Home to many of the city’s foundational institutions, London’s Old North neighbourhood features some of the Forest City’s grandest homes and some fascinating history.
Old North is bordered by Oxford Street to the south, Adelaide Street to the east, and the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River to the west and north.
An Architectural Wonderland
Most of Old North was built in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, despite being surveyed for development in the 1840s. During this building boom, many treasured architectural styles were used to create large, impressive homes for Londoners.
To any heritage buff, the area is incredible for walking tours. The sidewalks are old and crooked, and the oak and maple trees are enormous, towering over beautiful big homes named for romantic styles that roll off the tongue — Italianate, Georgian, Tudor, Gothic.
In fact, the area contains over 180 of the city’s heritage designated homes. These are the city’s most prestigious properties, continuing to attract affluent families to the safe, wide, and picturesque streets.
The Sisters of St. Joseph
Of course, the homes of Old North only started to appear after the city stretched out with new institutions. Some of the most significant developments in Old North came from the initiatives of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Catholic nuns who first arrived in London in 1868 at the request of the local bishop, John Walsh. They lived in a convent near St. Peter’s Basilica in Downtown London.
Their first project was the Mount Hope Orphanage, which opened in 1869 in the former residence of London Mayor William Barker on the southwest corner of Grosvenor and Richmond Streets. The estate was large, with gardens and orchards — which were torn out to build an addition for the children. The nuns made their own bread, and the children assisted in gathering water from the river and the well. There was a stable with a horse and a cow.
A History of Caring
In 1877, another addition to the building was made to house elderly citizens in need, and the compound quickly began to modernize. Soon, there were too many children for the size of the facility, so they were moved to Mount St. Joseph Orphanage, which opened on April 29, 1900, at 1486 Richmond Street near Windermere.
This Orphanage was in use until the 1950s when the government took over child care services. The previous orphanage, Mount Hope, was used for the elderly until it was torn down in 1963 to make way for a new facility to care for the aged, Marian Villa.
The Sisters also established St. Joseph’s Hospital, which has the distinction of being the hospital where this writer was born, as well as many other London babies. The once familiar maternity wing moved to Victoria Hospital in 2011. The original 1888 building, now nearly impossible to see with all the additions and renovations, was designed by Moore & Henry — the same Moore family that would go on to create so many of London’s other landmark structures, such as the London Life building on Dufferin Avenue.
The Beginnings of Western University
When you think of Western, its beautiful 1920s buildings by architect John Moore come to mind, as do the stone gates on Richmond near Masonville. Today, it is a sprawling campus populated by about 30,000 students annually. It has a life all its own.
Did you know that Western University got its start in Old North? The original Huron College was at the corner of St. James and St. George Streets, founded in 1863 by Bishop Deal Isaac Hellmuth, the second Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Huron. Hellmuth was a Polish Jew who trained to be a rabbi at the University of Breslau. His theological dissidence, however, led to him being disowned by his father.
He went to England for school, where, in 1842, he converted to Christianity and entered the ministry in 1844 in Toronto. By 1861, he was in London and appointed as the bishop by 1871. It is rumoured that his family, many tennis champions among them, were the first to bring the sport to the Forest City.
Hellmuth wanted to create an educational institution worthy of the schools he had attended overseas. Huron College, under the auspices of the Huron Diocese, had a campus that stretched from its buildings at St. James and St. George to Grosvenor Street and the Antler River. Huron primarily trained Anglican priests, and the institution’s house of worship was St. John the Evangelist, built in 1887 at the corner of St. James and Grosvenor Streets by George Durand’s architecture firm, a beautiful church that still stands today.
The students eventually moved to the present campus in the 1920s, and the old Huron College building stood until the 1950s. They were then demolished to make room for the apartments at 1 Grosvenor, which, interestingly, sports chandeliers from Hotel London in its main lobby.
Another initiative by Bishop Hellmuth was the Hellmuth Boys School at St. James and Grosvenor, one of two private educational institutions started by Bishop Hellmuth. The other was, of course, the Hellmuth Ladies School, on Richmond St. near Windermere Rd., that became the aforementioned Mount St. Joseph Orphanage. The Boys School grounds in Old North stretched from Wellington to Waterloo and Oxford to Grosvenor.
While the socio-economics of London at the time could not support such an ambitious private school, Hellmuth used the building for good purpose after it closed in 1877. It became the University of Western Ontario. Still, the Boys College was just too big, so the “little university that could” moved out until beginning again at its current site in 1922. The Hellmuth Boys School was demolished in 1894.
A famous home in Old North is Thornwood at 329 St. George Street. This beautiful Gothic Revival-style house has a fieldstone foundation and five chimneys, as well as a coach house and underground tunnel. It was built in 1852 by Henry Corry Rowley Becher, who designed it himself. Becher had some interesting family connections, including his cousin William Makepeace Thackeray and relatives that were prominent in the British Navy. This may have made it easier for him to befriend the Harris family of Eldon House, where he lived for his first five years in London, beginning at the age of 18 in 1835.
At their encouragement, Becher became a lawyer and was active in city politics. He became a successful local investor in many business ventures. As a result, he constructed this manor where he and his wife hosted important figures like Sir John A. Macdonald, the Prince of Wales, and Winston Churchill — who planted a birch tree in the yard.
The estate, well hidden from the street, overlooks the Antler River, so what you see from St. George is actually the back of the house. In his time, Becher was so well known that what would later become Gibbons Park was called Becher Island.
The Parks, the Parks, Oh, the Parks
Of course, no Old North childhood would be complete without a day of tobogganing at Doidge Park, conveniently located across the street from an emergency room (now Urgent Care) for all those broken bones and bruises caused by hurtling down the steep slopes covered in ice and snow.
In addition to tobogganing, Doidge Park was a paradise for kids with a wading pool, baseball diamond, and terrific playground equipment. Of course, most of these features were insurance nightmares for the city and no longer exist. Doidge Park had always been a place for fun rooted in danger, as it was originally a gravel and limestone quarry called Anthistle Pit.
Londoners started using it as a tobogganing and recreation spot well before it was established as a city park in the 1950s, despite the industrial equipment and trucks. The constant use of the space by fun-seeking children gave way to safety measures and a more family-friendly setup.
My favourite park in the city is Gibbons Park. At the west end of Grosvenor Street, you can’t see the sprawling greens and trees from the road. Instead, you have to pass through two stone markers, past some beautiful homes improbably built on a steep slope, and glide down into what seems like another world. Try going down that hill on your bike!
The swimming pool at Gibbons still has its mid-century bathhouse building. Many teenagers have gained clout by climbing the fences for a night swim there! While the play equipment there now is top of the line, all we had was the wading pool, a swing set, and the trees when this writer was little. The trees split into trunks low to the ground, gnarled with knobs for climbing, and made perfect secret forts.
The river just south of the playground is always populated with geese. Before the pool was put in, Londoners used to swim there. There’s also a footbridge that heads over the river and comes out at the old London Lawn Bowling club near Beaufort Street. The bridge there now is very nice, but I’ll never forget the thrill of the many disgusting webs and huge eight-legged monster spiders that adorned the old version.
And, of course, any cyclist will tell you about Baldwin Flats and the Banana Kingdom!
My grandmother took me down to Gibbons Park all the time. The greens back on to manicured yards of Old North houses, and I remember exploring the far reaches of Gibbons, peering into every corner, and wondering at the beautiful homes and gardens I could see.
Old North is a treasure of a neighbourhood, filled with beautiful homes and important London stories. As a cornerstone of a community, its heritage homes and history make it a place like no other.
Feature photo of Banana Kingdom in Gibbons Park via Reddit.
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.