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Newfoundland Education

(to 1949)


[This text was written in 1949. For the full citation see the end of the document.]

The base line of the system of education in Newfoundland is denominational; church rather than state laid down the lines along which it eventually developed.


The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was the pioneer of education in Newfoundland, since in 1726 it established the first school on the island at Bonavista, "for all poor people", under its missionary, the Rev. Henry Jones. Its first missionary, the Rev. John Jackson , had been accepted by the Society as early as 1703. In 1744 the Society established its first school in St. John's under the Rev. M. Peasley, and by the end of the century some twenty or thirty schools were in operation in various parts of the island. From the Society the teachers received £15 each a year, and fees, with strict injunctions to take no fees from the poor. The school hours were from six in the morning till six in the evening, and it was thought that children ought to attend school till they were at least six or seven years old. All schools were supplied with books and other necessary material, and each child when able to read was presented with a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer. The annual cost of these schools to the Society was £325. Their value was evident, for the Rev. George Coster, first archdeacon of Newfoundland (1824-30), and the Rev. Lewis Amadeus Anspach, deputy governor and judge of the civic court in Harbour Grace (1802-12), attributed the improvement of parents and children to these schools and expressed surprise to see so much effected with so little means.


In an attempt to establish higher education, in the autumn of 1798 a plan was formed in St. John's to institute there a grammar school for children of both sexes, on a liberal scale. About twenty-five of the principal merchants and inhabitants agreed to contribute certain sums to make up a salary for the principal, and the various branches to be taught were specified. In June 1799, the Rev. Lewis Amadeus Anspach, clergyman of the Church of England , was engaged as principal, together with a female assistant for girls and a male assistant for boys. He arrived from England with his family and assistants on October 13, 1799, and found himself involved immediately in local dissensions, even court proceedings. He won his case, however, put in his three years, and was transferred in 1802 to Harbour Grace by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Thus far did educational effort go in the eighteenth century.


At the dawn of the nineteenth century the church and education were not far advanced. Methodism in Newfoundland was represented by one lone clergyman stationed at Carbonear, while in 1807, on his first Episcopal visit to the island, Bishop Stanser of Nova Scotia found that a total of five clergymen and seven schoolmasters formed the Church of England missionary staff. The island's population at this time was 26,500. At the same time in St. John's there was St. John's Charity School and another such school opened by the North American School Society. To these institutions the Protestant minister subscribed as did the Roman Catholic priest; and the Catholic merchant, as did the Anglican governor. The Rev. James Louis O'Donel, appointed prefect-apostolic in 1784, was succeeded by the Right Rev. Patrick Lambert in 1807, the year after the formation of the Benevolent Irish Society with which both were associated. Though nondenominational in character at its inception, the Society soon became Catholic in practice. Its object was two-fold: charity and education. Under its auspices

schools were opened, notably the Orphan Asylum in 1827, and the children in attendance, numbering 400-600, were instructed in the three R's. These schools were open to all denominations and enjoyed public confidence because they were based on non-denominational principles.


The schools of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel were succeeded by those of the Colonial and Continental Church Society, which took its rise from an interesting incident. Samuel Codner, whose connection with the colony of Newfoundland began in 1788 and continued till 1844, was returning to his Devonshire home in the autumn of 1821 when a great storm arose which threatened to engulf his vessel. In his extremity he registered a vow that if his life were spared he would do something to help the country in which he had made his fortune. Later in the same year, at a meeting in Margate , he heard a speech by Lord Liverpool, then prime minister of England , which dwelt upon Great Britain 's responsibility for the religious education of her colonies. Deeply impressed with a sense of his responsibility, and moreover recalling his vow, Mr. Codner determined to found a society for educating the poor in the country to which he himself owed so much.


On June 30, 1823, therefore, at a meeting held in the London Coffee House, a "Society for educating the poor of Newfoundland" was formed and was the beginning of a common school education for the children of Newfoundland . The population of the island now numbered 75,000. Mr. Codner canvassed all places in Great Britain and Ireland connected with the Newfoundland trade, and enlisted the sympathy of the religious and benevolent. The Liverpool branch had, as its chairman, Sir John Gladstone, father of the great statesman. The imperial government, through Lord Liverpool's influence, contributed £500 for building a central school in St. John's , £100 annually for its first master, free passage for all its teachers, and grants of land for schools in all parts of the island. The first teachers arrived in August 1824, and on September 20 a school was opened in St. John's , to which the poor of all denominations were invited to send their children. These teachers had received their training at the National Society's training school, Baldwin's Gardens, London . The system was monitorial, after the model of Dr. Bell of Madras fame. By 1842 the Society had sixty schools in operation and an attendance of about 3,500 scholars, and since 1824 some 12,000 scholars had passed through the schools.


By 1842 these schools had begun to decline, but they were reorganized by the venerable Aubrey George Spencer, the first Anglican bishop of Newfoundland (1839-44). Also, with the aid of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the bishop established a theological institution in St. John's , originated and revived Sunday schools, increased the number of clergymen to twenty-five with lay readers, with school masters under them. His successor, the Right Rev. Edward Feild who carried on the work with great zeal and devotion, had the central school in St. John's reorganized in 1855 as a teacher-training school, under the principalship of J. W. Marriott, formerly master of a model school at Halifax, Yorkshire, and in 1882 there were sixty teachers in training. He enlarged the theological institution, established seminaries for boys and for girls, and founded orphanages and many other institutions. Bishop Field was a strong denominationalist. His contemporary, John Mullock, the Roman Catholic bishop, was also an outspoken advocate of denominational education, and the two powerful prelates contributed at this point to the rising tide of denominationalism.


The state now entered the picture. In 1832 a representative government was granted to Newfoundland and in 1836 the assembly passed its first Education Act. The committee appointed to consider the situation, and to make suggestions, recommended that "since the voluntary system works advantageously, assistance be given by the legislature to the several societies who direct the gratuitous education of the poor classes; and according as means of the country will permit, and the growing intelligence of the people require, it is their desire that grammar schools be instituted and schools even of a higher order to succeed them" (W. Pilot in appendix to London Board of Education, Special reports on . Newfoundland, 1901).


By this Act the island was divided into nine educational districts, and school boards were appointed to administer the appropriations. The first grant made in 1836 was £2,100, and out of it £300 were paid to the Newfoundland School Society, £300 to the Roman Catholics towards schools then established, and £1,500 for elementary schools under the school boards. The books prescribed for use were the Irish national school series to the exclusion of all of a distinctly denominational character, and the Bible, as a text-book, was used in all schools. This latter provision created much dissatisfaction among Roman Catholics; an agitation was set on foot for a division of the grant, and the trend towards denominationalism was accelerated.


In 1843 a further Act was passed by the assembly recognizing the principle contended for by the Roman Catholics, and a grant of £5,100 then voted was divided equally between Roman Catholics and Protestants; an inspector of schools was appointed, and fees were made compulsory for the first time. In 1844 £3,000 were appropriated by the legislature to establish a nondenominational academy. It was opened in 1846 and never had more than eighteen or twenty pupils. It proved unsatisfactory, and an amending Act was passed in 1850 providing for three academies. Section 4 of the Act reads, "There shall be granted £250 to defray salary for a Roman Catholic master, £200 to defray salary for a Church of England master, £150 to defray salary for masters, one or more, for other Protestant denominations." In his Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland Bishop Howley comments, "In 1858 the current of denominationalism made another rush onward and we find the Protestant branch dividing and throwing out another stream, namely, the 'Wesleyan Methodists'. By this time that important and rapidly increasing denomination had so far advanced as to demand a separate academy which was accordingly granted by an Act passed 10th May 1858 by which it is enacted, 'There shall be established in St. John's a Wesleyan Academy'." By this Act the salaries ranged as follows: Roman Catholics £600, Church of England £400, Wesleyan Methodists £200, other Protestants £150. Also £750 were allocated for the training of teachers, further amounts of £200 for a Roman Catholic inspector of schools, £200 for a Protestant inspector, and £1,000 for commercial schools.


In this way the state recognized and implemented the denominational trend in education. By the Act of 1874 the system was rendered completely denominational and provided for separate denominational schools, which, however, should be public schools and restricted only by a conscience clause. This system came into practical use in 1875 and three inspectors of schools were appointed, one for each leading denomination. In 1875 Christian Brothers of Ireland came to St. John's and since that date have taken care of all Catholic boys' schools in St. John 's, including St. Bonaventure's College (high school). Well-trained, zealous, and full of devotion, the Christian Brothers contributed their quota to the cause of education; the same may be said of the Presentation nuns, who were introduced in 1833 to offer elementary education, and of the Sisters of Mercy who came in 1842 to establish more advanced schools culminating in St. Bride's College.


After the Act of 1874, the next important educational event was the inception of the Council of Higher Education. For twenty years the several denominations had pursued their own several courses in their own several ways. In 1893 certain of the principal educationalists in St. John 's conceived the idea of meeting to discuss and plan more uniform courses for all, and thus was the Council of Higher Education called into being by an Act of the legislature in May, 1893. In the terms of the Act its object was "To promote sound learning, and to advance the interests of higher education by holding examinations and by awarding diplomas, prizes, and scholarships to successful candidates for such examinations." The Council of Higher Education system carried on without interruption from 1894 to 1934, when it experienced some modification. That the system achieved its object cannot be denied. It generated interest, coordinated the work of all educational groups, and directly stimulated higher education.



Much has been written concerning education in Newfoundland . The histories of D. W. Prowse [See his History of Newfoundland], M. F. Howley, L. A. Anspach, and others, deal with various aspects of the subject. Material of primary importance may be found in the annual reports of the Newfoundland Department of Education, Council of Higher Education, and Memorial University College . Additional information may be found in G. Bolt, The Codner centenary (c. 1923); Newfoundland and British North American Soc., Proceedings (23rd report, London, 1846); Benevolent Irish Society, Centenary volume (Cork, c. 1906); V. P. Burke, Education in Newfoundland in J R. Smallwood (ed.), Book of Newfoundland (St. John's, 1937); W. F. Grenfell, Forty years for Labrador (Boston, c. 1910) and A Labrador doctor (London, 1924); T. Lodge, Dictatorship in Newfoundland (London, 1939); C. M. Coleman, School in Newfoundland (Empire Rev., 1941); Canada and Newfoundland education association, Trends in education, 1944, a survey ; R. A. MacKay (ed.), Newfoundland: economic, diplomatic, and strategic studies (Toronto, 1946); G. A. Frecker, Education in Newfoundland (Atlantic Guardian, 1945).

Back to Newfoundland Culture

Source:  Solomon P. WHITEWAY, "Education", in W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada. Newfoundland Supplement , Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1949, 104p., pp. 17-21.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College