The Early History of Britannia High School: 1908 – 1939




This history Of Britannia High School was published in the school newspaper in four installments during October 1938 – May 1939. It is a remarkable story of challenges met, disappointments overcome, traditions celebrated. The contributions of beloved teachers and student heroes are described in detail. The tone is, by turns, boastful, nostalgic, critical, and  wonderfully amusing.

There is a sad irony to the story. Britannia was founded just five years before the outbreak of World War One. A large number of former students fought in the war and many were casualties. Then, in September 1939, just three months after the final chapter of this history was published, world war broke out again, following Germany’s invasion of Poland.


Britannia High School – front view (1920)


October 1938

From the years 1905-6 onward to the Great War, the City of Vancouver had a steady and rapid growth. Particularly was this true in the Eastern part of the present Grandview District. New homes and new streets appeared everywhere. Along with this general increase in population came the accompanying growth in school attendance. This led to a good deal of overcrowding in the only High School the City then possessed, a small edition of the present King Edward, or the Vancouver High School.

Under such conditions the School Board decided a second High School was of vital necessity, and for public convenience the site of the new school should be in Grandview. Accordingly the present location was selected, and the erection of the North wing of the present building commenced in 1909, the plan being such that additions could be added as the need arose. In this wing, the Chemistry room occupied the downstairs East side, while the Physics room was to be immediately above. This accounts for the store rooms in connection with these rooms. The Art room was as at present the upper West room, Very unfortunately, however, the Board did not see fit to provide adequate grounds with the new school, and this inconvenience ever since has been a most severe handicap to school activities.

The real Britannia High began August. 24. 1908, with two classes in the upper storey, north wing of the Seymour School. Guiding its destiny and fostering its growth was Mr. T. A. Brough, the first principal. Acting as his assistant and enrolling a second division, he had Mr. Crombie. The Art Department was looked after by Mr. Gray, who gave part time service. The attendance at this time was sixty-nine, thirty and thirty-nine respectively in the two divisions.

At this period In High School history, all the students took two languages, Latin and French. Mr. Brough looked after the Latin, English, and Composition; while Mr. Crombie took on French, Mathematics and Science. It is of interest, too, when one sees the names of some of the students in those first classes. Among them were: Cecil (Pat) Boyes, long connected with Vancouver schools and, again back to his first choice Gordon Crang, radio specialist; Olive Findlay, nurse and social worker; Robert Payne, of the Canadian Fisheries; Duncan McDonald, one of the school’s first athletes; Ella Cameron, High School teacher; Harnish Cameron, Britannia’s first champion in the High School sports; Grace McIntosh, Gladys Morgan, Grace Williamson, school teachers. Many others might also be mentioned, the beginning of the numerous throng Britannia has been giving to the world’s work.

Early in the school’s history there was inaugurated by Mr. Brough the practice of keeping a record of the year’s leading student as shown by the marks made at the June Departmental examinations. A special board or panel was designed, and placed in the auditorium. Upon this panel appears the name of the student, suitably done in gold lettering. The first names to appear were those of Nellie Hadfield and Eleanor Hague. Since then, new names have been added as the years passed. Now all the student or visitor has to do, is visit the auditorium and upon the panel appears the list of honored names.

In August, 1909, a big growth in the attendance made necessary the opening of a third room, and Mr. Mayers was sent from Fairview School to look after the science. Along with the science he took part of the mathematics and some English. For this year, the art and manual work was charge of Mr. Hutton. Fairly large classes were the order of the day and Class 3 had an enrollment of forty-three, comparable with the size of some of our present day classes. Britannia, so far, had no distinct name, but was known as the “East End High School.” Its students came from a wide range of territory, as all out of town students came to the East End High School. Thus from North Vancouver, Glen MacMillan: from Lulu Island, B. Sexsmith of the present mathematical staff; several from Central Park; others from Sea Island and Marpole. The “Miller Clan” now put in appearance, the first being Clive: and the first of the Munros, Hugh. However, in this smaller school each teacher had a personal acquaintance with every student, and under the kindly hand of Mr. Brought, the whole was something in the nature of a large family. Friendships were formed that survived the intervening years. The school spirit that has made Britannia famous, now glowed forth brightly, a guiding light, for the oncoming years.

In February, 1910, the north wing of the present building was finished, and the classes moved from Seymour. More students were added to swell the attendance and two more teachers to the staff, namely, Miss Ross and Miss Fonda, the latter being in charge of the domestic science. The last named teacher as well had the honor of introducing basket-ball, at that time a game becoming prominent in her native country, the United States.

Owing to the lack of space school sports at first were not so much in evidence but members of those first classes were neither lacking in energy nor initiative. Group picnics were frequent and as Glen McMillan had a fair-sized launch, it did school service every two or three weeks, All the available picnic grounds of the North Arm were visited and explored, and many a happy Saturday was thus spent. The literary society flourished and elections for office keenly contested. Meetings were held twice a month. In the track meet, the school had Bell and Cameron, both versatile athletes, and making a name for the school heard from in those first days.


February 1939

The attendance of many brilliant students featured the years from 1911 to the Great War. Because of sound scholarship, and a fine sporting spirit, the names of many of these are worthy of mention. Among them was a tiny fellow, “Willy” to the family, “Bill” to the boys, and “Abercrombie” to the teachers. Later graduating from U. B. C., he specialized in Commerce: came back to Britannia as a teacher; took to coaching basketball and grass hockey, and now as vice principal of Grandview High School of Commerce still carries on the good work. Robert (Bob) Smith, principal of one of Vancouver’s public schools, also attended, a good basketball player and later a noted referee. Others include Ernest Clarke, at present a fruit inspector for the Provincial Government; Allan Anderson, specialist in chemistry; Percy Barr, forestry; Charlie Anders, druggist; Weir and Wade, newspapermen. Nor should the name of Henry Yamamoto be overlooked: a boy of sterling character, likable personality, and brilliant intellect. Upon graduating from high school he returned to Japan and became a member of the Japanese Diet. In early manhood, though, assassination cut short this promising career. Tose, the first of the Uchidas, was also in attendance, and several years later her brother, now Dr. Uchida. Still another splendid student was Inglis Hosang, quiet, unassuming, but mentally alert and popular among his classmates. On sports Tom Jun added weight to the cricket and rugby teams: Walter and Mlle Styles to their respective basketball teams; Tom Hurst, to cricket. Also there were many whose names appear on the plaque of Britannia’s honored dead, as Howard Odlum. Armour Jeffs, Ed Seidelman, Harold Rumble, Malcolm Reid.

At this time, 1912, mathematics received a big impetus by the arrival of George MacKay from Aberdeen, Scotland. Under him, x and y took on new meanings. Even the dullest caught the fire from his inspiration and genius. The classes received mathematics and no fooling. As well as dealing with the hard facts of his favorite subject, he was a most brilliant English scholar and historian. In his year of history teaching, the students were ever persuaded that in the long drawn out feud between Celt and Saxon, the Celt was invariably victorious. Next to mathematics was, his beloved golf, but for the first years he confined his sporting proclivities to tennis, in which he represented the school in many a well-fought game. After serving overseas, he again returned to Britannia and likewise back to his favorite golf. Twice he achieved the golfer’s ambition of “a hole in one.” Former students still revere the name of this great teacher, one of the best the city has ever had. A picture, presented by the members of his class, hangs above his photo in the front hall, a tribute to the memory of the one they held in such high esteem.

Girls’ sports, up to now overshadowed by the boys, came much to the fore. The idea of girls’ relays originated at a meeting of Britannia girls got to the High Schoo1Association, and a team from the school copped the first year’s race. It was, however, a team of real stars, including Jean Sheraton, Ethel Boyer, Reta Menzies, Jessie and Emily Lett, Katie Urquhart, Elva Buettner and Hazel McNeil. In this year a second heat was necessary and Katie Urquhart, running sixth, ran with a badly broken ankle which she had received in the first. She ran so brilliantly that the race was assured, and then she had to be helped from the field.

Basketball was booming and a High School league gave zest to the play. Good players were in big demand and nearly all schools had good teams. Every match was a battle royal and many a thrilling contest took place in the boys’ basement. The games were then staged in the evening from 7.30 on, and the school basement was often lined two or three deep while a crowd watched from the platform at the East end. A star girls’ team from Britannia won the Provincial Championship. Six players of this team included Emily and Jessie Lett, Hazel McNeil, Rachel Seidelman, Jean Stevens, and Gracie Smith. For the final match, the team travelled to Victoria. It was indeed a gala night when the school chartered one or two electric cars to make the trip to New Westminster. Even standing room was at a premium.

The Literary and Dramatic Society was also flourishing. Mr. Fee had arrived on the scene the same time as Mr. MacKay, after a six years’ sojourn in Germany Under his supervision, the school concerts became noted throughout the city. A fine musician, splendid vocalist as well as a keen critic of art and dramatics, the plays produced were of exceedingly high order, “The Rivals” and “School for Scandal” were both produced, one each year, and the school had a crowded house on each of the two occasions. Seats were all reserved and prices ranged from a dollar to a quarter.

At this time the net proceeds would run anywhere from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars, But, best of all, possibly, were the Christmas carols. These were given in the evening and drew crowded houses, Britannia being among the very first to make this a Yule-time feature. The choir occupied the gallery, the audience below. No admission was ever charged, for this was one of the school’s gifts to the public and the public was represented from throughout the city. Leaders, choristers, and players took a wonderful interest to have the best given and to give their best. Outstanding among the players were Roy Kidd, Orval Johnson, Bert Greenwood,  while to hear Bob Gourlay swear “to suit the occasion” one would fancy it was the real “Bob Acres.” Girls taking part included Connie Highmoor, Isabella Herd, Evelyn McKay, Iona Griffiths, Dolly Von Weithtoff. Others, also, were equally good.

More new additions to the staff included Miss Nona Bentley, 1912, an ardent tennis player, and, in the Commerce Department, Miss Davies. From Ontario in 1913 came Mr. Taylor and Mr. Ferguson. the former to take charge of the Commerce and the latter, Latin. The start of the Inter-High School Athletic Association was made by Mr. Ferguson, Mr. Patsson and Mr. Munro, the present principal. A school picnic became an annual event, one of the first being to Indian River, a large percentage of students attending. The June term of 1914 closed pleasantly. The annual picnic had been held, also the tennis tournament, including girls and teachers, for up to this time, the school had but one court and that reserved for the girls. Prizes were given and at the end the participants had lunch in the dining room. When we assembled again in September, war was on, and the old order of things had passed away.


March 1939

 The game of grass hockey, at present one of the school’s major sports, began during the war years. For the first few seasons the road was rocky and the going uphill all the way. The girls had no equipment and the school refused to finance the new sport. However, in spite of difficulties a dozen girls got together and a practice was held on King Edward grounds with King Edward sticks. They took kindly to the feel of the sticks and arrangements were made to finance a dozen, the girls to buy their own on the instalment plan. This arrangement was not altogether satisfactory. While the sticks were still new and glossy, installments came in but it gradually became harder to collect and a part never was collected. Still the interest continued to grow and more girls turned out to play. Something had to be done, so finely the school put on a concert under the direction of Mr. Fee, and net amount of nearly eighty dollars went to purchase the necessary equipment for the new sport.

Enthusiasm now became great enough to enter a team in the High School League. The initial year, however, was one of disaster. In the very first, game, Britannia came up against a super team from South Van. and a veritable hailstorm of hockey swept the unlucky Britannia goal. The drubbing was complete and the most disastrous in school history, a score of 11- 0 representing the game and not at single shot on the opponent’s goal. The rest of the season was a little better and scores against other schools kept down, but when the term ended Britannia had not entered the scoring column.

Next term saw an uplift as the coaches themselves got a little more coaching chiefly from Mr. Palmer of South Vancouver, and Mr. McLean of the Normal School. As well, all the books of the Public Library were ransacked for information on the subject of field hockey. Practices were even held in the spring, and finally the name of Britannia stood next to that of South Vancouver.

After several years of trial and error, chiefly error, a galaxy of real hockey players entered the school, and enthusiasm soared. Mr. Putnam had come from Victoria to replace Mr. McKay, who had gone overseas, and the new teacher gave of his unflagging energy to assist in the work of coaching, and into the molding of Britannia’s first hockey team. South Vancouver still held first place but not undisputed. The 1921 season closed in the Spring of 1922, as snow and cold weather had terminated the play early the previous Autumn. The clash came at Brockton Point and before a large crowd. Fortune, though, was not with the school, and a lucky goal gave the victory to South Vancouver, but only after one of the most thrilling playoffs in hockey history.

In the Fall of 1922 Britannia swept aside all opposition and not a single goal was chalked up against them. The school’s fighting spirit had pushed the team on to its first major victory, and later in the season the players crossed to Victoria and annexed the Provincial Championship. In this team were at least seven real hockey stars and the remainder extra good, no weakness from goal to forward line. With such backs as Bessie Manning and Lourde Gard, a goal keeper was almost unnecessary, although they had a good one in Adane Thompson, now Mrs. Williams, President of the Ladies’ Hockey League. As half backs, Birdie Allison and Lillian Robinson were in the super class, and as wings Laura Kelly and Ninth Ion had no equals in the league, Around the centre, such players as Evelyn Maclachan and Elizabeth McCallum were ever on the alert to rattle in goals. The name of Annie McKenzie stands high. The team’s captain of the previous year, she did much to unite and kindle the enthusiasm for the victories that took place after she had gone from High School to U.B.C.

Another hard game marked the 1923 playoff. At half time Britannia was two down, and several of the girls came back on tin, field, faces wet, but determined to see the battle through. End of the first half, Mr. Palmer to Mr. McKay: “Pretty good team I’ve got there, Mr. McKay.”

The second half started with a rush and after some perfect combination, the South Vancouver goal keeper was beaten twice in the first ten minutes, and a little later by a third and fourth. Spectators say that the ground just heaved as the crowd went in the air for the third winning goal, Mr. McKay to Mr. Palmer: “Pretty good team we’ve got there, Mr. Palmer!”

Many good players passed through the ranks in these formative years. Among others, Madge Stafford, Irene Sand, Milly Siddons, Joan Miller, Ruby Thompson, Elmi Teppo, Mary West, Peggy Orr, Nora Moran, and, in the early years, Jean Tapley, a brilliant right winger who for many years held the record for a baseball throw of two hundred feet.

The game still goes on, and with the old spirit. No matter where or when, you look for Britannia’s teams to give a good account of themselves, and under the coaching of Mr. Woodworth, they maintain the high standard established in those disappointing early years.


 Two Britannia Girls basketball teams. The 1919 team won the Provincial Championship.

May 1939

In closing this brief history of the school, it might be well to mention some of the activities that have been relegated into the realm of forgotten things, and of others that might still be revived and with profit. For many years, Britannia, like other schools, had its Cadet Corps and on several occasions captured the trophy emblematic for smartness and efficiency. In turn, the leadership of the cadets passed from Mr. Taylor to Mr. Fergusson and lastly to Mr. Northrop. Annual inspection came about the 1st of June and was a gala day in school history, for in addition to school inspection, there was open house for the departments of manual training, sewing and art, and at times, visitors came during the forenoon session to observe the work of other classes. The South lower hall decorated with green branches, flowers, and pictures, was made a cool bower-like room in which tea was served during the afternoon session.

On the P.M. of the great day, the commanding officer of the Vancouver district together with his aids would arrive accompanied by the City Superintendent, and often several trustees. The cadets in spic uniforms and in orderly battalions had already assembled and stood awaiting the call to attention. Music was supplied by the King Edward band, requisitioned for the occasion. Every vantage point was taken, and prominent visitors seated on the school platform in all quiet martial display. When the trumpet sounded the rehearsal over, the scene shifted to the inside. Here ushers showed the visitors through the various departments and then to the bower for tea. The lady teachers presided and were assisted by girls frocked in dresses made in the Domestic Art Department anti often worn for the first time upon this occasion. Refreshments were brought from home while incidentals as tea, coffee, cream, sugar were provided by the school. The boys had their innings by bringing and arranging decorations and as well contributing ten cents each. The day, was a magnet and numbers of former students flocked back to renew old friendships, and to see the teachers, now untamed by maths and classics, Truly a memorable occasion for all functions blended into a homogeneous happy whole, and the hard months of previous toil for awhile forgotten.

The war, too, brought about changes in the staff. Mr. McKay, Mr. Fergusson, and Mr. Taylor went overseas, and to fill their places and to keep pace with the school’s growth, several new teachers were added. Among them Miss Margaret McNiven, now head of the Latin Department; Miss K. Macdiarmid, and Miss Browne, the former in charge of the English.

Cadets on parade on the playing field at Britannia High School (1920)


(Top) Cadet Marching Band – Front steps of Britannia High School (1924)

(Bottom) Cadet Marching Band on Parade on Britannia’s playing field (1924)


Sports in all departments were in the ascendant and the Literary Society flourished. The girls got the Provincial Championship in basketball,1919. Also in track and field. Britannia competitors were well to the front. In one meet, Crawford got the Senior Championship, Guernay the Intermediate and Bowes the Junior, a red letter day. At this time, too, a slender little fellow with a serious glint in his eye might be seen moving through the halls, his eye on the seniors. He would have represented Britannia for the sprints if Jimmy Herd had not beaten him to it. It proved to be Selwyn Miller of the present staff, and he now carries on the high tradition of the track and field in the success attained by the Boys’ Track Club.

The school archives give account of still other clubs. The Little Mothers’ Club flourished for two years. Here the girls were given instruction for further domestic duties, but attendance gradually waned and the club discontinued. Lacrosse too had a season’s innings and then the enthusiasts left school so that the club died a natural death. Inter-school basketball flourished for many years, and play was of a high order, with competition keen. In the school there were class competitions instead of house competitions as at present. Under the coaching of Wm. Abercrombie and Mr. Northrop, Britannia annexed the Provincial championship in 1924. Since the league has been discontinued the game is confined to individual schools and now, although more students may take part, the standard of play has fallen. At present the basketball has as monitor Mr, C. W. Abercrombie but although coaching is of a high order the mind travels back to the stirring games of the older days. Ice hockey has been more or less intermittent chiefly on account of the heavy expense, the difficulty of obtaining good skaters, the distance and time taken up in securing practices. On one of the first teams, the school had a star player in Roy Haines and in this year Britannia was a real competitor.

Something that might still have a place amid many organisations is First Aid. The school teams under the able tuition of Mr. Woodworth were among the finest in the city. Instruction time though was outside regular hours, and as hockey and house activities took more and more time, the course had to be abandoned. Considering the importance of the course, the positions obtained by having had it, the valuable work rendered on different occasions, the First Aid class might well be brought back, but within school hours.

English rugby has constantly increased in popularity and Britannia Bantams have held the field in many a good battle. Mr. Lockhart and Mr. Sexsmith had the honor of bringing together the first winning teams but continuing on there have been many others, until the number of pictures of Bantam teams upon the walls holds a close second to those of grass hockey. Mr. Flather now aids in training these lightweight giants and if the boys could but add a bit more poundage to their statures that Senior Championship might loom on the horizon. After the season for English rugby is over its place is supplied by the Canadian brand and now the teams take kindly to the spirit of the newer game.

Of the track teams under Mr. Miller and Mr. Edwards it is not necessary to speak, for something has gone amiss if our competitors do not furnish many a thrill at the annual High School Sports. In this connection the first house meet was held on a Saturday forenoon at Hastings Park, the first of the House formation, and at this meet the students for the first time acted as officials. These meets have done much to popularize the track but still there is an old record of Senior, Intermediate, and Junior Championships in one year. In the spring, baseball and tennis have been the popular games, while in winter soccer is a close second to rugby. Of the latter games and clubs such as badminton and ping pong these too have many adherents.

Inside activities have been on a par with the outside. The orchestra, under the direction of Miss C. McNiven, has become quite famous, while dramatics flourish in the hands of Mr. Saunders. The debaters, coached by Miss MacDiarmid, have had many successes. The library has moved to its new and greatly enlarged quarters, and here Miss McLarty holds sway. Judging by the attendance at noon and other spare periods, it is one of the most popular rooms it the school. In connection with the library, the school gives a grant of one hundred dollars per annum for cur-rent periodicals and Mr. Northrop sees these are of the best.

Growth of Britannia Union, and its evolution in the House System has been a real revelation. This began about 1916 and with some recessions has made steady progress until the present and now the students enjoy more democracy than in all school history. This gives thorn a real opportunity to show how valuable student leadership may be. A marked change came in 1934 when Mr. Dunning retired and was succeeded by Mr. Munro, the present principal, and under whose rule the school socialization has come largely into being. The Commerce Department as well long connected with Britannia. , now is carried on at the Grandview High School of Commerce.


Grandview High School of Commerce (1927 – 1950)


Many among the staff members have come and gone. Mr. Evans, Mr. McKay, Mr. Fee and lastly Mr. Dunning have all passed the long way. and their places are filled by new faces. Mr. Brough, the first principal and now retired for some years, still looks to Britannia and its formative period as one of the greatest events of his long years of labor, and is never so happy as when talking over the good old days. Scholarship through the years has ebbed and flowed; school leaders have come and gone and organizations have disappeared, and new ones arisen; and soon all those connected with the school’s early history will have passed from the scene, leaving only tradition; but, may the new students always remember, those traditions are high. We are greatly indebted to Mr. Mayers for having given so much of his time to prepare this History of Britannia for us. Our sincerest thanks.


Britannia High School (1930)


1940: Grade 12 Homeroom Class.


One of the Graduating Classes at the 50th Anniversary of  Britannia High School (1959)