Vancouver High School 1890 – 1908

 (L) Vancouver High School (1893 – 1904)     (R) Vancouver High School (1905 – 1908)


(All written passages are taken from THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS – VANCOUVER HIGH SCHOOLS 1890 – 1940, published by the Vancouver School Board in 1940.)

PART ONE             TEMPORARY HOMES: Central School; a two-room wooden building 

                             Central School 1889 (Vancouver High School occupied one classroom)


The names of these students make up a most interesting record of our public school system: Catherine Barnes, Jessie Black, Charlotte Bodwell, Arthur Brown, Mary Doherty, Frederick Duffy, John Harding, Ellen Hart, Charles Hodgson, Marion B. Johnstone, Annie Ketcheson, Isabella Lang, Lily Lindsay, Edith Magee, May Magee, Florence Morrison, William James McGirr, Guy Macgowan, Mary McIntyre, Annabella McKenzie, John McKie, Kate Ethelwynne MacLean, Sydney Oppenheimer, Louise Peck, Martin Ravey, Kate Smith, Margaret Spillman, Anna L. Stewart, Una Stitt, Ada Sweet, and Walter Verrnilyea.

At the close of the first six months of Vancouver High School’s existence, Principal Law was able to give a promising report of his pupils, one which by inference, attested their splendid parentage. He stated that his students possessed energy and culture beyond that of ordinary pupils and that, in most cases, they had definite objectives in view, the teaching profession or the university.’

Seven members of the first class were successful in passing examinations for teachers’ certificates, the largest number from any school in the province. The leading pupil, Catherine Barnes,” received a prize from the Honorable John Robson, Premier, and a gold medal from His Worship David Oppenheimer, Mayor of Vancouver.

A gold medal, donated for excellence in mathematics by the Rev. Father Patrick Fay, went to Mary McIntyre; Marion B. Johnstone gained the medal offered by old pupils of Victoria High School for accomplishment in English. The district prize presented by the Montreal Witness was won by Anna L. Stewart. Other pupils who distinguished themselves were Florence Morrison, Ellen Hart, William McGirr, and Walter Vermilyea. The many prizes demonstrated the interest that Vancouver’s leading citizens took in the new school.


The two-room building which housed Vancouver High School from 1890 to 1893

With the beginning of the new term in August, 1890, greatly increased enrolment in the Central School resulted in the removal of the high school class to a two-room, wooden structure on the Central School grounds. This building, which had served as a temporary elementary school prior to January, 1890, became Vancouver’s first high school.

During the academic year 1890-91, students made steady progress. Eight of the forty-two enrolled were successful in gaining teachers’ certificates. Florence E. Morrison was head pupil, and Edith Magee won second place in the province in the Montreal Witness essay contest. Principal Law resigned at the close of the school year 1890-91. His final report to the Superintendent of Education was thus concluded:

“As the school has been inspected by yourself and Inspector Wilson, and also subjected to a thorough written examination, its efficiency must be well known to the Education Department.”

Mr. Law is remembered for his scholarship, for his serenity in moments of extreme aggravation, and for his untiring efforts to establish firmly an institution of higher learning in young, vigorous Vancouver.



Vancouver’s first high school principal was succeeded by Mr. Alexander Robinson, B.A., who, in January, 1890, had been appointed head of the Central School and Supervising Principal of all the elementary schools of the city. Mr. Robinson, a native of Sussex, New Brunswick, and a graduate of Dalhousie University, was one of a brilliant company of pioneer educators from the Maritime Provinces and Ontario who have left an indelible impression upon public school education in the province.

The new principal, who for eight years was to guide the destinies of the expanding high school, was an able classical scholar and a firm disciplinarian, one who demanded diligence and commanded respect. “The most dynamic personality ever to lead a class in British Columbia”, says Professor Lemuel Roberston, himself a brilliant scholar and notable educator. During his regime the school not only made rapid scholastic progress but also outgrew its modest, temporary home. In the fall of 1893, classes were moved into the fine new, eight-room red brick “Vancouver High School”, Cambie and Dunsmuir, our first permanent high school building.

Vancouver High School 1893 – 1904

Principal Robinson had associated with him men, like himself, of high mental and moral stature. J. H. Secord, B.A. (Acadia), was appointed to the staff with him in 1891. Early in the academic year 1892-93, Mr. Secord resigned because of ill-health, and J. H. Kerr, B.A. (Toronto), succeeded him. The high school’s enrolment was now 144, and the staff was augmented by the appointment of J. C. Shaw, B.A. (Dalhousie), A.M. (Harvard), M.A. (McGill). In the fall of 1893, Mr. G. E. Robinson, B.A. (Dalhousie), and J. K. Henry, B.A. (Dalhousie), joined the teaching body. The high school staff, which had grown from one to five within four years, remained unchanged until 1899.

Vancouver High School Staff – 1893

In an article entitled, “So We Started a High School in the City”, Vancouver Daily Province, January 18, 1936, Mrs. R. M. Bower, daughter of Hastings Mill School’s second teacher who became Mrs. Benjamin Springer, wife of the manager of Moodyville Sawmill, gives intimate word pictures of the pioneer staff.

“Alexander Robinson, ‘Sandy’ as the youngsters called him when he wasn’t listening, was a very lean, tall chap, with greying hair; thick eyebrows topped piercing dark eyes that could darken and quell—and did so upon the necessary occasions—but they also had the charming art of bursting into hidden lights of sparkling laughter. He had a black moustache which partially hid a brilliant set of teeth”.

Mrs. Bower related that Mr. Robinson was the right man in the right place, that the virile youth of the young and vigorous community responded, full measure, to his commanding presence and his genius for the dramatic.

“. . he was an excellent teacher, endowed with a keen intellect, . . . a man of dark and light moods, like old and new wine. There was a vitality about him that was contagious”.

Mrs. Bower pictured James Shaw as an ardent scholar, a gentle. man highly respected, who imparted a splendid enthusiasm to his classes in literature and in the classics.

“He was a most likeable person but an extremely nervous one. Woe betide the unlucky youngster who could not conjugate the required Latin verb! In looking back over the years, his one-time pupils confess to a very warm spot in their hearts for this man”.

Mr. G. E. Robinson, Mrs. Bower recorded, was a conscientious and thorough teacher of geometry, algebra and higher mathematics.

“He had the characteristic of being very slow and deliberate in all that he did. Slow to wrath, too…. Yet his discipline was perfect; a good long stare—deadly silence, and the most hardened offender, after a faint-hearted display of bravado, would slink into submission.”

Mr. K. Henry, teacher of English and Science, who later became an associate professor at U.B.C., was thus described:

“He was small in stature, natty, sandy-complexioned, with a neatly-trimmed moustache. His specialty was chemistry, physics, botany. An ardent expounder of these subjects, exceedingly active himself, he gave no quarter to the indolent. Many a lazy youngster has squirmed under his fine sarcasm.”

Mrs. Bower stated that everyone liked Mr. Kerr, the master who drilled in commercial mathematics. He resigned in 1900 to accept a position with the Dominion Government.

 Senior Class, Vancouver High School (1892)

                This photograph, taken in 1895, shows the three buildings that housed Vancouver High  School at different times: Central                               Elementary School, the two-room wooden building, and the eight-room brick building which opened in 1893. 



With promising pupils and an excellent staff, Vancouver High School made rapid scholastic progress. Soon it became imperative to offer something more than preparatory courses leading to teachers’ certificates.

As early as 1891, when the school was little more than twelve months old, initial steps had been taken to enlarge the high school’s academic sphere. A. H. B. Macgowan, Chairman, Board of School Trustees, and Member of the Provincial Legislature, while in Montreal entered into preliminary discussions with Sir William Dawson, K.C.M.G., and Acting Principal Johnston of McGill University, concerning the affiliation of Vancouver High School in First and Second Year Arts. Mr. Macgowan subsequently drafted a bill to secure necessary enabling legislation, but action was deferred. C. C. Eldridge and C. W. Murray, Vancouver School Board, and others, worked indefatigably to further the project. Principal Robinson, who, from the first, had given the measure his unqualified support, more than any other, inspired its final consummation.

In 1894, the passing of an Act which permitted the affiliation of high schools in the province with recognised Canadian Universities, made possible the beginning of the work normally done in a university. In the academic year 1898-99, Vancouver High School made its first systematic attempt to matriculate students; eight candidates were successful.

The next school year the high school was actively affiliated with McGill University in First Year Arts, taking the name of “Vancouver College”. ‘The school was also officially known as “Vancouver High School and College”. In 1899-1900, a class of six students took the full First Year University Course in Arts and four passed the McGill University examinations. At Easter, 1899, Principal Robinson’s special abilities were required by the Provincial Education Department and he resigned to accept the position of Superintendent of Education. J. C. Shaw was appointed to succeed him.

Sports teams at Vancouver High School and College

Principal Shaw began his first year as head of Vancouver College in August, 1900. The new principal, who had lectured at Dalhousie before joining the staff in 1893, was not only one of the ablest of scholars but also an admirable administrator. It was he who was responsible for the choice of the school’s splendid mottoes, “tenax propositi” and “crescit eundo” which, states Professor G. E. Robinson, “he regarded as a summons to earnest, energetic and persistent effort”. A “sophomore” attempt at free translation of the mottoes might read, “holding firmly to its purpose” and “it grows in influence as it advances towards its goal”. Students facetiously interpreted them as “a tough proposition” and “getting worse all the time”.

With the year 1900, Vancouver High School had completed its first decade. In ten years a high school class had become a college, nucleus of the future University of British Columbia. It was a matter “for surprise as well as for congratulation” recorded David Wilson, B.A., Provincial Inspector of Schools, that the city should maintain so complete a school system”.”



 Progress was manifest not alone in the scholastic field and in student activities. The school had grown numerically—phenomenally so. Enrolment, which was 219 in 1900-01, was 415 in 1904-05. Principal Shaw, in his report to the Provincial Superintendent, 1902, told of overcrowded conditions, the natural consequence of a 42% increase in enrolment. He explained that a proper regard both for numbers and for grading had made obligatory the formation of more classes than there were class-rooms, and that it had become necessary to hold certain classes at other than statutory hours. He told also of the inadequacy of library and gymnasium accommodation, and stated that the grounds of the school were too small. He further pointed to the need for an assembly hall which could be used as a general examination room and for an armory for the proposed cadet corps.

The spring of 1903, Vancouver Board of School Trustees requested the City Council to submit to taxpayers a by-law for $125,000 to meet immediate high school requirements and to provide for future growth. The by-law passed and the School Board secured a site on the fringe of settlement in Fairview, seven acres of forest clearing, a wilderness of stumps, lumps, and hollows, at a cost of $6506.00

Students working in the crowded quarters of the old red brick high school on Cambie Street looked forward with eagerness to a new building. Many of the boys had done much to insure the success of the by-law, and its passage was acclaimed by a victory parade. Equipped with horns and other noise makers, they marched in procession through the principal streets towards the homes of their teachers.

Mr. James Henderson, popular instructor in Philosophy, was first visited, and in succession, Mr. G. E. Robinson, Principal Shaw, Mr. L. F. Robertson, Miss Maud Hunt, Mr. T. Pattison, Mr. S. W. Mathews, and lastly, Mr. J. J. Banfield, Chairman, Board of School Trustees. Loud cheers opened doors, and cries of “speech” brought fitting responses. At the College, the boys held a rousing reception, and were addressed by E. K. (Ned) DeBeck, and R. W. (Curly) Ellis, their colleagues, whom they cheered to the echo. That night, lusty throats rather than blaring radios had told all Vancouver that a new high school was assured….


Vancouver High School (top) – the new building at 12th and Cambie; (bottom) – the view looking north from the Cupola.

On January 5, 1905, the Fairview edifice was formally opened. “It was a day,” said the News-Advertiser, “such surely as no other portion of Canada could boast. The sun shone brightly and showed in grand relief the stately building towering above the city which lay beneath like some fair picture, encircled by the snow-capped mountains and the gleaming seas.”‘ The doors were thrown open at 2 o’clock and over one thousand admiring people thronged through the building.

When the time arrived for the opening ceremonies, the large auditorium on the top floor, with a seating capacity of seven hundred, was packed to overflowing.2 People stood around the walls, sat on window sills, and streamed in long queues from the doorways. Speeches were the order of the day. Many guests, prominent in Vancouver and elsewhere in the province, spoke of their pleasure at being present at the opening of what was considered the finest high school building in the whole Dominion. One of those who addressed the gathering was Mr. Alexander Robinson, Provincial Superintendent of Education, Principal of the school, 1891-99. In the course of his remarks, the Superintendent, with a twinkle in his eye, reminded some unduly excited youngsters that he had once wielded the rod in the school and that, though his authority was gone, the inclination still remained a remark which was greeted with laughter and applause.

Vancouver High School: (top) the school cafeteria; (bottom) the Class of 1905

The pleasant and impressive ceremony over, those assembled proceeded to inspect the building. Thus began Vancouver High School and College in its new home in Fairview, but not the Fairview known to students of today. Not so very long before, the age-old forests clothing the area had first resounded to the axe of the logger, to cries of “timber” and the swish and thud of falling trees, and men had guided oxen with their chain of logs down ravine trails to False Creek and its mills. The district in the neighborhood of Eighth Avenue and Granville Street, and the area south of False Creek adjoining Bridge (Cambie) Street, had begun to be settled by 1890, and the heights adjoining Alder Street, shortly thereafter.

“The houses in Fairview,” said Miss Eileen DesBrisay, writing in the College Argus of May, 1906, “are rather scattered as yet, although many new buildings are being erected. At the foot of the sidewalk running from the school to Ninth Avenue is a small waiting station where, on rainy days, the girls find shelter until their car comes.” “Stretching north-east from the school to the newly constructed hospital is a strip of uncleared land. Here on the warm days many of the students enjoy their lunch and idle away the noon hour; while others spend their time exploring in the thicker woods to the south of the school.”

The district also had its ravines. One touched the south-eastern boundary of the high school grounds and cut the thoroughfares, which in 1908 had been constructed only as far south as 11 Avenue. In the spring days the ravines were the haunt of “student” fishermen, and more than one youth is reported to have caught a fair-sized trout during the lunch hour.



Vancouver High School accommodated not only students of the city, but also, until 1908, those of surrounding districts. Henceforth the part played by the pioneer high school in the organization of new high school centres, both in the city and in the then separate municipalities of South Vancouver and Point Grey, led to its proud claim of being a Mother of High Schools.

The extension of Vancouver’s electric railway system, the first electric interurban in Canada, through a wilderness of forest to New Westminster, hastened growth of the East End of Vancouver, the district in which the city’s second high school, “Britannia”, became established. Cottages, with stove pipe chimneys, water wells, and gardens scratched between the roots of the clearings, dotted the land to the right and left of the interurban line. To the north lay a panorama of sea and shore; far beyond snow-clad mountains lay resplendent. From a point of vantage in the East End a pioneer settler spoke of the “grand view”, and Grandview District it became. The years brought many families into that part of the city and by 1908 the four elementary schools of Grandview District’ and the seven elementary schools elsewhere in the city were graduating an increasing number of pupils, many of whom looked forward to entering high school.

The midsummer of 1908 found Vancouver High School with an enrolment of 810, one hundred more than could be accommodated comfortably. To relieve overcrowding and, what was more important, to give convenient high school facilities to the students living in the East End, a high school centre was opened in rooms of the Seymour Elementary School. Its organization was in the capable hands of Mr. T. A. Brough, B.A. (Queen’s), from 1905 a member of the staff of Vancouver High School.

On Monday, August 24, 1908, Principal Brough and First Assistant I. Crombie, M.A. (Acadia), also of the staff of the pioneer institution, called the roll of the new school. Sixty-nine students, many of whom had attended the Vancouver High School, responded. For the rest of the academic year this high school unit, for administrative purposes, was attached to Vancouver High School, but in the next the institution became a separate entity.

To distinguish between the two Vancouver high schools, the Vancouver Board of School Trustees suggested that the pioneer high school be called “King Edward” and its offshoot, “Britannia”. The Principals of both institutions were proud to accept the new names, the one, that of the beloved sovereign, Edward, the Peacemaker, the other, the symbol of a mother country respected and beloved.

Britannia High School

The third high school centre in Vancouver was established in the West End. This district in early days had been the fashionable residential area of the city, and many were its families who stabled spanking steeds which clattered down West End macadam streets with flashing phaetons at their heels. By 1914, although most of Vancouver’s pioneer families, long prominent in the business and social life of the community, had moved to Kitsilano Hill overlooking the sea, or had built homes on Shaughnessy Heights, the West End was still well populated. Many of the rapidly growing group of Vancouver’s younger business men and their families had found the West End a desirable place of residence, so that the elementary schools of the district, each preparing students for entrance to high school, had grown apace.

The establishment of Britannia High School in 1908 had relieved the pressure of numbers at King Edward High School in part only. In the academic year 1908-09, Mr. D. W. Campbell and Mr. Allan Bowles taught King Edward “overflow” classes in the Lord Roberts School in the West End. Similarly, overflow classes were accommodated in 1909-10 on the upper floor of the newly opened Model School in Fairview. The completion in 1912 of the south wing of King Edward High School lessened the congestion somewhat, but the school was still overcrowded. The list of successful high school entrance candidates for the academic year 1913-14 was the largest in the history of the city, whilst the enrolment in the city’s two high schools in August, 1914, was 32 per cent greater than in the previous year.

The immediate problem of accommodating Vancouver’s expanding high school population was met by the renovation of six classrooms of the old Dawson School In August, 1914, Mr. Thomas Pattison, M.A. (Glasgow), appointed principal of the new high school, left the King Edward institution, taking with him two second year classes. These, together with four first year divisions, made up the first unit of King George High School.

King George High School (formerly Dawson Elementary School)

 Kitsilano was the home of Vancouver’s fourth secondary institution. In early days its shore area was known to British men-of-war as a good place for wood and water. In 1905, part of this area, Greer’s Beach, consisted of a cluster of summer campers’ tents, ranged row on row in “streets” along the sand, at the end of the new single track carline. In 1905, also, the Canadian Pacific Railway opened up the subdivision of Kitsilano, a name derived from ”Khahtsahlano”, the famous Indian chief whose hunting ground it had been. The way was prepared for the development of a new residential school.

In 1917 four overflow classes from King Edward were moved to Cecil Rhodes elementary School in south Fairview… This first unit of Kitsilano High School took up quarters in Henry Hudson Elementary School, Kitsilano, in the fall of 1918. In January 1920, the first wooden structure was erected on the present site of Kitsilano High School, Trafalgar Street and 12th Avenue.

Kitsilano High School (first building)




  1. For more information about the career of Alexander Robinson, Vancouver’s first High School Principal, follow the link below to an article by Thomas Fleming, Professor of Educational History, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria.


Alexander Robinson at the 1939 reunion of Vancouver High School


1. Use the link below to see a PDF copy of the document: Vancouver High School Course of Studies 1893-4

2. Use the link below to see a PDF copy of the document: Vancouver High School and College Session 1906 – 1907