The Bishop Bethune College (1871 – 1920)

Rev. Langtry, a Toronto clergyman of the Church of England started a plan for the establishment of a church school. This was to be a place where the daughters of the clergy could receive a good education at a reasonable cost. The outcome of this was the incorporation of the Bishop Strachan School for girls in 1868.  The late Bishop Strachan was the first Anglican bishop of Toronto.

Rev. Middleton, rector of St. George’s Anglican Church here in Oshawa had similar ideas and was anxious to have such a school established outside the diocese of Toronto. In 1889, the Bishop Bethune College was opened here in the former home of T.N. Gibbs;[1] it had been named “Ellesmere Hall” by that family. The name Bishop Bethune was in memory of the second bishop of Toronto.

The plan did not succeed very well at first and by autumn of 1892, the attendance had diminished and a sizeable debt had accumulated. Several factors contributed to the failure, mismanagement was one. Rev. Middleton was a trustee and he appealed to headquarters in Toronto for advice and help. Rev. Roper looked into the matter and found that if the Sisters of St. John would take the school in hand, several business men who were members of the Church of England would back the project, otherwise the place would have to be sold.

The Sisters of St. John are a charitable organization in connection with the Church of England. They had at that time been recently organized by the Mother Foundress – Hannah Coome. The Sisters were approached and at first they were not at all anxious to take over. They felt they had all they could do with the work they were already engaged in, at the time. However, later on they gave their reluctant consent. They took over the college and when all the business arrangements were completed, the Mother Foundress or (Superior) came down with three other Sisters to prepare the building for the scholars. The Sisters were well pleased with the house and the spacious grounds, about five acres in all. The Church of England people here gave generous help with the furnishings and money. There was no gas or water at the time, the only lighting was coal oil lamps. These were a constant worry on account of fire.  The place was found to be rather poorly heated. The dormitories were fitted up and a room was turned into a chapel. The living rooms for daily use were made as cozy and home-like as possible.

On February 9th, 1893, all was ready for the pupils. That spring there were ten boarders and six-day pupils.  Parents in Oshawa sent their children to the college as day pupils as long as the school was in operation.

On June 29th the school held its first closing exercises. Quite a number of townspeople were present and expressed their appreciation of what had been done in so short a while. During the summer and all of the following summers some of the pupils remained in residence. They could not go home on account of distance or other reasons. Also to make some money that first year, several people came down from Toronto for a vacation. They were delighted with the spot.  It was very quiet so it was said “during the busiest hours; all that could be heard was the rumble of an occasional cart, the rattle of the antiquated bus on its daily journey to the station or the lowing of a cow when disturbed in taking her siesta, stretched, sometimes across the walk.” What a contrast from the rattle and roar of nowadays!

Later on in the summer when the college was to re-open, thirty-eight pupils were admitted. Applications had to be turned down. There was no more room although extra accommodations had been prepared. The Mother Superior had been in the school with them until then and she had to return to Toronto. Two Sisters and three teachers were left in charge of the school. It was a successful year and many improvements were added to the building that summer.

The winter of 1895 saw the college with forty-five pupils. Still many applications had to be turned down. The weather that time was very severe, with plenty of snow. The college found itself blocked in at time and they had some miserable days. Soon after that the waterworks and electricity were brought into the town and were soon installed in the building. The electricity was not very satisfactory at first. It was a sort of ‘off again, on again’ affair, but it relieved them from the worry of coal oil lamps.

We should say something at this point about the fees and management of the school. The Sisters undertook the greater part of the teaching and supervision. The proximity of the school to Toronto enabled them to supply masters as may be requisite in any department. Careful attention was paid to the health and comfort of the pupils, young children and delicate or backward girls were to receive special care. It was said that during the epidemic of the 1918 – 1919 “flu” there were forty cases in the college among the teachers and students. All recovered. An epidemic of mumps followed right after the “flu” to make things pleasant.

The sisters were anxious that the advantages of the school should be brought within the reach of people of moderate means. The fees were as low as possible and the food provided was plain, wholesome and abundant. The college was not endowed and the interest on the mortgage was really a rent. Fees had to be paid in advance of the term.

The fee for the board and laundry, with instruction in the ordinary English branches and Latin French or German was:

Preparatory Class                            $40 per term

Intermediate Class                          $45 per term

Senior Class                                     $50 per term


Piano taught by a sister – Elementary      $6 per term

Advanced                                          $10 per term

Drawing                                             $4 per term

Art needlework                                             $4 per term

No science was taught at anytime in the college.

Other extras:

Piano from a master, violin, singing, painting and physical culture will be charges according to the instructor’s fees. Good conduct and due observance of the rules and discipline of the school were necessary conditions of attendance.

There were four terms in the scholastic year. Michaelmas[2] term from 7th of September to the 9th of November; Christmas term was from the 10th of November to the 10th of February; with vacation from December 22nd to January 13th inclusive. Lent term was from February 11th to April 21st. Vacation one week at Easter and Trinity term from April 22nd to June 30th. Pupils remaining in the college for holidays will be charged $3 a week for board.

The only persons allowed to visit the pupils were the parents or guardians, lady friends in Oshawa who were introduced by them or persons from a distance who were requested to bring a written request from such parents or guardians that they may be permitted to visit their children or wards. The students were not allowed off the grounds unless accompanied by a sister or teacher.

In the early days the rising bell rang at 6am. The sisters in charge placed lamps on pianos and the practices were always in their places. From 6:30 to 7:30 the Devotions Bell rang. The Devotions over bell as it was called was the only one in the day honoured with a meticulous promptitude.

The students were not allowed to talk during breakfast time.  They requested the Bishop to forbid this oppressive rule. Part of his reply was “I think it is a very good thing, you know, my dear girls that women should be taught to hold their tongues sometimes.”

Two walks were taken in the day; in winter skating took the place of the afternoon walk. Later after the school had become well established a rink was built on the grounds. No colours of dress were allowed except navy blue but on Saturday evening blue and white striped silk blouses were worn. The girls really looked smart as they walked sedately along the street two by two, the little ones ahead of the line. Always the sisters or teachers were in the procession. The students’ coats or dresses were of a similar cut and the younger ones wore wide brimmed navy blue sailor hats with streamers at the back.

On Sunday everyone went to church to morning and evening service; the rest of the day was filled by choir practice, a silent rest from dinner[3] to 4:00 p.m., Sunday school, and afterwards reading aloud to those who desired it; also after tea until evening church. Later on, the evening service had to be discontinued; young rowdies around town saw fit to give the girls too much attention. The evening service was then held in the chapel.

By the year 1898, the temporary additions had to be pulled down and the west wing was built. In it were the chapel dormitories, community room, infirmary, practice rooms, assembly hall, library, mistress’s rooms and servant’s rooms. The school was filled to capacity with students. A gala day for them was in November when the chapel was dedicated.

Among the guests was the Mother Foundress. She as well as the rest was very pleased with the new wing and the improvements made. She said later on in 1917 that all these improvements were paid for and the only debt then being $6000 by the much-needed installation of water heating throughout the building. She then had designed some of the decorations that were used herself.

[1] When this residence/school was torn down, Central Collegiate Institute was constructed. Today this site is occupied by Village Union Public School.

[2] Michaelmas Day, the 29th of September, properly named the day of St. Michael and All Angels, is a great festival of the Church of Rome, and also observed as a feast by the Church of England. In England, it is one of the four quarterly terms, or quarter-days, on which rents are paid, and in that and other divisions of the United Kingdom, as well as perhaps in other countries, it is the day on which burgal magistracies and councils are re-elected. The only other remarkable thing connected with the day is a widely prevalent custom of marking it with a goose at dinner.

[3] Lunch



Filed under Schools

2 responses to “The Bishop Bethune College (1871 – 1920)

  1. Mary Evans

    My husband’s great great grandfather was T N Gibbs, who originally owned Ellesmere Hall. This article was very interesting and enjoyable to read. It’s a shame that there are no remains of the original building, but what a history the original home had!

    • Hi Mary, What an exciting and proud family history! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and completely agree that there is nothing left. Well, as far as I know there one thing – a door knob – and is it currently attached to Henry House at the Oshawa Museum! If you are local you can come down any time to see it, if not I will send you a picture of it.

      Thanks for reading,
      Jill Passmore
      Visitor Experience Coordinator
      Oshawa Museum

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