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The Worst of Times...
Disasters in London

by Christopher Doty

victoria steamship victimsSome were caused by natural forces beyond anyone's control. Others were cause by human negligence. At best, they only caused property damage. At worst, they cost Londoners their lives.

While not intended as a complete list of every fire, flood and fatality, what follows are disasters that claimed a significant number of lives and/or created major social upheaval for Londoners.

July to October 1832 - Cholera Epidemic
18 lives lost (estimated)

With a mortality rate of ten per cent, the first major epidemic to hit Upper Canada devastated the fledgling village of London. The cause of the disease was unknown at the time (it was spread through dirty water) and quarantines were poorly enforced. Most residents fled to rural areas, leaving London a virtual ghost town. Other serious outbreaks of cholera occurred in 1849 and 1854.

April 13, 1845 - The Great London Fire
No lives lost

Following a serious downtown fire on October 8, 1844 the town's largest property owner paid for London's first fire engine. Six months later it was one of the first things that burned during the worst conflagration in London's history. About a fifth of the community was destroyed. As a result, more money was fueled into the fire department and replacement buildings were built of brick.

July to October 1847 - Typhus Fever Epidemic
unknown number of lives lost

Typhus fever, a deadly disease carried by body lice, was brought to Canada in the spring of 1847 by European immigrants. By July 23rd every available doctor in London was working at two unofficial hospitals for typhus patients. Town officials were steadfast in denying the disease was out of control, to the extent that an accurate count of the dead is impossible, though it was certainly in the hundreds. A much milder outbreak occurred in 1866.

February 16, 1856 - Anderson Foundry Explosion
5 lives lost

John Murray Anderson is remembered for two things: for being the first mayor of the city of London and for lending his name to its first major industrial accident when the boiler at his foundry blew up. Shrapnel from the blast went whipping through the air for several yards, mowing down everything - and everyone - in its path. The badly shattered bodies of five men - one of them Anderson's own brother - were later pulled from the wreckage of the downtown building.

February 28, 1874 - The Komoka Train Fire
8 lives lost

Although technically not a London disaster, this Great Western passenger train left this city bound for Sarnia. It was halfway to the village of Komoka when a fire broke out in the last car. Because an emergency bell cord was not connected, the train's engineer could not be notified of the blaze. With the car's front and rear doors open, the moving train fanned the flames, forcing some 50 passengers to jump from the car to avoid incineration. The dead included a baby which perished along with its mother.

May 24, 1881 - The Victoria Steamship Disaster
182 lives lost (estimated)

During a busy holiday weekend the dangerously overloaded stern wheeler Victoria, carrying 650 passengers, collapsed and overturned in the Thames River. Lax safety regulations and shoddy construction were to blame. It was the greatest loss of life in London's history.
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July 12, 1883 - The Deluge of London West
17 lives lost

On the night of July 11th a severe electrical storm north of London hit with such ferocity that it produced a wave of water that jumped the banks of the Thames River just after midnight and slammed into London West, toppling homes off their foundations and drowning people in their beds. It remains London's worst natural disaster.

February 18, 1884 - Hobbs Hardware Explosion
3 lives lost
A small fire at this Richmond Street business turned into a catastrophe when the flames ignited a supply of gun powder. The entire building was leveled in the blast.

January 3, 1898 - City Hall Collapse
23 lives lost

London's reputation for building cheap municipal buildings came crashing down - literally - during an election night rally. The floor in the city's hall's second floor auditorium caved in, dumping hundreds of revelers - and a heavy iron safe - on to the floor below. The removal of a supporting wall the year before was blamed. Despite public outcry, little was done to remedy the city's lax enforcement of building codes.

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January 6, 1904 - Stirling Brothers Shoe Factory Fire
5 lives lost

While fighting a stubborn blaze at the north east corner of York and Clarence Streets, the south wall of the building collapsed on Fire Chief John Roe and four fireman. Roe was pulled from the rubble alive and carried to the foyer of nearby hotel where he died from his injuries.

July 16, 1907 - Reid's Crystal Hall Collapse
7 lives lost

During renovations to this Dundas Street building, windows were cut into an east wall and its centre section removed. Despite objections from the building's owner and the contractor, the lease holder assured that iron pillars would soon be in place to hold the weight of all four floors. He was wrong. The east wall gave way, sending tons of brick and timber cascading on to Dundas Street. Rescuers clawed frantically through the rubble in search of survivors, but not before the life had been crushed out of seven Londoners.

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August 18, 1908 - Westman's Hardware Fire
2 lives lost

As Fire Chief Lawrence Clark and two of his men were pulling a hose inside this burning building the floor gave way, dumping them into the basement. As they tried to climb out, the remaining floor above them broke up, sending tons of heavy appliances raining down on them. Only one man, Fireman Cole, made it out alive.

October 5, 1918 - Acetylene Plant Blast
1 life lost

The Rectory Street gasification factory was completely destroyed by an early morning explosion that sent concrete blocks flying for 100 feet and blew in the doors and windows of neighbouring homes and businesses. Miraculously, only one man, Stephen Snider, the plant's manager, was killed.

1918 to 1919 - Spanish Influenza Epidemic
unknown number of lives lost

One of the world's worst pandemics was born on the World War I battlefields of Europe and was spread to North America by returning soldiers. In London, theatres, libraries and other public gathering places were closed and citizens began wearing cloth breathing masks to fend off the deadly germs. As one historian noted, "It was like trying to keep dust out with chicken wire."

March 3, 1934 - Hunts Flour Mill Fire
2 lives lost
While battling a fifth floor blaze an explosion rocked this east London industry, sending firefighters scrambling for their lives. Six men sustained serious injuries but a worse fate fell on District Chief Stanley Scruby and Lieutenant Arthur Hartop who were unable to escape from the building in time. Their bodies were later recovered from the rubble and buried side by side at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

April 26, 1937 - The Great London Flood
5 lives lost

On the weekend of April 24-25, South Western Ontario was hit by torrential rains. A sodden watershed created total runoff into the Thames River, producing the highest water levels ever recorded. In London one man drowned while rescuing stranded families. Outside of Beachville a trained derailed, killing three men. A doctor, on his way to the wreck, was drowned when his car was swept off the road into the river. A subsequent flood in 1947 led to the creation of the Upper Thames Conservation Authority and the construction of Fanshawe Dam.

August 13, 1950 - Boat Capsizes
4 lives lost

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon a 17-foot launch flipped over while making a turn just above the old dam at Springbank Park. Of the nine passengers on board, only five survived. One of the dead was Robert W. Jenkins who had moved to London from a coastal town in Newfoundland because his mother had a premonition her son would drown. Jenkins' fiancé, Beatrice Bannister, survived the sinking.

June 17, 1958 - Gas Explosion
no lives lost

A gas leak prompted an explosion and fire at a house on Lorne Avenue in east London. Five people, including a mother carrying her baby, managed to scramble to safety before the blast and fire collapsed the sides of the building. The heat from the blaze was so intense that a news photographer working across the street suffered second degree burns to his face.

November 14, 1960 - The Richmond Block Fire
1 life lost

One of the worst downtown fires began when flames from a restaurant fire were fed by a leaking gas line. During the three-alarm blaze fire captain David Moffitt collapsed. He succumbed to a heart attack while being rushed to the hospital. Six businesses just south of Dundas Street were destroyed at an estimated loss of more than a million dollars.

January to February 1971 - Blizzard
no lives lost

It struck on January 26th and didn't stop for six days. By the end of it, Western Ontario was buried under two feet of snow, drifts as high as twelve feet blocked county roads and London's mayor, Herb McClure, declared a state of emergency. Soldiers in armed personnel carriers helped the fire department respond to emergency calls on show clogged roads. Even Ontario Premier John Robarts was left stranded at a service centre near Ingersoll. A similar snow storm struck the region seven years later.

August 7, 1973 - Oxford Park Gas Explosions
no lives lost

While doing repair work on this west London neighbourhood a backhoe operator accidentally destroyed a gas line regulator. The increased pressure turned furnaces and gas stoves in neighbouring homes into bombs. Ten houses exploded and burned while an additional 40 were damaged. Miraculously, there were no fatalities.

March 3, 1976 - Ice Storm
no lives lost

A storm of freezing rain left a thick coat of ice on the London area. Its weight toppled trees and took out power and phone lines, leaving many residents in the dark for days.

September 2, 1984 - South London Tornado
no lives lost

In the late afternoon the skies over South London turned a curious shade of green while winds whipped the water in backyard pools into white caps and overturned patio furniture. That evening a tornado touched down in the White Oaks area, injuring about 30 people as flying debris ripped through their houses. More than 600 homes and businesses were damaged.

July 28, 1989 - House Fire
6 lives lost

Careless smoking was ruled to be the probably cause of this east London house fire at the corner of Margaret and Ethel streets. At an inquest, London's fire chief testified the victims would have been saved if there had been at least one working smoke detector in the building.