Home » North York’s First Schools — in Newtonbrook and Willowdale — Opened in 1801

Yonge and Sheppard, looking north, in 1897. - North York Historical Society photo
Yonge and Sheppard, looking north, in 1897. - North York Historical Society photo

North York’s First Schools — in Newtonbrook and Willowdale — Opened in 1801

‘Expenditures were frugal; at one school, $2.50 on repairs for the year,’ writes Susan Goldenberg

With the fall school season approaching, it’s a good time to look back at education in North York in its early days.

In 1801 the community’s first two schools were opened, one in Newtonbrook and the other in Willowdale, both centrally located. They were simple log structures, built within the road allowance because parents worried that if they were built off the roadway their children might get lost in the woods or be attacked by wild animals.

The 1820s schoolroom was about 18 by 20 feet with a fireplace at one end for which wood was chopped by the older boys. It was windowless or only had one small window. Younger children sat on log benches, one on each side of the room, and the older ones at desks.

The teachers were not trained as they are today. Instead, they were often discharged British soldiers or hard-on-their-luck tradespeople, usually with little education themselves. The salary was minuscule, about 25 cents a month per pupil plus free board and lodging, with the teacher moving every few days from one student’s home to another.

School opened and closed with a prayer. In addition, the children had to memorize New Testament verses. The other subjects taught were the basics — reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. Students had to provide their own paper, ink, pens and rulers.

Children were strapped if they hadn’t learned their lessons; whisperers were gagged with a small wooden board; and hot mustard applied to the tongue for lies.

In the 1850s, frame or brick schoolhouses were built with large windows, the only source of light, as there was no electricity. There were separate girls and boys outhouses. A huge bell, rung by the teacher, summoned the children to school. No cars or buses then — students had to hike long distances, including through rain and snow. Often, teens went in winter when their farm chores were few, and youngsters went in summer to avoid their being caught in snowstorms.

Despite having a stove for heat, it was still cold inside, and on winter mornings ink had to be defrosted on the stove. It often froze again during the day. Mischievous boys got fun out of leaving the top on the bottle as the ink was warmed, resulting in an explosion, with a large blob of ink splattering on the ceiling. They also enjoyed dipping girls’ pigtails in inkwells. According to North York folklore, one little girl dramatically got revenge, bashing her writing slate over the head of the culprit, who ended up with a wooden collar and broken edges of slate around his neck.

At first, teachers were always men. They were not supposed to drink, smoke, frequent pool halls or get shaved in a barbershop. Women who married or “engaged in unseemly conduct” were dismissed. Teachers who performed without fault for five years received an increase of 25 cents per week in pay. Expenditures were frugal: at one school, $2.50 on repairs for the year.

Written by Susan Goldenberg. 

Originally published on August 8, 2018, on toronto.com.