocer, a butcher, and a baggage man, among others. For another thing, the traditional tale of London East’s incorporation is inevitably accompanied by a dim view of the very idea of an independent London East, and a sense of the absolute inevitability of annexation to London.

Regardless, in the spring of 1874 a public meeting was held in the Adelaide Street school. It appears to have been decisive, for at that meeting two men were assigned to take a census of the proposed village. The task was finished in a week, the returned population being 2,416. On the 6th of June the Middlesex County Council met. Newspaper coverage was extensive – on certain issues. The county council was engaged in determining the future of the Exhibition Grounds and the Western Fair, both of which were then located north of downtown. Amid the discussion, two extra motions were passed, almost as an afterthought.

“Moved by W. D. Hammond, seconded by J. W. Campbell, that a by-law be drafted incorporating London East as a village, comprising the south halves of lots 11 and 12 in the 1st concession, the west half of lot 10, and the whole of lots 11 and 12, Concession C, and London township, containing all 700 acres, and that Abram Efner, junior, be returning officer, and that the first election be held at the Adelaide School house. Carried.”

I quote verbatim from the London Free Press. The London Advertiser contained no more. Interestingly, the other item of the night was the incorporation of the village of Petersburg, which lay between the Thames River and Wharncliffe Road west of downtown. At a stroke the two neighbourhoods flanking the centre city were given legal form with barely a whisper of notice, while the affairs of the Western  Fair occupied the press. Some things, it would seem, never change.

The first election took place on January 5th, and returned Andrew Ross as Reeve. As incorporated, the village of London East extended north of Grosvenor’s Road (Dundas) to roughly where the C. P. tracks are today , and south to Trafalgar Street. The new village of London East was divided into two wards. A northern ward in the vicinity of Grosvenor’s Road, and a southern ward in the vicinity of Hamilton Road. In these first few critical council sessions, the legal framework of the village was erected.

By-law number one was a long document, detailing the workings of the village council on an administrative and legislative level. It shall, however, warm the hearts of most East Londoners that by-law number two concerned the licensing of taverns and bars. There was an inspector, and there were rules. No “immoderate drinking”. No opening on the Sabbath. No “riotous or disorderly conduct”. No gambling. And every barkeep was required to provide free stables for his customer’s horses.

At this the village council called it a day. Having legalized their taverns, presumably they adjourned for the purpose of patronizing them. Two days later they returned to clean up a few apparently secondary matters – appointing the bureaucrats and providing for taxation. Important, no doubt, but the bars came first. As an aside, by-law number seven later limited the number of tavern licenses to be issued at any one time to no more than twenty-one. At the time that meant a tavern for every hundred residents of the village. I suppose that a tavern for every fifty residents would really have been a little excessive.

Additional bits of legislation were enacted in dribbles over the next few months. A basic code of public morality was enacted. It included the usual prohibitions against public swearing, drunkenness, and lewdness. It also prohibited horse racing in the streets and the firing of guns. Interestingly, it ends on a surprisingly modern note – prohibiting the beating or mistreating of animals and the killing of birds. Later, farmers were prohibited from allowing their animals from wandering freely on the streets – a prohibition which by its very presence suggests such incidents must have been a problem. The planting of trees along roadways was encouraged. A municipal seal was adopted and a board of health was created to combat infectious diseases. And finally, in July, $3,000 was raised for the construction of a new school – today’s Lorne Avenue.

1875 seems to have been a banner year for London East generally. Aside from beginning with the village’s first municipal elections, it saw the origins of Presbyterian and Methodist congregations which would long serve as anchors to the neighbourhood, the opening of the Timothy Street School, and the initiation of that miracle of modern technology: the streetcar. Well, sort of.

The streetcars had been in the works for a while. By 1875 the built-up area of London stretched north to Cheapside, south to Bruce St. and the Thames west to Wharncliffe, and east to Egerton. The area wasn’t, admittedly, particularly vast. But it was larger than people were feeling inclined to walk, and a horse was an expensive and inconvenient sort of a thing to keep. Anyway, all the important cities had streetcars, and the influence of municipal pride is never to be underestimated, particularly not in nineteenth-century Ontario.

The London Street Railway Company had been incorporated in 1873, but it wasn’t until almost two years later that they felt themselves in a position to start building. After some negotiation, the city and street railway signed an agreement on the 12th of March, allowing for the construction of tracks on city streets. Almost immediately the company managed to raise $40,000 and issued a contract for the construction of three miles of trackage. The streetcars made their inaugural run on the 24th of May, 1875. The route was along Dundas Street from Richmond to Adelaide, but by August the tracks were extended to Salter’s Grove (Queen’s Park), which remained the Dundas terminal for years.

I earlier qualified my description of the new system as “streetcars”. That was unfair, but the fact is that the new cars bore little resemblance to what modern imaginations – fed as they are by images of the streetcars of the 1920’s – will conjure. For one thing, these streetcars were noticeably smaller. Strictly speaking they were built to seat fourteen passengers, although more like thirty could be crowded into the aisle and onto the rear platform, a phenomenon which modern bus users will still no doubt be familiar with. For another thing, they weren’t electrified. On opening day the power source of the London Street Railway consisted in its entirety of six horses.

The fleet would grow, but London’s streetcars remained horse-drawn until well into the 1890’s. The stables were located from the beginning on Lyle Street. A large and ever-growing complex spread south of Dundas including stables, maintenance facilities, and – until 1885 – London East’s council chambers, which were rented from the railway.

At the same time streetcar tracks were being laid, the construction of the Timothy Street school had proceeded apace. The school was ready for the fall, opening officially on the 8th of October with speeches for dignitaries and music by the students of the Adelaide St.  School. It was a “gothic” white-brick building divided into two classrooms. Shortly after its construction the school was renamed the Anderson school in honour of Murray Anderson. By the time it reverted to the name of its street, the street itself had changed – Timothy Street would become Lorne Avenue before the century was out.

One final event of note occurred in the 1870’s. The grounds now known as Queen’s Park had been set aside on original surveys for the Church of England to support its clergy in the area. At the time it was believed that graveyards were inherent health hazards, and as London’s population grew burials in the center of town came to be viewed as a problem. St. Paul’s decided to move its graveyard east. The firest burial was in 1848, but the course of about a year the graveyard which surrounded the present cathedral was systematically dug up and reinterred in Queen’s Park, which quickly became the largest burial grounds in the region. In 1879, however, the city had caught up with the new graveyard, and the Village of London East passed laws preventing the burial of dead within the village limits. In response Woodland Cemetery was established, and plans were made to transfer the graves. Over the course of six years, from 1880 to 1886, St. Paul’s Cemetery was dug up and the bodies moved west to Woodlawn, many of them moving for the second time since their internment.

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

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: