The state of schools and school teaching in Ontario’s early days has long been a favourite topic in oldtimers’ tales of life in the past century.
Before the Canadian union of 1841 and for sometime after, ability to read and write and to do more than elementary calculation by numbers was beyond the reach of many citizens, both natives and immigrants, unless obtained by home training. A grammar school or high school education was for the few, mainly a rare few with the opportunity and wish to prepare for a life in one of the learned professions. The widespread existence of tax-supported public schools in the province has a record extending back little more than a hundred years.
Among the reforms of the 1840’s and 1850’s was a slowly growing common school system, fathered mainly by the native-born Rev. Dr. Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister, first head of Victoria College, Cobourg, and from 1844 to 1876 Superintendent of Education for Ontario. Admission to a large share of the province’s public schools remained subject to payment of school rates or fees which not all parents were prepared to pay.
For the so-called Free Schools the part of operating costs not met from county and provincial taxes were raised by ordinary local property taxes instead of by rate-bill admission fees. Free schools increased in number only after overcoming strong opposition in many districts. Compulsory school attendance remained a remote idea. Men with ideas ahead of their time, as James Poole showed in his Carleton Place newspaper of the early 1850’s could be friends of education and enemies of the free schools.
Teachers Salaries Under $200
In Lanark County tax-supported schools had increased in number to 91 by 185?, and teachers to 102, thirteen of which were women teachers. Only five of the county’s schools were free schools. Teachers average yearly salaries including board were about 40 pounds for men and 30 pounds for women, and about 10 pounds less excluding board. Fourteen of the county’s schools were good or first class schools, as graded in inspections of 1850. The rest were equally divided between second class and inferior or third class schools.
The schools of Lanark and Renfrew counties of this time are pictured by the Rev. James Padfield, rector of the Church of England at Franktown, in an 1848 report to the Bathurst District Council in his capacity of superintendent of common schools of the united counties. He found 120 schools in operation under the Common School Act in the two counties, all but a few of which had been inspected by him in the preceding fall and winter.
Teachers of schools selected by Mr. Padfield for commendation were Mr. Warren, then of McNab township, Mr. Hammond of Lanark township, Mr. McDougall of North Sherbrooke, Mr. Morrison of Perth, Mr. Heely of Carleton Place, James Poole and Mr. York of Ramsay, Mr. McDougall and Mr. Lindsay of Beckwith, and Thomas Poole of Pakenham.
Mr. Padfield provides an eye witness summary of the nature of this district’s pioneer schools :
“The Schools in general are better attended from the middle of November to the end of April. Among the pupils may often be found many young persons, both male and female, from 15 to 20 years of age and upwards. During the other six and a half months the older pupils are kept at home to assist their parents in agricultural employments. The Schools then are practically deserted, having frequently and in almost every township not more than ten or twelve scholars in regular attendance in a school, often fewer.
This interferes in a most disastrous way with the education of the young.
The School Houses throughout the District are for the most part built of logs, not more that twenty feet square and seldom eight feet high. Many are much smaller and of less height. In each of these are crowded during the winter months from twenty-five to forty children. The interior arrangements are often very defective. Many are quite unfit for schools.
Among the few good and tolerably commodious school houses in the District may be mentioned one on the south side of Perth and another under construction in Perth, both frame buildings. Another in Smiths Falls, built of stone, if finished bould be the best in the District. But it is suffered to remain in an unfinished state and a high rent is paid for a miserable building in which the school is kept. There are also a few good log school houses in some of the townships, including two in Bathurst, three or four in Beckwith, a very good one at Westmeath and another at Pembroke. Of the rest many are two small and some few are ill built and worse finished, exhibiting loose and shattered floors, broken windows, ill-constructed desks, unsafe stoves and stove pipes and unplasterd walls.
A greater uniformity in textbooks is beginning to prevail. I recollect visiting one School last winter at which fifteen children were present, no two of whom had books of the same kind. The quarterly examinations have been almost a dead letter. In many instances not a single person has been present to show the least interest in the advancement made by the scholars, except perhaps a solitary Trustee. On the whole in spite of these various hinderences our Common Schools are undoubtedly improving. (Signed) J. Padfield, S.C.S. Bathurst District, 2 October, 1848.”
Of ten new school houses completed in the district in the following six months, as noted in Mr. Padfield’s next inspection report, one in Perth was “a commodious frame building divided into two apartments, one for boys and the other for girls”, three were log schools in Montague, one a 22 foot square log school in No. 18 Drummond, and one in Beckwith at Franktown, described as a substantial stone building. It appears the latter building is still standing at Franktown, though not in school use. At Franktown and No. 14 Montague the previous schools had been destroyed by fire.
Teachers Convention, 1842
School teachers meetings at Perth and Carleton Place in 1842 were the first general conventions of this District held following enactment of the Canadian school statute.
At Perth the superintendent of Education for Canada West, Mr. Murray, had recommended to an August gathering of teachers of the two counties that they select a committee to suggest improvements to the new Common School Bill. The committee, consisting of one teacher, from each of the townships of Bathurst, Beckwith, Burgess, Drummond, Horton, McNab, Pakenham and Ramsay, met at John McEwen’s inn at Carleton Place a month later.
Its recommendations, compiled by a subcommittee of three teachers (Thomas Ferguson of the Derry School, Beckwith, J. Fowler of Bathurst and Mr. Kerr of Ramsay), favoured “a union of Townships for the proper forming of School Districts, and that the Commissioner in whose Township the school is located manage the same.” Other recommendations were that no teachers lacking specified qualifications be employed, and that teachers salaries be not less than 50 pounds per year, payable half yearly.
First Local Schools
Carleton Place, like other points in the district, opened its first school with its first growth of settlement. A log hut near the corner of Bridge Street and the Town Line road is said to have become the first local school in 1825, with James Kent as teacher. William Poole, father of the town’s future newspaper editor, taught here from his arrival in 1831 to his death in 1844.
A second school in a frame building in the south side of the village was aquired and enlarged by the Common School Board when the Schools Act and municipal system of 1841 became effective. The bylaw passed for this purpose at the first session of the newly established District Council was introduced by Robert Bell. It provided for a 50 pound assessment upon the inhabitants of Beckwith School Section No. 11 to erect a school house at Carleton Place.
Best known early teacher of the Carleton Place common school probably was Johnston Neilson (1798-1857). Trained in colleges of Belfast and Glasgow, he taught here until 1851, retired on pension while teaching at Pakenham and died at Perth. His somewhat biassed strictures on the manners of the youth of his time in Carleton Place, recorded in newspaper correspondence, have since been given more publicity than might be deserved. A longer lived pioneer local teacher was Peter Comrie, (1819-1901), who came from Comrie, Perthshire, in 1836 and was a teacher living in Carleton Place in 1842. He is said to have maintained a school house for some years on High street near Bridge Street and to have taught in the Carleton Place grammar school.
A Carleton Place newspaper editorial of the late 1850’s offered a brief and effective tribute to the province’s schoolteachers of that day :
“The telegraph and steam engine are powerful civilizers. The printing press is almost invincible in eradicating ignorance and chasing away superstition. But there is a power among us doing for us a greater service. It will be found in small, low roofed, ill ventilated scantily furnished and generally neglected houses, at the crossroads and in public places, here and there, throughout the whole country. He who directs it has many difficulties.
Scanty remuneration is doled out to him, probably months after it is honestly due. Nevertheless the improved facilities for learning today should be contrasted with those of pupils whose lot was cast in days when the dreaded ferule and the awful birch reigned triumphant as the alternate sceptres in the grasp of a tyrant.”