As far as heritage goes, the legacy of London, ON’s SoHo neighbourhood lies in the foundation of its buildings.
Many of SoHo’s buildings have a story to tell about the neighbourhood’s past — whether it is about the city’s contribution to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, its medical history, its enduring sense of entrepreneurship, or its residents who arrived here in search of a fresh start. It is a neighbourhood that has borne witness to many noteworthy heritage moments — and continues to bear the weight of their impact to this day.
Short for “South of Horton,” SoHo lies just a short distance south of the downtown core. Originally named St. David’s Ward, the neighbourhood was built for the working-class. It is one of the older areas in London. Indeed, it has maintained its very same boundaries — the CN railroad tracks on the north side, parallel to and north of Horton Street, on the east by Adelaide Street, and on the south and west by the Thames River — since the city’s inception in 1840.
What’s more, many of the area’s original properties remain — such as the old “Ward School,” or the Waterloo South Primary School. The land on which cottage-like red brick building at 186 Waterloo Street rests was granted to Charles Brock by the Crown on December 4, 1842. The school was built in 1864, as the ward schools (or public schools, in those days) replaced the early private schools in London. It may very well be the earliest surviving school in the city.
The school closed in 1890, but it was preserved by the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Mission, whose congregation used the schoolhouse for Sunday School lessons. Now, the ward school survives as part of the Cornerstone United Reform Church. Architect William Robinson is responsible for designing this preliminary model for ward schools, incorporating some Gothic elements into the popular Ontario cottage design.
Robinson was also responsible for designing another notable SoHo fixture, namely, the South Street hospital campus’s earliest buildings. When you think of London’s contributions to medicine, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the legacy of Sir Frederick Banting, who had an idea while living in London that led him to discover insulin. While Banting’s brainwave certainly marks an exciting chapter in London’s history, other aspects of the city’s contributions to medicine are demarcated by buildings in SoHo.
The South Street Hospital was initially founded as the London General Hospital in 1875. The hospital maintained a legacy within the community as a teaching hospital, for London General was the city’s first clinical site for medical education.
The site was expanded and renamed Victoria Hospital in 1899, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee — the first Jubilee of its kind, as Queen Victoria was both Britain’s longest-reigning monarch at the time and the first British monarch to mark the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne with public celebrations.
For over a century, the old Victoria Hospital was a major element of the neighbourhood; between its large campus, which filled nearly an entire city block, and its characteristic bell tower, it quickly became a London landmark. In January 2013, however, the South Street Hospital was closed after 138 years, and the main building was subsequently demolished in 2015. The lands reverted back to their owner, the City of London. In the midst of an ongoing revitalization effort in the neighbourhood, they have been sold off slowly for redevelopment.
Birth of the Jewish District
One heritage building that is still standing, though it has been repurposed since its initial opening in 1927, is the unassuming red-brick apartment building at 324 Hill Street. Just west of Waterloo Street, the building was once the “Hebrew School-Talmud Torah” –a communal hall and hotspot for London’s Jewish community into the 1960s. Indeed, a conference was hosted in the building for members of the Canadian Young Judea group as late as 1962.
In the wake of the 1881 assassination of the Russian Tzar Nicholas and the Russian pogroms, there was an influx of Russian-Jewish families settling in London, particularly in Soho, until about 1920. The first Jewish synagogue in the city opened on the northeast corner of SoHo’s Richmond and Simcoe Streets in 1899.
The congregation eventually outgrew the Hebrew Benevolent Synagogue and moved into a former church at the corner of Wellington and Grey streets in 1917. The third synagogue opened in SoHo in the early 1900s in an old frame church at the corner of Horton and Colborne Streets; later, the congregation built a modern brick synagogue, which still stands today as the N’Amerind Friendship Centre.
One Irishman’s Canadian Dream
There are other heritage buildings in the area with histories worth exploring. One such venue is the Red Antiquities Building, a beacon for weary travellers situated on Wellington Street in the 19th century.
The red two-storey wooden building was designed and realized by Edward Winder, an Irish immigrant and house painter who moved to London in search of a fresh start and new opportunities. Winder and his family arrived around 1862 and were one of the first to settle in the area now known as SoHo. Winder had the innovative idea to create a building that merged residential and commercial uses, placing living quarters above and beside a grocery store that would occupy half of the first floor.
The building housed three generations of the Winder family and served many commercial uses over the years. The structure itself is a marvel, as the 35 cm-wide pine boards Winder chose for the exterior walls are the only known example of this type of construction in the city — and indeed, potentially even in the entire province.
Additionally, Winder incorporated features of the Italianate style into the simple wooden design; the interior was never altered, so features such as the ceiling medallions and grained wainscoting have been either restored or documented. When it was at risk of demolition in 2010, community members and local organizations came together to bring the building back from the brink.
A Parish for Runaway Slaves
The community also rallied around another local heritage building to save it from demolition —namely, the Fugitive Slave Chapel. The Chapel, built in 1848, was the first church of the Black community in London. It was erected by a local African Methodist congregation made up of escaped slaves. These refugees had arrived in London via the Underground Railroad, as the city was one of its terminus points.
Subsequently, they established a community in what would grow to become SoHo. The chapel was renamed the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856 to emphasize its dedication to the Crown; however, the congregation later moved to a new church built in 1869, where the Beth Emanuel Church is located today.
The Fugitive Slave Chapel was initially seated on the grounds of 275 Thames Street, but the building —including its original structure, which is well over a century old —was moved in 2014 to a new location beside Beth Emanuel Church on Grey Street, to avoid demolition.
The Chapel remains a focal point of the neighbourhood, as a valuable reminder of where we’ve been and a physical prompt for the London community to reflect on the racism that persists in the city today. Restoration efforts at the site are still in progress today. The building is a monument to the history of London’s Black community.
In his work City of London Ontario, Canada: The Pioneer Period and the London of To-day, author Archibald Bremner’s account published in October of 1900 recalls London’s early history, including the Black community and their Fugitive Slave Chapel. He describes memorial services held in the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination, “though the town was full of secession sympathizers.”
Bremner also writes of a convention of refugees from slavery that was held in London in April 1853. He even shares that in the summer of 1858, Harpers Ferry revolt leader and “the apostle of abolition” John Brown visited London and preached at the Thames Street church. By Bremner’s account, the Black population in London at the time consisted of about 276 people who, remarkably, owned “real estate assessed at $13 504 — a considerably higher average than for the white man of the period.”
Other historical accounts of the period come from correspondences, such as the ones conducted by Reverend Lewis C. Chambers, a minister at the British Methodist Episcopal Church in London. While preaching in a stretch of churches and ministries in Southern Ontario, Chambers noted that the services were attended by Black and white Christians alike.
Although he was more than willing to walk the 10 miles required to attend the services if it meant spreading the word of God to people of all races, he knew firsthand that Canada was not as welcoming to people of colour as some may assume. Indeed, he once remarked: “The prejudice here against the colored people is stronger a great deal than it is in Mass[echusetts].” One time, he was driven out of a Canadian church as well as his residence because of the colour of his skin; another time, he had a house built only for it to be burned down on the day of its completion.
From SoHo, With Love
Another notable figure who can relate to this chapter of history is Richard B. Harrison, a Black Canadian born in SoHo in the late 1800s to two fugitive slave parents. Harrison attended the Waterloo South Ward School and was baptized at Beth Emmanuel Church. He demonstrated an aptitude for acting at a young age, performing Shakespeare and other works in church and at school.
As a teen, Harrison moved to Windsor with his family; soon after leaving London, their former home burned down in what is suspected to be a hate-related act of arson. He studied drama in college while working on the railway in Detroit, and in the years that followed, he became a renowned lecturer and, later, the head of the dramatic department at a black college in North Carolina.
In his late 60s, however, he soared to fame for his first professional acting credit, portraying the role of “De Lawd” in Green Pastures. The play was a hit on Broadway at the time; it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Harrison and his cast brought Green Pastures to London’s Grand Theatre while on tour. The mayor at the time, George Wenige, awarded Harrison with the Freedom of the City — an honour bestowed upon individuals of the highest merit in their field who have brought recognition to the city through their achievements — upon his homecoming.
He was recognized as one of the greatest Black actors of his time, gracing Time magazine’s cover shortly before his passing in March of 1935. The spot where Harrison’s childhood home stood is commemorated by a plaque in the park named in his honour along Antler River.
SoHo has proven to be a treasure trove of memories from London’s past and a safe haven for those facing discrimination.
As revitalization efforts are carried out in the area today, there is hope that this community may continue to thrive for years to come.
Feature Photo of construction progress at Victoria Hospital on South Street in 1939, 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.