‘The Romance of Vancouver’s Schools’ (1911)

Hastings Mill, 1886


The text for this Feature Story is taken from an article published in 1911 in the British Columbia Magazine, Vol. VII, No. 6. The photos featured in the article are from the Vancouver School Board District Archives and the City of Vancouver Archives.



In the Vancouver School Board Annual Report for 1977 – 1978, there is a short passage that explores the identity of A.M. Ross:

An informative account entitled “The Romance of Vancouver’s Schools” appeared in the June 1911 issue of The British Columbia Magazine, and is the opening article in the book “Schools of Old Vancouver, published by the Vancouver Historical Society. The article is signed simply ‘A.M. Ross, B.A.’, but it is known that the author was a Miss Ross. Beyond that, her identity is a mini-mystery. The 1911 city directory listed a journalist named Annie Ross who lived at 1069 Thurlow Street. The 1912 directory listed a Miss A. Ross, a teacher at Macdonald School, who lived at 1107 Thurlow Street.

Whoever she was, the author of the article was a competent recorder of events in the early days of the Vancouver school system….

Macdonald School, as it looked in 1928. The school opened in 1905.




The west has not yet given birth to a Hans Andersen, but the lack of such a genius will not be seriously felt so long as the stories of everyday life continue to furnish us with tales more wonderful than even the most daring flights of such gifted dreamers. Thus who, for instance, would have dared to prophesy on that February morning some thirty-eight years ago, when Miss Julia Sweeny tapped her bell (or whatever else she used for that purpose), and some fifteen rather frightened-looking children trooped awkwardly into the little pine-scented wooden school which had just been erected within a stone’s throw of the greyish waters of Burrard Inlet by the employees of a remote sawmill camp, cut off from the rest of the world by a stupendous mountain range on the one side, and a no less mighty ocean on the other, that by the time these children’s heads had begun to grizzle this remote mill camp would have become the fourth city in Canada, with a population of 150,000, with a school system quite up to the average of that of the older provinces, and the prospect of having within the course of another year or two one of the finest universities on the American continent? Yet that is the story of the growth of Vancouver’s school system, from its inception less than forty years ago until the present date.

To begin at the beginning, the first settlement at the point where Vancouver proper now stands clustered around a sawmill, in operation, and known as the Hastings mill. This mill was built in 1865; and gradually there began to grow up around it a little village formed of the shacks of the employees. Some of these men brought out their wives and families, and by the year 1872 there were between fifteen and twenty children, white and half-breed, of school age in the colony. Then the parents began to feel that they could no longer allow these children to spend their days building castles in the sawdust, playing hide-and-seek among the lumber piles, and growing up in utter ignorance. They must be sent to school. So the men called a meeting and elected a board of school trustees, of which Capt. W. H. Soules, Jonathan Miller and R. H. Alexander (all of whom are still residents of the city) were members, Mr. Alexander being secretary. A spot about 100 yards from the mill, and close to Mr. Alexander’s house, was selected as the site for the school; and a school district was formed with this point as centre, and a radius extending three miles into the primeval forest — no land on the north side of the inlet, of course, to be included. Then lumber was procured from the mill, and a school house 18 x 40 feet erected. The building was completed on Saturday evening, and on the following day Rev. Mr. Owen, the Episcopalian missionary for this district, held service there. The Rev. Ebenezer Robson, the first Methodist missionary to this secluded little flock, also was in the habit of holding services in this same building, which for thirteen years was both church and school. Then the mill people having done so much, the government at Victoria was asked to provide a teacher, and Miss Julia Sweeny, the daughter of the mill machinist, was appointed the first teacher.


Hasting Mill School, June 1886


At that time there seemed very little chance of Vancouver, or Granville, as it was then called, ever becoming a place of any importance. It was merely a mill camp, while its nearest neighbor, New Westminster, was a rather important place with a school population of 16o, and Victoria quite an educational centre, with 1045 pupils in her schools, and a staff of seven teachers.

It is true there was talk of a transcontinental railroad that was to link British Columbia to the rest of the world; but then it didn’t look as though that would help Granville much either, since everybody believed that Port Moody would be the terminus of the proposed road. Indeed, I have an idea that a good many wise ones considered the place had no future at all and, with a parting tear for those deluded ones who remained behind, left for other places where the prospects were brighter — at least, of the names that appeared on that first school register but few are known in the business world of Vancouver today, most of their owners having left. But of the members of that first class some are still on the spot today, among these being Messrs. R. H. H. and Fred Alexander, sons of R. H. Alexander, a member of the first school board, while F. H. Miller, Mrs. Berry and Mrs. D. Todd Lees, children of Jonathan Miller, another member of the first board, and Judge Alexander, Mrs. Simpson and Mrs. Jas. Abbot, though not all old enough to be present on that first morning, were among the earliest pupils of Granville school.

Miss Sweeny was shortly succeeded as teacher by Mrs. Richards, who soon became Mrs. Ben Springer, and cast her lot with the struggling little hamlet, giving place to a Miss Redfern, who after a short tenure of office gave place in turn to Mrs. Catherine Cordiner, still a resident of the city, who taught from 1876 to 1882, and was succeeded by no less a person than Miss Agnes Deans Cameron, who is at present lecturing in London on her adventurous trip down the Mackenzie river to the Arctic. She taught for one year, and was followed successively by two very attractive girls, with whom the big boys persisted in falling in love; and to obviate this difficulty the school board was driven to the expedient of engaging male teachers.

School teaching was not altogether a bad-paying business then, as the usual salary was $55.00 per month — not bad considering that the simple life prevailed; better, indeed, than some unfortunate teachers receive even now when prices are aviating, and the question of high living, and living high, such burning ones. One gasps to think what a mint of money thrifty teachers might have made had some good angel whispered to them to invest in a bit of stumped acreage.

But perhaps teaching may have been a less remunerative employment than I imagine, or else the people were hard to suit; at any rate, great difficulty was experienced in keeping a teacher longer than six months, a change every half year being the usual order. As might be imagined, the pupils did not progress very fast, the school succeeding in passing on an average of one pupil each year for High School entrance. However, in the summer of 1885 the record was broken, Alice Miller and her brother Ernest (now a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia) having both passed. But this lack of success may not have been entirely due to the teaching, the examinations set being enough to account for some of them. Thus on one paper which I saw, I noticed the following conundrum: “What in the Sixth Century was a salve for every wrong?” What a pity the formula for that salve has been lost! — a poser sufficient to floor the average university graduate of the present day, while the lists of grotesquely mis-spelled words to be spelled correctly which were administered to students in those days under the name of spelling papers are sufficient to account for much of the bad spelling of the children of our own time.

But in 1886 a change came. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company, which had for years past been laboriously blasting its way through the Rockies, had at last succeeded in bridging all the chasms and tunneling all mountains; and now the wild shriek of their locomotive re-echoed in the forests about the little hamlet of Granville — there were next to no houses, the town having been burnt to the ground on June 13 — and heralded the birth of a new era.

At once the sluggish pulse of the little mill town began to beat faster. People flocked to what they saw must soon be a thriving sea-port town; and the little school house that had done duty for thirteen years had to be abandoned, as it was now left standing poised dizzily on the edge of a deep railroad cut. Anyway it had already become far too small. From that moment until the present, Granville, or Vancouver, as it was baptized anew by the railroad company, has been simply out of breath trying to keep up with itself —particularly with its school population, which, despite the best efforts of successive school boards, persistently overflows whatever buildings are put up for its accommodation.

In 1886 school closed on June 13, and did not open again until November, because there was no place in which to hold school. In the meantime the board, of which Messrs. R. H. Alexander, R. G. Tatlow and Dr. Backingsdale were members, had decided that a four-roomed school was necessary, and proceeded to build one, 37 x 67 feet, two storeys high, and costing $3,500, on what is now Cordova street just east of Jackson avenue. Mr. J. W. Robinson, who had been teaching the Granville school at $6o.00 per month when the railroad entered the village, was made principal of the new school, at $10.00 a month increase, he having one assistant, Miss Alice Christie, and 93 pupils at the new year; and four assistants (the new ones being Miss Hartney, now Mrs. Bird, and Miss McMurchy, now Mrs. Dr. Mills) and 285 pupils by the end of June 1887.

And so at the close of that term the board found themselves face to face with the necessity of providing still more school accommodation — a necessity that has confronted successive school boards at the close of every term since. It was decided then to build another four-roomed school on the corner of Burrard and Barclay streets, where the Aberdeen school now stands;’ and a two-roomed school across False Creek, near the site of the present Mount Pleasant school.’ By the end of June 1888, there were three schools and seven teachers. Yet this was not enough, and the board for that year recommended the erection of an eight-roomed brick building.’ Until this was ready, a temporary frame structure was built which served until the new school was ready; and then, even the new building not being sufficient, it was used as a school room until 189o, when it became the home of the first High School, and later was used as offices for the school board and city superintendent until early in the present year, when these latter were removed into a handsome new building of their own, and the old school finally abandoned.

Class photos: Top – Oppenheimer School (1887); Middle – False Creek School  (1892); Bottom: West School (1888)


Central School, 1890 – Vancouver’s first masonry school building.

By the end of June 1890, the school enrolment had increased to 1,024, with 13 teachers on the staff. In this year also 18 pupils passed the High School entrance examination, and three secured teachers’ certificates. The need of a High School then began to be felt; and with the opening of the new brick school in January 1890, a High School class was organized, the old temporary school building was forced to do duty as a class room, and R. Law, B.A., the principal of the public schools, was appointed first High School principal with a class enrolment of 31. Gold medals were plentiful in those days; in the examinations of 1890 three pupils received medals, a Miss Barnes, at present on the teaching staff, winning Mayor Oppenheimer’s medal for being head pupil, Miss McIntyre, a medal presented by Rev. Father Fay for proficiency in mathematics, and Miss Johnston the old Victoria High School medal for being first in English.


Top: Vancouver High |School, 1890. Bottom: Vancouver High School, 1893

At the close of the midsummer term of 1890 the schools had once more outgrown their accommodation, and it was decided to build another new eight-roomed school in the east end of the town, where the bulk of the population still lived. The following year three new eight-roomed buildings, one of which was to be used as a High School,’ were commenced. By the time these three schools were ready for occupation in August 1893 they were already insufficient; but the strain was too great. In 1892 the government, by an amendment to the School Act, had placed upon cities the burden of providing for the salaries of their teachers, giving only a per capita grant, based as it still is, on the average attendance; and although further accommodation was needed, sufficient funds were not forth-coming, and the matter had to be left over for another year. The following year — 1894 — these three new buildings were ready for occupation, and another four-roomed building was also added; and by the year 1895 it was found necessary to add four more rooms to each of the three new schools in the east, west and southern parts of the city.


East School, 1892


Dawson School under construction, 1891

But the financial situation was desperate. Hard times prevailed then, and in order to meet the situation the board hit upon the brilliant idea of reducing all the teachers’ salaries, promising, of course, to go back to the old standard when times improved, which, unfortunately, they didn’t do for the teachers until within the past year or two. In this way the board cleared a margin of $7,000.00.

At that time the cost of administering the schools had increased to formidable proportions. The enrolment was now 2,375, with 159 students in the High School; a teaching staff of 45, while the total cost of maintenance was $43,463.73, even after the saving of $7,000 had been made.

The next five years marks a rapid advancement in the school system of the city. In 1896 an appropriation of $70,000 was made for the purpose of doubling the capacity of the schools in the east, west and southern portions of the city, which had already been enlarged once; and the board thought they had sufficient accommodation for years to come. But vain hope ! Scarcely were these additions completed before they were filled. The following year the board was confronted with the same old necessity of more accommodation, and two more rooms were opened in the east end. By the year 1900-0I the school population had increased 3,907, and to 4,669 the year following, with 219 in attendance at the High School. In June 1900 the teaching staff numbered 68, and in 1901 had increased to 84, while the total expenditure on the schools in the year 1901 was $145,576.84. In the ten years next following, the increase has been more wonderful still, the school enrolment having increased from 4,669 in 1901 to 10,240 in 1911, the High School attendance from 219 to 709, the teaching staff from 84 to 250, with 19 supervisors and manual training and domestic science instructors, while the cost per annum of administration has increased from $145,576.84 to $308,526.06, and the number of school buildings from eight, in 1901, to twenty, valued at $2,408,314.07, in 1911.


 But not content with merely increasing the number of schools, earnest efforts were also made to raise the standard of the schools and to provide a course of study that should afford to the child a systematic and harmonious development of body as well as mind, and thoroughly fit him for his life-work. To this end physical and military drill were introduced into the schools as early as 1898, and a special instructor, Sergeant-Major Bundy, a man with an excellent record for both military and naval service, appointed to take charge of the work. Drill was commenced in the primary grades, and carried on throughout the whole school course, and at the present time one of the most efficient military bodies in the province is the troop of High School cadets.

Drawing was first introduced into the schools in 1900, with a special instructor in charge; and through the generosity of Sir William Macdonald,’ two manual training centres were established in the same year. Drawing is taught throughout the whole school course, beginning with the babies in the infant classes, and the numerous exhibits of work in the various schools testify to the excellence of the work being done. From having but a single supervisor, the work has grown until now three are necessary, one for the Normal School, another for the High School, and a third in charge of the work in the public schools.


General Brock Elementary School

The work in manual training has increased so that instead of the two centres originally opened, there are now ten — eight in the public schools and two in the High Schools, with a staff of ten instructors. Manual training is taught to boys during the last three years of the public school course, and throughout the High School years. But though the number of centres has increased, the work has not been broadened yet, only woodwork and joinery being taught. However, at the present moment a building costing $150,000 is in course of erection in connection with the High School which, when completed, will afford accommodation for a forge room, metal-turning department and machine shop, it being the intention to gradually broaden out, making the course not only such as will teach the boy to earn his living with his hands, but serving as the introductory work for the mining, engineering and mechanical courses which will be taught at the new university, of which mention will be made later. But even as at present equipped, the manual training centres, in so far as they go, would compare favorably with those of Great Britain, while in some respects that at the High School is even better.

It is hoped before very long to make the manual training course an option, which may be taken instead of some other subject, and which will count on the student’s final examination instead of being an extra subject as at present.


In the year 1905 domestic science, including sewing and cooking, was added to the regular school course for girls. This runs parallel with the course in manual training for boys, the girls spending one-half day a week, in the public school years, in the domestic science kitchen while the boys of the class are taking their manual training lesson. At first one supervisor was in charge of the work, but now there are six instructors (a supervisor of cooking and three assistants, and two sewing instructresses) and six domestic science kitchens.

Very excellent work is being done in both these branches. Doubtless were long the work of the housewife will be given the place and importance it deserves, and domestic labor be raised from being a menial task to being held in esteem as one of the most important branches of applied science.

A thoroughly competent supervisor is in charge of the cooking kitchens, and while she instructs her girls in the rudiments of bread-making, the proper methods of cooking meats and vegetables, and the preparation of dainty and appetizing side dishes, besides giving them an idea of the food values of different articles of diet and the underlying reasons for combining different ingredients to produce a well-balanced bill of fare, she also gives them a thorough training in systematic methods, the work of her classes being performed with almost military promptness and precision, each dish in each girl’s cupboard being in its exact place, and even the knives, forks and spoons being ranged like a row of little soldiers. The results achieved by these little housekeepers are excellent. At one kitchen where I visited the odd member of the class, who happened to be a little Chinese girl, with her ebony braids done up with big blue bows, cooked and served me with a French omelet, which I take this opportunity of testifying was excellent.


Lord Tennyson Elementary School

Splendid work is also being done in the sewing classes, where the girls learn not only the rudiments of plain sewing and dressmaking, but also the various kinds and qualities of material, the relative durability and price of each, and are taught to apply their mathematics and geometry in the drafting of patterns, and their art work in embroidery, stencilling and other forms of decoration.

Among the other improvements in the school curriculum in 1905 was the introduction of music throughout all the public school grades, which has ever since been under the supervision of a special instructor.

Then to make sure that the child should be physically as well as mentally sound, a system of medical supervision was instituted in 1909. Once, and twice a month, if possible, the school physician and nurse visit each room and thoroughly examine each child, see that weak eyes, decayed teeth, enlarged tonsils, or any other physical defects that may be found, receive prompt and proper attention.

To see that all this school machinery works smoothly it was found necessary as early as 1903 to appoint a city superintendent — W. P. Argue, late Deputy-minister of Education for Manitoba, having been selected for the position, which he still holds.

All in all, then, wonderful advancement has been made since the establishment of that first little school in 1872. Now the educational standard in Vancouver is about on a par with that of Eastern Canada, compares very favorably with that of Great Britain, and surpasses that to be found in many parts of the United States. But I discovered a rather interesting fact while visiting the various schools. A number of the instructors are Old Country teachers, and they claim they cannot get as good results with Vancouver as with Old Country children. A comparison of the work of both would seem to justify this contention. The Canadian child is, on the whole, quicker to grasp a new idea, but he has a constitutional dislike for thoroughness. Despite the excellence of the school system, the pupils do not attain to the same degree of proficiency as children, even a couple of years younger, of the Old Land would under the very same teachers, because here the teacher is always up against the lack of home training, the absence of any feeling of the necessity of obedience, and the “I’ll do just as I please” attitude on the part of the child. Thus, while unending care is being exercised in planning newer and better systems of education and money is being spent without stint, the children are not receiving the education they might, simply because of the failure of parents to do their part.


 With the opening of the first High School in 1890, with Mr. R. Law, B.A., as principal, the initial step was taken in a movement which will culminate in the near future in Vancouver being the seat of one of the best-equipped universities on the American continent. Very rapidly the attendance at the High School increased, and in 1893 the erection of a large eight-roomed brick building was begun for its accommodation, which was ready for occupation in August 1893. That soon becoming insufficient, a plot of seven acres, beautifully situated and overlooking the city, the bay and the inlet, was secured, and the erection of a splendid eighteen-roomed building, costing $100,000, was completed in 1905. Since then it has been necessary to build a second High School,’ so that at present Vancouver has two High Schools and a staff of 25 High School teachers.

As early as 1892 the need of a still more advanced course of education was felt, and steps were taken toward the affiliation of the Vancouver High School with McGill University, Montreal. In 1894 legislation was passed empowering the affiliation of high schools to recognized universities; and this was supplemented in 1896 by an act providing for the incorporation of high schools as colleges in accordance with the charters and constitutions of such universities. Under these enactments, Vancouver High School became Vancouver College and was admitted to affiliation for the First Year in Arts by the corporation of McGill University; and in the year 1899-1900 First-year work was taken up with a class of six undergraduates. Recognition, also, of the character of the work was given by McGill in 1902, when an extension of affiliation was given, covering the first two years in Arts and the university intermediate examination.


King Edward High School, 1912

In accordance with these regulations, First and Second Year work in Arts was being carried on in the Vancouver High School, under the supervision of the High School principal; but in 1909 this was found to be too much for one man, and Mr. G. E. Robinson, principal of the High School, and his classes were given accommodation in the old hospital building, with a new principal, Mr. S. W. Matthews, M.A., for the High School. This new school, McGill University College as it was called, has now a faculty of ten teachers doing three years’ work in Arts, and two in Applied Science.

Another step in the direction of higher education was taken in October 1909 when night schools were established in various parts of the city, at which instruction was given in the ordinary elementary English and mathematical subjects, and in addition to these there were classes in carpentry and joinery, architecture, drawing, designing and modelling, shorthand and typewriting, dressmaking, sheet-metal working, and one for prospectors. During the past year these classes, which were in charge of a staff of forty-four super-visors, were attended by 1,063 students.

But to culminate all, Vancouver is soon to become the seat of a university. Legislation has lately been passed, setting aside 2,000,000 acres of land as an endowment for a Provincial University; and as this should furnish, at a conservative estimate, a revenue of $1,000,000 annually, the government propose building and equipping one of the finest universities on the continent. The site which has been chosen is a piece of land beautifully situated, overlooking the Gulf of Georgia, and sloping down toward the Fraser River and English Bay. Here 200 acres have been set apart for a university site and for the accommodation of affiliated theological colleges which will be given a location near the university.

The land will be cleared during the present summer, and it is the intention of the government to have architects lay out a plan for the whole scheme and build as circumstances may require, always having the larger scheme in mind.

The government purpose having the university opened, with classes in attendance, by the autumn of 1913; and it is expected that with the number of students now attending the High Schools throughout the province, and those taking courses at eastern universities, the classes of the first year will number between 300 and 500.

With the opening of the university, McGill University College will automatically cease to exist, and the pupils now attending that institution will form the first classes of the university.

The university will at first give a full course in Arts and Applied Science, such as is now given in McGill College; and further courses in mining and mechanical engineering and other subjects, Oriental languages (Chinese and Japanese not unlikely), owing to our close trade relations with the Orient, and other subjects as the necessity may require. But as the endowment is such a generous one, it is intended that the staff, equipment and course of studies shall be in every respect the best obtainable.


 One institution more remains to be mentioned — the Provincial Normal School.

When the High Schools began to turn out teachers it was necessary that these teachers should have training, and they were at first allowed to practise as pupil teachers in the schools. But in 1899 William Burns, one of the Provincial Inspectors, was appointed to take charge of a class for the training teachers (the first class opened with fifty students), and Vancouver offered accommodation until a proper building was erected. For eight years classes were held in the various city schools until the year 1908-9, when a handsome structure was erected by the Government as the home of the Provincial Normal School.


Normal School Graduation Class, 1912

At present the Normal School has a staff of six teachers — Wm. Burns, principal, and two assistant masters, an Art master, a graduate of Horticultural College, Swanley, Kent, as instructor in nature study, and a drill instructor.

Two training classes are held annually — a preliminary class from the opening of the schools in August until the middle of December, for teachers holding junior certificates of qualification; and an advanced session from January until June.

When a student has completed the preliminary course he (or more often she, as of the class of 160 now in session only nine are boys) is granted a third certificate good for three years; or he may at once go on with the advanced course, on the satisfactory completion of which he receives a life certificate in grade according to the grade of the non-professional certificate of qualification he held on entering.

In conjunction with the Normal School is what is known as the Model School, a large public school where specially selected teachers are in charge (graduates of as widely different institutions as possible), and here the Normal students are permitted to observe and to teach under the direction of the regular Model teachers and the members of the Normal staff.


Model School classroom, 1907

In times past British Columbia has been put to it to secure enough teachers for her schools, and the rules have sometimes had to be relaxed; yet it is the unceasing aim of the principal to gradually raise the standard of efficiency. Year by year new subjects are added to the curriculum and stricter regulations are enforced, until the British Columbia Normal School now gives practically the same training afforded by those of the three other western provinces.

This, then, is a brief sketch of the little mill camp and its little school that within the memory of men still young has expanded into a great city, with an educational system which, though it has sprung up like a gourd, will compare very favorably with that of the cities of the Mother-country, which were already becoming hoary when British Columbia was as yet an undisturbed wilderness.



Fairview School, 1893


Admiral Seymour School, 1900


Lord Roberts School, 1900


Lord Nelson School, 1902


Grandview School, 1905


Mount Pleasant School, 1909


Cecil Rhodes School, 1910


Lord Nelson School, 1911


Lord Tennyson School, 1911

Henry Hudson School, 1911


Simon Fraser School, 1912