Historic mystery at heart of dispute over Woodfield property

A derelict and shabby-looking home on Dufferin Avenue is at the heart of a dispute between a developer and a community group. While the former wants to demolish it, the latter claims it's one of London's earliest military buildings and the cradle of the city's labour movement.

Community group claims building has ties to London's early military and labour history

This derelict home at Fitzgerald's Corner in London's Woodfield neighbourhood is a historic mystery as a developer and community group clash over its future. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

A developer is at odds with a community group over the future of a property in London's historic Woodfield neighbourhood, one that could potentially date all the way back to the city's early military roots. 

At the heart of the dispute is a dilapidated and shabby-looking one-storey building that might have been a former military prison that housed delinquent British soldiers in the 1840s, when modern day Victoria Park was a British fort and garrison. 

London-based Lansink Appraisals and Consulting has applied to demolish the former rental property in order to make way for a proposed three-storey apartment building parceled into 12 "micro-units".

The apartments would be 400-square-feet and geared towards low income renters.
A developer has proposed a three-storey, 12-unit apartment building on Dufferin Avenue near Maitland that has been designed to be in keeping with the historic character of the neighbourhood. (Ben Lansink/Lansink Real Estate Appraisals)

However, the Woodfield Community Association opposes the application, saying the building needs to be preserved because of its historic significance. 

'Really historical house'

"We think it's a really historical house," Gil Warren, the chair of the Woodfield Heritage Committee said. "It involves both the labour movement in London in the 1890s and it was a British barracks in Victoria Park in 1840."

Warren said research by the Woodfield Community Association has uncovered documents that show the building once served as a prison building at the former 70-acre British military fort and garrison that once stood on the grounds of current-day Victoria Park.

Warren said there are a number of clues on the building's exterior that suggest it may be a British military barracks from the Georgian period.  
Gil Warren, the chair of the Woodfield Historical Society, believes a derelict building that a developer wants to knock down could be one of the oldest buildings in London. He shows us some of the clues that give away the building's vintage. 1:43

Documents uncovered by the group suggest the building was sold at auction in July 1874 and divided in two, with one section being dragged by horses to its current location at Dufferin and Maitland, where it served as meeting place for London's early labour movement in the 1890s.

Looking for indisputable proof

"We're confident that there's enough history here that this building should be saved," Warren said, noting the community group has requested a copy of the design schematics for British military barracks of the period from the National Archives in Ottawa. 

Warren believes that, if they match, it will be indisputable proof as to the building's historic roots. 

"When we get those plans in a few weeks, they will confirm for sure whether the building is from the barracks. If it is, it is so historical it has to be saved and they could get the rezoning if they want, but they still couldn't develop it." 

"We would like the building to be modestly fixed up and returned to the situation that it did have of being affordable housing," he said, noting rents in the neighbourhood are going up due to ongoing gentrification. 

Right now the property is boarded up and and neighbours complain that it is not only an eyesore but a potential fire risk. 

A neighbour explains why he's on the fence about saving a derelict building that might be one of the city's oldest. 0:49

'It's not worth saving'

"Let me tell you about the history of this property as we know it," said Ben Lansink, the head of Lansink Real Estate Appraisals and the developer behind the proposed demolition of the derelict home on Dufferin Avenue and Maitland.

"The last use of the property was by street people. There were needles all over the place." 

Lansink wants to build a three-storey apartment building on the plot where the derelict home currently sits on Dufferin Avenue. 

The plans for the proposed new building were designed by architect John Nicholson to match the height and the historic character of Woodfield and its rich architectural heritage.  
Ben Lansink is a real estate developer in London who wants to demolish a derelict home in Woodfield that a community group claims is one of the city's oldest buildings that once housed a British military prison and acted as the cradle of London's labour movement. (Ben Lansink/Lansink Appraisals and Consulting)

"We purchased the property from an estate of a family located in Italy," he said. "The gentleman who owned it was no longer able to rent it because it's functionally obsolete from a utility and design point of view." 

Lansink said he doesn't believe the home is a building that was originally used by British soldiers who were imprisoned for dereliction of duty in the 1840s, saying he has historical documents that suggest it was built much later. 

However, even if the Woodfield Community Association is able to prove that the building is originally from the British garrison at Victoria Park, he said he's willing to accept it. 

"History is as it is," he said. "[The Woodfield Community Association is] more than welcome to have the building if they think it's that important. But it certainly can't be lived in, it's functionally obsolete."

"It's not worth saving," he said. "There's nothing original in the property except the two-by-fours, the stick lumber that holds the building together," he said. 

"I respect heritage property. They can take it and put it somewhere, maybe Fanshawe Pioneer Village or something. They're welcome to have it for free. They can have it right now," he said.  

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: