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!

An Unexpected Update on the Scottish Cemetery…

All summer, our monument conservation students Rachel and Hannah have been taking care of upkeep of the Scottish Cemetery site, which you may remember we uncovered last summer. Thanks to the work of last year’s monument team, these stones are now visible to the public and rest in a limestone screening at the site where they were unearthed. Having done as much research as we thought we could, at the time, we made an archive of these stones and their inscriptions (which you can find here) and we compared this to a record of burials at St. Andrew’s Cemetery taken by local historian (and one-time president of the Ontario Genealogical Society) Leslie Grey in 1955.

This was all of the information we expected to find – after all, it’s pretty hard to access information about a cemetery that no longer technically exists, and we had exhausted our sources at the London Room and other archives in the city.

Yesterday morning, Leah and I were doing a little organization within our two vaults of archives, taking a catalogue of our resources, and making sure everything was in place. Imagine our surprise when we opened up a book that had been hiding on one of our back shelves only to discover that we held the original hand-written burial registers for St. Andrew’s, which were likely given to Woodland when the graves were moved in the 50s.

Now, this didn’t really give us any new information, per se – we knew the basic details of those who were buried there already. But shoved inside the front cover were about 19 sheets of type-written legal paper, laid out like this…


This record, which doesn’t contain a date or the name of the person who prepared it, is a grave-by-grave stock-taking of the First St. Andrew’s churchyard cemetery, and most importantly, the column on the right provides details abour the family, such as spelling of names, brief lineages, where the family is from, if they have members buried in other places, stories of their lives or deaths (if they were particularily interesting), and the names, addresses, and phone numbers of their (then)-living descendants.


In the above examples, you can see statements like “these two were cousins” or “this person was involved in the founding of the church” or “we think they moved to Stratford” or “we don’t know who this was, but definitely not from this family!” This isn’t usually the type of information that cemeteries usually keep on hand, and it certainly isn’t the type we collect.

More than that, a lot of the information seems to be speculative. On several pages, the transcriber notes “I could not find anyone who knew the family,” suggesting that they were going around London seeking out the living and having real conversations with these people about their family history. Based on one date included in the papers, we can place this after 1950, and it might be likely that these were prepared by Leslie Grey as well, who we know had a passion for preserving the history of FSA.


These papers are incrediby interesting for me, mostly due to the image they furnish of someone walking around London and personally getting in touch with families, asking these questions, and recording the answers as something of import. London was obviously a smaller community at the time, which is what allowed this person to make reference to “the Bell family on Oxford Street” and have that make total sense within the cultural lexicon (whereas I would have to do a bit of digging to find out who that family would have been).

Is this something that we could do today? Is it something we should be doing? London is a bigger city, and we quite often run up against important privacy laws when collecting information as a cemetery. However, it does mean that we rarely see the creation of more personal records such as these.


History in a “Post-Truth” Age

Another striking thing about these records is the fact that a lot of the facts recorded are admitted as conjectures. The phrase “I think” appears several times, and the transcriber alludes to being told things by family members personally. None of it is actually cross referenced to any outside source. Should we treat this record the same way that we treat our burial records, which is to say as the closest we can come to knowing the factual truth of our history?

In today’s world, we’re caught up in an important debate about fact, “fake news,” and what we can consider “truth”. As a society, we privilege objective fact – that’s why the first place we look when we’re researching are governmental documents, birth records, death records, anything “official”. We put stock and trust in these to give us an accurate picture of a life. And yet the stories we remember, and the stories we tell on our tours, are more likely to come from documents like this, or from newspaper accounts, or accounts that descendants of families continue to bring to us. Some would say this makes them less factual, and therefore less valuable. But some would say that the little fascinating tidbits of information like this are what makes the story worth telling, and what translates it into more than just names and dates.

It also makes me wonder how the history we’re creating today will be treated in the future. The things recorded in this document, in the sense that they are personal accounts, are the things that we might find on our Facebook pages in the future. Do you think that we should treat this record differently in terms of validity and truth than we might, in the future, treat a Facebook post as historical record? Or are their important differences in intent?


Bad Recordkeeping?

Perhaps the other moral of the story is not to judge an archive by its cover! We often wish our earlier counterparts had been a bit more careful with where and how they stored things – this is hardly the first time we’ve stumbled across a juicy / incredibly valuable find stuffed haphazardly between book pages. For a place like Woodland, this could have once been practical – for example, we often find handwritten letters from familiies about their plots, and these are kept in our plot books, where they once would have been most useful to those running the cemetery (long before we came to conside them historical artifacts)!

As the current custodians of Woodland Cemetery’s history, we need to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes. We may think that we’re recording something in a useful way, but will it be accessible to future generations once we’re not around to give context or explain it? Will people be able to search our archives and find what they need? The answer, for Woodland at least, is currently “no” – which is why we’re putting so much effort into doing a thorough catalogue of all of the historial material we have in our vault. It’s only been 139 years – I think it’s about time!


If anyone else is keeping track of the St. Andrew’s graves and would like a digital copy of this record (which includes more personal information than the transcriptions of the stones which we previously published), let us know by commenting below!


Announcing our 2018 Walking Tour…

We’re excited to announce our 2018 public walking tour!
Lost & Found: Untold Stories from Woodland’s “Potter’s Fields”
Join us on July 7th, 2018 (tours at 1:00pm and 3:00pm) to learn about a different side of London’s history, and different approach to preserving memories.

Find our Facebook event here:

FB Post

We will be telling the stories of some of those buried in Woodland’s (and old St. Paul’s Cemetery’s) “Potter’s Fields”: those who were buried without much thought about how to preserve their memory for future generations. These people were often living in poverty, in institutions, were recent immigrants to the city, or met unfortunate ends. Their lives and stories, however, were just as vibrant as any of London’s founding families. Through our research and monument preservation work, we will be bringing some of this history to light.

This tour will help us understand more about the politics of memorialization, including whose stories we choose to remember and why.

Where: Woodland Cemetery, 493 Springbank Drive, London, ON
Cost: FREE
Parking is available on the cemetery grounds.
Walking tours will last approx. 1 to 1.5 hours.
Please bring a water bottle and sun protection.
Walking tours will include some uneven terrain; please let us know if you require any accommodation.

Stay tuned for more information upcoming!

The Research Begins!

As mentioned in the first blog post of the summer, my research will focus on the city burial grounds of Woodland Cemetery from the mid- to late-nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. My findings will then be translated into a walking tour that will take place at the beginning of July. The city burial areas of the cemetery have had a few different names including “pauper’s graves,” “potter’s fields,” and “poor grounds,” all of which reflect a rather stigmatized society. Again, these graves would have been the resting places of those who could not afford or were deemed unworthy of a proper Christian burial. We can find those who died by suicide, those whose professions were untraditional or lack-lustre (read: sex workers and labourers), or those who were detained at the Asylum buried here. When I write, “find,” it is important to note that we truly do have to search for these people. Their markers are often covered by the earth or completely nonexistent. Hannah and Rachel, our Monument Conservators, are tasked with probing the grounds and lifting up any stones that they might find beneath the surface before cleaning and re-placing them. Even our archival records show little evidence of these burials beyond their scribbled names.

You can see here where a stone has been partially covered by the grass.

Given that most burials at the time followed an elaborate Victorian tradition, where intricate monuments and flamboyant ceremonies memorialized loved ones, the city burial grounds provide a stark contrast. The stones that we do find are plain, showing only a name and date of death sans decorative furnishings or carved details. If we consider the social and political climates of the 1800s these findings, or lack there of, are expected. It was not uncommon for a family to banish a member for their shameful “insanity” or for their crimes, leaving that person without any next-of-kin. We should keep in mind that abandonment and banishing, of course, are not the case for all city burials at the time and there is no universal narrative that can speak for each person or family. Sometimes, the city would bury a person who had immigrated to Canada without any friends or family, someone who started a new life by themself here in London.

This marker was completely underground. Hannah and Rachel probed the soil and after hearing a faint “clink” they knew that there was something to dig up! You can even see the soil  that was imprinted from the marker’s lettering. Note the lack of ornament on the stone– this was typical for city burials.

A difficult task that I have encountered in my research is determining which people to feature on our walking tour. Since there is a lack of information about most of the people who were given city burials, it is tough to determine an all-inclusive story. We do have records of a man who was charged on multiple accounts for physically and emotionally abusing his partner. He is one of the few people on my list that have extensive records. The question is, do we want to feature someone who acted so aggressively simply because he is the only person about whom we have lots of information? How do we tell the stories of these “paupers” without romanticising crime and violence? Should a “full story” include the dark sides of humanity? Perhaps more productive would be to tell the story of his wife. This way, we can lessen the margin for victimization in order to present a more supportive recounting of events. We could also use this man’s story as representative of a bigger picture, one that promotes healthy relationships and resilience. At the end of the day, regardless of his crimes, the man of this story was someone who fell to the human condition of imperfection. He is still worthy of acknowledgement and remembrance. No matter which way we decide to present our research, the stories of the city burial grounds are going to be difficult to tell, but I look forward to investigating everything that makes London’s history so rich. I encourage you to also think about how we determine which memories are preserved and how we go about doing so.

If you have any input or suggestions that could help me in my research, I invite you to leave a comment!

— Leah

Final Thoughts for the Summer

Hi there!

As the summer winds down, I have been thinking about how I have accomplished and learned so many more things than I could have possibly imagined at the beginning of the summer. We completed almost the entire project of the Scottish Cemetery (130 stones!), repaired and restored approximately a dozen others around the cemetery, including ones that were completely underground, and stood up thirteen of the gravestones from Old St Paul’s Cemetery. We put together a walking tour, each of us completed several radio/tv/newspaper interviews, and we helped uncover some of the lost history of Woodland Cemetery.

During our last few weeks, we will be doing a couple of things. We are wrapping up our final project (the standing of the corner stones in Section U), we are doing  repairs to fallen gravestones around the cemetery (fallen or loose monuments), and we are hoping to finish up our video diary / documentary on tombstone archeology.

The video has been quite a challenge. Sunny and I have been learning to use Final Cut Pro, which has forced me to recall my high school days in media arts classes, and we have had to go out into the cemetery and get some final additional footage for the project. Regardless of whether it airs or not, I think that this part of the job has been the most challenging for me (I am not that great with technology), and may provide a great sense of satisfaction when it is complete. It encompasses most of the work we completed this summer, all the new skills we learned, our progressing thoughts and expectations of the job, and showcases our team’s deep appreciation for the history of Woodland Cemetery.

People don’t often acknowledge cemeteries. Yes, we drive by them on our way to work,  the grocery store, and the movies, but we look past them. We don’t see the beauty within historical cemeteries such as Woodland and the history it holds. I think most of us don’t really think about them until we are forced to go under unfortunate circumstances. When I was younger, cemeteries terrified me. It was only two years ago, when I was living in Europe, did I discover my deep appreciation for cemeteries and the ways in which they preserve memory. Working at Woodland has been a fantastic experience and I have greatly enjoyed my time here. Our manager, and every member of staff at Woodland works hard to preserve the cemetery’s natural beauty, help people through difficult times in their lives, and ensure that everyone’s deceased loved ones are guaranteed a proper and respectful memorialization, in whatever way the family wishes to do it.

Our work is not yet done at Woodland Cemetery. Hopefully next year’s students will be able to carry on our work and finish the projects we did not get the chance to complete.

Thank you for keeping up with our work!

For the last time,



… and a little bit more

For the past three months, we have learned a great deal about cemeteries. Our manager, Paul, is always eager to tell us everything he knows about the history of our cemetery and others around London, local historians such as Catherine McEwen and Dan Brock are eager to share their expertise on Middlesex County stonecarvers, and the librarians, archivists, and others working in the many libraries and archives we have visited alway seem pleased to see us and interested in our latest research. Everyone we have encountered has been extremely helpful in providing information and support in our efforts to uncover more and more Woodland Cemetery history.

As stated in the last blog post, Woodland was forced to move twice due to city expansion. Originally it was a church graveyard, but because it became overcrowded, a park-style cemetery was established outside city limits, where it was eventually overtaken by building and moved again to Woodland Park. These park-style cemeteries originated in Britain and were quickly picked up in the United States and Canada as well. Mourning was in fashion in the Victorian age, Queen Victoria’s mourning of her husband for much of her life influenced the way people thought of death and dying. Beautiful stone tablets were created as memorials for deceased loved ones and elaborate mourning customs were established to celebrate the dead. Death was romanticized, and was viewed as a natural part of life for the Victorians (see references to Victorian post-mortem photography). Cemeteries reflected this. While cities expanded and land within city limits became more desirable for living space, cemeteries were moved outside of cities to large parks for space and beautiful surroundings.

Queen Victoria in mourning clothes

A few park-style cemeteries in England eventually became run down and repurposed into open spaces for the public. Gravestones were taken down or demolished and most signs that a cemetery was ever present vanished.

MS 421_6_1_5 Photograph of Leeds General Cemetery 1962
Leeds General Cemetery in disrepair. Leeds, England.
Woodhouse Cemetery in St George’s Field at the University of Leeds.


Woodhouse Cemetery at the University of Leeds is a strange place. If one visits, it does not seem like a cemetery at all. The original stones that survived the area’s transformation are placed along a short path near one of the entrances and placed close together. The tiles that make up the walk way around the cemetery’s original chapel list the names of people who are buried in the field, with anywhere from one to around twenty on each stone. In the image above, you can see there is writing on the path (people’s names).

The Victorian cemetery allowed for people to openly celebrate the beauty of death. They would take picnics to the cemetery, visit their deceased loved ones, and make a day of it. They showcased the art of the day and popularized the idea of public parks for socializing and relaxing. They served as a beautiful quiet space inside of rapidly expanding, industrializing, and dirty cities.

However, the First World War ended this desire for park-style cemeteries. Death was no longer celebrated as young men died by the thousands, and death became viewed as more brutal, terrifying, and unknown. Cemeteries became quieter places, the sheer volume of deaths taking place during the war caused thousands of monuments to be erected in cemeteries to commemorate the brave sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands who fought for their country. Stones lost their unique artistry as death became less personal. Mourning became more private and with that, personality left the cemeteries.

A war cemetery at Vimy Ridge in France.

Another interesting stone

Hello everyone,

I am sure you have been enjoying some of our historical blog posts, but today I thought I would simply update you on what we have been doing. For the past few weeks after we finished our Scottish site – by the way, the transcript from the stones found at the site has been released, which can be found HERE – we went around the old sections of the cemetery, probing for stones, finding stones, and repairing stones.

One of the discoveries our team made was also the gravestone of Charles Sturgess. Alyssa, MacKenzie and I initially thought it was a small project, which turned out to be wrong. Our initial evaluation was that it merely needed a simple repair.

The initial state of the stone

We planned to simply attach the piece fallen off from the footstone back on it and raise the footstone a bit. But as we were edging around the footstone to raise it up, we were hitting another stone. We weren’t really sure what could be there because there normally isn’t a thing between a headstone and a footstone. What we discovered was something completely unexpected. There were two stones that ran across from the headstone to the footstone. And the ends of the stones were attached to the headstone and footstone! (I will now refer to these stones as “borders”) So, as it turned out to be a bigger project than Alyssa, MacKenzie, and I have anticipated, Peter and Jonathon joined us to help.

After digging out all the dirt around the stones, we realized the borders made the grave look like a child’s crib. It was something that I had never seen. Our team eventually brought up the borders and footstones; cleaned stones; repaired any damage (including our initial objective – attaching the part of the footstone that had fallen off. We suspect that there used to be a garden in the empty space. We do not think that we can re-create the garden that was there, but we are planning on making it look better than how it looks in the picture for sure! We have poured top soil on it and we will be planting grass seeds in the near future.

After finishing repairing the stones. We just need to remove the clamp!

A few days later, I went on to London Room in the Central branch of London Public Library to research little more about the person buried in the grave stone. The plot belonged to Charles Sturgess, who passed away at the age of four. Due to this age, my research was not as fruitful as I hoped it to be. However, there were few things I found out. Charles was born in Croydon, Surrey, England. And his family, of course, was part of the Church of England. It seems that his family moved from England to London, Canada after 1871 since the family does not appear on census records. However, City directories from 1873 indicate that the family was definitely living in the area by 1873, a year before Charles’ death. Charles died from diseases called croup (official medical term: laryngotracheobronchitis).

Obituary section of London Free Press, announcing the death of Charles Sturgess

Croup is a type of respiratory infection that occurs mostly among children between the age of 6 months and 5. Croup’s initial symptoms are very similar to common flu. It causes a patient to cough, fever, and runny nose. I, personally, had never heard of the disease named croup prior to conducting this research. I learned that croup is still fairly common in nowadays, but it is preventable with a vaccine. Before vaccination, croup was often related to diphtheria and was very fatal.

Now, that is the end of the story I wanted to share for today. But before I end the blog, I would like to inform you that we have found ourselves another big project. I no longer have space to elaborate this big project on this blog so I will leave it to the next person who writes a blog post. So stay tuned!


A little bit on cemeteries…

For the final blog post of the week, I thought I would talk a little about the history of cemeteries. Since we work in one, it seemed overdue that we talk a little bit about the history of cemeteries in London as well as Woodland Cemetery in particular. There is a fantastic short history of Woodland Cemetery written by Levi a couple years ago that gives a brief overview of the movements of St Paul’s Cemetery from 1849 until the mid-1880s when the graves were settled in their final resting places.

Now, this summer has been quite the learning experience for me, as I have discovered a great deal about the history of London. Our team has had several visits from local historians, and our boss, Paul, is extremely knowledgable about much of London’s exciting history. The 1832 Cholera Epidemic – while the mortality rate was not exceptionally high, Londoners such as Dr Elam Stimson (mentioned in a previous blog post), lost loved ones and suffered through the epidemic as London was still a small, but growing city. The 1874 Komoka Train Fire, where a train car caught fire on its way from London to Sarnia. We only discovered this disaster as a memorial stone for two of the victims of the fire is located in Woodland and somewhat describes the incident (the rest of the story had to be researched from the Komoka Railway Museum’s website, but as someone who loves to learn about trains, this was no issue for me).19911695_10209276870215330_1580958185_o

The Victoria Day Disaster in 1881, when a steamship carrying 650 passengers capsized in the Thames and over 180 died in the disaster, many of whom were buried at Woodland Cemetery. Severe natural disasters, the Deluge of London West in 1883 and the Great Flood of London (1937) and fatal building collapses speckle London’s rich history and traces of them and their impacts can be seen at Woodland. While these stories are all extremely interesting and tragic, one can’t help but ask what these disasters have to do with cemeteries. Cemeteries are the resting places of the victims of these kinds of disasters. Through mourning practices of the time period, historians and the public can glean an idea of what life was like in different eras,

Cemeteries and the burial and mourning of the dead are centuries-old traditions that develop differently around the world based on available resources, religion, and cultural practices. We know of many burial practices for the ‘rich and famous’ of the ancient world. From mummification, and the great pyramids in Egypt and all the treasures they hold, the Terracotta Army protecting Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, and the Mausoleum of Augustus, which houses many Roman Emperors.

In the late-Medieval and early modern period, we come across many more elaborate and fantastical monuments and burial tombs for the prosperous. Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, and more modern cemeteries such as the Arlington National Cemetery, house royals, government figures, and other prominent societal figures. But what about the common people?

Also known as “grave fields”, prehistoric cemeteries varied based on geography, and the religion and culture of the society. The ancient pagans used many of the same burial rituals, such as burial mounds, shaft tombs, and cremation.

bahrain burial
Ancient burial mounds in Bahrain, photographed in 1956. From

The Zoroastrians in Persia used ossuaries, often stone boxes where the remains of loved ones would be interred after they had decomposed, in order to preserve burial space. Over time, these ossuaries evolved to become much more elaborate (see the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic).

Much of the following information about Woodland Cemetery can be found in a wonderful brochure created by Levi, which I would highly recommend! Woodland Cemetery was not established until 1879, but we have graves from many years prior to the opening of the cemetery. These older graves comes from St Paul’s Cemetery, which was originally located right on the church’s grounds. In 1849, it was determined that the cemetery and all of its contents should be moved outside of town limits to where the Western Fairgrounds are today. It is also interesting to note that a cemetery located in a church yard is more commonly referred to as a graveyard and that a cemetery not within a church’s yard cannot be a graveyard (all graveyards are cemeteries but not all cemeteries are graveyards). The movement of many of the graves was due to overcrowding within the downtown area of London (the desire to allocate space for the living rather than the dead), and sanitation issues. Having water for city inhabitants running through a graveyard would be damaging to the health of people and could cause dangerous outbreaks of disease. So it was decided that they would be moved far outside of town limits where St Paul’s had purchased land for this purpose. The cemetery continued to function much like the cemeteries of the time. It had family lots for purchase and a Potter’s field, for those unable to purchase lots themselves. However, within 30 years, the city’s expansion overcame the new cemetery and St Paul’s looked to the west end of the city to build their new cemetery. In 1879, they purchased the land where Woodland stands today, established their Victorian park-style cemetery, and moved all the graves from the Western Fairgrounds, which took six years to complete!

A streetcar on the Springbank Line c.1896. Woodland Cemetery is located on the right and the Thames River is on the left. Photo is from the London Room at London Public Library.

This all seems fairly ridiculous to us now. How could they keep moving a cemetery, filled with hundreds of bodies and gravestones to each new plot of land without missing any? They didn’t! Gravestones break in transit, particularly the tall, flat gravestones of the Victorian age, keys (the bottom part of the grave that goes into the ground and keeps the actual stone upright) were often taken and repurposed, leaving stones lying flat on the ground over the burial. Bodies were missed, stones misplaced, but it is still quite impressive that they moved so many without the technology and machinery we have today.

In the Victorian Era, mourning practices were extremely important. Queen Victoria herself had inspired a certain style for commoners in her realm to follow; wearing black, sombre gatherings, and the commissioning of detailed, personalized monuments for the dead gained popularity among the people of London, Ontario. The end of the American Civil War in the 1860s and the completion of the railroad in the late-nineteenth century allowed for more sturdy material to be brought in for building gravestones. Marble came in from quarries in Vermont, largely replacing the older sandstone gravestones as it was less likely to erode and break, and was more aesthetically pleasing.

This post is becoming a little bit long and I wanted to include more about the week we had so I will have to conclude the history of cemeteries another week. Stay tuned!

This week was much of the same, but the poor weather conditions prevented us from mortaring and gluing stones. So we had a couple of research days and did what we could at the cemetery, cleaning and using putty to seal multi-level monuments back into place. We also got to visit the Museum of Ontario Archeology on Wednesday, which was a great deal of fun! We spoke to the archeology summer campers and got to tell them all about tombstone archeology. The campers had a lot of really good questions and they were a great audience!

I came across an interesting article while researching cemeteries, so if you’re interested in reading up on pet burials, here is a short article on interesting cases of animals being given ritualistic burials.

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.




The Russian Flu Pandemic 1889-93

As Peter previously mentioned in Friday’s blog post, we discovered the gravestones of 3 young girls, Mary, Minnie, and Clara, last week. Initially, we thought they were orphans from the Protestant Orphan’s Home due to the small size and lackluster appearance of the markers, but soon discovered that they were in fact, sisters. Their cemetery plot had been purchased by their father, James Perkins. Given this information, and the short period of time in which they died (January-March 1891), we concluded they must have died from some kind of contagious disease.

MacKenzie suspected that they could have died from the Russian Flu, as the time of their deaths occurs shortly after the disease reached the big cities in Canada, including London. This lead me to research more on the Russian flu epidemic, particularly its presence and impact in Canada.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information about the Russian flu (even though it caused around one million deaths worldwide – in relation to today’s population, it would be around 420 million people suddenly dying), let alone the Russian flu in Canada. It reached major Canadian cities in early 1890, including Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and even London. The image below is a map compiled by a team of international scholars in the early 1890s, showing the spread of the flu across the globe.

This image from <> tracks the arrival and movement of the flu across the globe.

The Russian flu was not as detrimental as the later, and more famous, Spanish flu, but it is hypothesized that the Russian flu made the Spanish one following the First World War, much more dangerous. Based on the theory of ‘first antigenic sin’, it seems that the arrival of the Russian flu made survivors develop antibodies that would prove useless against the more evolved Spanish flu that occurred later.

It is difficult to track the progress of the Russian flu, as it is not as heavily studied as other influenza epidemics in North America. The articles that exist are heavily based on medical and statistical analyses (luckily I love statistics, so it has been enjoyable for me!), and can be difficult for historians to interpret.

It would be difficult to track the direct deaths from the epidemic as many, such as the Perkins sisters, could have perished due to complications. Based on their death records, two of the sisters died from respiratory infections that were likely caused by the flu. Furthermore, it is likely that Canadian newspapers were not eager to publish reports and outbreaks of the flu in their cities as it would discourage immigration, which was needed to help grow the nation’s population and economy.

This research on the Russian flu proved to be very interesting. I learned about something I had never heard of before, and had the pleasure of looking at plenty of statistical charts and maps!