Victoria Park – History

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Victoria Park covers 18 + acres in the northeast part of downtown London. This area represents a portion of the original site of the 32nd British Regiment Garrison and Cricket Grounds. In 1874, this parcel of land was gifted to the City of London by an Order in Council as an Imperial Land Grant.
The park was initially developed and designed for “passive” recreational activities. There are seven significant periods representing the history of Victoria Park.

(1) PREHISTORIC AND HISTORIC NATIVE: 950 B.C. – 1800 A.D.

(2) PRE-MILITARY NINETEENTH C. SETTLEMENT: 1793 – 1837 A.D.

Following the 1837 Rebellion Victoria Park was transferred from East Middlesex Agricultural Society to the Military Exchange. There are confirmed archeological remains although none relate to Euro-Canadian presence prior to the Military Garrison.

(3) BRITISH GARRISON: 1838 – 1853 A.D.

The British Garrison occupied Victoria Park during the initial occupation to withdrawal of troops. Fifteen acres of Victoria Park formed the southwest portion of the 73 acre military reserve. In 1839 the Infantry Barracks (Huts for Do) were built and maps suggest that there were no buildings on this site prior to the building of the framed barracks.

During this time, extensive military construction and occupation was occurring. By far the most substantial and significant archeological remains in Victoria Park relate to the Framed Infantry Barracks following the reunion of 1837.

300 foot long Soldiers barracks and 275 foot long Officers Barracks, each being two stories were built during this time. The location was on the ten acres of the northern most two/thirds of the property. While the infantry barracks were built, a garrison bell, imported from India could soon be heard tolling the hours over the countryside.

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(4) INTER MILITARY INTERVAL: 1858 – 1861 A.D.

The withdrawal of military troops to Europe in 1853 in anticipation of the Crimean War found the barracks empty until the return of troops in 1861. Records indicate that the framed barracks were used in 1855 as a refugee camp for 700 ex-slaves from the United States. This represents the significant contribution the City of London played in the Underground Railway.

(5) BRITISH GARRISON: 1861 – 1869 A.D.

The United States Civil War unrest led to the transfer of 10,000 Imperial Troops to Canada where 2,100 landed in the London Garrison. At this time, documentation provides additions of construction such as drains and cess pools. During 1863 – 1864, a separate compound for infant schools, library, school mistress and quarters was constructed. Although later plans suggest they were not built. At this time, however, there is evidence of a drill ground and cricket field on the premises.

(6) POST MILITARY INTERVAL: 1869 – 1877 A.D.

In 1871, a double row of maple trees were planted on the old drill ground and cricket field and transposed to a riding promenade. Single trees of this planting are still evident in the park today.

Of all the British regiments stationed in London, the Royal Scots regiment under its commander Col. George A. Weatherall made a particular impression. Instead of keeping disorderly soldiers confined to the barracks, Weatherall organized them to remove the huge stumps which abounded in the town’s roadways. Wellington Street (north of Dundas) and the Garrison grounds were cleared in the latter instance forming a parade square. The stumps formed a fence around the garrison property.

In 1873, the framed barrack was burned down. On August 27, 1874, Governor-General the Earl of Dufferin dedicated Victoria Park, and the services of the Gardener who prepared the grounds for the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia were secured to lay out its fifteen and half acres. The plan was developed by William Miller, who was Head Gardener of Fairmont Park in Philadelphia.

The request for the naming of the park after Queen Victoria was confirmed in 1874. The Park was first developed and designed at this time for “passive” recreational activities.

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(7) VICTORIA PARK: 1878 – PRESENT

April 5, 1994, the L.A.C.A.C. (London Advisory Committee on Heritage) and the Parks and Recreation department began to investigate a conservation strategy for Victoria Park ensuring historic design and integrity is preserved.

In 1995 the “Endowment for Heritage Fund” was initiated, where the first requirement was to collect and compile an illustrated history of the park development.

Terms of Reference:
• Collect, assemble and organize data documenting the chronological evolution of the park, its elements and its context.
• Develop current inventory and assessment of conditions of elements (trees, features, structures, paths, signage, etc.)
• Initiate inventory of parks, users, programming and uses.
• Develop a bibliographic source list identifying the recorded and published materials – including records mapping and photographs pertaining to the park.

The foremost archeological concern is the northern two thirds of the property which consists of all land north of the pathway that contains the Boer War monument.

To date the park has been idealized as a pleasure ground, a venue for horticultural and artistic expression, a recreational facility and more recently, a civic space for special events.

The Boer War Memorial was unveiled in 1912 and the Cenotaph was erected in 1934. The World War Two Sherman Tank, “Holy Roller” was dedicated in 1950 to the First Hussars.

The cannon were used at the siege of Sebastopol and were brought to this country after the capture of that city by the British in 1855. Sir John Carling was instrumental in procuring these three pieces for this city. One gun is a British piece. The other two are Russian. The tablet was erected by The London and Middlesex Historical Society, 1907. ~ Restored 1987 ~

The yearly tradition of ice skating in Victoria Park dates back to 1913 when the first lighted, outdoor skating rink was constructed.

The first Kiwanis Bandshell was erected in 1950 and the newly reconstructed Bandshell reopened in December 1990.

The Kiwanis Memorial Monument was dedicated in December 1994. It is located just north of the Bandshell and is the Women’s Memorial. The Memorial was sculpted from two black granite slabs by U.W.O. art student Leigh Rainey.

At one point, there was an illuminated fountain and lily pond located within Victoria Park. The installation of the illuminated fountain dates back to 1939. However, information indicates that it caused many traffic jams and may be one of the reasons it was removed.

LAND DEGRADATION

Less than fifty percent of Victoria Park is covered with mature or older trees. Those trees remaining, are suffering the effects of soil compaction, pests and disease and inadequate moisture.

Fifty percent of the trees found in Victoria Park are native to this geographic location and the other existing fifty percent are classified as exotic. Of those exotic, sixty percent are identified as Norway Maples. Although the range is five to 125 years of age for the trees in Victoria Park, it is difficult to determine their exact age as park usage increases growth rates in trees due to stress. Presently there is a moratorium on planting, pending the outcome of the Master Plan for Victoria Park. There is also no fertilizing program at the present time.

Victoria Park hosts nineteen show beds with an estimated 8,000 annuals planted each year in addition to the bulbs and seasonal plants. There is an aggressive turf management program in place at the moment.

The third phase of the renovations and improvements to the Park entrances began in September 2002. This includes the replacement of old paths and concrete matching the main walkway. Water lines and electrical systems are being extended and installed under new paths. A new irrigation system is also underway. Archeologists are on site throughout the completion of these renovations (which is expected in the Spring of 2003) to complete the inventory of the British Garrison artifacts.