by Catherine Gaskin, Julia Richards, and Margaret Schultz, students in Western University’s MA Public History Program
This house is, first and foremost, a home. For most of its life, it has been the long-term residence of families who lived and worked in London’s SoHo neighbourhood. The story begins years before the house was built, when an Irish man named John Evans arrived in Canada in the mid-1800s. By 1863, he was living in SoHo at the corner of Grey Street and William Street with his wife, Mary. Together, they had at least six children. Twenty years later, John Evans’s son Thomas was also living on William Street, three houses down from his parents. John Evans likely owned the land covering half of this city block, and gave his son a lot to build a house on when Thomas married around 1883. Thomas Evans would raise his family in this house, living there until 1905.
Nowadays, our noisy city is quieter than it used to be. The Evans family would have continually heard the sounds of the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), Michigan Central Railway (MCRR), and London Port Stanley Railway (LPSR), which surrounded SoHo on the north and east. Thomas Evans worked in records and accounting for the Grand Trunk Railway and the Michigan Central Railway. The freight depots he worked at were within walking distance of his house, which he built in a way that reflected his modest, yet livable wages.
The Evans house on William Street is an Ontario cottage, a style which was built all over Ontario from the 1820s on. Like many Ontario cottages, this house has a centre-hall plan and a decorative gable over the front door. This property also has a London Doorway. However, both in architectural style and doorway, the house is a model of simplicity. Unlike many Ontario cottages, this house has no decorative detailing on its gable. Its London Doorway is one of few that has no corbels or intricate details. The Evanses and the builders who designed their home were clearly aware of the architectural trends of their time, but scaled these trends down to fit their budget.
In 1905, the house was bought by a large and close-knit family who tell us a story of family dynamics and women’s lives in London in the first half of the twentieth century. Jessie Holmes, a widow, bought the house from Evans in 1905 and moved in with at least four of her grown, working children. At the time, widows often faced financial difficulty and moved from one house to another regularly. Jessie was lucky; perhaps her husband had left her money, or perhaps her children helped her enough that she could comfortably live in this house until her death around 1910. Her third son, Malcolm, would call this house home for the rest of his life. At first, he shared the house with his younger brothers George and William, George’s wife Maud, and three of his sisters, Susan, Effie, and Anna. George, Maud, William, and Effie would move on, but Susan and Anna stayed. The siblings lived together, Anna only leaving for a period in the 1920s, until Susan died in the late 1940s and Malcolm died in 1957.
They must have been fixtures in the neighbourhood. Malcolm Holmes would have walked to work at McClary’s Manufacturing, a producer of stoves and other metal goods which rebranded as General Steel Wares in 1927. Holmes was a foreman when he retired around his 80th birthday in 1954. Anna Holmes was a saleslady, while her sister Effie was a tailoress, at least until we lost track of her in 1914: she likely married and changed her name. There is never a profession listed for Susan Holmes. Likely, she filled the important role of taking care of household management and cooking for her working siblings, and this work is often unaccounted for in census data. While it may seem unusual for three siblings to live together without romantic partners for so long, the Holmeses remind us that in a world where money was tight and it was unusual for women to live alone, a sibling household was perfectly acceptable. The history of this house also gives us a unique insight into the lives of working women in SoHo. Because Anna and Susan Holmes never married, we don’t lose them in the records (as we see in the case of Effie, it is very difficult to track a woman if she marries and changes her name). Both Anna and Susan Holmes, as well as their mother, Jessie, give us a snapshot of the kinds of lives women lived in SoHo before 1950.
After Malcolm Holmes died in 1957, his estate was divided between his surviving siblings, Anna Holmes and Effie Macdonald. The house was sold to a construction worker named Joseph Manarin. Since then, except for a brief period in the 1970s, this house has been owned by SoHo residents for more than ten years at a time. Its owners and inhabitants always work in London industries and hold on to the house long enough to settle into the neighbourhood before they move on. This house is more than a house: it’s a home. It was built by and for people who were invested in London’s industries and is built in a style that is unique to London. It tells us about the everyday lives of families who worked close to home and stuck together. The SoHo neighbourhood has always been integral to London’s working-class history. This house is a piece of that puzzle, shining a light on the individual stories that make up London’s past.