A treasured area amongst Londoners, the stories behind the buildings that give Old South its charms are as captivating as the area itself.
Located just a short walk south of the downtown core, the district stretches east from Wharncliffe Road South to Wellington Road, with the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River creating the northern border and Commissioners Road enclosing the south edge. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the land was inhabited by Indigenous peoples, especially in areas surrounding the river. Post-contact, London South began as part of the Crown Reserve set aside by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe in 1793. First developed in the mid-19th century, the neighbourhood was an outlying district until the area was annexed by the City of London in 1890.
The drive to build a settlement in London South came with the District Court’s move from Vittoria to London in 1826, as many of the London District officials were granted land in South London as compensation for their move. Between the 1840s and the 1880s, London South became an exclusive, unincorporated residential suburb. It was an attractive place to live because of its rural setting, which meant a reduced risk of fires compared to the more densely populated London and much lower taxes for residents.
Moreover, wealthy Londoners held a clear preference for semi-rural estates — a trend made abundantly clear by the homes on Talbot and Ridout Streets, north of the Thames. These large estates were later subdivided, however, with increased pressures to develop. Today, many of the homes in the area date back to the 19th century, offering a diverse range of styles from small cottages and ranches to larger family homes and mansions.
Initially, London South had no real business district or industrial presence since London was just across the river; the exception was brickworks, as a number of them were established along Brick Street (today’s Commissioners Road) by the 1860s. But, as the city’s streetcar system developed, so too did the area around it.
Creating a Community
A local building of note is the Bruce Street Fire Station, which was erected circa 1890 due to the annexation of that same year, as it promised that London South would have fire protection. It was the third firehall for London and its districts, and served its original purpose until 1975; it has since been repurposed for commercial use.
Another historic location is The Wesley-Knox United Church on Askin Street, which dates back to 1880, for the emergence of the Salvation Army in Canada can be traced back to a revival meeting hosted in the building in 1882.
There are other architectural gems to be found throughout the neighbourhood. For instance, the Gothic Revival church St. James Westminster Anglican, also on Askin Street, was built in 1876 and sports twelve roof turrets meant to represent the twelve Apostles. As well, at 198 Elmwood Avenue lies a simple Georgian residence dating back to 1848, making it one of the oldest surviving structures in the neighbourhood.
However, perhaps the most recognizable building in the area is the Normal School, a historic site nestled in the center of Old South. Built in 1889 by architect Francis Heakes, the Normal School was once one of the province’s first training facilities for teachers. Today, the building houses a YMCA, featuring a state of the art childcare center and Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC).
The green space next to the Normal School has also been a key feature for the community in the area. The Village Green has been used to host the annual “Gathering on the Green” for almost 40 years as well as other community events including Indigenous Solidarity Day.
Building on Progress
Another building worthy of note is Elmhurst, a fortress of sorts built sometime between 1837-1842 by Justice John Wilson on Wortley Road. The outer walls alone were made out of stone and brick to be more than 2.5 ft thick. So enamoured was the community with this building, a profile of the property was included on the front page of the London Evening Free Press from January 22, 1921.
The article describes the remarkable level of craftsmanship and care put into the home’s interior as well as the maintenance of the grounds; indeed, it notes that such pains were taken in building the home that at the time of publication, the original windows with builder John Wilson’s name etched into them, still remained in place and intact. In June 1921, however, a decision was made to demolish the building and subdivide the property for more houses.
The area saw more and more remarkable homes come to life as the years went by. The legacy of these luxurious, imposing houses is still felt today. Grand Avenue got its name in the early 20th century when all of London’s “lords of industry” built homes to mimic British country estates.
One such manor was the Waverley mansion, located on Grand Avenue. Charles F. Goodhue built the place in 1882 on land owned by his father George Jervis Goodhue, London’s first millionaire. Following his father’s death, Goodhue brought the mansion to life with the help of George F. Durand, who some consider to be Southwestern Ontario’s most influential architect. Waverley, a beautiful London white brick mansion, is an excellent example of Durand’s exuberant Queen Anne style. Later, the house came into the possession of oil magnate Thomas Smallman, who further expanded the property. Since then, the Waverley mansion has been transformed into a retirement home.
Similarly, the southeast corner of Grand and Belgrave was once the site of the McCormick mansion. The towering Victorian residence was erected in 1883 and was one of the city’s largest residences. It was built for the founder of McCormick’s Biscuits, a thriving confections company. Unfortunately, it was demolished in 1914. However, the McClary House was saved from such a fate due to its protection under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The home was constructed for John McClary, co-founder of McClary Manufacturing Company, in 1882. The company produced stoves, kitchen utensils, and farm machinery; it was one of the largest employers in London and had an international reputation. Built in an Italianate style, the design of the house embodies the wealth of the McClary family. As further evidence of the family’s enduring wealth, the two houses immediately to the north of the McClary house were built as wedding presents for two of McClary’s daughters.
A Village Within a City
Within Old South lies the iconic Wortley Village, a fiercely independent quarter of the city rich with community pride. The area gets its name from Stewart Wortley, a good friend of Colonel Talbot, and serves as the neighbourhood’s commercial and cultural heart. Praised for its walkability, small-town feel, and almost European flair, Wortley Village is one of the most coveted areas to live in London. Indeed, its reputation was solidified in 2013 when Wortley Village was crowned best neighbourhood in the Great Places in Canada competition.
One of the first businesses in the neighbourhood, Shaw’s Grocery, was located on the southeast corner of Askin/Craig Street and Wortley Road, giving the area the nickname “Shaw’s Corners.” Since then, the area has taken on a couple of different monikers, from “New Brighton” to “Askin Village,” until it finally landed on “Wortley Village.” Today, the area offers many different art galleries, unique shops, restaurants, and other independent businesses, as well as the Landon Library branch.
One of those businesses, Impressions 148 Boutique, rests in a rather historic spot. In the past, 148 Wortley Road was the location of The Mercantile Bank of Canada — and by extension, the city’s first bank robbery. One Wednesday afternoon in early December 1920, the typically bustling streets of Wortley Village had quieted down due to incumbent weather and other customary store closures. Two men entered the bank as the crowd inside waned. They waited around until the other customers left, at which point one of them brandished a gun. In a matter of minutes, the pair managed to force the bank manager and his assistant to the ground, empty the till of $776 in bills, and escape in their getaway car. Despite the efforts of local police and the accounts of eyewitnesses, the bandits were never caught.
Today, the community is invested in preserving that which makes Wortley special. One organization dedicated to this aim is the Old South Community Organization formed in 1974. In the past, residents have fought to keep the Valu-Mart grocery store open, successfully lobbied the city to buy the former Normal School building from the Ontario government, and resisted the intrusion of any big-box stores. As Jean Ramer, author of Old South Tales: Historical Stories of Wortley Village & Old South, puts it — “This is a neighbourhood where people stay for generations.”
Old South has been home to many exceptional Londoners. One notable resident is Edward Parnell. Born in Dover, England in 1859, Parnell immigrated to Canada as a child, and later opened a bakery in London. During his time in London, he served as a London city alderman and even ran for mayor. While his mayoral campaign was unsuccessful in London, Parnell later found electoral luck in Winnipeg, where he served as Mayor from 1921-1922. However, Parnell’s Bakery, also called Parnell’s Bread, continued as a Parnell family business on Bruce Street until 1967.
Charles Hyman, a prominent Liberal politician from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, was also a resident of Old South. He lived in Idlewyld mansion, which he had built in 1879. A close friend of Wilfrid Laurier, Hyman was a strong cabinet minister particularly known for his success as Minister of Public Works. At one point, many considered him to be Laurier’s natural successor for Prime Minister. Outside of politics, he was a popular tennis player, having won a record 5 Canadian Opens until the record was broken by Ivan Lendl with 6 trophies. His athletic accolades continue, as Hyman was not only the captain of Canada’s most successful national cricket team, but he is also credited with introducing the game of bridge to Canada.
Sadie Bending, a long-time Old South resident who raised her family on Devonshire Avenue, dedicated her life to improving conditions for the blind. At the age of 34, Bending noticed her eyesight slowly diminishing. Whereas others living in 1925 would be devastated by such news, Bending was ever the optimist. She spent the next forty years working to improve the quality of life for the blind. At the time her condition first began to set in, blind people were ignored as far as Bending could tell. They had limited choices when it came to careers and often worked doing piano tuning, basketry, or leather-work. Bending pushed for better supports through legislation and the establishment of nationwide clubs. Her work ensured more opportunities, as she herself noted after 40 years of advocacy that blind people could now do just about anything.
If its heritage is any indication, it feels safe to say that Old South will continue to thrive for generations to come.
Feature image of Shaw’s Grocery at Wortley and Askin, circa 1905, courtesy of the Postal History Society of Canada.
The London Neighbourhood Histories series aims to highlight and chronicle some of the rich, layered heritage of many of London’s neighbourhoods, the diverse individuals who have lived within them, and the events that have impacted their development. The series is made possible by the Community Heritage Investment Program (CHIP) through the London Heritage Council and the City of London.