Oakridge is one of those unique neighbourhoods filled with natural and built heritage where, after people discover it, they never want to leave.
Located in the west end of London, ON, Oakridge is a predominantly residential neighbourhood; many young professionals, retirees, and families with young children call this area home. With street names like Dolway, Donegal, Dunedin, Kildare and Solway, there is a notable Irish influence in this neighbourhood.
Similar to Westmount, the development of Oakridge Acres began on October 12, 1950, with none other than Sifton Properties at the helm. It initially consisted of 1,649 units spanning 74 acres. The stretch south of Oxford Street is defined by the many 1950s and 1960s-era family homes constructed on ample lots; multi-family residences first appeared in 1961. In contrast, the area north of Oxford Street is lined with homes built around the 1970s and 1980s, contributing to the city’s northward expansion. Additionally, there are more recent townhomes and apartment buildings to be found throughout the neighbourhood.
Within Oakridge lies some truly spectacular parks. Oakridge Park was added in the second phase of development in the area in the early 1960s. Local green spaces such as Hyde Park Woods, Clara Brenton Woods Park, and Cheltenham Park provide plenty of room today for outdoor activities. A local staple for families in the area is nearby Byron’s Storybook Gardens, a beloved amusement park dating back to 1958 featuring rides and attractions based on popular fairytales and nursery rhymes.
The neighbourhood is home to other remarkable outdoor sites, such as the Thames Valley Golf Club. Located in the southern area just below Riverside Drive, the Thames Valley Golf Club is the oldest public golf course in London. The 18-hole classic course, established in 1924, features natural topography of the land, large, mature tree-lined fairways, and a peaceful view of the Thames River.
Bogged Down with Wetlands
Another excellent green space within the area is the remarkable Sifton Bog, which lies in the middle of the neighbourhood, west of Hyde Park Road and south of Oxford Street. The bog was formed over 13 thousand years ago as the last glacier in this region melted. A large block of ice broke off and settled in the glacial till, leaving a depression filled with water as the ice melted.
Prior to the 1960s, the wetland had undergone a series of name changes. It was called “Foster’s Bog” and “Redmond’s Bog” in the 1880s after the occupants of the land at that time, followed by “Spruce Bog” in the 1890s. “Byron Bog” came into use by the 1920s because, at that time, it fell within the boundaries of the village of Byron. It was renamed following the donation of the land by the Sifton Construction Company to the City of London in 1963.
A Vast Resource
One of the earliest uses for the Sifton Bog was as a hunting ground by Indigenous Peoples. Archaeological remnants and sites found in the area also indicate that the bog was used by Indigenous Peoples for gathering foods, medicines and materials. However, unfortunately, no record of its original Indigenous name exists. The bog was also used at one time as a commercial source for sphagnum moss, an alternative to cotton gauze. The resource was mined during the First World War to support the war effort and the needs of local hospitals. During the Second World War, the bog came in handy once again when it turned out that the Alder Buckthorn could be removed from the environment for use in the production of gunpowder.
In terms of environmental management, the area has not had a pristine history. Throughout the 20th century, the owners of the bog tried to exploit its natural resources in a myriad of ways — from attempts to drain the land to grow celery, to removing layers of peat for sale, and selling Black Spruce for Christmas Trees. Since then, however, the Sifton Bog Environmentally Significant Area has been classified as a Class 2 provincially significant wetland. It is presently cared for by both the City of London and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. The Sifton Bog not only has stunning greenery, trails, and wooden bridges that make for picture-perfect walks, but it is also one of the most southerly acidic bogs in Canada. It contains a number of rare species, including four types of carnivorous plants.
A Soldier’s Sanatorium
The Oakridge community is defined by the CN tracks to the North, Wonderland Road to the East, the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River to the South, and Sanatorium Road to the West. Situated on a high bluff overlooking the river flowing through the city, the namesake of this westerly road is none other than the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium. At the time, the facility was located out of town, with the purpose of isolating highly contagious diseases.
Facilities such as this one were opened for the treatment of tuberculosis. Along with a growing number of treatment centres across Canada, the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium opened in April 1910 just outside the city of London. On June 4th, 1914, Lt. Gov. Sir John Gibson opened the Children’s Preventorium at the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium (QAS). The facility cost $32,383 and was intended for children who had tuberculosis as well as for children whose parents were recovering from tuberculosis at the Sanatorium.
By 1917, as the First World War came to an end, soldiers were returning from overseas service. Many of the men who came home were already suffering from consumption, as it was commonly known back then, and were in dire need of these specialized medical services to restore their health. Their weakened states became a driving force for the expansion of rest homes and beds. That same year, a nation-wide fundraising drive took place to collect additional money for the needed expansion of beds in the existing sanatoriums.
A Place to Heal
Indeed, this home for recuperating soldiers and others affected by TB would see many years of use. In 1949, the facility was renamed The Beck Memorial Sanatorium and remained in use until September 1972. In fact, the Sanatorium effectively laid the foundations for the future University Hospital.
Over the years, the Sanatorium evolved beyond its initial purpose as a treatment facility for tuberculosis. With this continuous growth, the London Health Association determined that a new building was necessary if they were to keep up with the ever-growing demand and innovations in the medical field. Thus, the year 1972 saw both the end of the Sanatorium and the opening of the University Hospital.
As tuberculosis became more treatable and dedicated wards fell into disuse, sanatoriums frequently transitioned into mental health facilities. In 1960, the campus began to house the Children’s Psychiatric Research Institute, a role it still plays to this day under the name, the Child Parent Research Institute (CPRI).
Rumoured to be haunted, some people have reportedly heard children playing in empty basement hallways and in the eerie underground tunnels between buildings. Plagued by paranormal and legal troubles alike, a class action lawsuit has been filed against the provincial government for its failure to prevent alleged incidents of abuse against residents of CPRI.
A more peaceful setting, the chapel built to provide comfort and service to those undergoing treatment remains on site today. St. Luke’s in-the-Garden Chapel is a picturesque building surrounded by lush gardens. The intricate stained glass windows, featuring religious icons such as St. Luke himself and as well as medical heroes like Florence Nightingale, are a striking feature of the historic place of worship. Unsurprisingly, the chapel is now a popular spot for small weddings.
A Historic Home in Hazeldon
The Sanatorium isn’t the only historic site in the neighbourhood. Hazelden Manor is a beautiful stone and shingle house that dates back to 1892. It was the summer home of Colonel John W. Little. Born in Montreal, Quebec in 1848, Little moved to London in 1875 and became a partner with his uncle in Robinson, Little and Company Drygoods. The Little home was at 245 Dufferin Avenue — the present-day site of Canada Life.
An influential figure in the business and community life of London, Little was the mayor of London from 1895-1897, president of several local firms, a member of the Board of the Water Commissioners (1898-1903), and a Lieutenant Colonel of the Seventh Regiment, Canadian Fusiliers. He passed away at Hazelden in 1913.
The Manor became the Little family’s permanent residence after they completed renovations in 1928, led by John’s son Arthur. Following Arthur’s death, his son Frank Little subdivided and sold the property into what is now the Old Hazelden Neighborhood off Riverside Drive and Hartson Drive in west London. Hazelden Manor has been home to six families since its sale in the 1950s and has been preserved and restored.
Grounds for Hunting
The London Hunt and Country Club has a rich history, dating back to the city’s “garrison period.” Most people date the Club’s origins back to May 9, 1843, the day when a famous military steeplechase took place. This event dramatically illustrated local interest in equestrian sports, including foxhunting, which had begun in the area the previous fall. On March 30, 1885, the London Hunt Club was formally established and it celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2010.
Hound kennels and a clubhouse were soon established in converted farm buildings on Western Road; other early activities of the Club included lawn tennis, bowling and archery. By the turn of the century, the Club had moved to a nearby location at the corner of what is now Richmond Street and Windermere Road, and following the addition of a nine-hole golf course was renamed in 1904 The London Hunt and Country Club.
Aware that Western’s expansion during the 1950s would eventually jeopardize its course, the Club purchased around 275 acres at the west end of Oxford Street from the London Health Association. Robert Trent Jones designed a 27-hole golf course, 18 of which were completed in 1959. The Hunt Club moved to its present location the following spring and has remained a prominent feature in Oakridge.
From its early days to the twenty-first century, it’s clear that Oakridge always has been and will always be chock-full of charm, inside and out.
Feature photo of Sifton Bog by Angela McInnes.
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.