With its small-town feel and access to the city at large, Byron is an attractive place to live for many Londoners.

Encompassing the land south of the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River and west of Colonel Talbot Road, Byron as an enclave is no stranger to change. The neighbourhood’s name alone has shifted multiple times over the years. Initially, the area was called “Westminster.” It was then renamed “Hall’s Mill,” until finally, it came to be known as Byron, after the poet Lord Byron.

A Bustling Borough

Byron once enjoyed independence as a lively village over two centuries ago. The area first grew into its own as a community outside of London in the early 19th century. Throughout its long history, this central tenet of independence has been well-maintained, even as it became a part of London in the 1960s. Since then, subdivisions have been added to the area, allowing the neighbourhood to expand outward from Byron’s center hub at Boler Road and Commissioners Road West; the majority of Byron residents live in detached, single-family homes.

Two aerial views of Byron, showing the growth of the village between 1951 (top) and 1957 (bottom). In 1961, Byron was annexed and became a part of the City of London. Photos courtesy of Western University Archives via historypin.org.

The neighbourhood is known for its small-town feel and a strong sense of community. There is a palpable sense of community pride, and citizens take pains to preserve this established and harmonious community, along with its timeless natural areas. 

A Rich History

Byron is home to many accessible green spaces, such as Springbank Park. The park is one of the city’s largest and most beloved, with scenic paths along the river, picnic areas, and playgrounds. From a historical standpoint, the archaeology of Springbank Park also reveals a history dating back over 12 thousand years in the region, including Indigenous, settler, and early military functions. 

The river, and the many mills, vessels, and dams, that have existed on it, play a large role in Byron’s development. This c.1930 photo shows the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River looking west. Photo courtesy of the London Public Library.

The land was occupied on multiple occasions over the past few thousand years; more than 6800 Indigenous artifacts, animal bones, and plant fragments were found at a single site on the river. As many as five 19th and 20th-century Euro-Canadian archaeological sites have also been located in the park, thanks in no small part to local picnic-goers’ keen eyes. Artifacts found during these excavations include structural items (nails, window glass), table ceramics, and kitchen-related items.

A Mill About Town

While it changed hands many times throughout its history, the mill that once gave Byron its name bore witness to many of the area’s historic moments from its spot on Lot 45, Concession B of Westminster Township — as it was called when it was first granted by the Crown to one Archibald McMillan in February 1819. From there, Anson Simons and John Preffer built a carding and fulling mill on part of the property. Then, McMillan sold the land to Burleigh Hunt in 1831. Hunt built a gristmill and a dam across the Thames to increase his water power; two years later, he sold his whole business to Cyrenius Hall.

The Byron Grist Mill and Dam, pictured here c. 1900, was destroyed by fire in 1907. It was rebuilt and operated well into the twentieth century. It was partially dismantled in the 1930s and the remains were swept away in the flood of 1937. Photo courtesy of the London Public Library.

Hall arrived in Upper Canada in 1810. He contracted for the British forces during the War of 1812; following this stint, he built a retail business in Fort Erie. Upon moving to Westminster Township, Hall erected a distillery and tannery within the mill complex. With the business growing, Hall hired three of his sons to help out. The small settlement henceforth became known as Hall’s Mills.

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Hall’s Mills, pictured here c.1905, was a fixture in Byron from the 1820s until the 1930s. Its influence was commemorated by the London Public Library’s Historic Sites Committee on June 13, 1975. The plaque is mounted on a grindstone from Hall’s Mills. Photo courtesy of the London Public Library.

The mill would be bought, sold, and brought back from the brink of demolition a handful of times more before the area’s penchant for flooding at last caught up with the historic structure. Partially dismantled in the 1930s, the remains of the Byron gristmill were carried away in the Thames flood of 1937.

Waterworks

Between the Typhoid epidemic of 1847, the flood of 1846, and other poor water supply maintenance, settlers in the area had a serious water supply issue on their hands by the 1860s. City councillors had difficulty getting any concrete solutions through the political red tape until news of a fire that had swept through Saint John causing mass casualties and destruction of property, frightened London taxpayers into demanding action. With public support, the city was able to build a better firefighting system. 

A man with a straw hat sits on the hillside, looking down at the pumphouse and waterworks dam at Springbank and across the Thames River at the farmland that stretches into the distance on the north bank, c. 1880. Photo courtesy of the London Public Library.

A reservoir and works were constructed near an old mill belonging to Charlie Coombs. Construction of the three-million-gallon capacity Springbank Pumphouse was underway in 1878 and completed by January of the following year. The building of the pumphouse represented a major advance in local public health as it allowed for the controlled provision of a pure and assured supply of water. A second pumphouse was added and the original equipment upgraded by 1882.

A ca. 1880 view from the north bank of the Thames River looking towards the Waterworks Dam and the Pumphouse. To the left of the dam, on the south bank is the Northern Hotel and dock. Beyond it, in the background, can be seen a gazebo at the top of Chestnut Hill. Photo courtesy of the London Public Library.

In 1918, the waterworks dam was damaged by ice. A new reservoir, the Springbank Dam, was built in 1929 approximately 1.25 km downstream from the original waterworks. This location helped not only to create a 55-hectare reservoir for recreational activities such as swimming and rowing but also to maintain flood control as far as 7 km upstream.

Some local kids take advantage of low water at Springbank Dam in August 1955. Photo courtesy of Western University Archives via historypin.org.

In April 1937, the Springbank Dam would go on to survive the worst recorded flood in southern Ontario history. The Dam remained operational until 2008 when the gates broke during a routine test. A hot topic for the city council in the ensuing years, Council voted to officially decommission the structure in 2018.

The Flints’ Home of Stone

Constructed in 1837 and 1857, respectively, the Flint Cottage and Flint Shelter located at 1097 Commissioners Road West and 1040 Flint Lane are unassuming yet historic entities. The Flint Cottage, the more modest westernmost cobblestone building, was erected by Robert Flint, a British immigrant and patriarch of an influential pioneer family in the former Village of Byron. Likewise, the Flint Shelter was built by Robert Flint and his son, Pirney. 

The Cobblestone House Pirney Flint built for his family. Photo from The History of The Pumphouse and Springbank Park (2010).

The two one-storey cobblestone cottages were designated as architectural heritage properties by the City of London in 1979 under the Ontario Heritage Act, as they are very rare local examples of cobblestone construction. 

A Whale of a Fairytale 

Uniquely enchanting, Storybook Gardens is London’s very own fable-themed miniature village and theme park. However, it wasn’t Springbank Park’s first large attraction. In 1914, the Springbank Amusement Park opened, featuring a cannonball roller coaster, merry-go-round, bowling alleys, a shooting gallery, and Ferris wheel, among other thrills. The park eventually closed and was removed by 1942. 

The Springbank Amusement Park rollercoaster was a popular draw. Seen here c. 1914-1916 with a line up of eager thrill-seekers. Photo courtesy of Western University Archives via historypin.org.

Storybook Gardens opened in the summer of 1958 and has fed the imaginations of the city’s youth and their families ever since. One reason for its popularity in its early years was the millions of dollars in free publicity gained from the renegade actions of one notoriously mischievous resident of the Gardens’ former zoo.

Storybooks Gardens’ fairytale-inspired buildings and zoo animals were a big draw for visitors throughout Southwestern Ontario — and beyond. Postcard c.1960s courtesy of HipPostcard.

When Storybook Gardens operated a zoo, no animal was more popular than that of Slippery the Sea Lion. Regarded by some local historians as the most famous non-human Londoner ever, Slippery earned his name from the epic international adventure he embarked on right around the time the Gardens opened to the public. 

A Slippery Sea Lion

When Slippery and his partner were moved into their new home in the zoo, the pool’s railing had not been adequately secured, and the fence around the perimeter of the gardens was incomplete. This perfect storm gave the sea lion all the leeway he needed to slip away on June 16, 1958.

The sea lions at Storybook Gardens in April 1967. Photo courtesy of Western University Archives via historypin.org.

Over the ensuing 10 days, Slippery captured the attention of people across North America as he made his way down the Thames River into Lake St. Clair, and then continued south down the Detroit River into Lake Erie. By June 20, officials in Toledo, Ohio had received word that a sea lion was swimming around Maumee Bay.

In the meantime, citizens were flocking to Storybook Gardens to visit the remaining sea lion, which reporters had insisted on nicknaming Lonesome. Attempting to comfort the lonely mammal, animal lovers across North America had mailed her fish in Slippery’s absence. An estimated 50,000 people — nearly half the city’s population — were in attendance to welcome Slippery upon his return to London on July 6, 1958.

A Fighting Spirit

Home to extraordinary animals and people alike, one figure from Byron’s history left a legacy like no other. Janet Barbara Groshow was the first female president of a soldier’s branch of the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League, Byron Branch 69 (Tubercular Veterans’ Section) —an honour that neatly capped off her years of exemplary service. Upon hearing her youngest son, William was reported missing in action in April 1915, Groshow promptly left her position as Matron of London’s Victoria Home for Incurables behind to journey to France.

A gravestone with a cross at the top. The stone reads "Nursing Sister Janet Barbara Groshow Born Nov 3, 1868, Died Mar 31, 1960."
Janet Barbara Groshow died in 1960 at the age of 91 and was buried in London’s Woodland Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Find a Grave.

Soon after, Groshow joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) in the hopes of finding out more about her son’s fate. While overseas, she provided medical aid to many different bases around Europe. Tragically, Groshow’s son William died at Ypres, and her other two sons were wounded in action. She herself was removed from active duty in 1919 when she contracted tuberculosis. She returned to London and received treatment at the Queen Alexandra Sanitorium. For the remainder of her years, Groshow devoted herself to the welfare of tuberculous veterans as well as active members of the forces. The Canadian Legion honoured her with a lifetime membership.

The People Vs. Tim Hortons

This area’s renowned small-town feel and fierce independent streak became all too apparent in 2000 when Tim Hortons sought to open its first full-service location in Byron. At the time, Tim Hortons had 44 locations throughout London, but its presence in Byron was limited to a kiosk inside a grocery store with no seating, limited hours, and a limited menu. 

Byron’s small-town feel was maintained well into the later twentieth century. This 1955 photograph was taken as part of a newspaper feature on the growth of the village of Byron. The row of shops pictured were just east of where a Tim Horton’s would eventually be located on Commissioners Road West. Photo courtesy of Western University Archives via historypin.org.

The proposition was met with bitter opposition from a small group of members of the community — members who had previously stopped an entry by Tim Hortons into Byron just a couple of years earlier. Some members of the group claimed that building a Tim Hortons would ruin the “small-town atmosphere” of the neighbourhood, in their eyes, by generating too much traffic and noise.

London City Council sided with the local residents and refused to rezone a parcel of land along Commissioners Road to permit Tim Hortons to build a store there. TDL Group Ltd. appealed the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), and the OMB sided with TDL; it ordered the city to permit the required rezoning. Tim Hortons opened its Byron location in December of 2001.

Between its rich history and unique community culture, there’s no denying that Byron is a special place in the Forest City.

Feature photo of Willy the Whale at Storybook Gardens c. 1960s via HipPostcard

Further Reading

Boles, B. 2013. Telling a different story. The London Free Press.

Doty. C. n.d. The Saga of Slippery the Sea Lion. 

London Historic Sites Committee, London Public Library. 2009. Hall’s Mills (Byron).

McEwen, C.B. 2016. When Springbank Park Had a Zoo. The London and Middlesex Historian, Vol. 25, p39-61.

McTaggart, K. & Merrifield, P. 2010. The history of the pumphouse and Springbank Park.

Museum of Ontario Archaeology. 2016. Changing Landscapes: London Parks.

Simner, M. L. 2015. The London Waterworks Controversy; The Great Debate of 1875-1877. The London and Middlesex Historian, Vol. 24, p21-38.

Simner, M.L. 2016. London’s First Summer Resort. The London and Middlesex Historian, Vol. 25, p5-24.

St. Anne’s Anglican Church (Byron). 2020. Our Story. 

Vintage London, Ontario (Facebook). 2018. A look back at Storybook Gardens over the years. 

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.

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