Toronto Normal School – Old Government House

THE TIME WAS AFTERNOON, November 1, 1847. The place was the ballroom of old Government House, at the corner of King and Simcoe Streets, Toronto. The event was the formal opening of the Provin­cial Normal School. “On entering the room,” wrote a reporter in The British Colonist, “we found it changed in every feature. At the western end was a raised platform. In the centre of the platform were seated the Chief Superintendent of Schools [ Dr. Egerton Ryerson] and other Mem­bers of the Provincial Board of Education, Mr. T. J. Robertson, Head Master of the Normal School, Mr. H. Y. Hind, the Lecturer on Mathema­tics, Natural Philosophy and Agricultural Chemistry.” On either hand were leading citizens in the realms of church, school, and state—among them Bishop John Strachan, Dr. John McCaul, and Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson. “The body of the hall was crowded by those inter­ested in Education,” continued The British Colonist with enthusiasm. (Its publisher was a member of the Board of Education—possibly one of those on the platform.) “The room was nearly filled,” reported The Globe with less enthusiasm, “and there was a tolerably fair attendance of officials and others who make up the show of a Toronto exhibition.” (The Globe had not forgotten Dr. Ryerson’s stand in the election of 1844.)

The programme opened with prayer, after which Dr. Ryerson delivered an address. Then forty-four years of age, the Superintendent was in the prime of life, and his keen eye and genial presence lent persuasion to his words. He began with an explanation of the name of the school. “The word Normal signifies ‘according to rule, or principle,’ and is em­ployed to express the systematic teaching of the rudiments of learning. . . . A Normal School is a school in which the principles and practice of teaching according to rule, are taught and exemplified.” After a review of current school legislation, the speaker dealt directly with the new venture. The establishment of a Normal School having been approved by the Legislature, the Board of Education for Upper Canada had lost no time in applying for the premises known as Old Government House, in repairing them, and in selecting through the Board of National Educa­tion of Ireland, a Head Master. The Model School would open early in 1848 in a neigbouring building. “Of the extension and complete success of our Provincial Normal School I have not the shadow of doubt,” de­clared Dr. Ryerson. In conclusion, he introduced to the assembly the principal, Thomas Jaffray Robertson, former Chief Inspector of National Schools of Ireland, and the assistant teacher, Henry Youle Hind.

Robertson’s bearing– tall, sturdy, and erect—commanded the respect of the audience. His massive forehead, curly black locks, black eyes be­neath shaggy brows, bronzed face, and black beard gave him an appear­ance resembling that of Charles Dickens. Briefly he outlined the nature of an institution for teacher-training, and described the benefits realized by Ireland from the establishment of Normal and Model Schools. He was critical of the monitorial system of teaching, stating that it made teachers indolent, and teaching too much a matter of routine. He advocated the simultaneous method, with the teacher dealing directly with his pupils.

“Throughout his address,” reported The British Colonist, “Mr. Robert­son displayed the accomplishments of the scholar allied to ‘the practical,’ so necessary to success in the onerous task committed to his hands.”

Henry Youle Hind, was the third speaker of the evening. This young Englishman of twenty-four, who was later to win a reputation as a geolo­gist and explorer, delivered a lecture on the subjects of Natural Philosophy, Agricultural Chemistry, and Mathematics. So greatly did his address impress The British Colonist. that it secured a copy for publication in its issue of November 9. The Globe was sympathetic but inclined to defer judgment. “Both he and Mr Robertson,” it reported, “are evidently accomplished men in point of information. But something more is re­quired than knowledge. The teachers of a Normal School should be men, not only of information, but full of fire and zeal, which it should be their study to infuse into their pupils, that they may carry the same spirit into every common school house in the Province. Sincerely do we hope that these gentlemen may be found possessed of these important qualifications–they have our best wishes for their complete success.”

Next morning twenty young men enrolled as students. Before long, this number had increased to fifty-two, nearly half of whom had had some previous experience in teaching. In after years, one of these first students. Rev. E. H. Dewart, D.D., spoke thus of the opening of the school: “The establishment of a Normal School for the training of teachers for our Public Schools was the opening of a fountain at which many thirsty souls, whom circumstances had previously shut out from such a privilege, were permitted to slake their thirst for knowledge. I can testify from personal experience and observation that the students at the earlier sessions were nearly all of this class. I shall never forget how the an­nouncement of the opening of the Normal School in Toronto, which I incidentally saw in a newspaper, fell on my path, in the backwoods of the county of Peterborough, like a beam of light from Heaven. I had tried, some time before that, to make an arrangement to go to another educational institution and had failed, and was very much disappointed. I read the announcement over and over. It seemed almost too good to be true, but it seemed to be just what I required. I wrote to Dr. Ryerson, and received an encouraging answer. So I started for Toronto and tramped one hundred and twenty miles through the November snows. Like another pilgrim we read of, I found hills of difficulty and sloughs of despond before I reached the celestial city. But though foot­sore and weary, I trudged on and never thought of turning back. A kind welcome from Dr. Ryerson and Mr. Robertson, the Head Master, made me forget all the fatigue of the journey.”

Old Government House was an admirable first home for the Normal School. Vacant because of the transfer of the capital. first to Kingston and later to Montreal, after the Union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841, the former residence of the Governor had passed into the hands of the city. In the spring of 1846, Ryerson made arrangements by which “old Government House and Appendages” were to be turned over to the Board of Education. The “appendages” were chiefly the stables which were to house the model school.

Built of wood, with roughcast exterior, Government House has been described as “a large yellow-coloured house about which there is nothing particularly worthy of remark,” but a painting still in existence seems to belie this disparaging comment. The grounds were “prettily laid out in plantations and groves,” and to their natural beauty was added a small stream running through a ravine. The city seems to have used the property as a park, for in The Globe of September 8, 1847, we read that “the Rifle Band will play in the Normal School Grounds at 4 o’clock, instead of 5, every Tuesday afternoon.”

Toronto was, at this time, a growing young city with a population of just over 20,000, forty per cent. of whom were from Ireland. Government House faced Wellington Street at the south-west corner of King and Simcoe Streets. To the south, between Wellington and Front Streets, were the old Parliament Buildings, in use at that time as a Lunatic Asylum. Directly north, across King Street, was Upper Canada College. “Walking eastward along King Street,” stated a newcomer, “proceeding as far north as Queen, we found we had, as far as business was concerned, seen Toronto, with the exception of a few wholesale warehouses south of King. Along Church Street . . could be heard tintinnabulation of the bells on the necks of the cows which roamed through the browny-green pastures and among the thick bush which prevailed east of Church and north of Queen Street.”

A fine building for King’s College had been built at the head of Col­lege Avenue (now University Avenue); streets were being opened and a few houses erected between Queen and College. The city was confined for the most part, however, to the district south of Queen Street. Stages ran daily to Kingston, Hamilton, and Holland Landing, while local traffic was handled by omnibuses which left Yorkville for King Street “every half hour, from 7% o’clock a. m. to 8 p. m.” n

The Opening of a provincial Normal School in a city of such a size was a matter of no small importance.