Tales from Olive French

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.

Centre Street School in the 1920s; A004.14.3

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.

Meet the Museum: Jillian Passmore, Visitor Experience Coordinator

The focus of this blog series is the staff of the Oshawa Museum and their role at the site.  What does it mean to the archivist or curator at a community museum?  What goes on behind the scenes in the Programming office?  What is our Executive Director’s favourite memory of the Museum? 

Join us and see what happens behind the doors of Guy House.

What do you do at the Oshawa Museum?

Currently I am the Visitor Experience Coordinator for the Museum.  I am responsible for keeping everyone at the Museum happy! I schedule events and school bookings, I get to facilitate programs and teach people of all ages about the history of Oshawa. I began my career at the Museum as an Interpreter (what we now call Visitor Hosts). I gave tours en masse. Next I was the Public Programs Coordinator. Under this title I developed and created many programs for March Break, summer and Birthday Parties before settling into the role of VEC in 2007.

Jill leading a birthday party, one of the many programs she has developed for the Oshawa Museum
Jill leading a birthday party, one of the many programs she has developed for the Oshawa Museum

Why did you choose this career?

From a very early age, I always knew I wanted to work at a museum. I grew up travelling to Annapolis, Maryland and Washington D.C. My parents instilled a love and respect for history for me and my siblings.  I have vivid memories of touring the various Smithsonian museums and monuments from throughout the area.

In high school I took as many history courses as I could and majored in history and classical studies at Brock University. Most people assumed that I wanted to become a teacher, but I assured them that I would be working in a museum. To say that I love history is an understatement.

Immediately after graduation in late summer of 2002 I noticed an ad from the Oshawa Museum seeking historical interpreters. The rest is history!


What is your favourite part of your job?

My favourite part of my job is teaching people about local history; teaching people that Oshawa’s has a longstanding history and that there is much more to Oshawa than just being an automotive town or a suburb.


What do you find to be the most challenging part of your job?

I find that the most challenging thing is bringing awareness of local history to teachers. So much of what is in the curriculum can be adapted to include local aspects. It’s disappointing that many teachers do not see the value in teaching local history.


What is your favourite memory of the Museum?


My favourite memory of the Museum was getting married in the schoolroom exhibit, surrounded by friends and family. My new husband and I, along with our Maid of Honour and Best Man were allowed to take photos on the top balcony of Robinson House – which is never open to the public. It made the day that much more special.

Jill & her husband (centre), on their wedding day, January 2011
Jill & her husband (centre), on their wedding day, January 2011


Do you have a favourite artifact?

For more on my favourite artifact, check out what I wrote about the Olive French Manuscript. 

My Favourite Artifact: The Olive French Manuscript

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

What is my favourite artifact? Many people who work at a museum would probably tell you that this is similar to picking your favourite child. I should tell you that I love them all equally, but in the past few years I have come to love a manuscript in the Archives.

At first this artifact was very mysterious to me. I had heard about the ‘Olive French manuscript’ but just that it was about education in Oshawa. I had seen it in passing as students and temporary staff were given it to transcribe. I knew nothing about who Olive French was or why the document was so important.

Olive French, 1895-1980
Olive French, 1895-1980

I vaguely remember asking Laura to making an attempt to finally complete the transcription and organization, as I was interested in learning more about the history of education in Oshawa.I soon came to find out that within the one box that contained it were many different versions of the text; all out of order, some handwritten and poorly photocopied, some typed. It was an organizers dream!

This document is truly one of a kind. Its value to the Archives is unquestionable. Ms. French recorded information about the history of Oshawa and the history of its education system from the early 1800s to 1967. Information about schools (most of which are not in existence anymore), Trustees, teachers, grading systems and special events.

Pupils of Cedardale School c. 1891
Pupils of Cedardale School c. 1891

The Olive French manuscript has now been a springboard for further research. Using Google and Ancestry.ca, we have been able to search for and find photos of teachers and Trustees mentioned, and background information about teachers and other minutia mentioned in the manuscript.

Ms. French and her manuscript have earned a special place in my heart over the last few years. I have often thought that it would be nice to sit down and have tea with her and chat about what life was like in Oshawa when she was alive. I wish I could ask her follow up questions or what she meant by something that she’d written.You can read Olive’s writings on one of the Museum’s blogs: olivefrench.wordpress.com

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