Archives, alumni bring London’s past to page

Adela Talbot // Western NewsJennifer Grainger, MLIS’08, partnered with publisher Biblioasis – founded by Dan Wells, MA’97 (History) – in writing and curating From the Vault: A Photo-History of London, a book that features 1,000-plus black-and-white photographs drawn largely from the London Free Press Collection of Photographic Negatives at Western Archives.

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, then consider From the Vault: A Photo-­History of London a visual retelling of the Forest City’s past, recorded largely by photographers from The London Free Press and curated by a Western alumna.

From the Vault chronicles London’s growth to 1950, showing the progress of a modest town, perched precariously on a flood plain, to a city growing quickly enough to annex surrounding communities. Its wide-ranging collection – comprised of 1,000-plus black-and-white photographs drawn largely from the London Free Press Collection of Photographic Negatives at Western Archives – showcases London like never before, with striking images from the city’s sacrifices in war and church life, to couples doing the jitter-bug and the pageantry of royal visits.

Historian Jennifer Grainger, MLIS’08, partnered with publisher Biblioasis – founded by Dan Wells, MA’97 (History) – to help curate the collection and provide chapter introductions and captions to complement the wide array of photographs that tell a tale of a city’s progress.

“I’ve always been interested in the history of wherever I happen to be living. I’ve always enjoyed history and been a bit of a history buff. I’ve always been interested in the history of London,” said Grainger, who has lived in London since 1984 and is the past president of the London and Middlesex Historical Society.

Well known in local history circles, Grainger was approached by Biblioasis to partner on the London installment of its From the Vault series. Her previous publications include Vanished Villages of Elgin, Vanished Villages of Middlesex and Early London 1826-1914: A Photographic History from the Orr Collection.

She combed through the negatives collection housed at Western Archives, looking for images representative of London, its people, events and places throughout the years. The photographs are organized in themed chapters with headings such as architecture; business; hospitals and health care; industry; military; sports and leisure; transportation and even Western University.

“When you look at the Free Press archives, you’re basically looking at the history of southwestern Ontario. They would send their photographers out to any event, whether it was a new business opening, or a country fair, or a plowing match. I had great fun and enjoyed looking through the negatives. They are a wonderful treasure trove of our history; they are a wonderful record of our city’s past that show general progress of a city that grew very quickly,” Grainger said.

One thing Londoners today might be surprised to find, while perusing the photos in the book, is the city used to have an electric street car system that ran all the way to Byron and Springbank Park.

“It’s interesting how that fits in with the discussion we are having now about rapid transit and what kinds of public transportation we want to have today,” Grainger noted.

“You might almost say it might have been a good idea if we kept it because it was clean energy and it might have got a few people out of their cars. They got rid of it in 1940-41 because more people were buying automobiles and impeding progress; it made it harder to drive around the city. Now it just makes for some quaint and interesting pictures of city streets with little electric street cars going along.”

Flipping the pages, Grainger laments the loss of iconic architecture. As the vice-president of the London branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, she hopes others take note of what the city has lost over the years, as well.

“When you look at the architectural chapter, there are a lot of imposing and interesting buildings that have disappeared. The only way we can look at them now is by looking at photos in a book,” she said.

“It should make people think. How many more of our grand public buildings do we want to lose in the future? What do we want our city streets to look like in terms of architecture? When we look at the past, we see how much we’ve lost, but we need to look to the future, as well. I hope people will think about that.”

The photographs curated and explained by Grainger show not only the public face of the city, but also aspects of life behind the scenes, the everyday experiences of ordinary Londoners. They show the evolution of London from its earliest days through to the end of the l940s, depicting its vibrant downtown and distinct neighbourhoods, its evolving businesses and industries, its celebrations and special events, and the challenges and tragedies that have influenced the city’s development,” Western Archivist Robin Keirstead wrote in one of the book’s forewords.

From the Vault: A Photo-­History of London, a visual archive of the Forest City’s past, recorded by photographers from The London Free Press and curated by a Western alumna, is available online, in bookstores and from Biblioasis.