Oshawa’s Educational History

By Quinn J., Summer Student

In 1894, The Globe (which would go on to merge with The Mail and Empire into the Globe and Mail) did a profile on Oshawa. At the time, Oshawa was only a village of “4,000 souls,” but already it was noted for two things: its prominence as a manufacturing centre, a reputation Oshawa would hold on to up until the present day, and for its high quality educational institutions.

The Globe article not only mentions the high quality public schools but also the Bishop Bethune and Demill Ladies’ Colleges, both of which were renowned institutions outside of the province, and they attracted students from across the country. But today, this past as a centre for education is rarely remembered. I only learned about the two ladies colleges and the early Canadian public school system when I began working for the Oshawa Museum last month. My question is, why this is the case? If the Globe felt it was important enough to mention Oshawa’s status as an educational leader in its profile, why has it been so easy for us in the modern day to forget?

One possible explanation is that the signs of the educational institutions of the past haven’t been preserved as well, through no fault of the town or anyone in it. Bishop Bethune College was located in the house of former mayor T.N. Gibbs, but when the school closed in 1932 amid financial troubles, the land was sold to the city and a new school, the Central Collegiate Institute, was founded on the spot (it has since been home to Village Union School and currently Durham Alternative Secondary School). The Demill college was destroyed by a fire just two years after the publishing of the Globe article, and the college eventually moved to St. Catharines. This lack of standing physical evidence that could tie the city to its educational past could present an answer as to why that aspect is much better remembered, especially when contrasted with the large number of not only buildings that were built around Oshawa’s manufacturing, but the amount of people still alive who were there to witness the city’s manufacturing based economic boom.

In the same vein, education in the past was very much shaped around the industrial revolution that all of Ontario was experiencing in the mid to late 19th century. Public schooling during this period heavily focused on preparing children for their new roles in industrial society, as both labourers and citizens of the British Empire and Dominion of Canada. The close ties created between industry and education could provide a further example of why Oshawa’s educational past was not as common in the collective memory of the city; when creating new workers for manufacturing was the end goal of education, it could have become a lot easier to forget what got workers to their positions in the first place.

The history of Education in Oshawa is something that surprised me personally with how deep it went and how much history there was in something that I, and many others, take for granted in today’s age. It’s caught my attention, and I hope to dive even further into it as I continue my research with the museum over the summer.


“Oshawa: A Manufacturing Centre R. S. Williams & Son F. L. Fowke D. Cinnamon The Queen’s Hotel Eli. S. Edmonson Mrs. M. E. May The Joseph Hall Machine Works Demill College Ed. E. Rogers Bishop Bethune College Provan’s Patent Car, Fork And Sling The McLaughlin Carriage Company.” The Globe (1844-1936), Oct 27, 1894.

French, Olive. “DeMill (1871-1920)”, The Olive French Manuscript, https://olivefrench.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/demill-1871-1920/.

Hood, M. MacIntyre. “Bishop Bethune College Recalled,” Daily Times Gazette, Nov. 17th, 1955.

Houston, Susan E. Schooling and Scholars in Nineteenth Century Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

Students on Strike?

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

One of the unique aspects of an education at Oshawa’s Demill Ladies’ College (DLC) was the concept of the students performing the domestic chores at the college to keep the costs of tuition and upkeep down.  The school opened in 1876, and, as stated in the 1881-1882 school calendar, the purpose of the school was to bring the higher branches of education within the reach of the largest possible number of young girls. Although Reverend De Mille touted the advantages of an advanced education for females, he also emphasized the domestic roles the girls would assume upon graduation and stressed an education at DLC would properly prepare girls for this role. He suggested unhappy households were the fault of women because they lacked specific domestic training. He further claimed 90% of girls returning home from boarding school were useless.[1] “What good would it do to have a daughter educated at a fancy academy if she couldn’t cook a meal for her family when she was finished?” asked Reverend De Mille.[2]    De Mille’s  vision was based on the philosophies of Mary Lyon of Mount Holyoke Seminary in Massachusetts, the first of the Seven Sister schools and a leader in female education during the nineteenth century. 

De Mille included domestic training at the college level because he felt they complemented one another; “the home influence, the domestic knowledge with the necessity of being able to do all that is necessary in a well-kept home can be so interwoven in the college training.”[3] As students performed the necessary domestic chores at the college, De Mille argued, they were gaining meaningful experience in running a household, and this, combined with courses in domestic economy, digestion, food, health and habits of life, ensured students were adequately prepared to assume their roles in the domestic sphere.[4] Having the student perform the domestic work also cut down on the number of staff needed to run a school this size and in turn keep the tuition costs down.

Rev. De Mille

I always wondered how well this philosophy worked in an educational setting like DLC and how receptive the students were to assisting in this respect. Recently I came across a clue that perhaps some of the students were not happy about the idea of performing the domestic chores necessary to keep the school operating.  In the fall of 1879, just three years into its existence, newspaper reports of a student strike at the school started to appear.  As noted in the news brief the students “stopped short and never more were they going to wash the dishes necessary for the successful running of the institution.”[5]   The unrest appears to have roots in the fact that “some of the young ladies’ who were more advanced objected to the rudimentary branches of washing dishes in which they claimed they were already proficient.”[6]  The story of the Demill strike appeared in newspapers across the US including Ohio, Nevada, California, New York, Massachusetts, Kansas and Indiana.  Students at DLC came from all over Canada and the US leading me to think this was not the kind of publicity that De Mille would have wished. The strike seems to have been short lived as there were no further reports in the newspapers, and De Mille did not appear to adjust his educational philosophy to any great extent.  Interestingly enough, in November 1879 the Montreal Daily Witness reported an unnamed ex-student of DLC wrote to them to say stories of a strike were untrue and merely rumours. The ex-student claimed she was not opposed to the system of education and the idea of a strike “existed in imagination only.”[7]

Demill Ladies’ College as seen in Reverend de Mille’s book, In the Net.

The student strike, if indeed it did happen, was a small blip in the history of DLC. The school continued to educate young ladies until 1896 when it was destroyed by fire.

[1] Oshawa’s Female College, Oshawa Vindicator, August 12, 1873

[2] Reverend A. B. De Mille, In the Net  (London: Morgan and Scott Ltd., 1910), pg 23

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

[5] St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) · 30 Oct 1879.

[6] Montreal Daily Witness, November 15, 1879.

[7] Ibid.

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