The British and Canadian School was founded in 1822 by a group of Montrealers with widely different political views: Horatio Gates, Louis-Joseph Papineau, John Frothingham, William Lunn, Alexander Ferguson, François-Antoine Larocque and Olivier Berthelet. These men were united in their commitment to the moral improvement of working people: the school was intended to serve “the children of all labouring people or mechanics” (that is, artisanal workers). The governors also wanted to provide an alternative to the schools run by Catholic religious orders and the very Anglican Royal Institution. The British and Canadian School was to be non-denominational.
It would also be a “monitorial school,” based on a concept imported from Britain wherein one master taught the more advanced pupils (the “monitors”) who in turn taught the younger ones. Monitors were given special instruction outside the usual hours of 9:00 to 12:00 and 2:00 to 5:00 in subjects such as English Grammar and Geography; during regular hours, monitors taught reading, writing, arithmetic and needlework, and the master supervised. By this method, it was claimed, “one master can teach 1000 as well as 100.” The monitorial system was suitable for girls as well as boys, and at most times at least a third of the pupils were girls.
After a few years in rented accommodation, the governors secured enough government grants and public subscriptions to build a permanent school, designed by architect James O’Donnell (of Notre Dame Church fame) and built by master mason John Redpath (later of sugar fame). Land was purchased at the corner of Lagauchetière and Côté streets, in what was then on the outskirts of town. The cornerstone was laid in October 1826 and the school opened the following September. It appears to have functioned smoothly until after the 1837-38 rebellions, when it lost a lot of Catholic pupils. Even so, references to it in the 1850s and 60s suggest it was one of the best schools in the city. In 1866, Montreal’s Protestant school board acquired it and expanded it by adding a third story.
Despite being under the Protestant board, the school remained non-denominational, though it had long since abandoned the monitorial system. Many liberal or anti-clerical Catholic families sent their children there in the 1870s, including Charles McKiernan, aka “Joe Beef.” The school also attracted a fair number of Jewish children, who lived nearby – the synagogue was just around the corner. The school board paid the salary of a Hebrew teacher for the school, a service in return for the school taxes it received from Jewish property owners. This was the beginning of a long relationship between the Jewish community and the Protestant school system.
The British and Canadian School was finally closed in 1896 and the pupils transferred to a more modern building. The school was eventually used as a noodle factory. Today, it stands at the heart of Montreal’s Chinatown, probably the oldest surviving purpose-built school in the city.
©2016 Linda Sullivan-Simpson
The Past Whispers
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