A late addition to the Forest City, White Oaks was primarily farmland for most of the twentieth century.
A part of the city’s 1961 annexation, the White Oaks community in London, ON is bordered by the Highland Country Club, Wellington Road, Exeter Road, and White Oak Road.
Access to city services like sewers, telephone lines, and road maintenance made it prime for development. This development centred around a new, massive shopping centre.
It’s All About the Mall?
The mall was built in 1973, taking the place of a large Sayvette department store that had attracted shoppers successfully for years as part of a plaza built in 1962.
The proximity of Highway 401 made this a natural fit for a large commercial destination, and it was already proven to be a popular spot for shopping. The first major department store at White Oaks was Woolco, and then Simpson’s. Huge expansions took place throughout the 1980s, as the enclosed mall proved a success.
As the neighbourhood grew up around the mall during the 1970s, streets were designed to flow traffic towards shopping. If you drive around in White Oaks and don’t pay much attention to where you’re going, you’ll eventually find yourself back at the mall. These streets’ names have an interesting origin: Alayne, Archer, Ernest, Finch, Meg, Nicholas, Piers, and Renny. Each one is a character from the Jalna novels by Mazo de la Roche.
A Literary Name
The name “White Oaks” was inspired by the Jalna series of novels by Mazo de la Roche. De la Roche was a Canadian woman who lived in Southwestern Ontario at the beginning of the twentieth century. She wrote the popular novels based on her own interior, imaginative world, which she created during a lonely childhood. The offspring of a perpetually sick mother, and a father who travelled for work, they rarely stayed anywhere for long. This meant she did not develop many close friendships. Instead, De la Roche developed a strong creative spirit, developing characters in the Jalna universe.
Much like other female writers of her day, De la Roche’s writing was often relegated to women’s magazines and marketed as romance. Critics were not excited by her work, despite her popularity. Her first major success was Jalna, (1927) which won a $10,000 award. She was 48 years old at the time — a woman, a spinster, and a Canadian. She eventually wrote sixteen books in the series. She lived with her cousin Caroline Clement, and the two of them adopted children together, a remarkably unconventional family set-up that was certainly unusual for the time. Whether or not the pair were a romantic couple is up for speculation, as Clement fulfilled her promise to burn all of De la Roche’s personal papers after her death, but many scholars believe that the two were a same-sex couple. The two are buried together at Sibbald Point, Ontario.
The use of the name White Oaks for the London suburb may have been inspired by a 1972 CBC television adaptation of the books, which brought the Jalna series back into the public spotlight one year before the mall was built. The developer likely had no idea they were naming the subdivision for the greatest creation of Canada’s most famous literary lesbian.
A Community Concern
The mall isn’t the only place to hang out in White Oaks. Starting in 1979, the Community Council of White Oaks worked towards a vision to build a community centre that would serve the area. They worked together and fundraised the money to do so by 1986, opening the doors to the South London Community Centre (SLCC) in 1987.
In 1991, White Oaks was designated an official location for new Canadians to settle. SLCC played a vital role in helping immigrants find their footing in a new country, providing language learning, youth activities, and adult classes to build the neighbourhood.
As a result, White Oaks is one of the most culturally diverse areas in our city. Today, the South London Neighborhood Resource Centre (SLNRC) is a functioning not-for-profit organization, making a massive impact on the people who take advantage of their services. They offer a Youth Centre Council, Newcomer Settlement Services, the Families First Community Action Program, and even help with basic needs like food, shelter, and computer access for those in need.
Every year, SLNRC hosts a Canada Day fireworks display, known as one of the best in the region, at White Oaks Optimist Park.
The sense of community in White Oaks is strong and was put to the test in the mid-1980s. During the late afternoon of September 2, 1984, Londoners could almost sense something in the air. It was a unique confluence of meteorological phenomena — a lower pressure system coming from Michigan, bringing a cold front that would impact a warm front over Southwestern Ontario.
Thunderstorms broke out all along the Highway 401 corridor, turning the sky a mysterious shade of green. It wasn’t until after dinner that the real threat unfolded. At about 7:20 pm, a tornado touched down just southwest of London. It was later guessed to be an F2 or higher intensity.
This tornado, accompanied by rainfall in excess of 50 mm in one short hour, blasted the White Oaks community. The damage was extensive, affecting 600 hundred homes. There were 30 residents injured, but luckily no fatalities. It was among the worst natural disasters London had ever seen.
The Meeting Tree
One major advantage to living in White Oaks is easy access to Westminster Ponds, among the most beautiful natural areas inside the city limits. The ponds were created 13 thousand years ago when large blocks of ice were left behind by the retreating glaciers, creating permanent basins that filled with water. Londoners today enjoy the wooden boardwalks and tall trees, a habitat that offers peaceful and accessible trails for visitors of all abilities.
A landmark in this wooded area is the Meeting Tree, a 670-year-old white oak tree, which may have served as inspiration for the area’s name or could just be a startling coincidence. This tree served as a meeting place for those travelling on the Underground Railroad, a spot marking freedom to many emancipated African-Americans, and was designated a heritage site in 2012. The tree itself is enormous, standing about ten stories high.
Every summer, there is a gathering held at the tree to celebrate Emancipation Day. Black Londoners and their allies get together to remember the struggles — and incredible victories — of their community.
It’s easy to think White Oaks is all about the mall. As it turns out, it’s got some pretty interesting history too!
Feature photo looking south from the intersection of Wellington Road and Southdale Road in 1964, courtesy of Western Archives via Vintage, London (Facebook).
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.