Gilberts: Kent County’s early schools had a rough start

In the earliest days of education within Kent County, and all of Canada as well, the settlers worked under what was called “The Common Schools Act of 1816."

Jim and Lisa Gilbert Ellwood Shreve/The Daily News

Share Adjust Comment Print

In the earliest days of education within Kent County, and all of Canada as well, the settlers worked under what was called “The Common Schools Act of 1816.”

Its principal provisions were that it authorized the inhabitants of any locality to convene a meeting at which provision might be made for “the building or providing a school house securing the necessary number of scholars (20 or more) providing for the salaries of teachers and electing three trustees for the management of the school, the inhabitants of any locality to convene a meeting at which provisions.”

But the most difficult part of establishing a local school section was the obtaining of a reliable, intelligent and morally sound teacher to run the school. In the early days of settlement, there were all sorts of difficulties in obtaining a suitable male (and in the beginning they were all men) teacher who would be around for a while.

Some of the major difficulties in obtaining a good teacher were that many of the men available for hire were drifters of indifferent character and morals. The salaries were often difficult to obtain from the local inhabitants. And even when salaries were collected they were very small and not sufficient to attract men of a better class.

The system of boarding teachers around in the houses of the settlers for short periods of time necessitated, very often, the travelling of long distances to and from the schools. Such accommodations provided no sort of permanent home life, comfort or companionship for the usually young male teachers.

Another problem in attracting decent teachers was the fact schools were kept open only during the winter months and therefore there was no continuance of employment. Teachers were usually sent on their way in the spring. In most cases they never returned.

Textbooks were also a big problem. There were no authorized textbooks in the early days of education and each teacher pursued the plan that seemed best to himself. Or, worst of all, there was no plan. Each child brought what books he or she had, often one book or slate doing duty for several early pupils.

Blackboards were almost unknown, and essentials such as ink, pencils and paper were very difficult if not impossible to procure.

The only symbol of early schools that we all have an image of and was seemingly readily available was the dreaded “blue beech gad,” or what many of us would call “the strap”.

The earliest three schools mentioned in local history were one in Raleigh Township about three kilometres east of the Drake Side Road “on the old Dolsen lot.” Another was on the corner of the Bloomfield Road and the future Highway 2 where a school known as the Bloomfield School stood for many years. And the third one was on the river on the Dover side “near Thornbury Cottage, Sheriff Foots’s home.” This latter structure was at first constructed as a log school but was later replaced by a brick structure on the second concession of Dover Township.

On Jan. 1, 1842, the “Educational Bill” came into force and under this act we find that on March 5, 1842, the Harwich School commissioners met and defined the sections for that township. They defined 10 sections, so it would appear schools were becoming more numerous.

At about this same time the annual salary for male teachers was $200 with board and $250 for teachers who could find their own place to live. The salary for females (who by this time were more numerous in the profession) was $130 with board and $150 without a place of residence being provided.

The first common school in Chatham was on the site of the present-day federal building and was known as Central School. There were also other schools in town, private schools for little girls (and at times boys). One of these schools was kept by two sisters, the Misses Pratt, in a house where once stood Harrison Hall and now stands the former Sears entrance.

After passing the Ryerson Act in 1850, municipalities had power under certain conditions to establish grammar schools. The first grammar school in Chatham was held in one of the jury rooms in the court house and was under the direction of the Rev. Dr. Jameson.

Schools had to overcome many difficulties throughout their existence. Each year seemed to bring its own problems and in 2020 one of the biggest problems ever to confront students, teachers and parents presented itself in the form of the COVID-19 virus. Time will tell how schools will see their way through this current test.

This will be the first time that the “real first line workers” will be tested in Chatham-Kent. Not in the relative safety of the hospital where there were only a very few cases but in schools where there are hundreds and hundreds of potential carriers.

Our support, sympathy and concern goes out to these teachers in these extremely difficult times.

Comments