From inception to fruition, London’s Westmount neighbourhood has served as the backdrop for many of the city’s historic moments.
Located in the southwest corner of London, Ontario, Westmount spans from the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River in the north to Southdale Road in the south. Considering the many families that live in the neighbourhood, it comes as no surprise that there is an abundance of commercial and natural resources.
The Man With A Plan
The neighbourhood of Westmount was the brainchild of Mowbray Sifton, an iconic London business developer and the head of Sifton Properties until 1982. During his term as president, Sifton decided his company would spend $127 million building a community with a carefully planned mix of land uses; the subdivision was to be the largest planned community in London with over 30,000 residents. Sifton named it “Westmount,” and it soon after became a model of good development practice.
In a 2015 article for The London Free Press announcing Sifton’s death, London Home Builders’ Association president Jake Draper said of Sifton: “He was (building subdivisions) at a time when nobody else was doing it. He’s always been really forward-thinking. He’s always been really in conjunction with the city of London and mapping out London.”
The neighbourhood spans such a large area that there are four subdivisions within its borders — Cranbrook, Norton Estates, Berkshire Village, and Rosecliffe. It comprises a diverse mix of housing, from the original late 1960s era single-family homes to apartment buildings, townhomes, and row housing of various eras and styles.
Let’s Go to the Mall
For the mall-walkers among us, there is the much-loved Westmount Shopping Centre. Originally debuting in 1973 with a humble 37 stores (including one of the largest Dominion (A&P) Stores in Southwestern Ontario), the mall soon became a gathering place for all generations. It reigned as the crown jewel of the area for years. Though many of the businesses and events that gave the mall its charms have left over time, the hub still services its community today (present pandemic restrictions excluded), having recently evolved to incorporate more medical and financial services along with other offices/services to offer a bit of everything in one location.
Furthermore, there are an abundance of green spaces to be enjoyed within the community’s borders, such as Springbank Gardens, Jesse Davidson Park, and a portion of the Thames Valley Parkway, as well as recreational activities like a spray pad, a skateboard park, numerous play structures, pools, baseball diamonds, and soccer fields.
Of course, today’s youth won’t know the joys that came with visiting the likes of Wally World or Wonderland Gardens, two Westmount staples that have since been closed down. On a hot summer day, Wally World water park was the place to be; today’s youth can still get a sense of the glory that once was by visiting the slides salvaged and installed at London’s East Park.
Adventures in Wonderland (Gardens)
Likewise, close to Westmount’s stretch of the Thames River lies Springbank Gardens which, in its previous life as “Wonderland Gardens,” was a hotspot for locals and the greater London community. Wonderland Gardens was a world-renowned dance-band venue, hosting local and touring acts such as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and London’s famous musician Guy Lombardo and his big band.
Formed during the Great Depression, the facility was opened by the Jones family in 1935. It was a “go-to” spot for dances, and an all-around community favourite. This outdoor recreational area contained facilities such as a bandshell and an enclosed dance hall; later, it expanded to include a restaurant and a large swimming pool. As entertainment styles changed, Wonderland Gardens became one of the last local reminders of the big band era.
The swimming pool was closed in the early 1970s; while the pool sat empty and unused for over thirty years, it continued to be a treasure for curious, nostalgic Londoners who enjoyed running around inside the empty pool structure before it was filled in. In early 2004, owner Chuck Jones closed the business and sold off what remained of the facility at an auction in the wake of steep increases in the property’s rent. The dance hall was destroyed by fire in 2005. The circumstances surrounding the demise of this venue were rumoured to be deeply entangled in local politics at the time, and the community was devastated to lose the space.
The Norton Attawandaron Village
However, before Westmount was “Westmount,” it was the site of an Indigenous settlement, according to compelling archaeological evidence found in the area just south of Westmount’s stretch of the Deshkan Ziibi / Antler River / Thames River. Archaeologists had postulated since the early 1920s that Indigenous peoples settled here in centuries prior, but it was only in late 1987 during an environmental assessment for a PUC water main that the Norton Attawandaron Village was rediscovered.
The site is believed to date back to about 1400-1450AD, although Attawandarons are thought to have come to this area more than 1000 years ago. These peoples, sometimes known as Neutrals, were largely agrarian. By 1400, there had been three major settlements in the London area. This village, in particular, consisted of nine longhouses, holding between 500 and 1000 occupants. Artifacts found here include carbonized corn kernels, clay pipes, and deer antlers.
After centuries of farming and hunting in this area, the Attawandarons left the area in the sixteenth century, moving toward present-day Hamilton. Briefly, they formed part of a powerful Neutral confederacy there, but it was disbanded in the mid-seventeenth century after repeated attacks by the Five Nations Iroquois moving north from present-day New York State. The cultural landscape of the Norton Site and the area around it has changed remarkably over time from an Ancestral Neutral village to family farmland in the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally to Kensall Park, a green space within the City of London.
A Mayday in Late May
Likewise, before Westmount was the community it is today, the land and its inhabitants bore witness to one of the worst marine disasters in Canadian history. In the late 19th century, the city had a population of around 19 thousand. At that time, it was customary to see hundreds of rowboats and sailboats on the river at one time; sometimes, you might even catch a handful of paddleboat steamers ferrying passengers between the forks of the Thames and Springbank Park.
On Victoria Day in 1881, the heat of the day led crowds of Londoners to gather in their favourite spot outdoors, in and around the Thames River. The evening of May 24, hundreds of excited holidaymakers had climbed aboard the Victoria, a steamer named after the reigning queen, heading home from a day at Springbank Park to the London wharf at the forks of the Thames.
The steamboat was made to safely hold a maximum of 400 passengers. On this evening, there were three boats ferrying Londoners down the Thames, however, one — the Forest City — had run aground on a sand bar. A second boat — the Princess Louise — worked to free the steamer from the sandbar, and the Victoria was left to handle the rush of passengers.
As the large crowd moved from side to side on the ship, the dangerously overcrowded vessel was taking on water. Captain Donald Rankin tried to keep the boat above water by leading the ship aground on a sandbar, but it was too late. The upper deck collapsed from the weight of the passengers and the boiler broke loose, breaking through the bulwarks and causing the ship to lurch again, throwing passengers into the Thames. The Victoria capsized and foundered in the muddy river.
A Tragic Fate
Nearly 200 of the 600 passengers on board the vessel died, resulting in the highest number of casualties of any single-day catastrophe in London’s history. The story made headlines worldwide, reaching the front page of papers in the United States and London, England. The 10-year-old son of Dr. Oronhyatekha, London’s first Indigenous physician, drowned in the disaster, and it’s rumoured his loss is what spurred the family to leave London for Toronto.
While multiple historians have pointed out the series of errors that led to this tragic event could have easily been avoided, there was one remarkable decision made that day that saved many souls from the same untimely demise. The Woodland wharf was intended to be the last stop on the route to pick up passengers before the Victoria capsized. However, knowing the Victoria was overcapacity, the Captain refused to stop at Woodland. His actions may very well have saved the lives of those Londoners left behind on the wharf.
The impact of this day on the public’s conscience cannot be understated; it was said that barely a family in London came out unscathed — everyone lost a family member or friend in the event. The horrific event was followed by a month of public mourning, with businesses and schools suspended for several days.
Grounds for Peace
Near that very same wharf lies the final resting place of more than 50 of the victims from that harrowing afternoon — Woodland Cemetery. A historical site in and of itself, Woodland has existed in one form or another since the 1830s. It first started as St. Paul’s cemetery, and those interred early on in the cemetery’s history were consequently moved several times as the city expanded until the Anglican congregation invested in the location it is today.
Woodland Cemetery first broke ground in what would later be known as Westmount in 1879, for the burial of harness maker Charles Dunn. Since then, the cemetery has been the site of many funerary firsts for the city and has become the resting place for many Londoners including veterans, famous performers, and captains of industry such as the Labatt family, the Harris family, and the Kingsmill family.
In 1895, the cemetery became the first in London to erect a private mausoleum. The actor Robert Fulford erected the Fulford-Pixley Mausoleum in honour of his late wife, internationally acclaimed stage actress Annie Pixley, and their child, Thomas. After twelve-year-old Thomas died in the summer of 1886 while visiting relatives in Port Stanley with Pixley, the distraught mother was never the same. She died not long after in November of 1893.
All three members of the Fulford-Pixley family are interred in the mausoleum, a structure so striking in appearance that it has been featured in Architectural Digest. It is considered to be among the finest funerary monuments in Canada with its appropriately theatrical ornamentations like the stone lions flanking the entranceway and the figures personifying Drama, Victory, and Music.
A Site for Firsts
Similarly, in 1920, Woodland Cemetery became the site of London’s first public mausoleum, and in 1964 the location of the city’s first crematorium, which was designed to look like an old English stone chapel. Today, that crematorium has been transformed into an indoor columbarium — a room with niches for funeral urns to be stored — aptly named Woodland Sanctuary, also a first for the city. Continuing this tradition of firsts, Woodland created the city’s first outdoor columbarium in 1980, conveniently titled Columbarium Park and located in front of Woodland Sanctuary.
Another point of pride for this institution, aside from its bevy of firsts, is its rich military heritage. Many soldiers in the First World War were buried where they fell, in Commonwealth Graves near the front lines. This unfortunate circumstance meant that these soldiers’ families were left with no grave to visit, and no concrete place to go to find closure and mourn. As a result, many families chose to memorialize their sons with gravestones or inscriptions in the cemetery, even though the soldiers themselves (with some exceptions) are not buried there. There are over 50 memorials of this nature in Woodland Cemetery.
Soldiers from the Boer War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korean War, and Canada’s international peacekeeping missions have been laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery. Furthermore, individuals from all branches of the Canadian Forces — Army, Navy and Air Force — are represented, having borne witness to many historical turning points such as Vimy Ridge (1917) and D-Day (1944).
Building a New Legacy
In recent years, the neighbourhood’s sense of community pride has come alive in other ways. Many of London’s recent immigrant populations have settled in Westmount. Specifically, it is a popular place of residence for members of the city’s Lebanese and Colombian communities. In the last few months, the local Lebanese community has been working very hard to raise awareness and gather support for their home country, in the wake of the horrific Beirut explosion last August.
Moreover, London is often the first destination for newcomers from Latin America because of its large and established Spanish-speaking community and, as a result, London is now home to a remarkable Colombian community. In recent years, members of the Colombian community have begun to affectionately refer to their new home as “Londombia.”
With this influx of new Canadians and a revitalized sense of community spirit, there is a palpable promise of rebirth and renewal for the Westmount neighbourhood.
Feature Photo by Rima Sita of Westmount Mall.
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.