School's out ... back then

Benson
Benson Hewitt
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Schools here on Fogo Island finished for the summer a few weeks ago now. When we consider what schools are like now, how qualified our teachers are, what technology is available, and the conveniences even the smallest schools have now, we find it hard to explain to children today what schools were like only a few generations ago.

I remember a two-room school teaching from Grades 1-11 in two crowded classrooms heated by a potbelly stove that was forever filling the classroom with smoke. There was no water even if you were dying from thirst, which I remember myself being many times. Our toilet facilities were an outdoor building that nobody ever inspected. We, too, undoubtedly, were asking what schools were like several generations before that and perhaps thought those schools must have been even worse. Perhaps they were. Perhaps not, in some ways.

The view from Fogo Island - Schools here on Fogo Island finished for the summer a few weeks ago now. When we consider what schools are like now, how qualified our teachers are, what technology is available, and the conveniences even the smallest schools have now, we find it hard to explain to children today what schools were like only a few generations ago.

I remember a two-room school teaching from Grades 1-11 in two crowded classrooms heated by a potbelly stove that was forever filling the classroom with smoke. There was no water even if you were dying from thirst, which I remember myself being many times. Our toilet facilities were an outdoor building that nobody ever inspected. We, too, undoubtedly, were asking what schools were like several generations before that and perhaps thought those schools must have been even worse. Perhaps they were. Perhaps not, in some ways.

Recently, I was reading the school inspector's remarks for Fogo District in the 'The Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland for the year 1861 - that's almost 150 years ago. It gives us some insight what was taught then, what the buildings were like, and what the salaries of teachers were. Salaries may have been low, but in the '50s a teacher's salary could be as low as $600 a year. Certainly attendance wasn't compulsory, and you can be sure that a great number of children did not attend and the most of those who did not get far beyond Grades two or three.

Fogo, July 10th, 1857

The Journal records that an inspection took place of the school in Fogo on July 10, 1857. It seems that the school was operated by the Church of England, as it would have been called then. The teacher was a Martin Stone. At that time his salary was just over 69 pounds. I have no idea what the pound would have been worth in Newfoundland dollars, which was introduced later. However, when I was in school I remember the English pound then being worth $4.86, because some of our arithmetic problems would involve English pounds. Mr. Martin had in his classroom 56 children, of whom 32 were boys and 24 girls. The subjects being taught were Writing, Reading, Arithmetic, and Geography. The report also says 265 school days were recorded. That seems like an awful long school year. The supervisor on this particular day reported that the examination he held of several classes was entirely satisfactory. He said that although many of the first class were absent, the character of the school was well sustained by those who were present. The supervisor also reported that the answers to questions he had given on subject read proved that there was much intelligence. He further reported that the school was abundantly supplied with suitable books, and that the whole establishment was in a creditable order. He was pleased also to note that some patrons of the community had instituted a circulating library, and that the teacher, Mr. Martin was librarian. He concluded by saying that such an auxiliary to education should be in every harbour. That bit of advice, I suspect, was sadly neglected, because when I went to school you'd be hard pressed to find either book that wasn't a textbook.

Fogo, July 5th, 1845: Roman Catholic Board

This report said that a Roman Catholic school was kept by a Patrick Dwyer and that he was a careful and pains-taking man, though perhaps of humble ability. (I guess that that read "not too qualified.") On the day of inspection the register indicated that 37 pupils had registered but on July 5, only half of them were present. The inspector noted that most of the students were learning spelling, that five or six were learning the first rules in arithmetic, and about the same number had begun reading. He described the classroom as small and inconvenient; in fact he said that it was little more than a tilt. Meanwhile, he commented on its neatness and cleanliness. The teacher's salary was 15 pounds per year.

Barr'd Islands, 1858

An inspection of a school took place in Barr'd Islands in 1858, but no specific date is given. The teacher there was Isaac Haggett, and his salary was just over 34 pounds a year. The report went on to say that Mr. Haggett was old, and didn't make use of his fishing vacation. From that we gather that teachers back then supplemented their income during the summer by fishing. Mr. Haggett had in his classroom 46 children, with 28 boys and 18 girls. That may be revealing because it was probably felt that girls did not need education the same as boys. The subjects taught were the 3R's, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. He reported that a new school was nearly completed, and although not quite finished, school was being held in it. Prior to that he reported that school had been held in a cooper's shop.

The day the supervisor was at the school there were 20 present. He reported that in the first class there were six, and that they did well in reading, writing and ciphering as far as compound rules. (Anybody in Barr'd Islands good at 'ciphering' those days? I must say that I am stumped on 'compound rules!) He made a second comment on the fact that Mr. Haggett was old. He said that although he was old and infirm, he managed as well as many younger masters, being willing to do his best to advance his scholars.

Change Islands, July 9th, 1856

An inspection was made of the school on Change Islands on July 9 of 1856. There the teacher was John Janes, and that his salary was over 40 pounds. He had on the register 58 pupils, with 30 boys and 28 girls. A total of 230 school days were recorded. (Another long year!). Here again Arithmetic, Writing, and Reading were the subjects taught. A concluding note says that the school had been held in a cooper's shop, and that a schoolroom was being built. This was reported also for Barr'd Islands, so it is possible that that applies to only one of the school. In his report on his examination of the children, he said that 36 were present, and that the 10 in the first class acquitted themselves admirably in reading, questions on the subject, in ciphering, and writing from dictation. He went on to say that several work in the 'Rule of Three' readily, (whatever that is,) and that two are in 'Fellowship.' He was very impressed by the large proportion of readers, and made a point of saying that no one was in the "Alphabet'. I presume that that means that every student was beyond the learning of the alphabet. (I can remember that. Do you remember when a child was considered smart if he could say his alphabet before he went to school?) He concluded by saying that it was a most creditable school and that the master's salary should be 50 pounds at least. (Does anybody remember a supervisor we used to have here called Mr. Guy? I can't believe that he ever recommended that any teacher should get a higher salary.)

Now, let me get back to Mr. Stone in Fogo. The Twillingate Sun for June 2, 1888, something like 30 years later, reported that he had resigned. It had this to say: ...Fogo loses the services to its school of Mr. Martin Stone, a well-known and experienced helper, who for many years has done good work and who now finds the infirmities of age too great to continue. It is regretted that no provision is made to meet cases such as this. When a person spends the greater part of his life in such a cause, surely some amount in the way of a retiring allowance ought to be provided. (Here am I complaining because our present government won't index teachers' pensions!)

There were no reports for the rest of the island, so it is most likely that schools had not yet been started, with the exception, most likely, of Tilting. Records seem to indicate that the Methodists (the forerunner of the United Church) had a school operating in Fogo in 1876.

benson.hewitt@nf.sympatico.ca

Organizations: House of Assembly of Newfoundland, Church of England, United Church

Geographic location: Fogo District, Newfoundland, Change Islands

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