The Fascinating Story behind a Photograph

 5th Division – with Teacher, Miss Emma Hay – on the steps of Central School, Vancouver (1890)



Who was Emma Hay and what challenges did she face while she was a teacher? A good source of information – the reports sent by Vancouver school officials to the Superintendent of Education for the Province of British Columbia.

Below are excerpts from six reports. Emma is mentioned in two of the excerpts.


1. Report of the Principal,  Alexander Robinson (submitted July 12, 1890)

SIR, I have the honor to submit the report of the Vancouver Public Schools for the year ending June 30th, 1890. The rapid growth of this city has rendered the task of providing suitable school accommodation for our children a very difficult one. The erection of another building in the east end, which is now contemplated by the Government, will, I trust, relieve our trustees of all apprehension in regard to school accommodation for the ensuing year.

There are at present four school buildings in this city, in which are employed seventeen teachers.

The False Creek School contains three departments, two of which have been open during the past year. This school, under the able leadership of Miss McDougall, has been doing excellent work.

 The East End building consists of four departments. I am pleased that steps are being taken to erect a building in this part of the city, where some opportunity will be given to pupils for recreation other than playing on the public streets. The building answers its purpose very well, but the grounds are altogether too small. This building is under the control of Mr. Ganton, with whom are associated three assistants. The primary department is over-crowded, and good work cannot be expected until the number of children is considerably reduced.

The West End School consists of four departments, under the principalship of Mr. McGarrigle, A. B. In this building, also, the primary department is over-crowded. I would respectfully recommend that the site of this school be abandoned and another situation more suitable for school purposes be selected.”

The large and commodious Central building has been in operation only since January last. Although the children and teachers suffered much at the beginning of the term from the inadequacy of the heating apparatus, the progress made has, on the whole, been satisfactory. The same complaint, however, must be made in regard to the primary department of this building. When the enrolment reaches 100 it is not to be expected that exceptionally good work will be carried on. Something ought, also, to be done in the matter of admitting children to our primary departments for the first time. They should be admitted only twice in the year, say during the first three weeks after the summer and winter vacation. At present our primary departments are being continually broken in upon by the admission of children who have never before attended school, and the result cannot fail to be discouraging to our teachers.

I cannot close this report without referring to the kindness shown to our teachers by all the members of our School Board, and especially to the manner in which our efforts to secure a good system of discipline in the various grades have been supported by that body.


2. Report of the Principal, Robert Law, VANCOUVER (submitted July 15th, 1890)

Sir, I have the honor to submit to you my report of the Vancouver High School for the first six months of its existence. Two years ago when I came to this city I found only two pupils qualified to enter a High School; however, fourteen months afterwards, ably assisted by Miss Hartney, I had to report thirty-two pupils holding High School certificates. Your department, with its usual promptness, immediately established the Vancouver High School. The result is that during the last six months I have been teaching a class of thirty-one, possessing more energy and culture than ordinary pupils, all with a definite objective in view – the teaching profession and the university. Within two years I hope to have the pleasure of reporting to you that many of these shall have reached the goal of their ambition…


3. Additional Information on CENTRAL SCHOOL for the school year, 1889 – 1890

Principal, Robert Law, B. A., until December 31st, 1889; present principal, Alexander Robinson, B. A.; salary, $100 per month.

1st Assistant, Miss Margaret Hartney until June 30th, 1890; present 1st Assistant, Frederic M. Cowperthwaite, B.A.; salary, $70 per month.

2nd Assistant, Miss Isabella M. Rutherford until June 30th, 1890; present 2nd Assistant, Miss Margaret Hartney; salary, $50 per month.

3rd Assistant, Miss Margaret J. Murchie until June 30th, 1890; present 3rd Assistant, Miss Isabella M. Rutherford; salary, $50 per month.

4th Assistant, Miss Emma Hay until June 30th, 1890; present 4th Assistant, Miss Margaret J. Murchie; salary; $50 per month.

5th Assistant, Miss Margaret M. Harding until June, 30th, 1890; present 5th Assistant, Miss Emma Hay; salary, $50 per month.

Enrolled during the year, 480. Average monthly attendance, 349. Average actual daily attendance, 271.42


November 25th and 26th , 1889 (12 students: 7 girls and 5 boys met the standard for admission to high school)

 June 11 and 12th, 1890 (9 girls met the standard for admission to high school)


4. VANCOUVER SCHOOLS  (1889 – 1890)

High School, Central School, East School, West School, and Mount Pleasant School.

Teachers – 19

Enrolled during the year – 1,465

Average monthly attendance – 984

Average actual daily attendance –  818

Expenditure – $12,468.46.

Cost of each pupil on enrolment – $8.51.

Cost of each pupil on average attendance – $15.24.

The enrolment for the year shows an increase of 441 over that of the previous year, and the average actual daily attendance an increase of 280.15 for the same period.

The High School in this city was opened in January, 1889, and since its commencement has maintained a good percentage of average attendance.

Owing to the phenomenal growth of this city, not a little difficulty has been experienced in meeting its educational requirements. Notwithstanding the efforts made to supply adequate accommodation, the prospects are that additional school buildings will be needed in the near future.


5. Central School, VANCOUVER (1890-1891)

Principal, Alexander Robinson, B. A., until June 30th, 1891 ; present principal, F. M. Cowperthwaite, B. A.; salary, $100 per month.

1st Assistant, F. M. Cowperthwaite until June 30th, 1891 ; present 1st Assistant, Gregory H. Tom ; salary, $80 per month.

2nd Assistant, Miss Margaret Hartney until June 30th, 1891 ; present 2nd Assistant, Robert Fraser ; salary, $70 per month.

3rd Assistant, Miss Isabella M. Rutherford ; salary, $60 per month.

4th Assistant, Miss Margaret J. Murchie ; salary, $55 per month.

5th Assistant, Miss Emma Hay until February 28th, 1891 ; Miss Margaret M. Harding until June 30th, 1891 ; present 5th Asssistant, Miss Margaret Hartney ; salary, $50 per month.

6th Assistant, Miss Margaret M. Harding until February 28th, 1891 ; Miss Marion B. Johnstone until June 30th, 1891 ; present 6th Assistant, Miss Margaret M. Harding ; salary, $50 per month.

Examined December 2nd and 3rd, 1890. June 2nd and 3rd, 1891. Enrolled during the year, 547. Average monthly attendance, 390. Average actual daily attendance, 304.13.


6. Report of the Principal, Central School, VANCOUVER

SIR,- I have the honour to submit the report of the Vancouver Central Public School for the year ending June 30th, 1891. ”

An earnest desire to promote the advancement of the pupils was noticeable in the work of all the teachers, and any cases of failure that may have occurred in the teaching of the particular branches are to be ascribed rather to inexperience than to a lack of enthusiasm. A Provincial Normal School is urgently required. As matters stand at present, to place over divisions containing 75 pupils and upwards, young teachers fresh from our High Schools, whose knowledge of method has been acquired by the reading of some text-book on the subject, is manifestly unfair both to the pupils and teachers themselves.

Permit me again to call your attention to the subject of admitting children to our primary division. It is impossible for our primary teachers to do good work when children who have never before attended school are allowed to enter at any period during the term. A specified time, say three weeks in August and January respectively, should be allowed, parents for presenting their children for entrance to this division, and upon the expiration of this period no more pupils should be enrolled. This applies, of course, only to one division, since it would be manifestly unfair to exclude pupils who have previously attended school. ”

In closing, allow me to suggest the following changes :—

1. That in our cities, the school hours throughout the year be from 9 a. m. to 12 m., with the ordinary recess ; and from 1:30 p. m. to 3:30 p. m. without any recess. ”

2. That semi-annual instead of annual reports be made by each teacher to the Education Department.

3. That a City Superintendent be appointed for Vancouver, whose duties shall be to grade, twice in the year, each division in the city, consult with the trustees as to the appointment of each teacher on the city staff, and have the supervision generally of our city Schools.

ALEX. ROBINSON, Principal, Central School.



Central School – host to Vancouver’s first high school class (January to June, 1890)


    The wooden building adjacent to Central School which provided two classrooms for high school students (August 1890 to June 1893.) 



The excerpts above provide stark evidence of the challenges facing Vancouver’s elementary schools during the early days. Formal teacher training was rudimentary, at best. The school population was rising rapidly, creating very crowded conditions in schools. Large numbers of new students continued to arrive during the school year, disrupting established classroom organization and lesson planning.

The majority of elementary school teachers were young, single women. If female teachers got married, they were required to resign from teaching.

As noted earlier, Emma Hays left her position at Central School on February 28, 1891. The most likely reason is that she was about to marry. What is particularly notable is that Emma’s future husband was none other than Alexander Robinson. It is probable that they first met during their time at Central School.


For more information, see the following:

1. Highlight and right click on this Internet address to see a detailed account of Alex Robinson’s career:

2. A History of Vancouver

Vancouver High School 1890 – 1908


Central School