Education on the Island
I’ve heard George Coles referred to as PEI’s greatest premier and a brief look into his life would suggest it may be an honest assessment. He was a member of the elected House of Assembly under the Colonial government and became the first premier when the Island won responsible government in 1851. He was present at both the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences in 1864; however the resolutions didn’t address the Land Question he advocated for a “No” vote on joining the Confederation of 1867. He was a tireless crusader for a settlement to the Land Question and an advocate for a system of free education for the Island.
In the first half of the 1800s the education system on the Island was in a precarious state. Teachers’ wages were poor and often went unpaid which had an effect on both the quality and the availability of education in smaller communities. By 1851 the public had grown disenchanted with the state of education in the colony and began to push the government for reform. Coles himself had little formal education and his activism on behalf of free education for all was linked to the Land Question and what he saw as exploitation of the illiterate tenant farmers by the land owners. Typically many tenants were forced into binding leasing agreements, the subtitles of which they could not possibly understand.
In 1851 the the Assembly received 56 public petitions: fifty-three supporting free public education and three decrying taxation to support such a system. On March 18, 1852, the Free Education Act was passed in the House of Assembly by a tally of 16 in favour and 3 against. It was quickly ratified by the Legislative Council and was given royal assent by the Lieutenant Governor on April 3rd. By 1854 enrolment in Island schools had doubled.
The Schoolhouse – Orwell Corner
Outside Charlottetown most of the schools were the one or two room buildings that Lucy Maud Montgomery writes about in her Anne books. The school in Orwell opened in 1895 and is one of the best school master J. S. O’Neil taught grades one through ten. Though he was hired by the local school trustees his salary was paid by the Colonial government. The building replaced previous buildings including a crude log structure from 1825.
As well as the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic – the curriculum including some Latin, British and Island history, geography, and perhaps some French. The practical sciences of botany and biology were considered important in farming communities and were often simply reinforcing what was learned in the fields and the barns. Amongst the objects on the “show and tell table” at the Orwell Schoolhouse was a sample of a branch of every kind of tree found in the neighbourhood. Memory work for younger pupils was important as writing materials were at a premium and the luxury of slates was the privilege of the older students. Many students left school after grade 8 to learn a trade or work the family farm however a good many went on to college and university.
School was held year around except for a two or three week period when the children were needed for planting or harvesting. In the winter the community, who were responsible for maintaining the building, supplied firewood and an older student would be charged with tending to the pot-bellied stove each morning.
The schoolhouse in Orwell Corner was in use until 1969 when school consolidation forced its closure. For over 75 years it had served the needs of the community and its young scholars.
Much of this information came from the very well-informed docent who welcomed us to the school house on our visit. As well a paper on 1850s PEI by Marlene Campbell for Culture Summerside provided an interesting overview of life in rural PEI at the time and education in particular.
The Community Hall
After the church and school house the Community hall was the most important building in the settlement. It was the centre of social and often times political life: concerts and box lunch socials were got up to raise money, matches were made and courting was done at dances, local and provincial affairs were debated and settled (or not) at public meetings.
The original Orwell Community Hall burned down in the 1950s and was replaced by the present structure in the 1970s. As well as being a feature of the Historic Village during the summer it stills serves the community year round as a social centre. Next time we’re there we’ll stop in for a chicken salad sandwich and lemonade or maybe a scone and tea prepared by the ladies of the parish.
Next we’ll head over to Clarke’s General Store and see what new fripperies and gee-gaws Mr Clarke has in stock. And while we’re there we may want to pay a visit to Mrs Eliza Latrobe in her rooms on the second floor. She’s sure to have the last words in millinery and fashion in her pattern books. They come all the way from Boston!
On this day in 1754: The first recorded women’s cricket match takes place near Guildford, England.