As a residential area next to the heart of London, Woodfield is a veritable smorgasbord of historical tidbits from the Forest City.
An official Heritage Conservation District, Woodfield’s boundaries are Dundas Street to the south, Richmond Street to the west, Adelaide Street to the east, and the train tracks to the north — yes, those annoying train tracks that make you wait 10 minutes every time you try to go downtown.
The most identifiable feature of Woodfield is the unique architecture of its homes. The area boasts block after block of intact nineteenth-century streetscapes, most of which were built during a period of rapid expansion in the city from 1880-1910. These houses, some of which are massive, are some of the most highly sought real estate in London for their Victorian flair and enormous old trees.
The architecture is clearly a distinguishing feature of the area, and for good reasons. In fact, this author visited Woodfield on a class trip in public school, and I still remember the amazing stories behind many of the houses. At the time, I was particularly taken by the houses at 368 and 370 Dufferin Avenue, which were built for two spinster sisters. Now as an adult who knows more about London history, the names of three prominent Woodfield architects stand out to me as those who shaped the look of Woodfield: William Robinson, George Durrand, and John Moore.
John Moore is a particular favourite of mine, as he had a strong hand in building Hotel London (which I wrote a book about) on the southeast corner of Dundas and Wellington Streets. The Murphy-Moore collection at Western University’s archives has helped to preserve the work of Moore and his colleagues. He and his firm were responsible for designing much of Western University’s early buildings, the London Life building on Dufferin Avenue, and the London Armouries on Dundas Street.
The Woodfield community has worked hard to preserve their neighbourhood’s character. In fact, they even demanded that after the city updated the sidewalks, the 19th-century hitching posts be re-installed. Back then, the sidewalks were actually made of wood. Many garages are converted carriage houses. You can spot old horse barns and other outbuildings that have been converted into granny suites, apartments, or studios, tucked behind the manors of Woodfield.
Another style of architecture popular in Woodfield is the Ontario Cottage, a style that originated in the 1840s. The neighbourhood has some of the finest preserved examples of the style in the province — including 513 Colborne Street. While the building has been altered over the years, it still retains many of its original features. It was also home to a famous piano teacher, Miss Hazel Taylor, who taught scores of children how to tinkle the ivories during London’s mid-twentieth-century period.
Who doesn’t want to live within walking distance from all the action? This is part of what makes Woodfield so special. It rates very highly when it comes to walkability and safe cycling. It makes sense. When many of these houses were built, the primary form of transportation was horse and buggy. By the time you got the horses ready, you may as well have just walked!
Some of London’s most famous industrialists and business people resided in Woodfield, such as the founders of Smallman & Ingram, the Reids, Alexander McBride, many employees and founders of the London Free Press and London Advertiser, educator Herbert Beal, and librarian William Carson.
Today the location still appeals to those who work downtown. In addition to office professionals, artists who rely on downtown’s culture to create and share their work love living in Woodfield’s many subdivided homes, where they can enjoy the neighbourhood’s charm without the million-dollar investment.
Many of those renters would have used the laundromat that was located at Dufferin and Maitland streets, in a building called Fitzgerald’s Corners. Originally a grocery store owned by James Fitzgerald in 1890, this charming corner structure has served residents in many forms over the years, as home to a pharmacist, a barber, a butcher, and many other entrepreneurs.
A Secret Organ
Woodfield resident and lawyer Gordon Jeffery came from a recognized London family — Joseph Jeffrey was a founder of London Life. Jeffrey was a relentless patron of the arts. He was also a member of the LGBTQ+ community and was discriminated against in our conservative city. For example, he was turned away from Hotel London by the owner because of his sexual orientation. Jeffrey made long-lasting contributions to the cultural community despite it all, finding friends and supporters along the way.
His most well-known legacy is Aeolian Hall. In 1947, he purchased the abandoned Beecher United Church on Dundas Street, which he used to create the first version of Aeolian Hall, in cooperation with Western University. The London Chamber Orchestra, founded by Jeffrey in 1947, played many concerts here, as well as choral and events and schooling for musicians. An arsonist burnt it to the ground in 1968. Today you can see all that is left of it, outside the London Towers on Dundas Street.
Arson did not deter Jeffrey. Staying true to his vision, he bought another location for Aeolian Hall, the old London Town Hall at Dundas and Rectory in the East Village. This building was also designed by George Durand, who built so many of Woodfield’s beautiful homes.
Jeffrey lived in Woodfield at 491-499 Queens Avenue. Originally constructed as British-style terrace housing, he renovated it into a large home, including a three-story music room. Why was the ceiling so high? To accommodate the organ, of course! This organ was made in London by Gabriel Kney. After Jeffery passed away in the 1980s, the instrument found a home in a Toronto church.
The Safe Haven of HALO
Adjacent to Woodfield’s northern boundary, a small yellow brick building stands next to the train tracks that was a refuge for London’s LGBTQ community for decades. The Homophile Association of London, Ontario (HALO) served as a community for LGBTQ people in London from 1970–2001. HALO began at Western University in 1970, inspired by the 1969 Stonewall riots. Their work quickly expanded and moved off-campus. In December 1974, HALO leased 649 Colborne Street next to the train tracks at Pall Mall Street, which they eventually purchased in 1987.
The HALO club was a safe space that welcomed a diversity of genders, ages, and sexualities. Partially a bar/nightclub, the building was home to a range of community services and events, hosting dances, coffee houses, youth groups, LGBTQ AA meetings, drag shows, plays, pageants, and musical performances. HALO took precautions to ensure its community’s safety, initially requiring visitors to have memberships or show out of town identification. Despite their best efforts, HALO members consistently faced threats, violence, and vandalism. One community member was even purposely run over in the HALO parking lot and left with life-long injuries. A 1986 fundraiser pamphlet pictured above states, “the windows on the main floor at HALO are covered over. People who do not know us, fear us. Sometimes they want to do us harm. Our goal is to be able to put glass in all our windows at HALO.”
Fighting for Rights
More than a community space, HALO pushed for change throughout London and broke barriers. HALO was the first non-profit in Canada to be owned and operated by gays. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, HALO’s Political Action Committee addressed issues around the age of consent, bawdy house laws, and the concept of gross indecency. In addition, they advocated for the revision of human rights laws and criminal codes to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination.
In 1995, Dianne Haskett, then mayor of London, and a majority of city councillors opposed a proclamation for London’s gay pride celebrations. HALO began a long and expensive legal battle. In 1997, the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that the mayor and city’s actions had been discriminatory. London was ordered to officially proclaim a Pride weekend, which it did in 1998. In 2018, then-mayor Matt Brown apologized on behalf of the City of London and acknowledged the vital work of HALO.
Due to financial strain, partially caused by its legal dispute with the city, HALO sold its Colborne Street building in 2001. But the impact of HALO lives on. HALO had lasting intra-generational effects on younger LGBTQ people who didn’t get to experience the space but benefited from the community it built that remains in London today.
Victoria Park’s Link to the Underground Railroad
Most Londoners have been to Victoria Park for one reason or another. While someone from the suburbs might come down once a year for Sunfest, for those in Woodfield, this park is their primary green space. It’s where they read a book in the summer, or walk their dog on their daily loop. They are the ones who deal with the detritus left from Ribfest or the loud Sunday morning marathon meet-ups. They’re the caretakers of Victoria Park, and fight tooth and nail to preserve it.
The park actually started as a British military garrison. Troops were stationed there from 1838-1871, keeping an eye out for an invasion from the Americans that never came. From 1853 to 1861, the Crimean War drew away the troops, and the barracks were used as a destination for as many as 700 African-American refugees fleeing slavery in the United States. This made London an important part of the Underground Railroad. After the army moved out, the city bought the lands, and a parcel of it was turned into Victoria Park in 1874 by Lord Dufferin.
You might also like to know this fun tidbit about the park: London’s first driver’s license was issued to a man named Mr. Gibson after a very difficult test. He had to drive around Victoria Park twice!
I had many lunches in Victoria Park during my time at Central Secondary School. A landmark in the neighbourhood, the current school structure replaced the original after it burned down in 1920. Central is the oldest high school in the city, with many famous alums like Jenny Jones and David Suzuki.
Going there in the early nineties, I got to see the building before it was renovated. The art teacher decorated the basement studio by painting all the exposed pipes with bright colours. The cafeteria sat in a recessed hollow at the centre of that same basement, with huge girders overhead. Some have said this was once a shooting range. Others have reported it was a swimming pool, covered over after a kid drowned.
Stories like this have given Central a reputation, and there continue to be reports of many supernatural events. Recently, a custodian posted a picture of a purported ghost in the library! This all makes sense since the school mascot is a Golden Ghost.
Given the age of the school and the neighbourhood, there are probably plenty of ghosts tromping around Woodfield, adding to the splendour that is one of London’s oldest residential haunts.
Special thanks to Laura Thorne, and to another local history buff who prefers to remain anonymous.
Feature photo of the Woodfield Community Porch Series by Eric Klingenberger
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.