Giving SoHo’s history new life

October 28, 2021

Group of public history students, outside of Lawson Hall, Western University

From left, MA in Public History students Avi Shaver, Emily Clink, and Keely Shaw, and professor, Michelle Hamilton.

Story and photo by Rob Rombouts

The SoHo neighbourhood – the area south of Horton – has been a distinct neighbourhood in London since the 1840s, and is home to the Old Victoria Hospital grounds. It will soon be home to mixed-income housing, constructed by the Vision SoHo Alliance. As part of the restoration project, the Alliance has partnered with Western University’s master’s program in Public History to research and highlight the history of the neighbourhood.

Two buildings will be restored – the Health Services Building, which was home to the medical school from 1921 to 1965, and the War Memorial Children’s Hospital, which opened in the 1920s and was the forerunner of the London Children’s Hospital – and five new buildings will be built.

“We recognized from the start that this land is important to many Londoners, people were born, treated and died in these hospitals. There is a huge personal connection that a lot of Londoners have for this piece of land,” said Julie Ryan, Community Engagement Coordinator of Indwell, a member organization of the Alliance.

The students in the 2021/22 MA Public History cohort will conduct archival research about the buildings and neighbourhood, and will collect stories from community members, including former doctors, nurses, and patients, as well as those who lived in the area. Student in next year’s program will prepare the material for the location, including text panels, photographs, as well as audio clips from oral history interviews, to create a multi-dimensional approach for the audience. The project is intended to highlight the history of the buildings and create a sense of community for those who will use the space.

“There are things we don’t know about the buildings and the people who worked in the buildings,” said Michelle Hamilton, a professor in the Public History program. “Oral histories will help us to get to those.”

“Everybody loves to know the history of where they’re at,” said Ryan “The tenants will have a sense of pride of being in this place that has been so important in London’s history.”

The SoHo neighbourhood, Hamilton said “was and is one the most diverse areas of London.” Home to manufacturing, and close to downtown, the neighbourhood was working class, and made up of many ethnic populations, including African-American, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish and Syrian communities. The Alliance is also interested in highlighting the Indigenous presence in the neighbourhood, to give greater depth to the history beyond land recognition.

“It’s really important to do a project that speaks to working-class history,” said Keely Shaw, one of the students working on the project. “The project will give a sense of place and strengthen the connection to the community.”
The project will provide valuable experiential learning experience for the students, said Hamilton.

“What this project does, it’s more than just this idea that this used to be a hospital or a medical school – the stories that will be uncovered by the students will really bring home how important this space was,” said Ryan.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to get to know a part of London that is historically overlooked,” said Emily Clink, a student working on the project. “To have the opportunity to rectify a trend and to use research skills, it feels like righting a wrong to bring these voices into the present.”

“History teaches you how to care about people and is a way to say thank you to people who aren’t there anymore,” said Avi Shaver, an MA student. “The buildings aren’t there, and the people aren’t there but we are still recognizing them.”

Thinking about the history of the neighbourhood, “feels you with a sense of wonder when you consider the people who inhabited the same place you are, years ago, and the lives they led,” said Ryan. “It gives you perspective on your own life.”

The project team is seeking doctors, nurses, staff, medical students of the hospital and medical school, and any community member of SoHo that live(d) or works(ed) in SoHo or whose family has lived or worked there in the past. If you want to know more, or wish to be interviewed, contact Michelle Hamilton at, 519-661-2111 ext. 84973, or @westernupubhist.