We Found Ida Grace Laing’s Stone. Then We Found Her Story.

You’ve read about the repairs… Now here’s Ida’s history.

Welcome to another Woodland Cemetery blog post! We’ve found time to write a few more blogs between planning for Doors Open London on September 14th and 15th (we’ll be running tours from 1pm-5pm each day, come say hi!) and wrapping up our summer history work.

Yesterday was a very special day for our summer team – it was the 147th anniversary of Ida Grace Laing’s passing. Robyn and Brienna found baby Ida’s headstone earlier in the summer – you can read about their repairs here – but since then we’ve uncovered a brief timeline of her life and discovered what happened to her family members.

Want to find the stone? Face the middle mausoleum-in-the-wall near Section R and turn around. Walk forward down the path until you see a sign for Section R. Approach the grey granite stone for the Rowland family to your right. Look to your left and walk up to the Footitt memorial. Head straight ahead from here until you see a tall, grey stone with a large sphere for the Hayman family to your right. Ida’s small, white stone will be to your left.

This stone is the only monument we’ve found in this lot. Ida’s brother Major George Stanley Laing owns all four corners of lot 243, though Ida and George were born five years apart and never met. Two of Ida’s six siblings are buried here as well – let’s explore their story through the documents they left behind.

Meet George and Caroline Laing.

Ida was born on June 26, 1871 to her parents George and Caroline Laing. She was their second daughter and followed her sister Florence Evelyn Maud Laing’s birth on April 22, 1869. George listed his occupation as a merchant on Ida’s birth certificate, though he’s listed as a bookkeeper in the 1871 Census. Their family in that 1871 census consists of George, Caroline, Florence, and Kennedy Margaret, who is listed as their house servant.

The 1871 Census featuring the Laing Family.
George and Caroline et. al are right at the bottom! Retrieved from the Library and Archives of Canada.

Ida is missing from this census; she was most likely born after the enumerator came around to ask about the Laing family. The only record that we could find was her birth certificate. Ida’s stone, however, tells us that she died on August 29, 1872 aged 1 year, 2 months, and 4 days.

Ida’s description in our burial book is quite empty. She’s listed as being from London and is listed as being 14 months old. Ida’s occupation is listed as “father merchant.” Our burial books often list a child’s parent’s occupation. Sometimes the books will even just list “f. occupation,” which was quite confusing to run across at first!

The Laing Family in the 1881 Census.

The Laing family has grown by the time the 1881 census is taken: George and Caroline, now 40 and 41 respectively, have brought four more children into the world. Oswald Morley Laing was born on July 28, 1872, which was a few months before Ida died. Edith Laing was born on April 21, 1874 and Charles Herbert Laing was born soon after on May 8, 1875. Charles passed away just 9 months later in February 1876 and was buried near Ida that same month.

George and Caroline’s sixth child, George Stanley Laing, was born on Sept 24 1877. Caroline then gave birth to the couple’s seventh child Percy Sutherland on November 5 1879. The 1881 census lists 7 people in their household as it doesn’t record Ida and Charles. Deaths were only recorded in the census if they had taken place within the last 12 months – more on this in an upcoming blog post.

The 1891 census adds Mabel Elizabeth Laing to the household as she was born on July 30, 1881. This census also lists George’s profession as “Dept of Agencies (Managing),” which is quite a step up in both status and descriptiveness from “Merchant.” Geo and Karoline Laing (their names are spelled incorrectly) are 52 and 51, Florence is 21, Edith is 16, George Stanley is 16, Percy is 11, and Mabel is 9. This census also has a new enumerator and his handwriting is much easier to read than the previous two.

But in the 10 years between this 1891 census and the next in 1901, the Laing family leaves London for good.

Where did the family go during 1901?

The Laing family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba between 1891 and 1901. The 1901 census lists George as 61, Caroline as 60, and George Stanley as 23. George and Caroline’s remaining 5 children have spread out across the United States. Florence ends up in Fargo, North Dakota, Edith moves to New York, New York in 1897, and Percy winds up in Seattle, Washington. All the 1900-1905 censuses in those areas list their respective Laing family member. All except for Edith are buried in the cities they lived in. Edith will be buried next to her young siblings in Woodland when she passes away on November 24, 1948.

George Stanley deviated from his siblings and remained in Winnipeg. He married Winnipeg resident Mabel Florence Bradshaw in 1905 and enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Forces in 1915. He lists his occupation as a chartered accountant on his attestation papers. He returns to Winnipeg after being wounded in Passchendaele in 1917. He is currently buried in St. John’s Anglican Cemetery in Winnipeg along with his father and mother.

So why isn’t everyone in Woodland?

The reason why only three of the ten Laings are buried at Woodland is unknown. The Laing family had room for everyone in their plot, but only Ida, Charles, and Edith are buried there. Census records and the occasional birth certificate allow us to trace general movements through time and space. These kinds of records do, however, leave out all the stories that take place along the way. But with the help of Ancestry.com and Libraries and Archives Canada, we’ve been able to piece a rough timeline of the Laing family and their time in London and elsewhere.

We’ll have another blog post coming soon talking about why we couldn’t find Ida’s death certificate – you’ll never look at Vital Statistics the same way again after reading it! We’ll also have another cemetery story time from Marjorie, as well as a special story about Dr. William Maurice Bucke and the compassionate care he was known for at the London Asylum for the Insane in the late 1800s. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

Ghosts and Ivy-Covered Homes: Growing Up in 1950’s Woodland Pt. 1

Marjorie didn’t really want to move into Woodland Cemetery back in 1948. Her father, Arthur, was Woodland’s manager from 1947 until 1967. “We didn’t have any choice,” Marjorie said, “we just packed up and left. We had a nice, comfortable house on Gerrard Street in Old South and friends and everything. Anyhow, I had to sort of leave that and move on.”

Marjorie Rand lived in the cemetery’s house in the 1950s. She told us the only ghost story we’ve heard to date.

Welcome to another Woodland Cemetery blog post! Meagan and I have been hard at work entering data, but we managed to sneak away to the heart of Old South to get you this story. We were tipped off earlier in the summer that a woman who lived in the old house in the front of the cemetery would like to talk to us about her life and tell us some cemetery stories. We rushed to meet Marjorie once we had time.

We bussed over to Marjorie’s home and found her sitting on her porch enjoying the breeze of an otherwise hot August afternoon. She had been planning to garden that day but hadn’t gotten around to it yet – it was much too hot. She welcomed us into her home and told us about life in our cemetery.

A yellow brick house with a few windows, white paneling, and an awning over the door.
This yellow brick house sits just to the right of our cemetery gates. Marjorie moved here just after the house was built in 1948.

Marjorie didn’t really want to move into Woodland Cemetery back in 1948. Her father, Arthur, was Woodland’s manager from 1947 until 1967. “We didn’t have any choice,” Marjorie said, “we just packed up and left. We had a nice, comfortable house on Gerrard Street in Old South and friends and everything. Anyhow, I had to sort of leave that and move on.” Marjorie was about to enter grade nine. That’s a turbulent time for anyone. Now imagine switching schools and moving into a cemetery at the same time.

Marjorie was nervous to let anyone know where she lived. She had a few tricks up her sleeve to keep her cemetery house from friends and teachers. “In school we had to fill in a lot of records back then,” Marjorie recalled. “I always put my address as 493 Springbank Drive. Sometimes Woodland Lodge, but never Woodland Cemetery.” Marjorie admitted that calling it Woodland Lodge didn’t work out for her. Teachers would often question her about what the Lodge was until she admitted that it was really a cemetery.

She was so secretive because living in a cemetery could take a toll on her social standing. “Take yourself back to when you’re a gangly kid and very conscious of what people think of you. The girls particularly in high school could be devastating. But you grow out of that.”

It was a haunted cemetery (well, sort of).

Description of the house vs what’s there today

Marjorie’s old Woodland house is hard to miss when you come through the front gates. We even used that building as our office space until the current red brick building was built in 2004. But Marjorie recalls a house that was there before either of those buildings existed. “The old house that was there was scary,” Marjorie admitted. “It was covered with ivy and was a gothic thing like you might see in a movie.” Marjorie notes that the building was far away from the cemetery gravestones, but the house was still eerie.

A framed photograph of a two story ivy covered house. Trees frame the house and a family poses in front of the door.
You can find this photo of the pre-1958 house on display in our office. You can hardly make out the family in front of the door through all that ivy!

This current house was constructed for Arthur and his family once he took over as the cemetery manager. It looked and felt less creepy than the old house. “The new house was quite nice. It was much bigger than the one that we lived in. And we each had our own bedroom which was good.” Marjorie lived with her two parents, two brothers, and a sister, so more room was much appreciated.

The house wasn’t the only spooky thing about the cemetery. Marjorie told us the only ghost story I’ve ever heard at Woodland, and she tells it best:

“As I got into my teens, I was in the young people’s group at St. Paul’s. And they loved coming out after church and just hanging around. One fellow had a car but the rest of us just biked all over the place. It got to be sort of a club with people coming out and then we’d just walk around the cemetery. Sometimes we’d go out at night and that was a little scary. But when you’re with a crowd of people it doesn’t seem to matter.”

“My brothers would throw a towel or a sheet over themselves and pop up. Now they have all those solar lights out there, but then there was nothing. It was pitch black and you couldn’t see anything. Well, except brothers in sheets. They would just jump out and say, “Boo!” or something and retreat.”

Marjorie notes that her brothers scared her just that first time. Every time after that one was just annoying.

The cemetery grew on Marjorie over time despite the pranks and the secrecy at school. “I liked the cemetery once I got used to it. My sister and I would roam all over the place and check things out.” Marjorie was married in 1954 and was out of the house by then, but she still came back to visit her home in the cemetery from time to time.

Any questions?

I hope you enjoyed reading about this glimpse into Woodland’s past as much as we loved hearing about it from Marjorie! We’ll have some more stories about speedboats, military funerals, and trains coming next week. Comment any questions you have for Marjorie below and we’ll do our best to ask her the next time we visit her.

Cutting History Short (But Being Respectful About It)

My week in a nutshell

This week, I’ve been working on creating short audio stories out of our Lost and Found audio walk. It’s proving to be a bit trickier than I thought it would be. It feels like I’m trying to squeeze something huge and expansive into a small box. There’s so much I want to say about Esther Barnes, for example, the resourceful woman who ran an east London brothel (at the site in the Google Maps photo above), who was sentenced to the maximum sentence at the time, and who fought back against a moral crackdown on sex labor.

When I’m trying to work through an issue, I tend to write out my thoughts. Some of the best advice I’ve received through my studies is the power of writing. Whenever I’m stuck or need to figure something out, I’ll sit myself down for about 20 minutes and just write. I might not find an answer, but it gives me somewhere to jump off from and I usually end up in a better place than when I started.

There’s a lot to tell – I should mention why she opened her brothel, but how far into that story of her husband’s death do I go? It would be great to talk about her legal battle with East London, but it would take a good while to go through all the important bits there. Unless, of course, I want to be a bit reductive of her landmark case.

Reducing the story to a nice simmer

I guess that’s what this issue boils down to – being reductive. I don’t want to make it seem like this incredibly powerful life and its stories can be captured in a five-minute audio clip, that it can be crammed into 400 words and posted online. But I also want people to listen, to hear this story and resonate with it. And I feel like the way to get people to listen is to make these stories punchy, quick, and exciting!

It’s funny – I ended up following my own advice, the words that I said to Leah when I was recording her weaving the Barnes tale. I told her to imagine that she’s sitting at a dimly-lit bar – there’s a jazz musician tickling the ivories softly in the background, to set the comfy-but-intriguing atmosphere. I told her to imagine that she’s telling the story to a friend at this bar, and that her friend is incredibly interested but must leave soon to catch a bus.

A crowded bar in New York with lots of pictures on the wall.

What important bits would she want to include? How would she keep her friend interested? Striking the balance between speaking conversationally and being respectful of history and the truth of the case would be very important. And it’s just as important when I’m making this audio walk, as it’s more-or-less fixed in time and space – a little more permanent than knowledge passed out on a walking tour (but no more important!). I can’t tell the whole story, but I can make sure that what I tell is a curated selection of the highs, lows, and happenings of the lives of Esther Barnes and Emma Wilson.

I’m not in this alone

And, I’ve got to say, it helps to remember that this audio walk is not the last word in the history of these lives. It’s not even close! This is a specific project for a cemetery, so I should focus on what stories I can best tell in that context and keep it as accessible as I can. Thankfully, there are many others who have told these stories, some of them in much more expansive ways than I want to. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more exciting adventures into the baffling world of digitally preserving history.

How Can We Re-Animate Woodland Cemetery?

Our dead stories don’t have to stay dead.

We’re going full Frankenstein mode on stories.

Cemeteries are such interesting places to stroll through – this is the first surprising fact that I’ve learned in my first few weeks working at Woodland. There’s something oddly thrilling about walking among the headstones, monuments, and carvings and thinking of all the different lives that have ended up here in this space together.

Woodland’s historic sections are host to an absurdly high number of lives lived. The only caveat to this lived history is that so much of it is dead – by that, I mean that we’re only telling the stories as we read about them in our (mostly logistical) records and secondary sources from places like the London Room or the Western Archives. They live on paper and in digital documents and are only dusted off when we host our public walking tours like our “Lost and Found” tour that took place last Saturday.

Our dead stories don’t have to stay that way. Like Dr. Frankenstein or Herbert West show, dead things don’t necessarily have to stay dead. They can be brought back to life with the help of a little creativity and technology. I’ve been turning this idea around the last few days and have come up with some ideas to help bring Woodland’s stories back to life – hopefully not as chillingly as is done so in horror literature!

Cemetery tour guides at the ready.

Woodland Walking Tour - Lost and Found 2018.png
Historian Leah Abaza tells the stories of the Mitchell family and their mysterious memorial to those unknown dead that were transferred from old St Paul’s Cemetery to Woodland.

Historical walking tours are being done already – my mentor Levi Hord has been putting these together for the last few years, walking the public through the stories of Woodland. The stories of some influential women who rest in the cemetery, for example, are brought back to life in “Women of Woodland” – they live through our interpretations and representations of their lives. We remember and thus reanimate them by sharing their stories with London’s communities. Groups can book these tours, but what if our resident historian isn’t around to deliver or, what if a group prefers to walk through the cemetery at their own speed? That brings us to…

The mechanical voice tells many tales…

Guided walking tours bring Woodland’s stories to life. But we don’t always need a physical body to tell these stories. We can use speakers and headphones to stand in for vocal chords, creating audio walks. These recorded stories can tell a fixed, predetermined version of a grave’s history as many times as needed without getting tired from talking or walking. In short, the listener becomes the tour guide as they follow cues and take themselves through the winding path of the cemetery. Digital recording techniques also allow us to play around with sound effects, music, and special guests who might be otherwise be unable to come to every tour. But how can we make these audio recordings multi-dimensional? How can we interest our community beyond telling them to press play and listen to a drowned-out voice telling a linear history? The solution could be…

Theatre among the graves.

Lost Soul Stroll 2013 - Free Press - Mike Hensen
The dead walk the streets during the London Fringe’s Lost Soul Stroll in 2013. Photo by the London Free Press / Mike Hensen.

Theatre can take the better sides of both walking and audio tours. They are embodied by a physical person who quite literally brings a historical person back to life through acting them out. But the fact of being a theatre allows for some production values and storytelling ability that audio tours can’t offer. Imagine walking around the cemetery and coming across John Labatt, for instance. Imagine interacting with Mr. Labatt and having him respond back to you! While logistically tricky to organize due to the number of bodies involved, this seems to me to be an incredible way to reanimate history and allow it to exist in the physical world one last time.

What about you? Any ideas?

Can you think of any other ways to animate our cemetery or have you come across any interesting and relevant media pieces? Let me know in the comments below, through our Facebook page, or by email. This list is not extensive and only represents a small fraction of the reanimation possibilities. Thanks for reading!