Beautiful Victoria Park, downtown London's playground. What a long history it has. What changes it's seen. What events it's witnessed.
|Card printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons, nd.
It started, of course, as London's Military Reserve. But when the British regimental occupation officially ended in 1869, the young city was left with a hole in its centre. Instead of filling it, the City Hall of the day sensibly left it as a playground. Governor General The Earl of Dufferin christened it Victoria Park while visiting in August 1874.
In 1878, a landscape gardener from the U.S. named Miller* published his proposed layout of the park. Probably soon afterward, formal landscaping began. In 1879, one of the early park's loveliest features was added: a three-tiered, 17-ft. high fountain created by Paul Peel's father, John R. Peel. Its top featured a statue of Cupid.
|A 1908 postcard (Valentine & Sons) features the Victoria Park fountain on the left. Note horse and buggy driving through at right. The park was open to vehicles until 1951.
A pity about that fountain. In about 1939, it was replaced by the boring circular piece below:
|Victor Aziz, nd.
In 1964, the entire fountain was demolished. Pity.
But there's always been lots of other things to look at in the park. Often they were military. In 1860, through the efforts of Major James Shanly, two Russian guns captured in Crimea arrived in London by the Grand Trunk Railway. Years later, they were installed in Victoria Park where they remain.
|Valentine & Sons postcard ca. 1917.
|Cenotaph. Victor Aziz, London, nd.
Portions of the park were used for sporting events, even before it was a park. An 1867 baseball game took place between members of the Forest City Base Ball Club on the Cricket Square, the southern portion of what's now the park. The afternoon game was played in the presence of a large number of spectators.
But there was a reason it was called the Cricket Square; it was often used for that game. On September 8-9, 1872, several thousand people, many arriving by train, attended a match between the Gentlemen Eleven Cricketeers of England and 22 selected Ontario players. While the day was proclaimed a holiday so working people could see the match, a 12-ft. fence was built around the field to prevent people seeing it for free. Meanies.
The park was used for all kinds of outdoor events besides sports. In 1882, 7,000 people came out to see a demonstration of electric lights hanging from poles. That crowd would be amazed by the Holiday Season light display held every year since 1958.
And what a convenient place to meet celebrities! More than 5,000 people came out to honour Londoner George "Mooney" Gibson, catcher of the 1909 world champion Pittsburgh baseball team, when he came home that October.
Not to mention Royalty. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, was greeted in the park by 20,000 Londoners when he visited in October 1919. His niece, Queen Elizabeth II, was greeted by another large crowd when she visited us on June 28, 1973.
In recent years the park has hosted various festivals and concerts. Home County was first held in the park in 1974, Rib Fest in 1987, and Sunfest in 1995. Everyone from the Royal Canadian Big Band Festival to April Wine have played the bandstand.
The park being a central part of the city, it was surrounded by magnificent buildings. One was London Life, now Canada Life, built in the Beaux-Arts style on the south side in 1928.
|The Post Card Greeting Co. Ltd., Toronto, ca. 1932.
Many grand homes surrounded the park on the north and east sides, since wealthy people liked to be in the heart of things. Mooney Gibson had a nice place at 252 Central on the north side. The west side was - and still is - dominated by St. Peter's.
In later years, homes on the east side were demolished to build our 1971 City Hall and London's failed attempt at a civic square to the north. Centennial Hall, a pathetic mid-century stab at combining a concert hall with an event space, is just to the north of that. George Mooney's home on the north side was torn down by Farhi Holdings Corp. in about 2004, despite its importance as part of the heritage streetscape on the north side.
|Central Avenue, with hole where the Gibson house was located.
For years now Londoners have debated the future of the park's periphery. Including me. We seem to be split into two armed camps:
First, there are the people who think development anywhere is better than more suburban sprawl onto farmland. It will be wonderful to have people living downtown. The park will be frequented more because there will be lots of people living nearby. And we need housing badly.
Second, there are the people who think the look of the park will be spoiled. Tall buildings will block the sun. Developers, today's meanies, don't care if Londoners live in a concrete jungle. City Hall does whatever the developers want.
It occurs to me that both sides may be right. We do need housing downtown but the surface parking lots are the best place to build. Even the city knows this now. Victoria Park could have been left alone, its remaining heritage left untouched.
But for better or worse, the Victoria Park Secondary Plan is now in effect. Another chapter in Victoria Park's history is about to begin. When future generations of Londoners visit their downtown park, will they thank us? Or blame us?
Building heights allowed under the revised January 2024 version of the Victoria Park Secondary Plan:
- Minimum of three storeys, maximum of 35 storeys south of Dufferin Avenue.
- Minimum of two storeys, maximum of 30 storeys on the city hall property and west side of park near Kent Street.
- Maximum of 25 storeys on select parcels to the east and west sides of the park.
- Minimum of two storeys, maximum of 16 storeys on the park’s northwest corner, at Richmond Street and Central Avenue.
- Maximum of 17 storeys at the northeast corner of Wolfe and Wellington streets.