History students find ‘lost’ cemetery stones

Steven Anderson // Western UniversityWestern students working on a Canada150 project at Woodland Cemetery in London have discovered 130 gravestones that had been all but lost to history. Pictured are, from left, Piotr Dobrzynski, Alyssa Szilagyi, MacKenzie Brash and Sunny Kim.

Woodland Cemetery manager Paul Culliton had expected it would take his summer employees weeks to find, unearth and restore a few headstones that had been lost to time. Instead, within days of arriving on the job, a team of five Western students had discovered more than 60 monuments, and have since found about 70 more.

In what’s been described as one of the most significant re-discoveries in city history, students are now preparing full profiles of the Confederation-era Londoners whose markers had sunk almost a metre below the surface in the half-century since they had been placed there and been all but forgotten.

“We had known there were several stones that had been moved to Woodland from St. James cemetery, where St. Andrew Memorial Church (in London) is today,” said project lead Levi Hord. “We knew the remains had been moved to a vault but there was no record of exactly where the stones were, or how many.”

Culliton said the stones from St. James had been moved to Woodland in 1955 and their location in an east strip of the 40-hectare cemetery had likely been intended as a temporary site until they could be re-placed.

Over the years, though, the heavy stones sank into the earth and there appeared to be little documentation they had ever existed.

With a Summer Jobs Canada grant designated to promote Canada’s sesquicentennial, Culliton hired five Western students to conduct a search: Hord, from the School School for Advanced Studies in the Arts & Humanities; Piotr Dobrzynski, graduating with a degree in International Relations; Alyssa Szilagyi, returning to Western for graduate studies in History; Sunny Kim, returning to Western for graduate studies in History; and History graduate MacKenzie Brash.

“We thought we’d poke around in the dirt and find one or two (stones) and instead we found a cemetery’s worth,” said Culliton, a history buff.

The first stone they found was covered, except for the smallest fraction, by grass and moss. When they began to unearth its corners, they found dozens of others lying side-by-side.

“Their work is not only a tribute to scores of people once forgotten by time, it’s an important contribution to the public history of London,” Culliton said.

“That’s the biggest dream as a history student – to rebuild a history that was lost,” Brash said.

Dobrzynsiki said it’s appropriate the discovery is a result of a Canada 150 grant because most of the stones date to the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. “They are part of the generation that built this country.”

The students have a microfilm copy of cemetery records that show as many as 145 stones were moved from the St. James Cemetery.

Woodland and Western History have a long-standing relationship, with students having uncovered and restored other monuments in previous years as well as developing profiles of some of the figures who have helped shape London.

Szilagyi said history studies often entail scouring through books and contemporary records, but Western’s approach is more hands-on: “It’s just amazing we’re able to uncover something we would ordinarily just read about.”

The first stone they uncovered is also one of the largest: a memorial to Agnes (who died in 1847) and Sarah Glen (who died in 1860). Others pay tribute to wives, fathers and children. Many are inscribed with symbols: hands clasped in prayer, Masonic tools and weeping willow trees.

Other stones that are just beginning to emerge offer poignant fragments of lives lived: There is a monument to the memory of William Henry Keeler, a McGill College medical student who drowned along with three classmates during a boat trip on Lake Champlain in 1885. There is a marker from the comrades of Joseph Stone, of His Majesty’s 53rd Regiment, who died May 17, 1867.

Since the project began, and word has spread about their discovery, historians and archivists – and even friends of descendants – have dropped by the site to offer information about the people the monuments commemorate.

“It’s interesting for us to uncover just regular people who would have experienced the political climate of the time” Szilagyi said. “We are saving the memory of these people who were sort of lost to history.”

The sandstone markers are delicate enough the students must clean them only with a biodegradable soap solution and toothbrushes.

A student mentor in monument conservation will then guide them through the careful process of restoring the broken ones with fibreglass rods and epoxy.

The stones will be emplaced in the same area of the cemetery, slightly tilted so that rain and snow can drain into a “sandbox” that will also help protect them from disappearing again into the ground.

As part of their work this summer, they will also be designing a cemetery walking tour that includes these stones and the monuments to other influential Londoners through history.