Uncovering Lost History at Woodland Cemetery

It is my third summer working as the historian and archivist at Woodland Cemetery here in London, and if you think (as I once did) that archival research might get a bit old (pun intended) after a while, you’d be wrong.

I started working here because of SASAH – mine was the first cohort ever assigned a “Gravestone Project” by Prof. de Looze, who had wandered the old sections of the cemetery photographing gravestones from the late 19th century. After doing research on the Boyd family, our program caught the attention of Woodland’s manager Paul Culliton, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been working at Woodland ever since using the archival research skills I learned through the first year SASAH course.

While there have been some definite highlights in my time here – putting together the Victoria Day Disaster memorial tour, researching WWI soldiers memorialized on our grounds and creating a TV documentary, paying homage to the late actress Annie Pixley through a mini-doc, and teaching school kids about Victorian mourning customs – I’d have to say that this summer is shaping up to be the most exciting one yet.

I’m working with 4 other Western students this summer, and we recently made a remarkable discovery: buried at the back of Woodland’s oldest section, just along the fence line, are approximately 150 gravestones that were moved here from an old Scottish/Presbyterian cemetery that used to be in downtown London. Why was this a major discovery? Because, before a week ago, all of these stones were buried completely underground. While training for work in the monument restoration program, the students decided to uncover their first monument (of which only a tiny sliver was peeking out of the grass) in that section as practice. Imagine their surprise when they peeled back the grass to find a row of 50 buried beside it!

Eventually, through names and birth places, we were able to trace these stones back to St. Andrews churchyard, from which both graves and tombstones were moved out to Woodland in 1955 when vandalism became a problem. Unfortunately, at the time the cemetery was not able to remount the stones, and over the years the weight of them and the weather conditions caused them to sink into the earth and become covered over. For decades they remained buried in the back corner of our cemetery, inaccessible to everyone who may have wanted to visit them, a lost part of our local narrative.

Since we uncovered the stones, we’ve commenced research on some of the people they commemorate, many of them Scottish immigrants who played a hand in the building of our city in the time of Confederation. We also plan to remount the monuments in the coming weeks so that they’ll remain above ground for future generations to learn from and enjoy. I can only imagine what the rest of the summer holds.

If you want to follow along as we continue to uncover history here at Woodland, you can read our daily blog: https://woodlandcemeteryhistory.wordpress.com/.

And to any incoming SASAH students, I look forward to working with you on your own gravestone projects in the fall (they may well include some of these new finds)!

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