The Oshawa Grammar School

We have come to a very important phase in the life of the Oshawa schools, the beginning of Secondary Education. By the year 1829, there were about eleven of them in the province of Ontario. Those schools were conducted in the master’s house or a school house. At first they did not entirely cater to advanced students. In some, the pupils were learning to read and write others were studying Grammar and Mathematics. A few that had reached the secondary stage were studying Latin. At first they were only intended for boys but girls were sometimes admitted on social ground, their parents refused to send them to the Common schools. The ages ranged from five to seventeen years and school was of about ten months duration. There was a government grant of around 100 pounds per year and besides the pupils paid very high fees.

The Grammar school master was usually an Anglican Clergyman. He had knowledge of Latin, mathematics and occasionally Greek. He taught by the method he had acquired at his Grammar school or University. The teaching procedure was generally by way of a routine of individual assignments and recitation. It all depended on the headmaster’s knowledge and ability. Each school was practically a law to itself as to what it taught and the teaching routine. The curriculum included English grammar, Latin, religious knowledge, mathematics, some history and geography.

The Grammar schools were attacked by many who objected to the disproportionate expenditure of public funds for so few pupils. They felt that £100 for each school was far too much. On the other hand, people found fault with the Common schools on the ground that they were showing too much American influence.[1]

After Rev. Ryerson was appointed chief Superintendent of Education in 1844, he did not at first, pay much attention to Grammar schools until they could be brought under central control. In the year 1853, he passed an act which required county councils to appoint trustee boards, thus instituting an indirect type of local control. [2]Also an act was passed that encouraged small centres to establish Union schools, where the Grammar and Common schools were in the same building with one head master for both. That was designed to give a greater number of young people an opportunity for secondary education. In some places those schools had proved to be very successful. In 1853, he introduced the grammar school entrance examinations. That was to keep elementary students out and to make those schools a truly secondary stage of operation. Provision was made by the Central Authority in Toronto, that school trustees had the right to levy taxes on the Corporation for the upkeep of those schools.

As mentioned before some of the older students in Oshawa were studying advanced subjects for University entrance or for the teachers’ training course. These included mathematics, languages, and British, ancient and Canadian history. They were receiving tuition in the Common school or privately if they could afford it. Some of them were going outside of the village to study.

‘Grammar School” was the European term applied to a high school in those days. The need for such a school was felt here and one was established in 1856. It may be said that it was the beginning of Secondary schools in Oshawa. The emblem of the O.C.V.I. (now the O’Neill Collegiate) shows the date 1857.

On June 22nd 1858, the grammar school was opened; Mr. Cammage[3] was the first headmaster. This school was in operation for a time on the third floor of the present Bank of Commerce[4].

He started tuition in the lower part of the Sons’ Hall. He came with an excellent recommendation. There is no record of how many pupils there were in attendance, but the “Vindicator” mentioned that there was room for more. Mr. Camidge soon left Oshawa to take a position as headmaster in Berlin (Kitchener). Oshawa was no ready to pay good salaries then, and since was plagued with the continual change of teachers. It was reported that Mr. Camidge visited Oshawa afterwards on a few occasions. On one of them, he showed his friends here, a present that his students in Berlin had given him. He was there for three years. The school may have been closed for a time, before the next headmaster came.

The school was opened again on August 3rd, 1859 in lower part of the Sons’ Hall. “Young gents and ladies were to be equally admitted.” This is interesting because prior to that time, girls had not been encouraged to take us higher education. I might mention here, also, that the beginning of the school year was around the second week in August.

Rev. Thomas Russell was to be the next headmaster, and he too, came with good recommendations. He had received his degree in Edinburgh, Scotland. He immigrated to Canada and had taught in different places around this country before coming to Oshawa. He was only in the school one week when he was taken very ill. It was said that the combined efforts of Dr. McGill and Dr. West failed to save him. They admitted that they did not know the nature of his illness, all they could do was to try to relieve his suffering. He died August 26th, 1859. He was here in the country quite alone, unmarried. They buried him in the Anglican Cemetery on Park Road North. The Orange Lodge of which he was a member had charge of the funeral.

After the death of Rev. Russell, the school no doubt, was closed until Rev. W. Grant was engaged as headmaster. He also came with good recommendations. He was an Associate Professor of King’s College, London, England. The school was re-opened on October 17th, 1859. The grammar school had surely had its troubles in getting started here.

Boys and Girls were to apply to Rev. Grant for entry. The fees were: usual branches of English – $3.00 per term, including French and Latin Classics – $4.00 per term, drawing – $2.00 extra.

Around the year 1860, about the time Oshawa was endeavouring to start a grammar school here, the equipment of these halls of learning was limited.  There were maps, globes, blackboards but no scientific equipment, modern facilities or libraries.  An attempt was being made in the province to get these schools in operation but not much money was being spent on the project.

Later, nearly all the pupils were receiving instruction in English, arithmetic and geography.  Most pupils were taught British, Ancient and Canadian History.  Some received instruction in Latin, Greek and French.  These last named languages depended on the headmaster’s ability.  Science was a new subject, introduced, but in the schools, there was no scientific equipment.  This only meant that scholars were studying selections in an authorized reader and did not have the apparatus for experiment.  Most of their work was the memorization of definitions and facts, without much thought or understanding.  It was reported that about one in thirty passed the easy matriculation examinations.

By the early 1860’s, the headmaster of a grammar school was probably a University graduate and his assistants likely had lower acceptable academic attainments. Their salaries were $700 for the headmaster and $400 for the assistants. Those salaries were on a yearly basis.

The following are the requirements laid down by the county for entering Grammar schools. These were printed in the Vindicator January 1859. They were not unlike the requirements of today. History was not on the curriculum at the time.

  1. To read intelligently and correctly any passage from any common reading book.
  2. To spell correctly the words of an ordinary sentence
  3. To write a fair hand
  4. To work readily questions in simple and compound rules of arithmetic and in reduction and simple proportion.
  5. Must know the elements of English grammar and be able to parse an easy sentence in prose
  6. Must be acquainted with definitions and outlines of Geography

“Spelling down” (a spelling match) was about the only interschool athletic event of that time and challenges were hurled from small school to small school.  Sometime after securing the “New Union School” (1864), Oshawa challenged Pickering.  Oshawa was badly beaten in that encounter.  This was reported in the “Reformer” June 30th, 1927.

We shall now proceed with an account of Oshawa’s early ventures in the establishment of a grammar school here.  At first this was an institution entirely separate from the common school.

Rev. W. Lumsden, M.A., had been conducting a “Classical school,” privately in the village since 1861. He was a well educated man, a specialist in the languages, Latin, Greek and French. He had taken “a circle of studies in an American University” before coming to Canada. He had also taught in New York before entering the Ministry.

On October 16th, 1862, he opened the Grammar school in the town hall; there was no rent to pay there. Students wishing to attend were to apply to him and the following was his advertisement – ‘come students to a school which knows no distinction of rank, sect or politics. Let us labour together in the great field of letters, come in goodly numbers all who have ambition, money and brains.” No fees were advertised but by all reports they were paid. After six months of this court house situation, it was not found to be satisfactory. Owing to the proximity of the lock up (jail) prisoners were being taken through the room during class hours. That no doubt was entertaining for the students but it was thought that such a place was not a good environment for young people.

Rev. Lumsden fitted up the old Anglican (it was then known as the English church) at his own expense to be used by the school. It was situated near the western limits of the corporation on the north-east corner of Park Road and King Street. It was not thought to be too far out of the centre of the village, it was “just a nice walk.”

At first all seemed to be going well and the school had a very good attendance. The Superintendent of Education, Rev. Colston, who had been appointed in Rev. Thornton’s place, had visited the school. Rev. Colston gave a very [good] report and Rev. Lumsden received much credit. For the two years he was headmaster of the school he had been left on his own initiative. He did not seem to have had much co-operation from the trustees. Perhaps they were, at that time, too much involved with their idea of uniting the common and grammar schools. Rev. Lumsden had asked the village council for a grant of $100 to buy equipment for the school. This was recorded as having been left over for future consideration. For a village of three thousand there was a government grant of $350 a year for grammar schools. Rev. Lumsden had this and the pupil’s fees to keep the place going.

By the end of the second year the attendance had fallen off considerably. A number of the students were attending the common school where they had no fees to pay. Those who wanted the languages, Greek and Latin, had to attend the grammar school. Mr. Reazin was not teaching them in the common school. Rev. Lumsden persevered and tried to keep the place going but at a loss to himself so he said. At last he advertised that the school would not re-open at the time of the fall session. He was looking for a more central location.

He then offered private courses for pupils preparing for University or “ordinary teaching.” These classes were used to be held in the evening, also, for the convenience of those, who, for some reason could not attend in the daytime. Bookkeeping was also included – Bryant and Stratton’s system being used. He tried to keep “a remnant of the school together by using rooms in my humble home as classrooms at great inconvenience to myself.”

The grammar school had its own board of trustees to look after the grants and other businesses, as well. Some of them were common school trustees also. They were: John B. Warren, G. Burns, T.N. Gibbs, Silas Fairbanks, Dr. William McGill, and Dr. West.[5]

However, by the year 1863 the new laws regarding grammar schools had been passed. A separate inspector had been appointed for them, Rev. W. Checkley. After Rev. Checkley had made his visit to the grammar school here, he reported to the trustees that he had found it in bad shape. Something had to be done to increase money and efficiency. If the school was not satisfactory, the grant would be taken away. Moreover such a school could not be established in Oshawa again as it was within five miles of the one in Whitby. Something must be done or the village would not have any grammar school at all.

Grammar schools were never self-supporting unless a town had a population of four thousand. Then the school would have a grant of $500 or more. Such a school was always best in a separate building but a new building was beyond Oshawa’s pocketbook at the time. There was extra room at the Central school and, if the grammar school wished to carry on, it would be best for the two schools to unite. Such a move had been discussed for some time anyway. To Oshawa’s advantage the new act, mentioned before, that was passed by Ryerson gave power to tax for the upkeep of grammar schools. Taxing power must be in the hands of one board. No extra teachers needed to be hired, but the principal must have a grammar school certificate. He must be capable of taking charge of both schools. The $350 grant that the school would get and the fees of the pupils would help pay the extra cost of the principal. This arrangement had worked in other places.

All this discussion had gone on in a meeting of the trustees of both the common and grammar schools. Rev. Checkley, the inspector, was present and was helping them make the momentous decision. He had put the proposition up to them. Both boards took a separate vote and the resolution was passed in favour of uniting the two schools. It was thought advisable to keep the original trustees of the grammar school to run its affairs. Rev. Checkley was then called upon to perform the “nuptial ceremony” as it was jokingly called. He acted as chairman until a new one was elected. Dr. William McGill proved to be the one. He seemed to have had worry enough on the common school board without having any extra trouble added to it. There were eleven trustees altogether to run the affairs of the two schools. The new organization was to be called the “United Common School.”

Rev. Lumsden was, of course, relieved of his job and was not remunerated in any way for the money he had spent fitting up the “old English Church” building or for any other expenses he had had in connection with keeping the school in operation. He inserted a letter in the “Vindicator” on December 23rd, 1863, making this fact known. Rev. Checkly recommended that he be given a portion of the grant, but the school board turned it down, saying that he had no engagement with them and was applying for another school.

Some arguments against the schools union were interesting. Someone said it would “go to the heads right over the neglected A.B.C’s. The common people of Oshawa got along in everyday business without knowledge of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, astronomy, square roots etc. No use of those and kindred studies being taught in Common schools. These were originated by the legislation to keep people from total ignorance.” Another said he “always got along without higher education, it should not be taught at the expense of the little ones.” He was told that if he were grumbling about the school, “how about hiring more first class teachers.” The question was, of course, what would they use for money?

The grammar school had now found a new and permanent home in the “Common school” building. It was re-opened on the first Monday in January 1864, with Mr. McCabe as the headmaster. It was not until 1919 that a separate grammar high school was erected on Simcoe Street north and the long talked of plan for a secondary school was realized.


[1] 1800: Upper Canada (Ontario) had about 35,000 people, including 23,000 Loyalists and “late Loyalists” and their descendants, mainly from upstate New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. They were principally established on farms along the upper St. Lawrence River valley. Familysearch.org.

A number of the new migrants went to Lower Canada (Quebec) – the English-speaking population of that colony tripled from 10 000 to 30 000 between 1791 and 1812 – but far more settled in Upper Canada. Some of the newcomers – often called “Late Loyalists” – were Quakers and Mennonites…Gradually the number of post-Loyalist American newcomers virtually overwhelmed the Loyalists, and, with few other immigrants arriving from Europe, Upper Canada particularly became increasingly concerned about the “American Menace”. By the time of the War of 1812, Americans composed as much as 80 percent of an Upper Canada population estimated by a contemporary in 1813 as 136 000. (Magocsi, Encyclopedia of Canadian Peoples)

[2] Between 1846 and 1850 Ryerson established boards of trustees to raise money for schools, approve textbooks and hire teachers.

http://bing.search.sympatico.ca/?q=grammar%20school%20act%201850&mkt=en-ca&setLang=en-CA

[3] He was a veteran of the Crimean War. During the Campaign he was paymaster for Sir Morton Peto, when the military railroad was being built from Balaclava to Sebastopol.

[4] This was once the head office of the Western Bank of Canada

5. J.B. Warren – owner of Warren Mill and local general store, T.N. Gibbs – first Reeve of the Village of Oshawa in 1850 and the first warden elected for the Co. of Ontario in 1854, Silas Fairbanks – lawyer, village councillor, Reeve, Dr. William McGill – first doctor to establish a practice in Oshawa.

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