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.

Education in Oshawa

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

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.

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Thornton Corners School, c. 1880. Oshawa Museum’s archival collection

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.

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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.

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Kindergarten in the Victorian Age

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

Some days it feels as if my world revolves around education in Oshawa, from a historical perspective as well as from the present. My daughter will be entering Senior Kindergarten this week and that has gotten me thinking about how different it was when I was that young and even how different it was when my parents were in school.

In Junior Kindergarten last year, my daughter was learning about architectural styles of castles, space, life cycles of butterflies and how to make vermicomposters. I clearly remember naptime, playing with wooden blocks and story time in a circle. There were no computers, no iPads to record students’ memories and no one even thought about composting!

Before the kindergarten system was established, student sat in rows of seats according to their grade level. The youngest sat on benches in front of the other student’s desks, their feet barely touching the ground. With all of the other students begging for attention from the teacher, the little ones often got overlooked. Research into the education and psychology of young children only began to occur in the late nineteenth century. Most people thought that educating the young was a waste of time. According to the Oshawa Museum’s Olive French Manuscript “Some of the doctors in the 1860s/70s were noticed to have said that small children, even up to the age of seven or eight, should not attend school. They should be home and allowed the freedom of play in the fresh air and sun. This would build up stronger constitutions and also relieve the overcrowding in the schools.”

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Students of the South Simcoe Street School, c. 1926, A983.4.5.3

Overcrowding was an issue for Oshawa schools from the beginning. Buildings in downtown Oshawa such as the Disciples Church and Sons of Temperance Hall were often pulled into service as classrooms when space was needed.

Eventually, Centre Street School underwent a complete reconstruction and renovation and in 1923 the school would have “twenty four rooms, including facilities for a Kindergarten and a spacious auditorium. The restructuring of the school would cost the School Board $175 000.”¹ Olive French claims the school was built for $220 000 and accommodate 700 students. It would be another twenty four years before a second kindergarten class would become operational at Ritson Road School. Kindergarten classes were added to most other schools in Oshawa during the 1950s; South Simcoe School in 1950, 1952 at Simcoe Street North (Dr. S.J. Phillips), and 1953 at Coronation, duke of Edinburgh and Woodcrest Public Schools.

Not a lot is known about the local kindergarten curriculum at that time. Miss Greta Ellis taught kindergarten out of her home in the early 1920s before being hired by the School Board in 1924. Miss Ellis would play the piano; later while she taught, her assistant would play.²

Today I’m wondering what the School Board of the past would have thought about paying their new Kindergarten teachers to supervise naptime. I’m not sure if I’d have liked going to school in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century’s. Many of the schools in Oshawa’s past were quite poorly constructed, dim, draughty, and inadequately supplied. I think I’ll stick to my happy naptime memories of the 1980s and see what 2017 brings for my daughter.


  1. Ross, J. Douglas. Education in Oshawa. 1970.
  2. French, Olive. Education in Oshawa. Unpublished manuscript. 1967.

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