Victoria Grace Blackburn: London’s (Original!) Literary Powerhouse

For my historical blog this week, I want to talk about a woman whose gravestone I often wander by: Victoria Grace Blackburn (pen name: FanFan). Though her biography hints at a fascinating life, I get the feeling that she was someone who you would have had to meet in person in order to truly feel the force of her personality.


As you may be able to tell from the name, Victoria was part of the Blackburn clan who founded the London Free Press. She was born on April 17, 1864 as the fifth daughter of Josiah Blackburn and Emma Jane Delamere, in Quebec. As a young woman, she studied at Hellmuth Ladies’ College in London, where she likely learned her passion for letters. After she graduated, she worked as a teacher in the United States, following her desire to remain in an intellectual environment (in one of the only stations an intellectual woman could occupy, at the time).

Fortunately for Miss Blackburn, her family’s newspaper provided the perfect opportunity to launch her career in another direction. In 1894, she began occasionally writing for the London Free Press while she embarked on studies of journalism, theatre, and literary criticism in New York and Europe. Being unmarried, she travelled the world with her sisters.

By 1900, Victoria had become the full time literary and drama critic for the Free Press. Having natural talent as well as fortunate station, she quickly became one of Canada’s leading and well-known critics, her fame spreading beyond London’s city limits.

She was an important player in London’s cultural scene, but one gets the sense that the town wasn’t always the right fit for her. Being well travelled, she often commented on London’s lack of growth, publishing (loving) criticisms such as “[London is a city that] has not believed sufficiently in herself” in the Free Press. Regardless of some detractors she gained in this manner, she became the managing editor of the London Free Press in 1918, and remained in that position until her death in 1928.

Though some believed that her success was due only to her family connections, she had many professional admirers, and gained praise (like that below, published The Editor) not only for her reporting work but for her literary endeavours.

“A writer with a large brain and a big, warm heart: a twentieth century thinker, with the individuality of original thought and expression: a poet just beginning to realize her gift, and its underlying responsibility: one of the best equipped of our literary and dramatic critics, and with the faculty of logical and comprehensive interpretation–altogether, a distinct force in the intellectual life of the Dominion, of whom much may be expected.” –The Editor.

In addition to writing for the newspaper, Victoria also authored several poems, a novel, and two plays. Her expansive style ranged from satire to tragedy, and she explored themes such as ill-fated love, sacrifice, war, and loss. While none of her work ever reached the level of fame that would have caused it to be well-known today, many of her original hand-written manuscripts are still housed at the Archives at Western University. (Fun fact: after her death, her sister Susan M. Blackburn established a fund, bequeathed to Western University, to purchase Canadian literature in both English and French in memory of her sister Victoria)!

Blackburn’s most critically acclaimed work was The Man Child (published in 1930, 2 years after her death). A novel about the First World War, it is much more serious than many of her other works. The novel follows Jack Winchester, a Canadian boy who leaves London for the trenches of France during WWI. Though its tone is sometimes celebratory of the war (a common attitude of the time), it chooses to celebrate the soldiers who gave their lives over any grand nationalist cause. Many Londoners enjoyed the book because it was a thinly veiled portrait of our city (and the nearby hamlet of Byron), acknowledging the war as a personal and painful experience rather than just a far-away event.

In addition to being a literary powerhouse, she was also active in her community. She founded the Women’s Canadian Club and was the president of the London Women’s Press Club; she was a participant in London’s own little theatre scene as well. She lived at 652 Talbot street with three of her sisters, where a historical plaque still stands to mark her significance.

In 1928, at the age of 61, Victoria suffered a lengthy illness: uterine cancer. She spent the last few weeks of her life in St. Joseph’s Hospital, likely surrounded by her many friends and remaining family members. She died on March 4, 1928, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery (in the Blackburn plot in Section S) shortly thereafter.

Death Certificate.png

More fortunate than many other Confederation Era Canadian writers, much of her work has survived to the present day. Below is one of her poems, published during WWI, which may give us a feeling for her literary style as well as her compassion:


Epic of the Yser
Dead with his face to the foe!’
From Hastings to Yser
Our men have died so.
The lad is a hero–
Great Canada’s pride:
We sent him with glory,
For glory he died–
So ring out the church-bells! Float the flag high!

Then I heard at my elbow a fierce mother-cry.

On the desolate plain
Where the dark Yser flows
They’ll bury him, maybe,
Our Child of the Snows:
The message we sent them
Through fire and through flood
He signed it and sealed it
To-day with his blood–
United we stand! Our Empire is One!

But this woman beside me? . . . The boy was her son.





Janet Barbara Groshow: A Mother’s Love Lasting Through Time

We are busy with preparations for our Walking Tour on Saturday and the documentary we are preparing for Rogers TV, but I wanted to find the time to tell this fascinating story nonetheless! Our blog today is about another one of our “Women of Woodland” – Janet Barbara Groshow. We discovered her story while we were researching for our military tours last summer – she is one of the women we have buried here that served in the First World War as a nurse. The story of why she did so, however, is unique and touching.


Janet was born on November 3, 1860, and appears to have lived in the United States for a while before moving to London. In London, and worked as a Matron at the Victoria Home for Incurables, which is now Parkwood Hospital. She was married and had three sons – William, James, and Thomas.

Shortly before the First World War, Janet’s husband died, leaving her a widow. When her son William enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in September of 1914, it must have been a loss she felt doubly. William was her youngest son, and had been working as an accountant before he decided to serve. Janet continued her work as a Matron, anxiously awaiting any news of her son’s service. We know from several public historical accounts of mothers who had sons serving in WWI how hopeless and worried she must have felt.

It was after the second battle of Ypres that William was reported Missing in Action, presumed dead. Janet never knew anything more of his fate. To make matters worse, perhaps prompted by their brother’s probably death, Janet’s other sons James and Thomas decided to enlist as well, in early 1916. They left for France, leaving Janet alone in London.

Instead of accepting the loss of her youngest and the potential loss of her other children, like many mothers of the time were forced to do, Janet decided to take matters into her own hands. Instead of remaining in London, helplessly awaiting news, Janet decided to enlist herself – as a nurse in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. She sailed to France, hoping dually to discover what had become of William, and to be geographically nearer to Thomas and James as they fought.

Janet’s incredible decision makes the Groshow family possibly the only mother/son group to serve together in the same war. Janet was 56 years old at the time of her enlistment, making her officially too old to serve, under C. E. F. guidelines. She may have lied about her age when enlisting, or perhaps a recruitment officer knew of her story and decided to let her serve.

Overseas, Janet served as Matron at a Red Cross Hospital in Kent, as Superintendent of CAMC’s Cliveden Hospital, on HM Transport 2810, which carried troops across the Atlantic, and at No. 7 Canadian General Hospital in Étaples, France. Her service files reveal that she suffered a nervous breakdown after a series of air raids, and spent some time in the hospital. However, after every obstacle that was thrown her way, she got back on her feet and continued to perform her duties as a nurse.

Janet served for 3 years before she was invalided home due to her contraction of tuberculosis in 1919. The war was not kind to her other two sons either. James, her eldest son, suffered a rifle bullet wound to the right forearm near the beginning of his service, but survived. Later, he was diagnosed with cardio disease due to the strain of active service. He also had trench fever, a disease caused by the horrendous living conditions in the trenches. He was invalided home on May 5, 1919, the same year as his mother. Janet’s middle son, Thomas, suffered perhaps a worse fate. His military service file notes that he started experiencing mental health issues due to the horrors of war on January 29, 1917. He was officially diagnosed with Shell Shock (neurasthenia) on April 10, 1917, which caused rapid dementia starting at age 24. His Shell Shock symptoms started after a heavy shelling, and prompted a 56 day stay in the hospital, during which he could not speak and was in a constant stupor. He was discharged to duty from the hospital several times until, finally, in 1918 his symptoms were bad enough that is was recommended he not return to France. Back then, mental illnesses were not treated as debilitating conditions but as signs of weakness of which to be ashamed. After his discharge, Thomas was not able to receive any treatment for what we may now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He moved to Detroit, and died fairly young, of causes unknown.

Despite the losses that Janet suffered due to the war, her service to her community continued once she was back in London. She spent some time recovering from her TB at the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium. Once she was well enough, she devoted herself to helping other tuberculosis veterans and supporting their families. She also spent a great deal supporting active service members.

She became the first female president of a soldier’s branch of the Canadian Legion – Byron Branch 69, which eventually honored her with a lifetime membership. During the Second World War, she provided hospitality to wounded soldiers and assisted war brides arriving in London. Her life exemplified London’s strong connection to the British Empire and its military traditions. She is pictured here with her Legion Members at a meeting for Veterans, colloquially referred to as the “Old Boy’s Club,” in which she found an unlikely but celebrated place.


By the time Janet died in 1960, Woodland Cemetery’s Veteran’s section was well established. This allowed Janet to be buried next to both Thomas and James (William’s body was, unfortunately, never recovered). Janet’s love for her boys sent her across the ocean into a war zone, so it is only fitting that the family unit stayed together, side by side, in death.

Bonus Blog: Uncovering Stones with New Friends!

This afternoon we had a lovely tour with a school group who came to Woodland as part of their day-long field trip! They helped us find and uncover, and clean up this grave marker for “Baby Leeson” – and we thought we would share the information that we found out about this stone later in the afternoon!

The stone was carved to go on a grave of a stillborn baby – a baby that did not live past their birth. The baby was born and died on February 24th, 1916, and was buried at Woodland the day after. The baby was not given a name, which might have been because their parents were grieving over losing their child and chose not to name them.

The father of the baby was named William H. Leeson, and he and his wife lived at 701 Becher Street here in London. That is in South London by the Children’s Museum, and the street was likely named after the Becher family that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

From what I can find in the census records, it looks like William’s parents immigrated to St. Thomas, Ontario from England around the time of Confederation. He grew up there with 5 other siblings before moving to London. Unfortunately, I can’t find his marriage record or the name of his wife. I’m also not sure if they ever had any other children.

When Baby Leeson died, William purchased a special gravesite at the back of the cemetery where we visited today – this was a section just for infants. When William died sometime around 1948, he was also buried in a Woodland Cemetery – but it was the Woodland in Kitchener-Waterloo, not in London!

We also discovered something interesting about the gravestone. If you turn it over, it has some inscriptions on it that are partially cut off. This means it was probably a recycled stone that somebody didn’t need anymore. Since the stone was so small, they probably cut a piece off of a larger recycled stone and reused it for Baby Leeson. This likely cost the family less money, and made good use of the materials that were available.

Thanks for helping us uncover this piece of London history today, and for including us in your field trip! Hopefully we will find out a little bit more about the Leeson family as time goes on.



Harriet Ann Boomer: London’s Social Philanthropy Scene and Early Feminism

For today’s blog post I want to put a spotlight on one of our “Women of Woodland” – someone who was often called a pushy, nosy “old busybody,” strong-willed and forceful, assertive, and “unwomanly” – in other words, my kind of person!

Her name was Harriet Ann (Mills) Boomer, and she is now widely considered to be one of London’s early social activists. She was born on July 10, 1835  in England and lived through Confederation in London, Ontario. Harriet’s father died during her youth, and her widowed mother began to take on students as an educator in order to support herself and her two daughters – which is likely where Harriet learned some of her stubborn independence.

In 1851, Harriet’s mother Ann was offered the position of Principal of St. Cross School in Red River, Manitoba, which is how the family came to Canada. She later became an educator at Queen’s College in England. Harriet married her first husband, Alfred Roche (a geologist) in 1858, after meeting him in England. They were together almost 20 years before Alfred passed away while he was on a business trip, along with Harriet, to South Africa (where he owned shares in the mines).

Suddenly a young widow, as her mother had been, Harriet had to find some way to support herself. She ended up writing a (quite successful) memoir of her travels to South Africa, entitled: On trek in the Transvaal: or, over berg and veldt in South Africa (London, 1878).

Soon after Alfred’s death, Harriet decided to once again settle in London, Ontario, where she married Rev. Michael Boomer – the principal of Huron College at the time – in 1878. (*Interesting fact – our research in the Lee family (see Sunny’s blog post) tells us that Rev. Boomer was the one to perform the marriage ceremony for the Lees in 1856!) Rev. Boomer passed away in 1888, but Harriet’s work in the city of London was just beginning.

In 1888, Harriet was a big part of the establishment of the London Convalescent Home. A few years later, she attended the founding meeting of the National Council of Women in Canada, which would become her main focus for the next few years, as she took it upon herself to found the London branch. She served as president of the London Council from 1897 to 1920 – the longest term of any council president. She was also the vice-president of the Ontario branch of the council, and attending all of the national meetings, often presenting papers. As she began to be known for her advocacy work, she travelled to England in 1899 to attend the International Congress of Women.

Harriet likely used some of the insights she gained from these meetings to further her involvement in the London community. Proper health care for women and children was her main goal, and that of the London council. It is no surprise that, in 1898, Harriet was responsible for securing most of the funding to build the children’s wing at Victoria Hospital. She also played a leading role establishing the London branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses, and became president of the board. In 1900, Harried also established London’s first Red Cross Society to send aid to soldiers stationed in South Africa during the Boer War (*interesting note: Archibald Becher, from the Becher Brothers post, was one of these soldiers!) The society lasted into wartime, and raised almost $1 million for efforts in the First World War.

She was also active with the Canadian Club, the Mothers’ Union, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Women’s Christian Association.

While these accomplishments were incredible on their own, Harriet’s main focus was education. She believed firmly in the importance of educating women (one of the main tenets of early feminist movements) and felt there should be more opportunities for women worldwide. There was a need, she maintained in the National Council’s annual report, “to cultivate more and more of the business faculty of which men are supposed to have a monopoly, but of which we women are not bereft.”

Harriet felt that the study of domestic science and business for women was vital to this goal. She also thought that all young men should be trained in technical classes. As the London school board did not have any of these classes (especially those for young women) at the time, Harriet campaigned for them to introduce it – her lobbying was successful in 1905. This is perhaps what lead her to seek out a position on London’s school board, which was, at the time, mostly comprised of men.

Early 19th century feminists believed that women needed to be more involved in education – both as educators and students – as a lot of inequality stemmed from the difference in skill and knowledge provided to boys and girls at young ages. They also believe that it was important to have women on school boards because they, as maternal figures, were the natural educators of children (a sentiment that contemporary feminists may well dispute!)

Harriet logically pointed out to the London board that women had been successful in charitable works and served on boards elsewhere – therefore, it did not make sense to bar her from a position based on her sex. Thus, in 1898 she was appointed as London’s first female trustee; during her three-year term she “learnt woman’s hardest lesson – how to be silent.” It is not known how “successful” she was in that regard, but she was unfortunately not reappointed after her term, and the school board did not have another female trustee until 1919.

She died at age 85 in the year 1921, and she was buried in Woodland Cemetery next to her late husband Rev. Boomer. Her gravestone is interesting to me precisely because it stands on its own – most women at that time were simply furnished an inscription on their gravestone as the “wife of” the more elaborate name above theirs. Harriet got her own gravestone, just as intricate as her husband’s.


In her obituaries in the paper, she was called “London’s most philanthropic and patriotic worker” (London Free Press) and was said to have been able to face all situations “with an indomitable courage, [and] unfailing laughter that kept youth ever bright in her heart.” This praise exists in contradiction with the many real enemies that she made by being forceful and assertive in an era where women were not meant to be heard in the public sphere.

The site of Harriet’s home was demolished to make way for H. B. Beal Technical school in 1916: a school that took as its heart the very skills and values Harriet had fought for during her life. A plaque memorializing her and her endless work hangs in Beal today, by the auditorium entrance.


As a student of feminist theory, it is interesting for me to research London’s early activists. The increased presence and autonomy of women that Harriet encouraged through her practice and work has lived on even as cultural values shift, and from 150 years in the future, it seems like we are well on our way to creating a society that Harriet would be proud of (though I am sure she would say that we have our work cut out for us)!

– Levi


The Kingsmill Family, Industrialization, and Victorian Mortality

Hi everyone! Today I thought I would provide a sneak-peak of one of the stories in our “Woodland 150” video, which will be aired on television in July and will be featured as part of our educational history program here at Woodland in the fall.

This section is all about Thomas Frazer Kingsmill, who is an illustrious example of the industrial spirit that played a role in Confederation. In the early 1800s, Canada had relied on England for shipments of manufactured goods such as shoes, ale, ironworks and furniture. The 1850s and 60s saw a massive explosion in the economy, and many Londoners (new and established) decided that they wanted to try their own hands at economic endeavours. The Kingsmills – whose famed department store operated in London for 148 years – were one of these families.

Thomas was born in Tipperary, Ireland on April 6, 1840, and came to North America as an immigrant with his wife Anne in 1860. They settled in London in 1864 and, as many will recall, opened a dry goods shop called Kingsmill’s on Dundas Street. He rented the building from John Walsingham Cooke Meredith for a grand total of $400 per year. Thomas, Anne, and their six children lived at 862 Ridout Street North, a popular part of town for those in (or aspiring to be in) London’s high society.


Many said that Thomas was born for a life of service. He possessed superior knowledge about cloth and fabric, and spent years of his life travelling to Europe and back by boat to personally purchase cloth for his London, Ontario customers. He was said to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean 140 for this purpose.

TF Kingsmill (1)

(Photo: Thomas Frazer Kingsmill Sr. Courtesy of Western Archives, Western University)

More than stellar customer service, Kingsmill’s store was one of the first in London to introduce a fair price system. Due to the fact that London was still a fairly new community in the 1860s, many businesses still operated on a barter system, which was prone to haggling and compromising. Thomas ensured that all of his goods were marked with one price only, in plain figures – a system which soon became the norm in London. This was certainly a mark of London’s transition from a pioneer town to a bustling city.


(Photo: A Kingsmill’s Department Store Ad from the London Free Press)

Besides being one of London’s most prominent businessmen, Thomas also served as a city alderman from 1873-1874, was active in creating London’s first water commission, and was largely responsible for erecting Blackfriar’s Bridge – the first still arch to span the Thames – near his Ridout Street home.

Thomas passed away in 1915 of bladder disease, and it was then that another dramatic – and scandalous – feature of his life was revealed. Since his wife Anne had already passed away, he left his estate to his children. Before the funds could be distributed, another Mrs. Kingsmill stepped forward claiming to be Thomas’ wife, and she and her three children rightfully entitled to a share of the estate. The details came out through a court case in which the 2nd Mrs. Kingsmill, born Margaret Gill, contested Thomas’ will. She was living in England when she answered a newspaper ad and became Mr. Kingsmill’s employee in 1883, eventually marrying him in Canada in ’84 and returning to live in England. She was not notified that Thomas was already married until after the wedding. Thomas would spend most of the year in London, Ontario with Anne, but would live with Margaret while on his cloth-buying business trips to England. Margaret and Thomas had 3 children – Percy, Irene, and Vernon – who came to Canada in 1910 and took up residence in the first Kingsmill house when Thomas died. As one may expect, this did not go over well. It seems as if Canadians’ new sense of themselves as global citizens had more than a few unexpected benefits…

Despite this scandal and the bout of bad feeling that followed, the Kingsmill family continued to play a prominent role in London society. Thomas and Anne’s son, Henry Ardagh Kingsmill, was a “Confederation Baby” – having been born on July 2, 1867, the day after the first Dominion Day. Having grown up in a unified Canada, Henry studied Medicine at the newly established University of Western Ontario, graduating in 1895. He was a practicing physician in London as well as in England, having inherited his father’s penchant for travel. He enlisted in World War One in 1917, offering his skills as a physician and surgeon and serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. He was one of the few Londoners who made it through the war and was able to return home to London. However, he fell victim to the soldier’s influenza epidemic and never recovered. He lived out his last years at home, eventually dying of pneumonia brought on by Spanish Influenza in 1920. He was buried at Woodland Cemetery with a Veteran’s headstone, near the rest of the Kingsmill family.

Henry Kingsmill

(Photo: Henry Ardagh Kingsmill. Courtesy of Western Archives, Western University, Kingsmill Family Fonds)

Henry Kingsmill was one of the majority of Londoners who passed away from a contagious disease. Confederation Era mortality rates were much higher than ours today – death was a constant presence. This was mainly due to poor public health measures, poor sanitation, poor nutrition, and lack of vaccinations against diseases. The field of medicine was also not as advanced as we have come to enjoy. The main causes of death in London in the 1860s were consumption, tuberculosis, cholera, stillbirth, bronchitis, cholera, scarlet fever, lung disease, whooping cough, typhoid, and dysentery. Many women also died in childbirth, and many children during their teething period due to high fevers. Infants under 1 year accounted for more than 40% of all burials. Child mortality rate in Upper Canada was higher than it was in Europe due to the large influx of immigrants and the debilitating effects of urban environments like London’s or Toronto’s. It often took years for medical advancements and discoveries from Europe to be communicated to and implicated in Confederation era Canada. Despite the efforts of well-trained doctors like Henry, Canada was still many years away from widespread public health measures and improved medical knowledge.


Victorian Monument Symbolism: Expressions Carved in Stone

As you’ll notice if you’ve ever visited Woodland, or if you attend our public walking tour on June 24th, our older sections are filled with break-taking monuments. Many of them are hand-carved, and feature statue work and meaningful symbols along with beautifully engraved scripture or poetry.

When I first started working here, my boss alerted me to the fact that what a Victorian era family chose to put on a monument was never a mistake. Rather, the Victorians were fixated on symbolism, and when they erected a gravestone for a loved one, they wanted to make sure it reflected something of that person’s disposition, their career, their relationships, or their life. Because these stones were rather expensive, and space was precious, this unique expression was often accomplished through symbols that other members of society would be able to recognize. Nowadays, though we still retain some cultural knowledge of these, we often have no idea the intricate meanings that these stones were meant to convey.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing some research on Victorian monument symbolism, and thought I’d share some of it in a blog post so that you can identify these stones for yourself while you’re out on the grounds!


Urns and Shrouds

Ripley, Urn with Shroud (Sec R).jpg

People weren’t really cremated in Victorian times, so why have an urn on top of your gravestone? It was actually a reference to ancient Greek and Roman cultures, who did cremate their dead. Victorians used this symbolism to represent that they were in tune with the Classics, which were exceedingly popular at the time, thereby letting the world know that they were cultured and knowledgeable. These urns sometimes have shrouds laying overtop of them, which represent the “veil” that exists between the world of the living and the world of the dead.



Columns were also a nod to the Greeks – this time to their architecture. Columns were a symbol of strong support, which in Victorian times usually denoted the head of the household – a father or husband who supported his family. Columns on gravestones are often purposefully broken, as this symbolises that the life of this support was cut short suddenly or too soon. Columns can be broken at the top, as shown in the picture, or lying on their side in two pieces.


Hands Clasped

Allen Lot - Hands shaking.jpg

People holding hands is one of my favourite pieces of symbolism, as there is so much to read into it. They represent a married relationship (or another close, unified relationship – family or friend) that has had to end due to death. The “hand-shake” on the stones can depict a last farewell, but more often it depicts someone who has died first leading another person to heaven when they die. You can sometimes tell the gender of the person by the cuffs on their sleeves: keeping with the dress of the time, men wore straight cuffs and women wore lace or puffed ones. If a straight cuffed arm is clasping from behind, it likely means that a husband, who died previously, is leading his wife to join him in the afterlife.


Hands Pointing Upward

Ford mon. hand pointing to heaven.jpg

Hands that point up symbolize that the deceased has ascended to Heaven, and has received their final reward for a life well lived. It serves as a confirmation of life after death for the faithful. They are one of the most popular symbols depicted on our monuments here at Woodland. (Note: don’t worry if you see a hand pointing down, it doesn’t mean the deceased as gone… well… not to Heaven. Rather, the inversion of this symbol means that the deceased is pointing down from above).



Portraiture on gravestones is usually used to depict a likeness of the deceased, which is really neat because we get a glimpse into what these people looked like before cameras were widely available. Families often put portraits on stones if a person died in their youth, so that their youthfulness would be forever preserved.



Gorman scroll, rolled both ends.jpg

The scroll is a symbol of life and time unfolding. If a scroll is rolled up at both ends on a monument, it marks the beginning and ending of a life. Scrolls are also a nod to honour and commemoration, and can also symbolise Biblical scripture or ancient texts.



Roses usually adorn the graves of young women, and they dually represent heavenly perfection and earthly passion. If the rose is broken, it indicates the deceased’s age: a broken bud means the girl was under 12 years old when she died; a partial bloom represents death during teenage years; a full bloom represents someone in the prime of their life. Joined or intertwined rosebuds depicts a bond between mother and child – if you see these, it may mean a mother who died in childbirth which, unfortunately, was all too common in the 1800s.



These symbols usually depict someone who hailed from Scotland – we’ve been uncovering lots of these lately!



Lamb on Pedestal.jpg

Lambs always mark the grave of a small child. The ancient Egyptians first connected the lamb with purity and innocence, and it’s a symbol that has been carried forward into Christian practice as it is linked to Jesus Christ as a shepherd. These stones are often small and low to the ground, so keep an eye out for them!



Young lot - Dove.jpg

Doves symbolize the Holy Spirit, purity, and devotion (often between married couples). Many also associated the dove with peace, as we do today. If the dove is depicted as flying on the monument, it is thought to be carrying the deceased’s soul to heaven.




Many people mistake this for a “money sign” – but what is it really? It’s actually an anagram of the letters IHS, which stands for Iesus Hominum Salvator – Jesus the Savior of men. It was a sign of membership to the Christian faith.


Open Books

Open books usually represent scholastic knowledge (someone who was a devoted intellectual) or scripture (someone who was a faith leader in the community). The book being open represents this person’s openness to knowledge or the word of God. This symbol is also connected with good deeds the deceased may have done being recorded in the mythical “Book of Life.”


Masonic Symbols

You’ll see lots of fraternity symbols on our monuments here, but by far the most common are Masonic symbols. They represent freemasonry, an organization of stone masons which has its origins in the late 14th century.


Woodsmen of the World

Woodsman of the World.jpg

These ones are particularly rich with meaning, and we have a few of them on the grounds. The Woodsmen of the World was a brotherhood and insurance company that had as its members people who worked dangerous physical jobs (like lumberjacks and fishermen). When insured men died (on the job or otherwise), the company would pay for a monument in the shape of a tree trunk, which represented equality and craftsmanship. Interestingly, each of these stones was personalized for the person it memorialised – someone who worked at sea might have an anchor on their stone, and someone who worked in the forest might have a saw. All of the monuments include the WMotW crest, and their motto dum tacet clamet, which means “though silent, he speaks”.


I hope next time you’re out on Woodland’s grounds you can find some of these symbols for yourself, and perhaps gain some insight into the lives that they memorialize from a century ago!




London’s Becher Brothers

You never know what family history you might stumble upon when you’re doing historical research here at Woodland. For me, it was a distant connection, but interesting nonetheless…

The story begins with my research on the Becher family for our “They are Not Here” tour, about London soldiers from the First World War who are memorialized at Woodland. Back in the early 20th century, “Becher” was a well known name here in London. In 1914, the family was headed by Henry Becher and Katherine Becher, who lived at the Thornwood Estate at 329 St. George Street (which is still there today – it backs onto Gibbons Park and was built in 1852!)


Henry’s father, Henry C. R. Becher (Sr.), had emigrated here from England in 1835, maintaining several interesting literary and military connections both back home and in his new country. Through the years, Thornwood was host to some of the most important figures to visit London, including Sir John A. MacDonald, Robert Borden, and Winston Churchill.

For our WWI tour, it was the original Henry C. R. Becher’s grandsons that interested me – the 3 children of Henry and Katherine. The eldest was named Henry Campbell Becher, followed by the middle son Alexander Lorne Becher, and the youngest, Archibald Valency Becher. They were all born in the mid/late 1870s, which, unfortunately, made them the perfect age for enlistment by the time WWI was declared. Though Alexander had been by most accounts a sickly child and wasn’t able to enlist, Henry was one of the first men in London to do so.


(Caption: the Becher brothers)

Prior to his enlistment, Henry had been a well-liked figure in London society. Though he never married, he continued his father’s legacy by studying law and opening a stock brokerage business. Personal documents and memoirs tell us that he loved sports, horses, nature, acting (he starred in many amateur productions!) and his family. Henry enlisted almost immediately after the declaration of war, and was appointed a high position in Canada’s 1st Battalion. He may have been following the example set by his younger brother Archibald, who had served in the Boer War in South Africa prior.


(Caption: Henry Campbell Becher)

During his service, Henry was revered as an excellent leader, both among his troops and in the newspapers in London. He officially achieved a hero’s status when he was killed in action on June 15, 1915 – rather early in the war. He was leading his men into battle, and knew the danger he was getting into when he stepped over the parapet, saying “No man can live in that fire, but I’ll go” (London Free Press). As he went over the top, a bomb detonated, shattering his legs. He was rescued by a field ambulance, but was shot in the neck by a German sniper during transport. Despite these horrific injuries, his fellow soldiers reported that Henry was cheerful until the very end, surviving several hours into the night. He was buried in France the next morning. A memorial service was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, filling it to standing room only, which was a testament to his character.

The Becher family was heartbroken at the news of Henry’s loss; especially, I believe, Archibald, who was a practicing physician in London at the time. When you take into account his family life and his high standing in London, it becomes clear that his grief over his elder brother’s death may have been a deciding factor in his own enlistment.

“Archie” had attended the University of Western Ontario, graduating with a medical degree. He interrupted his studies to enlist in the Boer War at the turn of the century, a point of pride for his family and other Londoners. When he returned to London, he served as an Alderman on London’s City Council and served as one of London’s coroners. He married Flora Wilson (nicknamed “Toppy”) in 1902, and had a son named John in 1913, which may explain why he did not enlist as early as his brother did. Or, perhaps he was disillusioned with the concept of war after his time in South Africa – we will never know.


(Caption: Archibald Becher)

It was only after Henry was KIA that Archibald decided to offer his services as a surgeon. He enlisted late in 1915, signing his own enlistment papers as a doctor to confirm that he was fit for active service. This may in fact have been his downfall. He proceeded to a Quebec military hospital for training, but contracted double pneumonia not a month later. Fortunately, his wife and his mother Katherine were able to travel down to Quebec to say their goodbyes. Archie died on Christmas Day, 1915, leaving behind a two-year-old son and (likely unbeknownst to him) another son (his namesake) on the way. Since he was still in Canada, he was able to be transported back to London for burial in Woodland Cemetery, with full military honours and hundreds in attendance.


(Caption: Archie with his young family)

Losing two sons in one year was a hugely tragic blow for the Becher family, especially, perhaps, their mother Katherine who continued to live at Thornwood. The family plot at Woodland Cemetery commemorates each of the Bechers with love, including beautiful stones and the inclusion of nicknames.

Knowing the story of this family made it all the more meaningful for me to discover that we are distantly related. My grandfather handed down all of his genealogical research to me, and it turns out that we and the Bechers have a notable cousin in common: the British author William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote the novel Vanity Fair. Though I’m not sure if our families were ever closely connected back in England, knowing that my family tree has such as remarkable branch, local to London no less, makes my own historical footprint more interesting.

– Levi

(If you want to know more, check out our “They Are Not Here” documentary: )



Potter’s Fields and Forgotten Souls

Today I want to do my “historian” blog post on something a bit out of our historical perspective – Potter’s fields, and the ones that used to exist in London.

I first came across the existence of Potter’s fields while I was doing research about Old St. Paul’s Cemetery. The term comes from the Bible, referring to a ground where clay was dug for pottery, later bought by the high priests of Jerusalem for the burial of strangers, criminals and the poor. Also known as “Pauper’s Grave” “Poor Ground” or “Free Ground,” Potter’s fields are commonly known as areas where those who could not afford to buy a grave would be buried (sometimes called the “friendless poor”). However, if you look a little closer, they can sometimes have a darker side. Back in the Victoria era, there were certain people that the Church did not believe should be buried on consecrated ground (criminals, prostitutes, unwed mothers and “bastard” children, those who had committed suicide, etc.), and these people often ended up in the Potter’s field sections of cemeteries as well. In fact, the phrase is still used as a metaphor for a place of abandonment and dishonour.

When St. Paul’s Cemetery was located out where the Western Fair is now, it had regular plots and an area dedicated to Potter’s field burials. (There was also one out on Hamilton Road, but perhaps that is a story for another day). All of these burials were moved to Woodland with the rest of them when we opened in 1879 (it took about 6 years to do all of the removals!). These burials, luckily, were included in the St. Paul’s records, and like all other burials they list the deceased’s name (if known), and their profession (if they had one). In the absence if this information, a cause of death or a fact about the deceased was often listed. This is why these records caught my attention when I stumbled across them.

Here are some examples:

May 28, 1870 – (?) A deaf-mute, name and age unknown

June 21, 1879 – Hezekiah Nelson – Committed Suicide in Gaol

January 27, 1873 – Elizabeth C. Walters – 24 years old – from the Asylum

August 16, 1872 – Julia Johnson – 6 weeks old – Illegitimate Child

September 16, 1872 – John Howsley – Infant Deserted

January 20, 1860 – Martha Stewart – a Fugitive Slave

January 2, 1862 – Indian (found dead)

May 10, 1855 – Stillborn Child of a Destitute Woman (Husband in Australia)

December 4, 1867 – Emma Wilson – Name and Age Unknown – Committed                            Suicide from Brothel

The St. Paul’s Potter’s field was also responsible for all of the burials from the London Asylum and the City Jail. To me, these people’s stories are just as important as any of the notable Londoner’s that we include on our tours. For that reason, I set out to the library to find some record of them to be able to tell their stories. What I found, though unsurprising, still troubles me: these cemetery records are the only trace of these people that still exists. They are not on the census records, most of the time. They have no grave markers. They are not in the newspapers (unless they were a convicted criminal). They have left no trace of themselves other than a name in a brash record of Potter’s field burials. Some of them do not even have names, meaning, usually, that they had no families to provide them. Their graves remain unmarked.

Even if they were not respected in the culture and moment in which they lived, these people lived lives often just as interesting as London’s  rich and famous. Yet, theirs are not the stories that we are expected to want to uncover, not the deaths that we are expected to mourn. They are effectively lost to history – remembered with pride by no one. This suggests something deeply profound to me about the way that we need to commemorate and memorialize our dead today. What does it say about our society, who we value, who has earned their place in “history”? Is our history truly complete if it only speaks of those deemed worthy by cultural standards? Would I have been buried in a Potter’s field had I lived in the 1860s?

Would you have?


– Levi


A Tour of Woodland’s Vault

Hi everyone, Levi here!
As today’s blog post I thought I’d take you on a guided tour of Woodland’s “Vault,” where we store all of our historical archives and documents. These are invaluable sources, and have themselves lead us to some incredible discoveries that we wouldn’t have otherwise known about (for instance, it took one look at the Burial Book back in 2014 to discover that Woodland has many victims of the Victoria Day Disaster buried here, something we hadn’t realized).

The first source that we go to when we’re searching for something is our burial records. Amazingly, these are handwritten and go all the way back to when the cemetery opened in 1879. Back in the day, they recorded every burial that took place on our grounds, and this is where they kept all of the information about the deceased. It’s a great way to access things like date of death, age at death, full names, and addresses. It also records what they did for a living, which can really start to tell a story about the person’s life! The picture below is one of the three pages in our burial book that record the burials of 51 Victoria Day Disaster victims, just two days after the wreck.


Accompanying the burial book, we also have a handwritten record of all of the sales of burial plots. This has been really helpful in my research because it reveals the original lot owners, and sometimes elucidates the circumstances under which they bought the lot. It’s also pretty neat to see the prices these things sold for back in 1881 – only $20 at the time! In the photo below, you can see the purchase of one of the Harris family plots by John Harris back in May of 1881.


Our lot book also dates back to 1879, and its still maintained today with each burial that happens. Looking in here can tell us exactly who is buried where in a family plot. This is especially helpful in locating burials that were moved here from Old St. Paul’s – if they’re not recorded as burials, they’ll certainly be in here. You can also glean some things about family relationships from how things are laid out here, as people were usually buried next to those to whom they were closest. Pictured below are the layouts of some of the lots in Section R, one of the cemetery’s oldest sections.


Records from 1879 onwards are pretty easy to access here in our vaults, but finding individuals who were moved here from the Old Cemetery can be a bit more tricky. Luckily, we have a transcription of the burial and lot records from St. Paul’s which was created in the 1980s. This is a handy tool for finding the old old burials, and it’s sometimes our only resource if someone comes in looking for a family member who was buried prior to 1879. The original records are held at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Darch family, mentioned in the records below, were very successful saddlers and were responsible for building London’s first “skyscraper” (6 storeys at the time) to house their growing business.


These documents, in conjunction, can solve most of the mysteries that we stumble across out on the grounds. A quick search in these records can reveal a lot about someone’s life and death, and they provide a strong foundation for further research that we can carry out in the city archives, Western archives, and the London Room

And of course, who could forget the “old sea scrolls” – we still use these maps to navigate out on the grounds!



The General History of Woodland Cemetery

Woodland Cemetery opened its doors in 1879…


Hi everyone, Levi here. As a first post I thought I would provide a general background in the history of Woodland Cemetery, which can act as the basis for all of the research we’ll be doing in the coming months.

Our story begins not on Springbank Drive, but closer to the heart of London:

The first Anglican minister sent to serve London was the Reverend Edward J. Boswell. He, with the Anglican congregation, bought 9 lots that were to be used for a church and graveyard. Six of the lots were on Dundas and 3 were around the corner on Ridout Street. The congregation erected the frame for St. Paul’s Church in 1830. Burials began that year, but building stopped.

Mr. Boswell was replaced by the Reverend Benjamin Cronyn in 1832. Mr. Cronyn sold off the lots and bought the present site of St. Paul’s Cathedral at Richmond and Queen Street. That winter, the 80’ by 40’ frame of the church was mounted on sleds and pulled by oxen to the new site. The church was finished in time for Christmas Services in 1833. Burials on the grounds were already taking place and graves from the old site opposite the courthouse were removed to the new churchyard.

In 1846, Mr. Cronyn bought 16 acres of land about a mile east of town. He envisioned the land as an excellent cemetery. The congregation didn’t share his vision, believing it was too far out in the wilderness. In 1849, the town forbade any further interments in St. Paul’s churchyard. The rector sold the land to St. Paul’s for exactly what he paid for it, although the lots had risen in value 6-fold in the 3 years since he had bought them. The first burial in the new St. Paul’s Cemetery was the rector’s oldest son, Thomas Cronyn.

In 1849, most of the remains and gravestones were removed from the crowded churchyard to the new cemetery. Thirty years later, the city had grown to surround this cemetery at St. Paul’s Grove. In June, 1879, the corporation of the village of London East informed the rector and wardens that a bylaw was about to be passed prohibiting further interments. A special committee of vestry was set up to search for a new site. By the middle of August they had secured a new location on the banks of the Thames River, 2 or 3 miles west of the city. It cost just under $10,000 and consisted of 56 acres, but that was later expanded to include almost 100 acres. Part of the property, previously owned by William Blinn, had been known as Woodland Park and so the name Woodland was applied to the cemetery.

The first man buried in Woodland was harness maker, Charles Dunn, on December 5, 1879. The removal of the remains from the old St. Paul’s Cemetery to Woodland began in May, 1880 and took six years to complete. It involved thousands of markers and monuments, over 1,400 of those buried in the Potter’s Field and hundreds who died in military service. The 1887 Western Fair opened at its new location, a beautiful natural site known as Queens Park, which had previously been the site of St. Paul’s Cemetery.

At Woodland’s northern boundary was the cemetery wharf. Three steamers offered passage from the foot of Dundas Street to Springbank Park and then stopped at the wharf. On May 24, 1881, the steam boat Victoria capsized not far from the wharf and more than 180 men, women and children died. More than 50 of the victims were laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery.

The London Street Railway was given permission to build a rail bed across the north property line of the cemetery, en route to Springbank Park. For years trolley cars passed by, but when they stopped running the land became a popular trail for walkers, joggers and bicyclists, providing passage under the Guy Lombardo bridge.

In September, 1900, new gates were constructed out of sandstone and wrought iron. The date “1879” and the name “Woodland Cemetery” have since been inscribed in the pillars.

The soldiers’ plot was laid out over a quiet wooded slope in 1939. It would accommodate 1,500 graves. Today it is called the Veterans’ Section.

London’s first crematorium was built in Woodland and was in operation by 1964. It was designed to look like an old English stone chapel. By 1998, cremations had risen significantly and a new crematorium with two retorts went into service. The old stone chapel was transformed into an indoor columbarium called Woodland Sanctuary. It has niches to hold urns allowing families the opportunity to see their loved-ones urn when they visit.

Woodland created London’s first outdoor columbarium in 1980. Columbarium Park is in front of Woodland Sanctuary. It has niches designed into the six sided columbaria and is finished in red granite. Each columbarium holds 144 niches and a total of five columbaria were in place by the year 2000.

The transfer of over 160 years of records from the cemetery’s books and registers to computer files began in 1992 and took 3 years to complete. In a continuing effort to preserve London’s history, we encourage anyone with information on those interred at Woodland to assist us in updating or completing these files.

We look forward to sharing what historical finds we come across out on the grounds and in our archives!

– Levi