Nestled next to the river, under the watchful eye of Downtown London, is the neighbourhood of Blackfriars.
At the bottom of the river valley, it is surrounded by hills on all sides. The historic homes are smaller, the streets and sidewalks narrower. There’s the ever-present threat of flooding from the nearby river, and homeowners are intimately acquainted with the challenges of keeping a dry basement. The influence of those rushing waters at the Forks of the Thames is omnipresent.
While living anywhere in London, you’ll get squirrels, garden critters, mice crawling in the cracks, but there is something pervasive and wild about the natural world in Blackfriars. You can’t get away from it. The osprey perched atop the lights in the historic Labatt Park, the Canada Geese swooping low over the rooftops to rest in Harris Park, the loud chirping of bats at night, and the scurrying of rabbits along the banks of the river are constant reminders that we are only borrowing this land for a time. The waters of the Antler River might, at any moment, rise up and swallow us whole.
The Beginnings of Blackfriars
First Nations people took advantage of the annual river flooding to grow crops. The Attawandaron, Iroquois, and Chippewa tended cornfields on the flatlands around the riverbed, a body of water properly referred to as Deshkan Ziibi or Askunesippi — the Antler River.
Where you see houses today, there were broad fields with grasses described in a 19th-century edition of The London Advertiser as being so tall that you could not see a man on a horse riding through them.
After wars between the Iroquois and other Indigenous nations in the 1650s, the flatlands around the river were left largely empty and in their natural state, but when Simcoe and his colonial team arrived in 1796, there were remnants of Attawandaron structures, left abandoned for over a century. The bark of surrounding tree trunks were decorated with charcoal drawings of spirits with the bodies of men and the heads of deer.
It was, in my imagination, a hauntingly beautiful place.
The first white settlers also used these lands for crops. Joshua Applegarth, the first white man to receive a land grant in London in 1808, grew hemp on the flats of Blackfriars. He built a little log house where London’s first township meeting would be held in 1819. He gave up the land in 1822, and the next owner, William Montague, ran ferry services across the Antler River — when he wasn’t suffering from malaria, brought to him by the clouds of mosquitoes breeding along the swampy riverbanks.
It was a boggy place. Historian Orlo Miller recalls a story that one settler lost his wagon to the mud. Occupants had to cart in gravel and dirt to fill the bog if they wanted to build any sort of structure.
The area was then known as Montague’s Flats. Whoever later owned the Flats also put their name in the front of the moniker. So, when John Kent bought the property in 1824 it became Kent’s Flats, and as Kent sold parcels of the land after 1826, Nixon’s Flats. Kent subdivided his holdings, the southern half of Blackfriars, into properties. Working-class people began to take over the swamp.
Petersville and Kensington: The OG Blackfriars
The topography mirrored attitudes about the area, which were reciprocated. London saw Blackfriars as a low-class swampy wasteland. The residents of Blackfriars saw London as the snobby big city. Being nearby but separate was the ideal arrangement for everyone at the time.
In its first days, Blackfriars consisted of the politically autonomous villages of Petersville and Kensington. The two communities existed in the borders of Blackfriars proper, between the east and south edges of the river, Oxford Street, and Wharncliffe Road.
Petersville was the northern half of the neighbourhood between Blackfriars Street and Oxford Street. Village namesake Samuel Peters Sr. owned this section and divided it into plots for houses. He overlooked his domain from Grosvenor Lodge on the hill to the north.
The southern half of the neighbourhood was Kent’s Flats, and John Kent divided what became the village of Kensington into larger lots for farms or other commercial purposes. However, those larger parcels were also subdivided much the way it was in Petersville, making it into a neighbourhood.
What both communities had in common was a working-class population that saw itself as distinctive from Londoners. Here, in the swampy lowlands, they could afford a house of their own. Their neighbours were like them in economic status, and all of them shared a sense that they were separate — a small town, not a city. It was a source of pride.
A Li’l Economy Springs Up
By 1871, there were about 1000 residents in Petersville and Kensington. There were multiple inns, breweries, and mills for the residents to work at if they didn’t cross the river to go work in fancy-pants London.
These were the people who built the iconic Blackfriars Bridge. While the current iron structure was built in 1875, a succession of wooden bridges put together by the private citizens who lived and worked on the Flats preceded it. This crossing became a vital route of transportation as early as the 1820s because the Oxford crossing hadn’t been built yet.
An actual road to the bridge was built in 1830 out of an informal dirt path, now Blackfriars Street. It was the main avenue into the City of London from the west. An economy grew up along this route, centred at Blackfriars and Wilson, in structures similar to the yellow brick building that today houses Society Cafe and the Blackfriars restaurant, having been a commercial location for almost 200 years.
Antler River Attacks
In 1850, the bridge washed out after years of flooding, and the residents of the Flats all pitched in through subscriptions to rebuild it. Construction was supervised by Samuel Peters Sr., and they put in a toll booth to pay for the cost. The bridge was important. It provided a flow of traffic that created business. It was also closed annually by floods. The Antler River was a source of life, industry, and a constant threat of destruction.
By 1874, the people of Petersville (which had absorbed Kensington in 1871) were well-used to the floods that came every year. They expected them. Some years were better, and some years were worse. Some people lost their homes and jobs, but it was this unerring environmental challenge that made it an affordable neighbourhood. It was also what would eventually make it economically impossible for Petersville to remain autonomous from London.
A well-known piece of London history is the Great Flood of 1937, where the Antler River swallowed up parts of the city en masse. Photographs of the disaster show residents with their soaked furniture drying on porches, canoeing down streets, doing their best to salvage their belongings. Underneath the Kensington bridge across the river, just next to Museum London, there’s a marker showing just how high the water got. There were five deaths, and more than 1,000 homes were lost. It was this monster flood that led to the construction of the Fanshawe Dam and the dikes along the riverbed at the Forks.
What you might not know about is the flood of 1883, more than fifty years earlier.
Revenge of the Mighty River
While floods had threatened the neighbourhood every year, they were few and far enough between that people felt comfortable making the needed repairs and pitching in to clean up. Their little cottages were an achievement.
The flood of July 12, 1883 tore down most of their hard work. Heavy rain caused the river to swell and accelerate, only made worse by the Springbank Dam — built by London to make the waters deep enough for boat travel. Residents of Blackfriars may have been seen as acceptable collateral damage to this mucking around with the natural landscape. The flood killed more than a dozen people.
The raging current was so intense that it pushed a passenger riverboat, the Princess Louise, over Springbank Dam, killing seven passengers on board when it capsized. Even the wreck of the Victoria, shelved after her famous disaster in 1881, was swept into the water from her resting place on the shore, broken apart and left as debris for years to come.
With waters strong enough to damage these large vessels, it’s no surprise that the sweeping tides tore apart the little cottages of Petersville. Swift waters laid waste to hard-won homes and entire plots of land. As a relatively small village, it would prove nearly impossible for Petersville’s residents to raise funds needed for repairs. Many of them simply could not afford to fix the damage and were forced to move.
The End of Independence
The financial repercussions of the 1883 flood would mean the end of Petersville as an autonomous community.
Having already recently conceded to renaming their village “London West,” soon they would be completely absorbed by the Forest City. They tried to catch up, but every year the river flooded again, and it was impossible to get back on track. After fourteen years, they gave up. Petersville finally amalgamated with the City of London in 1897.
Today, Blackfriars maintains its spirit of independence. It truly is different from any other neighbourhood in London. It promises to remain a little village in the big city with a strident community association and loyal residents for years to come.
And the river? She lies in wait, perhaps to seek revenge again someday.
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.