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Pickering College's roots interwined with local Quakers (14 photos)

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the history of the world-renowned private school that has called Newmarket home since 1909

Pickering College has been part of the landscape in Newmarket since 1909, located on an approximately a 17-hectare (42-acre) property on Bayview Avenue, but it has been serving the educational needs of Ontario’s youth since 1842. Let us take a brief look at its illustrious history and hopefully gain a new appreciation for its Quaker roots.

At one time, Pickering College was a male-only institution, however, true to the Society of Friend’s belief in equality, education was meant to be universal and in its earliest days it included young women students, as well as males, within its walls.

Pickering College was founded in 1842 by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), at the urging of Joseph John Gurney, who was a member of the Newmarket Quakers. It was originally located in West Lake, near Picton, Prince Edward County on a piece of land donated by Gurney. He insisted the institution be co-educational, as is the Quaker custom. 

In 1871, the provincial legislature incorporated the school. Pickering is the second oldest private school in Ontario, only Upper Canada College has been around longer.  

In 1878, the school was moved to the Village of Pickering, just east of Toronto, where they would enjoy improved facilities conducive to the growth of the school. However, during the Christmas break in 1905, a massive fire engulfed the school and it was decided that the school should relocate to another suitable Quaker location and, thankfully, Newmarket was chosen.

Our mayor at the time, Mr. Roadhouse, enticed the school to relocate here by offering it free water and electricity. This turned out to be an outstanding decision, with Pickering College becoming part of the very fabric of our community.

The main Georgian-style building, Roger’s House, was opened in 1909, designed by architect John Lyle, who would also design Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.

As part of the property, adjacent to the campus, a fully operational farm once provided food for the school kitchen. In the winter, the fields and slopes down to them could be used by the students for skiing and sledding. The farm and parts of the original property become the College Manor housing development; such is progress.

Rogers House has been involved in two fires, which caused extensive damage. 

In 1979, fire broke out in the master’s apartment in the lower south corridor. The fire had already taken hold by the time it was detected, but thanks to the quick actions of the fire department, the actual damage was confined to an apartment and minor smoke damage to the corridor. 

In November 1981, in a near-repeat of the events of 1905 in the Town of Pickering, fire again broke out in Rogers House. Due to some of the more primitive materials used in the building's original construction, the fire accelerated quickly and caused extensive damage to the southern wing of the building and water damage throughout the school. Thankfully. the events of 1905 were not repeated, and the school would embark on a major reconstruction and renovation program. It is at this time that portions of the property were sold off to help meet the restoration costs.

Ultimately, the fire brought about the end of Rogers House's long existence as both dormitory and schoolhouse. Except for the headmaster's house attached to the back of the building, there would be no living quarters in Rogers House, which from this point forward would house only classrooms, laboratories and administration offices. 

Drawing from some of the lessons of the 1981 fire, in 1983, a new three-storey residence (dubbed New House) for teachers and students was constructed using a cinderblock design to render the building as fireproof as possible. 

The end of the 1980s also saw the complete renovation of Firth House, again changing the function of a formerly dual-use building – classrooms in Firth House were eliminated in favour of new residences for teachers and the building became entirely residential in nature. 

We are all aware that Quakers are anti-war, pacifist if you will, and will not participate in any armed aggression or allow their taxes to support war. In 1916, the board of Pickering College decided to donate the building to the Canadian government as a military convalescent hospital as their contribution to the war effort.   

In 1917, all school assets, property and endowments were transferred by act of provincial parliament from the Quakers to an independent not-for profit corporation. The College was closed, and the facilities transformed into a hospital. Many of our First World War returning heroes called Pickering College home, the facility being the site of their recovery, close to family and friends.  

The school would not re-open until 1927, opening as a boys boarding school under Joseph McCulley as its headmaster and Taylor Statten as its director of character education. The enrolment of girls was suspended. It was not until the early 1990s that girls were welcomed back to the halls of Pickering.

Pickering was to experiment with several different educational concepts when it reopened but the principals of Dewey progressive education were adopted. 

Pickering has enjoyed a successful and unique level of educational success over the years. Interestingly, there is no corporal punishment and an emphasis on both physical and health education has long been integrated into the curriculum.

The campus underwent a renovation in the 1980s under the leadership of headmaster Sheldon Clark. The campus was transformed into a 21st-century centre of learning with a massive expansion.

Pickering College has become world-renowned and serves boys and girls from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, both as day students and as boarders from around the world, adding to the multicultural feel of our town.  

Pickering College has been interwoven in the history of this community since its arrival.  Edward S. Rogers, father of the late Ted Rogers of Rogers Communications fame, was a teacher at Pickering College, having attended it in his youth.  

While teaching there, he invented the battery-less radio, which would revolutionize the communications industry.  He would go on to establish a communications empire that would eventually become Rogers Communications. I would occasionally meet Ted Rogers at business functions, and he would always express his family’s pride in their association with Pickering College and Newmarket.  It was, after all, his distant relative, Timothy Rogers, who brought all those Pennsylvania Quakers to Newmarket back in 1801.

It has also been said that the distress call from the Titanic in April 1912 was first heard locally, long before the news outlets got wind of the disaster, by those huddled in the ham radio room at Pickering College. 

In December 1921, Edward Rogers sent a radiotelegraph from Pickering College in Newmarket to Ardrossan, Scotland, the farthest distance at the time for any trans-Atlantic communication by telegraph! A plaque was placed on the wall of the headmaster’s office to commemorate the feat.

Pickering College still clings to its Quaker roots as the site of the Quaker Archives and Library of Canada, which are housed in the Arthur Garratt Dorland Reference Library — a great local resource.

Pickering College, like many other Newmarket sites from our past, is said to have a ghost. The apparition of the Grey Lady, believed to be a nurse who worked in the school many years ago, is said to haunt the site. There have been periodic 'sightings’ over the years, including a photograph of the entire staff and student body of the school assembled for their annual school picture on the front steps of Rogers House. It is said that visible in a first-floor window to the left of the assembled group there appeared to be the ghostly image of a face looking out toward the camera. No proof of the ghost's existence has ever been proven, but I suppose it does make for a popular folktale among the Pickering College community. 

Sources: The Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Quakers in Canada – A History by Arthur G. Dorland; Pickering College – Progress by Perseverance by George W. Luesby 1992; Rogers puts Town on the Broadcast Map  - Newmarket Era by Andrew Hind

****** brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].