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.
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).
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.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, in Egypt
Terracotta soldiers in Xi’an, China
An engraving of how the Mausoleum of Augustus appeared in 1575
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.
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!
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.
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.
Today was another exciting day here at Woodland. Walking tour being only five days away, we entered the final stretch of the project. We started our morning by promoting the walking tour. We went around the neighbourhood and distributed flyers about the walking tour. I hope these flyers intrigue people, and hopefully, they will join us this Saturday.
We would like to have as many people as possible on the tour! We are eager to share the stories of our so-called discovery (of the Scottish cemetery) and stories of others who are buried at Woodland. This tour focuses on the people who lived the confederation era (the mid-1800s to the late 1800s) for 2017 is the 150th anniversary of the confederation of Canada! Not many people know this – but London has a very rich local history and we would love to share these stories with as many people as possible. So if you are interested in coming, please spread the word to your friends and family.
In the afternoon, we continued cleaning and fixing the monuments. Later in the afternoon, we started putting the cleaned and repaired stones to the sandbox we created. This is the final (almost) stage of the Scottish Cemetery project and we were very excited to place the stones. We had to figure out the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing layout for the stones. It was difficult to reach a consensus, but in the end, we all agreed that we must place some on sideways for the stones to fit in the sandbox. You can get a sense of how it will look like in the end from the picture below.
We only got to maybe a quarter of the stones today, and we hope to finish as soon as possible so they are ready to be seen on the walking tour. This job, of course, cannot be done by ourselves. Most of the headstones are very – VERY – heavy. Without a backhoe, it would not be possible to move many of them. So I would like to thank Bruce and Will for helping us moving and placing the stones on sandbox!
Last but not least, I just want to say it once more, just so you don’t forget. Our walking tour is on June 24th (this Saturday!) at 1PM and 3PM. I can’t wait to meet you all!
Just over a week until we welcome visitors to Woodland Cemetery for our Canada 150 Walking Tour!
This morning we set up our GIANT promotional signs for the walking tour and the memorial trees. The first one took some time, but with teamwork and collaboration, we managed to put it together and stand it up near the front gate of the cemetery. The second one was much easier.
Our week was slow. Monday was hot, we worked on the limestone sandbox that will display the Scottish Cemetery stones, and we had visitors from St Andrew’s Parish come visit us in the afternoon! They were very interested in our work and we loved seeing them here, showing them our progress and discussing our future plans for the memorial!
We were absent from Woodland on Tuesday (due to our convocation at Western University). Wednesday was our most exciting day. We welcomed a group of children to our work site and told them all about our work. They even uncovered and cleaned a gravestone themselves! They were so wonderful to have here! We joined them on their Victoria Day Disaster Tour, where one of the children gave a wonderful summary of the event! Levi was of course also a fantastic guide and told us all about some of the people we have at Woodland who died in the disaster. It was very informative and interesting.
We have finally put together the script for the walking tour so we will be working tirelessly all next week in order to memorize the information for all of our visitors on June 24th! Please come out for a day full of London history: the every-men, the dramatic, and the scandalous. Hopefully it’ll be nice, but not too hot!
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.
Happy Monday! Hope you didn’t get any heat illness today – it was extremely hot! If you worried about us by any chance, do not worry. We made sure we were hydrated and we also got longer breaks. And we also took things little slower than usual.
In the morning, we continued working on our sandbox project. I am sure there is a more professional way of calling this stage of the project, but we are content with calling it “sandbox” so that’s how it will be referred to! You may recall that we got our limestone shale a few weeks back. The limestone shale is what sandbox will constitute of. Last Friday, we – with a tremendous help from Joey and Will – started building a border of the sandbox. We then proceeded to make a slope inside the box, in which the stones from the Scottish Cemetery will be placed on. We are creating a V-shaped slope, with a walking path in the middle.
The sandbox is sloped because it is the best way to preserve the headstones in the best condition possible. We wouldn’t want them to disappear into history once again. The limestone shale allows the water to run right through them, and the slope will help the water to run down from the stone. Essentially, the sloped limestone shale prevents a puddle to form under the stones or on the stones.
In the afternoon, we were visited by a few of the members from the St Andrew’s parish. This was an awaited visit, so we were quite excited about it. The Scottish Cemetery we discovered, after all, belonged to St Andrew’s! MacKenzie gave the tour of the Scottish Cemetery to the visitors. I think both MacKenzie and the visitors enjoyed the tour.
We also got to practice for our upcoming Canada 150 tour with different visitors. (Which, by the way, is on Saturday, June 24th. Mark your calendars!) We would like to thank these visitors, who very generously agreed on coming on our beta version of the tour. We found out that we had to memorize the information little better and practice little more. After all the research we’ve done, we just didn’t know which information to tell! I wanted to tell them everything but of course not every little detail needs to be told. Let’s just say that my brain was working faster than my mouth could keep up with. Now that we know what we have to and can improve on, we will practice, practice, and practice!
We are off tomorrow because four of us are attending our convocation! I have to say, we are pretty excited to graduate. Don’t worry. our Instagram will still be updated with a picture of an interesting monument. If you haven’t followed our Instagram already, please do follow it. (@woodlandcemeteryhistory) I promise you, you won’t regret it!
We completed the usual tasks: cleaning, looking for monuments under the surface, and researched. We are excited to confirm that the brochure for the walking tour is underway and we are slowly putting together all of the exciting information we want to share with our walking tour participants! You’ve already learned about the Scatcherds, Kingsmills, and Thomas Francis from earlier posts, but we have so much more to share with our visitors, so if you’re in the London area on June 24th, please stop by! We would love to show you everything we’ve been doing and learning for the past month!
Major event this week: we finally completed the first layer of limestone shale for the Scottish Cemetery display we will put in Section U. We received the shipment a while ago, but it has been a great deal of work getting all the stone in our pit, and smoothing it out across the lot.
My favourite day was probably Wednesday. We did research in the afternoon, Sunny and Peter went to Central Library, and MacKenzie and I spent our afternoon at Western Archives and in the Map and Data Centre at Western University (we were later joined by Sunny). The Map and Data Centre is amazing. We went through all of the centre’s maps on 1850-1880s London, and chose with maps we hope to use for the walking tour. The Map Librarian, Cheryl Woods, was ever so helpful and assisted us with questions we had and suggested ways for us to scan a map that we wanted to use (she even helped us scan it at the centre). Below is one of the many interesting maps we found showing London in the 1870s. The digitized version is available on the Map & Data Centre’s website.
“Bird’s Eye View of London,” from the Map & Data Centre at Western University
Also this week, we learned how to do basic repairs on stones. We cleaned the breaks, allowed them to dry, and applied a line of adhesive gel with a caulking gun. We then placed the second piece in line with the break, applied pressure, and made sure the break lined up so that the stone was aligned. We then had to clamp the stone so that there was no risk of slipping or the broken piece falling off. After it dried (about a day later), we fill in any cracks with a lime mortar. We all found the process very interesting and I think a few of us found it fun as well!
The four of us have our university graduation on Tuesday so hopefully we will have beautiful weather for that! We are also excited to welcome representatives from St Andrew’s Parish on Monday, and on Wednesday, we are hosting the mayor, and a group of children from WD Sutton! We will be very excited to welcome all of them to Woodland!
Good evening everyone, tonight I thought I’d provide you with a more in-depth account of one of the subjects of our Confederation Era Canada tour, Thomas Scatcherd and his family.
Thomas Scatcherd’s father, John, emigrated to Canada in 1820 and acquired a large tract of land in West Nissouri, to the northeast of London. A native of Yorkshire, England, John Scatcherd named his estate after his former community in England, Wyton. After marrying a neighbour and beginning a family, the Scatcherd’s began to develop significant industries in the region, including a woolen mill, tanner, and a lumber mill. In an act of kindness, Scatcherd hired mostly Irish workers in an era that often saw business owners write “No Irish need apply” on their “help wanted” signs. In addition to this, the Scatcherd family provided their Irish families with land on which to build homes. As the village continued to grow, other industries appeared in the area. Wagon makers, woodworkers, shoe makers, tailors, and even a hotel were opened in Wyton as the village swelled to a population of 200. Later on, a Methodist church was erected as well. In 1855, the Scatcherd’s refused to allow a railway station to be constructed in Wyton, a fatal decision for the village. Instead, a train station was constructed in Thorndale, three miles to the north, and that village began to grow at the expense of Wyton, which diminished until almost nothing of it remains today.
(Photo: Wyton on a Confederation Era map of London and the surrounding regions. To the northeast is the town of Thorndale, which today has a population of 13,000. A closer look at the picture reveals the numerous plots of land owned by several members of the Scatcherd family, demonstrating their influence in the area. Courtesy of Western Archives, Western University)
Thomas Scatcherd was born in Wyton in 1823, the eldest of twelve children. Educated in London and Toronto, he began to practice law in 1848, becoming the solicitor of London in 1849. In 1861, he was elected to represent the riding of Middlesex West, his fathers old seat, as a member of the Reform coalition, and was re-elected in 1863. His time with the Reform movement came to an end in 1864, when he broke ranks with the party over the issue of confederation. Scatcherd argued that the terms of the Quebec Resolutions, which laid out the framework for the Canadian constitution, were not in line with what had been agreed upon at the Reform convention in 1859. Instead, he believed that Canadian confederation was a ploy to construct the intercolonial railway, and to benefit Lower Canada at the at the expense of Upper Canada. Canada’s interests were better served, he believed, by the continued development of the Northwest Territories. Scatcherd died in office in 1876.
The story of Thomas Scatcherd and his family is revealing in several ways to us. The story of the doomed village of Wyton is an indicator of just how important the development of the railway was at the time across Ontario. Also, Thomas’ opposition to Canadian confederation teaches us that although the unification of Canada is something we celebrate in the modern era, it did not come without its struggles, controversies, and opposition. I would like to extend a note of thank you to Jennifer Grainger, whose work in Vanished Villages of Middlesex on the early beginnings of Wyton, used extensively in this blog post, allowed us to better understand the Scatcherd family’s early beginnings in Canada.
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.
(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.
(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.