Situated in the southwest corner of London, ON, Lambeth is technically part of the city.
However, as a fierce community resistant to London’s sprawling reach, Lambeth has always been, and will always be, a quaint small town all to itself.
The First Settlers
Prior to European settlers, the area of Lambeth was known as Wahoo to the Indigenous Peoples. The settlers of the early nineteenth century referred to it loosely as “The Junction,” as it sat at a crossroads. The 1840 post office was labelled as Westminster, but in 1853, you could find The Junction renamed “St. Andrews” in the Westminster Township Plan. In 1857, the post office name was changed to Lambeth, and that is the name it retains today; although, curiously, people used to call it “Slab Town” because it had wood-planked roads!
These settlers were generally recipients of the same land grants that populated Middlesex County at that time. Coming from Scotland, English, Ireland, and other European countries, most of the immigrants were farmers and tradespeople. Their houses of worship acted as community centres, including the Methodist Church founded way back in 1818, now the Lambeth United Church.
Other organizations also gave those in Lambeth reason to congregate and develop a sense of place, including the Masons, who first met there in 1858 at the Malcolm McGregor Hotel. A Masonic Hall was built in 1878 on Talbot Road and was in operation until the property was sold to the Village of Lambeth in 1967.
Lambeth Takes Flight
London’s earliest flights didn’t just take place near Crumlin Road. In fact, the city’s first airport was in Lambeth, at Wharncliffe and Wonderland Road. Operated by The London Flying Club, the airport opened in 1928 to much fanfare.
It had four runways and hangar space for eight planes. It was the main place in the region to take flying lessons and was the source of airmail and private plane rentals. In World War II, the Royal Canadian Air Force used the facilities to train pilots for overseas combat. It stayed in operation until the end of the conflict when all airport operations were transferred to the new airport on Crumlin Road. The buildings all disappeared and it became farmland.
So, the next time you’re shopping at the big box stores at Wharncliffe and Wonderland, take a moment to recall that you’re standing in an old airfield that helped defeat the Nazis. While many young pilots also trained in Lambeth before heading overseas, the airport was also where the Royal Canadian Navy set up a Radar Station.
Each time the German submarines signalled back to their headquarters, the radar system would pick up the transmission and use it to locate the sub. Then, using a state-of-the-art teletype line, they would send the coordinates to Ottawa so that the allies could track their enemies. The Lambeth Radar Station doubtless saved many lives. Nothing is left of this important landmark, but you can perhaps give a thought to the fallen soldiers while grabbing a deal at Jysk.
The Golden Years of the Mid-Century
Having written about various London neighbourhoods, this writer has to admit that Lambeth seems to be unique in its resistance to controversy and tragedy. When hunting for something interesting to research, what you’ll find most about the area are the fond memories residents have of growing up and living there.
The residents of Lambeth throughout the twentieth century enjoyed a peaceful existence. London was far enough away that you had to drive or take a Greyhound bus to go there. Out on their own, just far enough to be isolated, the folks in Lambeth got to enjoy a small-town atmosphere. Children attended a school that was actually called “The Little Red Schoolhouse,” and would get their pictures taken in front of “the big old oak tree.” Could anything be more picturesque?
There was roller skating at the community centre and bowling at the local alley, woods to play in, and ponds to splash in. There were soft-serve ice cream cones on the last day of school. The library was so small, it was in a tiny house. Kids ran around backyards playing hide and seek, only coming home with the street lights turned on. They went to Rissers Variety Store for penny candy and played pranks on each other in school.
Search for Lambeth and you won’t find fires, tornados, murders, or scandals — unless you count the annual flock of wild turkeys that landed at Monterrey and Outer Drive each autumn. Nope, you’ll only find reams of happy smiling school photos, town parades, Christmas celebrations, and friendly reminiscences of days gone by. Everyone knew each other. This is why the area has gained the reputation of being the perfect place to raise a family. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has a bad word to say about Lambeth, Ontario.
Most phone numbers in Lambeth start with “471.” You might be surprised to find out, this was actually the number of the operator before dial phones! If you were in London, and you were calling someone in Lambeth, the operator would dial 471 to reach the Byron operator. Byron, another community now absorbed into London, managed all of the phone lines in that area of Westminster Township via a company called The Byron Telephone Company. This was dismantled when Byron was amalgamated in 1961.
Lambeth, however, though moving to the Bell Canada phone system, maintained its independence until the 1980s. Its legal definition was that of a Police Village, a structure that lacked incorporation and was governed by a board. The head of that board is called a Reeve, approximating a Mayor. In 1988, the Reeve of Lambeth worked hard to establish the Town of Westminster, which could have kept Lambeth politically independent, but that didn’t last very long. Lambeth became part of London in 1993.
Some Lambeth residents were furious about the annexation and worried the area would lose its cozy, small-town atmosphere by joining the big bad city. In fact, one man went as far as declaring his family the only remaining residents of the “true” Lambeth, putting up a “Welcome to Lambeth Population: 4” sign on his lawn on the day of the annexation. He’s quoted in The Windsor Star as saying, “If I had wanted to be in London I would have moved there.”
Londoners still think of Lambeth as its own separate thing.
While other neighbourhoods like Masonville, Woodfield, and White Oaks have their own natural and geographical boundaries, Lambeth is the only neighbourhood of London that has its own city-like signs upon entering and exiting the suburb. It’s a little piece of heaven in the Forest City.
Feature photo of the Lambeth welcome sign by Cory McArthur.
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.