On Wednesday July 21st, I visited an Anglican holy order, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, in Toronto in order to access their archives. The order used to own the Bishop Bethune private girls school in Oshawa, and thus they had primary documents related to my research into the school which could help me better determine the school’s purpose and who exactly attended it. The visit was one that I was looking forward to, not only because of the benefits for my research and because it would enable my possibly unhealthy obsession with mundane things from the past, but also because being able to experience history first hand, something that my time in school had never given me the opportunity to do.
The sisterhood was very welcoming to me, and I had a nice time talking with the archivist about the various materials they had to offer me. I was looking specifically at things related to the Bishop Bethune school, but from what I could glean, the sisterhood was involved in other educational ventures outside of city of Oshawa, throughout the province and country. It was overall a very enjoyable experience for me as I was able to dig through various records and even copies of the school magazine for my research into Oshawa’s educational past.
The most interesting thing in the collection, however, was the school’s ledger. It was a giant book that was over 100 years old, having been first written in when the sisterhood took control of the school in 1889. It’s probably the oldest thing I’ve ever touched, and it gave me a bit of a thrill to be able to just be able to go through it and get a window into how people lived over 100 years ago.
Perhaps I’m being a little too subjective, but I still get such a thrill from experiencing history, no matter how I experience it. Getting that glimpse into the lives of people who lived even just a hundred years before me is still very exciting for me, and this visit to get a window into the past like that was an incredible experience.
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.
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. “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. 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.” 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. 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.
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.
 Oshawa’s Female College, Oshawa Vindicator, August 12, 1873
 Reverend A. B. De Mille, In the Net (London: Morgan and Scott Ltd., 1910), pg 23
In the 1960s, a woman named Olive French began researching and writing a history of Oshawa’s early education, educators, and schools. This manuscript was never published but was later donated to the archives. In the early 2010s, Visitor Experience Coordinator Jill Passmore set out to transcribe the manuscript, which was made available to researchers through the blog olivefrench.wordpress.com. During her transcription process, Jill shared some of her favourite ‘tidbits’ on the Museum’s Facebook page, which bear repeating here on our blog. Be sure to check out the Olive French site and discover a little more about education and early life in Oshawa.
An anecdote about Beaton’s store: For some reason best known to them, Beaton’s had a display of chamber pots in the window of their china shop. A lady went by with two small children, around the age of four or five years old. When they saw what was in the window, they let it be known in good clear voices – “Oh, look at the jims,” “see all the jim’s”! Their mother decided that she would take the children by, on the other side of the street until Beaton’s changed their window decorations! Jim’s is possibly a derivative of “Jimmy” and “Jimmy Riddle”, which is British slang for “urinating”
The birch rod, so popular in the early days was gradually ruled out of the schools. Some of the older scholars, on a few occasions had received broken fingers through its injudicious use. The strap became a popular way to emphasize obedience and to stimulate the lazy ones. As a rule the parents did not come to the school and complain about Johnny’s or Mary’s punishment. If a child deserved it he got no sympathy from “ma or pa.” Most children were told, “if you get a lickin’ in school you’re git another when you git home.”
One could scarcely imagine the health authorities of today tolerating a smelly place like Dick Hobb’s fish store (Simcoe Street South).
For the most part the common schoolteachers had only a common school education and no professional training. They were usually discharged soldiers or new comers who were ill equipped to take a more lucrative position. The teacher’s qualifications were his ability to keep order while his pupils memorized their lessons that he assigned to them from their textbooks and recited them to him.
Scholars [at DeMill Ladies’ College] were requested to bring with them, to the college, their own towels, table napkins and ring, one pillow and pillow cases, one pair of sheets and bed covers suitable for the season. They also had to bring a knife, a fork and a spoon, all these articles was to be marked with the owner’s name. They must provide themselves with clothing suitable for the season and were requested to wear inexpensive, neat and plain clothing. More thought was to be given to schoolwork than to dress.
Another escapade took place in Centre Street Public School in 1888 or 1889; this one was not serious but it emptied one of the rooms for a half of a day. One of the pupils, Maisie, aged ten years, whose father kept bees, thought she would see what could be done about a half holiday on a one nice day in the spring. She had no fear of bees whatever and could go out among the bee hives at her home and pick out the drones and the other bees did not attack her. It is believed that those insects are aware of it, when anyone is afraid of them. Drones are male bees and do not sting. At lunch time that day, she put a few drones in her pocket before she left to go back to school. After the bell rang and things got settled down in her room, she let the bees go. There was a near panic of course; no one else knew that the bees were drones. There was no need to dismiss the room; the room dismissed itself, teacher and all. How she ever dared to do a thing like that when Mr. Smith was principal was a question. She must have been brave. No doubt she was punished at school; the teachers wouldn’t have seen any joke about it like her father did. She happened to be my cousin, he was C.S. French.
In the earliest years when the High School was in the new building, report cards were not given to the pupils. Marks obtained on the exams were posted on the bulletin boards and the papers were handed back to the pupils. A record was kept in the office of each student’s marks, during the year. Before the final exams in the higher grades, the scholars were called individually to the office for an interview with the principal. He gave his opinion on the advisability of trying or not. A fee was charged for the departmental exams.
An amusing report was printed in the Vindicator April 7th 1876. It was the day of the trustee meeting and not one of them was present. “A number of the members had joined an elocution class and it had met on the same evening. Some very brilliant oration at the meetings was to be expected now. A new pump was needed at the school and it would be an excellent chance for brilliant elocutionary effect for the property committee.”
Also the following; at one time when there was no quorum and no meeting of the school board all of the trustees were attending an oyster supper. Someone suggested that it might be a good idea, on the night of the trustee meetings to give oyster suppers and invite the members of the board to attend. Perhaps they might be induced to transact the school business afterwards.
Oshawa has a lengthy history in terms of education. As soon as people and families began immigrating to Upper Canada, men and women were teaching children from their homes and tiny schoolrooms. There are many instances of this in our immediate area.
In the early 1800s, Joseph Moore came to the small settlement here, from Boston. He founded the first school in this district and used his superior education to make his living. Not much is known about him except that he was a well-educated man and a “lawyer of parts.” Despite this fact, it has been said that Mr. Moore was much respected throughout his community as well as the whole county.
His school was situated on the farm of Benjamin Rogers on the lakeshore between Oxford Street and Park Road South. The property was still owned by descendants of the Rogers family until the 1960s. Of course, the streets, just mentioned, were non-existent then. The attendance at the school was small and the few families who lived there paid for the upkeep.
J. Douglas Ross notes in Education in Oshawa that Miss Cross established a school in a log hut on the William Blair farm in 1811. This was between Oshawa and Whitby on the lakeshore. Also in the book, Ross discusses the many schoolrooms that opened in Oshawa-proper. One built on the southwest corner of King and Simcoe Street on the McGrigor farm, the Union school on Simcoe and Royal Streets in 1835 and the emergence of S.S. No 1, (Harmony School) and S.S. No. 5 (Thornton’s Corners).
It is unclear where the children that lived in Guy, Robinson and Henry House went to school. The Henry boys from Thomas’s first marriage to Elizabeth Davies perhaps attended the Union School. We can assume that they were educated because all went on to read and write as well as become successful in the community. Thomas’s younger children with Lurenda Abby might have attended S. S. No. 2 (Cedardale School), which was built in the early 1850s. Again, they all went on to read, write and become contributing members of the community.
Centre Street School is the model that the Oshawa Museum has used in recreating its own one room schoolhouse. Younger children sit in desks arranged so that they are at the front and the older children are at the back. During March Break families are invited to come down and see what it was like to attend school in the Victorian era! The immersive experience includes dressing up in period costumes, writing with pen & ink and on slates, participating in a spelling bee and learning to sing God Save the Queen. Kids can even have their photos take with Queen Victoria!
Come down to Robinson House for all of the activities on March Break. From Monday through Friday, 9 am – 3 pm, you can drop in for all of the fun. Only $5 per child. For inquiries, please call Jill at 905-436-7624 x. 106.