Lying just southeast of the downtown core, the Hamilton Road neighbourhood truly has a life of its own.
A mix of industry, small businesses, and family homes, the Hamilton Road community has a rich history. Encompassing the stretch of Hamilton Road from Adelaide to Highbury, there is seemingly something for everyone. Indeed, the housing in this area alone is remarkably diverse thanks to its swath of homes built from the late 19th century to the post-World War II era in varying styles.
An Early Route Into Town
Before the area around Dundas Street was developed, early travellers to the city would often enter London via Hamilton Road in order to avoid the swampy portions of Dundas. As a result, many hotels sprung up to service the needs of these travellers. The former Homister House Hotel is one of the few surviving structures from the period, though it has since been subdivided into apartments.
In addition to the hotels and taverns, places of worship were developed along the Hamilton Road corridor, each with varying architectural styles. For instance, the Hyatt Avenue Methodist Church, built to serve a congregation dating back to 1873, has an eclectic structure that incorporates both Romanesque and Flemish features. The building was purchased in 2015 by the Egyptian Community Centre of Ontario. Renovated and restored, the building is now the Hyatt Centre and Mosque, serving as a place of worship as well as the home to the Muslim Soup Kitchen.
Another architectural standout is the All Saints’ Church. Its spire, citizen and parishioner Harold Slade wrote in 1948, reminds “all who see it of the church’s mission to bring humanity to the knowledge of God, who reigns above.” One hundred and twenty-eight years after the first services were held near the corner of Adelaide Street & Hamilton Road, the spire at the so-called “Working Man’s Cathedral” continues to serve as a symbol of hope for the whole community.
Striking Liquid Gold
The area is also home to many unique businesses, old and new. In the early days of the community, when the area was known as London East, the oil industry had a commanding presence on Hamilton Road. After the establishment of the first oil wells in North America in Lambton County in 1857, Hamilton Road was soon teeming with industrial sites ready to refine, transport, and market oil. London’s first refinery was established in 1863, but by the end of the 1860s, there were dozens of refineries around Hamilton Road.
One such refinery was the Atlantic Petroleum Works, established in 1866 — when the oil business was at its height in London — by German immigrant brothers Herman and Isaac Waterman. The site spanned four acres of land, and the firm became one of the province’s leading businesses in refining petroleum. Isaac Waterman is said to have taken pains to provide comfortable homes in the area to his workmen at a moderate price — efforts which resulted in London East’s population growing to about 4000 inhabitants.
But, after a disastrous collapse in the Canadian oil business during the 1870s, the local oil barons consolidated their businesses to form the Imperial Oil Company. After a series of fires and mounting concerns about pollution, however, most of the refineries were relocated away from the city.
In the early 20th century, the arrival of bountiful electricity from Niagara Falls via the newly-built Public Utility Commission Substation No. 2 provided a considerable boost to the local community. It was only the second electrical substation in the city, and it was built on Cabell Street to serve the industrial needs of the area. Other notable industrial pursuits in the area include the London Concrete Machinery Co. complex on the southside of Cabell Street, the oldest parts of which date back to 1910. The company was a leading player in manufacturing portable hand-operated machines for laying concrete — a development that allowed for the greater use of concrete in foundations and road building.
Today, the businesses in the neighbourhood serve both the local population and the city as a whole. Notable institutions include the Neighbourhood Laundromat and Café, which uniquely elevates the tedious task of washing clothes by serving local coffee and fresh meals on-site, Summer’s Hardware which has been serving the community for over 100 years, and Kohn Meat Market, London’s oldest meat market.
Hope for a Better Tomorrow
One notable businessman from London’s history is James F. Jenkins, who was one of Canada’s preeminent Black leaders and a resident of Hamilton Road. Jenkins founded Canada’s first Black newspaper The Dawn Of Tomorrow, publishing its first issue from his family’s home at 95/97 Glenwood Avenue on July 14, 1923. Born in Forsyth, Georgia, Jenkins was educated in the liberal arts and worked with influential Black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois.
Jenkins arrived in London in 1907 and knew that Black Canadians faced many obstacles, whether it was getting rejected by the army for the colour of their skin or feeling safe in their own neighbourhoods. After the first World War, racial tensions were heightened and Black communities were scattered, making communicating from one to the other difficult. Knowing how crucial it was for Black Canadians to stay in touch for mutual support, he launched his paper, with the hopes he had for the publication built right into the title.
The paper filled a necessary gap in communication between communities. In publishing The Dawn Of Tomorrow, Jenkins wrote, “It is to be remembered first, our people in Canada do not possess a newspaper, second that the circulation of the American coloured newspapers in Canada is very small, and third, very little news of our people in Canada is in American publications.” The publication covered topics such as how Black Canadians and Americans could work together, racial inequalities left unacknowledged in Canadian society and the accomplishments of Black Canadians. Jenkins’ efforts towards inter-community co-operation and Black advocacy helped to catalyze the creation of the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People (CLACP).
A Move in the Right Direction
History was made again within the Black community of Hamilton Road a few decades later, when Stanley Robert “Gabby” Anderson moved with his family to the area from Detroit, Michigan in 1930. The Andersons’ lived on Glenwood Ave. in London East. Anderson recalls the jovial community atmosphere in the area growing up, one that still exists in the neighbourhood today: “We were friends, we all knew who we were. We had to go out and make our own fun. We swam in the river and played football. I belonged to an east end gang.”
Both Anderson’s father and uncle played on a League team for Black Canadians representing the Hotel London in the 1930s. As a child, Anderson played organized ball at St. Julien Park and junior baseball in the London Majors’ system. He went on to play professional baseball in the Pony League with Olean N. Y. and Peoria Illinois from 1950 until 1955 when he was enlisted in the U.S. army. Anderson joined the London Majors in 1957 and, in the ten years he played with the team, Anderson not only earned the title of league batting champ twice but also made the all-star roster eight times. In addition, Anderson helped establish Eager Beaver Baseball, a co-ed youth baseball league in the city, and served on its executive committee in the 1960s.
Bringing a Taste of Home, Here
London — and the Hamilton Road area specifically — has long been called home for many of Portuguese heritage; after all, the headquarters for the Portuguese Club of London (PCL) is located just outside the Hamilton Road area. PCL was established in 1967 to “grow and unite” the Portuguese community in the area.
Now, more than 50 years after its inception, the PCL continues to ensure the community thrives through programs and resources such as its traditional folk dance (or “ranchos”) troupe, the Holy Spirit Marching Band, which has been delighting audiences both locally and internationally since 1975, and its soccer facilities, which includes a full-size fenced-in soccer pitch.
Rei Dos Leitoes, or “King of Piglets,” is famous for its authentic Portuguese food. The name “Rei dos Leitões” is not unique; the phrase first became popular in Bairrada, Portugal, where the specialty was to roast piglets, making the region well known for its unique style: Leitão à Bairrada. Many in the Portuguese community consider this to be the best way to roast pork. As immigrants moved to other countries, they adopted the name, and served up their version of Rei dos Leitões, making it a well-known style of preparation in other Portuguese communities around the world.
London’s Rei Dos Leitões first opened its doors in 1992. The Vieira family bought the restaurant in 2001 and introduced the surrounding community to its unique charcoal-infused chicken and signature sauces, which then earned them the reputation as “King of the Pigs.” Their main style of cuisine is churrasqueira, or open flame BBQ.
Work Hard, Play Hard
With its surplus of recreational facilities, Hamilton Road is a haven for active community members. Within the community lies two parks on the bank of the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River for residents to enjoy — Vauxhall and St. Julien. In addition, there is Silverwoods Park in the northern part of the neighbourhood, and the BMO Centre, an indoor recreation facility that opened in 2011.
The neighbourhood has long served as a gathering place for London’s older residents too, with the construction of the Hamilton Road Seniors’ Community Centre in the late 1970s. The local YMCA/YWCA also played a large role in the recreational activities of the community. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Hamilton Road branch of the YM-YWCA Community Centre had moved frequently until the new Bob Hayward ‘Y’ was built in 1963.
In the past, the neighbourhood housed such cultural gems as the iconic Savoy Theatre. Built in 1928, the theatre was initially operated as the Rex Theatre but adopted its new name in 1951 until it was demolished in the early 1960s. It once sat in the location that is now Starlite Variety on Hamilton Road.
Today, the neighbourhood bears such cultural locales as the Crouch Branch of the London Public Library and Tommy Hunter Way. Known as “Canada’s country gentleman,” Tommy Hunter was born in London, Ontario in 1937. He went on to lead a long career as a singer, guitarist, and television host, earning such accolades as being inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, London Music Hall of Fame, and the Order of Canada — but he never forgot his roots. The street was renamed in his honour in 1997.
Community Spirit, Etched in Style
One particular cultural point of pride for the neighbourhood’s business community is the Tree Trunk Tour. The unique public art collection features more than a dozen custom carvings in the area that tell a story. Originally started in London by the Woodfield Community Association, the Tree Trunk Tour is a co-operative partnership between Tourism London, the City of London, STIHL Canada, and the Hamilton Road Business Association.
The tour perfectly captures London’s love for trees, as it is the “Forest City.” It also bolsters London’s reputation as the Forest City by providing artists with the tools necessary to create tree carvings in the name of public art. Some of the remarkable sculptures in the area include the “STIHL Band Tree-O” located outside the iconic London music venue Eastside Bar and Grill, the “Good Shepherd” that stands outside the All Saints Anglican Church, and the “King of Pigs,” fittingly posted outside popular Portuguese restaurant Rei Dos Leitoes.
While history has seemingly been made on every corner of the neighbourhood, Hamilton Road’s reputation as a haven for the working class and immigrants, both past and present, remains the same.
It is this familial sense of community spirit that sets this neighbourhood apart and ensures it will thrive for years to come.
Feature Photo of the streetscape at Hamilton Road and East Street in 1956, 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.