It’s called “the core” for a reason.
Downtown London truly is the beating heart of the city, where everything started. The adjacent Forks of the Thames was the birthplace of a thriving community that would be filled with bold leaders, adventurous entrepreneurs, and the fond memories of so many in the Forest City.
A Newspaper with Know-How
Capturing the goings-on in London’s downtown — and as the city grew, its broader region — our local newspaper has been witness to history for over 150 years. It was first printed as the Canadian Free Press in 1849, and in 1852, the paper was bought by Josiah Blackburn, who renamed it The London Free Press, beginning a family legacy that would continue until the 1990s.
Built in 1854, 122 Carling Street was originally the home of the newspaper, the current home of the Marienbad Restaurant and Chaucer’s Pub. This is why, when you go to Chaucer’s, you’ll see a big letterpress typeset decorating the back of the bar, in homage to the building’s original occupant. Blackburn was the editor, reporter, proof-reader, and advertising salesperson. He did it all from 122 Carling and surely needed a stiff drink. He successfully began daily publication in 1855, the same year that London was incorporated as a city.
As it grew, The London Free Press stayed downtown. In 1866, the offices moved to 432 Richmond Street, one door south of David’s Bistro near Dundas Street, and later expanded to include David’s building, 430 Richmond. Newspapers were the only mass media at the time, so posters in the front windows offered Londoners updates on important stories in lieu of radio, television, and Google. This would include vital information on the continuing battles of World War I.
London’s Link to the World
In 1931, the Huron and Erie Savings & Loan moved into their art deco building at the corner of Dundas and Clarence (now the TD Canada Trust). This freed up their old space on the southeast corner of Queens and Richmond, where the newspaper now moved. Being downtown was vital. All the big stuff happened downtown, and reporters needed to be on the scene to cover it. As World War II unfolded, Londoners would gather outside the newspaper offices to find out the latest information on life-changing events overseas.
In the 1950s, The London Free Press moved to York Street, in the landmark complex between Colborne and Waterloo. This location saw the business at its height, with a horde of reporters, the vibration of the presses, and over 400 staff members working day and night to get the news out to those in London and beyond. The paper was printed and distributed twice a day — morning and evening — from the 1950s until 1981. A family-owned enterprise, The London Free Press was an independent news source for most of its lifespan, focusing on local coverage and treating London’s stories with as much care as national or international news.
The London Free Press is still downtown today, although now owned by a large media conglomerate. Many of the reporters are still devoted to local coverage and quality news coverage, despite many obstacles. In 2019, they moved from York Street to smaller offices at 210 Dundas Street and continue their good work from there.
The King of Department Stores
In 2019, London said goodbye to one of its most famous businessmen: Fred Kingsmill. At the age of 90, Fred had lived through the Depression, World War Two, and tumultuous changes afoot in his hometown. Through it all, he spearheaded London’s favourite locally-owned department store, Kingsmill’s, at 130 Dundas Street.
Fred was enormously tall, handsome, and very kind. He started working at the family store when he was just ten years old and finally took over as president in 1970. He ran the business until his retirement in 2003, despite rapid changes in the retail world, including mall culture, big box stores, and Amazon. Through it all, his department store was classy, just like him. Inside, you could ride the crank-operated elevator, manned (or womanned) by an operator who would take you to various departments.
Full of Finery
One of these departments was dedicated entirely to fine dinnerware. Brides would have a table set for them by the staff and pick out crystal, flatware, and china by mixing and matching patterns at a long, beautifully lit dining room table.
The furniture department was known for carrying high-quality solid wood items, and the linens on the main floor always had at least a 300 thread count. The ceilings were impressed tin, and throughout the multi-floor store was a pneumatic tube system, allowing each department to easily shoot documents to the main office by air pressure. At its height, the store employed 200 people. Among those were many, many women who found careers at Kingsmills that might not have been available to them elsewhere.
Kingsmills was in business from 1865 until 2014. While the original structures burned down twice, the store, as most of us remember it, was built in 1932. The business closed, and the building was sold to Fanshawe College, which renovated it to house classes while retaining the art deco facade.
Department store historian Bruce Kopytek has cited Kingsmills as probably the last store of its kind in North America.
A Hotel for the People
Another landmark establishment in our downtown, Hotel London stood at the corner of Dundas and Wellington. However, this hotel was not just a place to stay overnight. It was so much more than that.
Hotel London was a community hub built by Londoners to serve Londoners. George Reid, a prominent businessman and philanthropist, saw a need in the Forest City beginning in the early 1900s for a new, modern facility that could bring big business to London. After trying for years to build it himself, he later advocated for the newly formed Chamber of Commerce in 1918 to work together to make the hotel a reality. It would be a place for conferences, weddings, business meetings, dinner, dancing, celebrations — everything that makes a city a vital place to be. They put together a team and raised money privately among citizens, creating a corporation to usher the dream into reality. The hotel was finally built in 1927 to much fanfare.
Especially during the post-World-War-II years, Hotel London was more than a mainstay. It was a vital source of employment for new immigrants. It was the hot spot downtown, whether you were attending an event in the Crystal Ballroom upstairs, or meeting friends at one of the three pubs in the complex. One of the pubs, the Camelot Room, was one of London’s first LGBTQ bars — an open secret, but one kept from homophobic owner Joe McManus in the 1960s.
There was a men’s only bar that you could find behind the grand staircase of the main lobby where beer was 10 cents a glass, but most famously, Londoners met friends at the West End Lounge. You could get into the West End from the hotel’s Wellington Street entrance. Generations of youngsters snuck their first beers there and saw the famous waiter who could carry whole trays of beer glasses on his head.
A Centre for Business
While the later years of the hotel were managed differently, the original plan was to make Hotel London a place for businesses of all sorts to grow. The main level and basement were a kind of enclosed mall, including Calhoun’s hat shop, the Cairncross pharmacy, a salon, a barber, Laura Secord, and a fine men’s clothing store called Boughners, among many other businesses.
Hotel suites upstairs hosted trunk shows, where salespeople would come to town with the finest in designer garments for purchase. These salesmen would have breakfast during their travels at the Grill Room downstairs or have dinner in the fine dining lounge. Hotel London was the home of the city’s first smorgasbord and featured many local bands, including Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.
Everyone went to Hotel London one way or another, whether for work or play. It was a magical place, but by 1972, it was owned by a money-minded capitalist named Joe. Following instructions from his doctor to divest himself of day-to-day stress, he began selling his business interests, including Hotel London. Instead of selling it to another hotelier, he sold it to developers for a higher bid. They tore it down and built the City Centre Towers that stand there today.
A Changing Streetscape
The best thing about any downtown is wandering around, stopping in the little shops, maybe catching a movie, some delicious dinner, and a raucous drink at night. During its best years, Downtown London was a place to run into friends, shop in stores you could never find in a mall, and take part in cultural activities centred around art and music. Some things change, but many things stay the same. The best part of the downtown is its consistently fascinating culture, growing in diverse spaces up and down main streets.
You can argue that Downtown London isn’t what it used to be, and that’s true. Times have changed. That doesn’t mean the core of the city isn’t important and that nothing good happens there. Today, our downtown is filled with dauntless independent businesses and experiences that Londoners cannot find anywhere else. You can visit stores run by people who live in the Forest City and employ people from the Forest City.
Every generation says the good old days are behind us, but as someone who lives and works in the core, this writer can tell you that the best is yet to come.
Feature photo of Kingsmill’s on the north side of Dundas Street in 1962 courtesy of Western University Archives via historypin.org.
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.