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REMEMBER THIS: 'Impressive' addition to early Newmarket school included 200-lb roof-top bell

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the early day of education in Newmarket

In my continuing series on local schools, I am stepping back to look at the history of education in Newmarket.

The records are sketchy in regards to the early schools of Newmarket. The first class in the little trading post of the New Market was said to have been held in the basement of William Roe’s house, at the corner of Main and Water Streets with William Barber as the teacher. He would later own a hotel on Eagle Street, and the school, taught by a Mr. Snowden, would continue in a building adjoining this hotel.

The first public school in Newmarket to be regulated by a set of trustees was conducted by George Evans in a part of the old Judd distillery on D’Arcy Street, the site of the present house located at 452. In a note attached to part of the minutes of an early school meeting, it is stated that “the Common School was established in Newmarket in 1823".

School board records in the local newspaper state: “On January 1st, 1845, at a school meeting of School District No. 1, in the village of Newmarket and Township of Whitchurch, held in the District School House this evening, the following gentlemen were elected to serve as trustees for the ensuing months: Mr. Joseph Hewitt, Mr. John L. Botsford, and Mr. R.H. Smith.”

The account goes on to state that in April 1845, Nathaniel N. Harris was engaged as teacher at a cost of 75 pounds currency per annum. We are also informed that income received from Township School Fund was set at 38 pounds, 10 shillings, 7 pence. There were 55 children attending school, while there were 100 in the district between the ages 5 and 6.

Joseph Hartman was appointed superintendent of the Common Schools, and in December 1845, the trustees reported to the superintendent that the teacher was “duly qualified.” A report was submitted in 1846 that the amount of government money received to date was 25 pounds, 3 shillings, 9 pence. Trustees elected at this time were Lot Hartman, Eli Gorham and J.D. Collins.

On April 20, 1824, Robert Srigley deeded a portion of Lot No. 34 on the Second Concession of the Township of Whitchurch for a school, about half an acre of land, on the east side of Prospect Street known as the Alexander Muir School grounds.

It is said that there had been a log building on this school site as early as 1818 or 1819, built at a cost of $300 to $400. Levi Parsons was the builder and William Barber was the first teacher. 

Records indicate that Nathaniel Harris was considered an excellent teacher and it was during his regime that the school was transferred from Main Street to the new Prospect site, to a building of frame construction, 24 feet square. Years later when it was replaced as a school, it was moved across the road and converted into a house.

In it the desks were set around the wall and the stove was in the centre, which was the usual style. The seats were pine slabs with the flat side upwards, with legs tenoned into the underside. School was held on Saturday in those days, but often a half-day holiday was granted, depending upon how successful the pupils had been in the reviews and the spelling matches.

Succeeding Harris up to 1854 were the teachers Mr. Pringle, Mr. Shaw, Robert Moore, Thomas Nixon, Mr. Monger, Mr. Latham, and Mr. Wallace. It seems certain that the building where these teachers taught was erected after the log school as it is referred to in the municipal accounts of November 1854, when “the trustees proposed selling the old schoolhouse on Prospect Street as the new one was now ready.”

The contract for this new schoolhouse, was drawn on April 4, 1854 and the cost was 297 pounds. The builder was Robert Brodie of Newmarket and at that time the trustees were William Sullivan, J.B. Caldwell, and J.D. Collins.

This new schoolhouse was a frame building about 18 feet long by 16 feet wide and was heated by a box stove near the front door. On each side of the room were long desks built in various heights and above each was a shelf composed of a flat piece of wood about six inches wide upon where the pupils placed their books and slates.

Benches without backs were placed on both sides with lower desks to accommodate the smaller children. At the back of the room a platform was raised for the teacher in front of which there was a table. In front of this the several classes were required to stand while being taught or their lessons recited. Because the building was so small, non-resident children were not permitted to attend.

In January 1854, the trustees were empowered to raise the sum of 50 pounds for purchase of a school library and they proceeded to borrow this amount.

Then in 1854, John C. Moulton started as the teacher at a salary of 100 pounds annually. The number of students was increasing and, in 1856, the board erected a partition to divide the building into two classrooms and employed a second teacher for the junior pupils.

Newmarket had become an incorporated village in 1858 and in January, John Bogart, the returning officer, gave notice of an election for six "fit and proper persons for school trustees." Those elected were Samuel Roadhouse, Elwood Hughes, E.D. Rogers, Robert Morrison, J.B. Caldwell and John Davison.

It was often difficult for parents to pay the school fees, small as they may have been, and in several instances, children were permitted to attend without charge.

The ancient books constitute a roll of names of the prominent early citizens who helped to lay the foundations of Newmarket: Pearson, Brodie, Raper, Smith, Caldwell, Botsford, Cawthra, Hartman, Srigley, Irwin, Elton, Robinson, Mosier, Hewitt, Simpson, Gorham, Currey, Culverwell, Lount, Hollingshead, Wasley, Nash, Cotter and Southard.

This new school board settled into business quickly and advertised for a new teacher to replace Moulton, who had resigned. Robert Alexander was hired and he taught from 1858 to 1873. Miss Frances Vernon was the assistant teacher. Rev. Thomas Baker was appointed local superintendent of the school district. The school at this time was rated as “second to none in the province,” with 250 scholars.

A decision was made to employ John Stokes, an architect from Sharon, to submit plans for a building to be attached to the present schoolhouse at a cost not to exceed $1,000. Town council asked that the proposed addition be “something creditable to the village and calculated to make an appearance.”

The plan submitted by Stokes was objected to on the grounds there “would be too much mingling of boys and girls, to which the ratepayers would be opposed.” In July 1859, plans again were submitted by Stokes and this time they were accepted.

The contract to enlarge the school on Garbutt Hill was awarded to Robert Brodie, who had tendered for $1,109. As the council had desired, the building was planned to be quite impressive. Wings were to be added to the north and south sides of the existing building, with an addition at the east end, and topped by a metal dome. In 1862, a belfry “not to cost more than $500” was constructed and, in 1863, they decided to purchase a bell of not less than 200 pounds from the Troy Bell Foundry.

The construction work continued throughout the summer, and the August examinations had to be postponed until the fall. In September, the noise on the roof so disturbed the classes that school was dismissed for two days.

They advertised in 1862 for an assistant female teacher holding a second-class Normal School certificate, qualified to teach vocal music and needlework. The board procured 15 cords of wood and a suitable stove at a cost of five pounds.

The school tax rate in 1862 was 12 cents a month. This was to be abolished in 1863, but pupils deemed non-resident and over 21 were required to pay 50 cents per month. Frequently in those days, pupils were advanced in age because the boys, and sometimes even the girls, were kept at home because of the need for their labor on the farm. As a result, their weeks of school attendance were limited.

Before the school year had ended, the board found the abolition of the school rates to be unsatisfactory and they decided to restore them and increase them to 15 cents. It seems the bell ringer himself was to be paid approximately $36.

According to the Era, in October 1859, Alexander was told to attend the next board meeting “to answer the charges of allowing the girls to play shinny with the boys and also romping with the boys.” It was “decided that a three-inch picket fence, five feet high, be built from Prospect Street to the schoolhouse ----; also a line fence be erected beside the church yard”.

In 1872, diphtheria became epidemic in the village and many young lives were cut short. This was unfortunately followed by a smallpox outbreak in 1873.

Alexander, who is mentioned above, resigned in 1872. He was deemed a very thorough teacher and a strict disciplinarian. He won the confidence of the pupils and esteem of the public to such an extent that when a second teacher was required at the Grammar School on Millard Avenue, he was invited to occupy the position.

The board asked that the Board of Examiners consisting of the current reeve, the Rev. John Brown, and the local superintendent visit the school three or four times a year. The result were motions of congratulation conveyed to the teachers for the efficiency displayed by the scholars.

The school board meetings were usually held in the Court House at the Railway Hotel and annual statements were issued to the ratepayers concerning the finances, supervision and progress of the school.

When the public school system was established by law in Upper Canada, there were many who opposed the establishment of free public schools. The argument was that it was unfair to place levies on their tax bills for educational costs of other people’s children. I often hear his complaint today.

The Quakers on Yonge Street advocated for its adoption as universal education was a plank of their basic beliefs. Canon Ramsay had been an early opponent until one day a wedding party of four persons had arrived at his Rectory to be married and not one of them could read or write his or her name. He became a convert and championed the proposal of public schools.

Following the resignation of Alexander in December 1872, the application of Alexander Muir (of Maple Leaf Forever fame) was considered. It was moved by Nelson Botsford, and seconded by Charles Elvidge, that his application be accepted, offering him a salary of $500, with an increase of $50 at the end of six months if his work was satisfactory.

By March of 1873, the board members must have been so favourably impressed with the work of their new principal that they decided to increase his salary to $600 and pay monthly. He was the first to teach music in the school and he was especially noted for the deportment of his pupils. For this reason, when a new and larger school came to be built in 1891, the trustees honoured his memory by naming the school after him.

Muir resigned from his teaching position in December 1874, and in April 1875, upon the resignation of E.P. Irwin, our village clerk, Muir was appointed to succeed him and held the position until Jan. 10, 1876, when he left Newmarket to teach in a public school at Beaverton.

Several private schools flourished in Newmarket and an occasional citizen who had the benefit of a higher education would tutor a few pupils. Dr. Beswick held classes for some locals like Joseph Millard. The wife of Elisha Beman taught the scholastic requirements of the day to local young ladies. During the mid-1840s, Miss Henry taught a junior private school in a house on D’Arcy Street.

In 1854, Mrs. Warner, the daughter of an English army officer, conducted a school on Garbutt Hill but moved to Main Street approximately where Stuart Beare was located. In 1855, her rates were: pupils under 8 years paid 10 shillings; over 8 years, 15 shillings; music lessons 1 pound, 10 shillings; singing 1 pound, 10 shillings; boarders without music instruction 7 pounds, 5 shillings.

In 1857, Mrs. Bayly, with her two daughters, came to Newmarket from Toronto and opened a private school on Prospect Street for the instruction of English, French and music. She had been a governess in Montreal and was very proficient.

In 1858, council approved the “purchase of a site and erection of a school for females”. This was a small log building on Mill Street run by Mrs. Bayly, standing on the west side of the Episcopal Methodist Church and to it the Dudleys, Sykes, Jacksons, Botsfords, McCrackens, Roadhouses, and Woods, as well as other well-known families, sent their children.

In later years she taught in a house on Tecumseh Street. At this time, Miss Burns conducted a private school on Garbutt Hill opposite the public school grounds. Miss Hackett opened a private school on Mill Street (Queen) in 1862. Miss Collins taught music at the residence of Dr. Collins in 1862 and Miss Bache had a school on Garbutt Hill in 1868.

At the time, a barbering school was in operation on Eagle Street, and a very successful private school was being taught by a Mrs. Moffat and her three daughters in a frame building on Main opposite where the Royal Hotel was built, at Main and Millard. A private school was also conducted in the house of Samuel Sykes at the corner of Main and Ontario streets.

For more information on the Grammar School or the Alexander Muir school, check out my earlier article on Newmarket Today.

Sources: The Quakers in Canada by Arthur G. Dorland; The County School Records. Newmarket Era; The Evening Telegram, August 1909; A History of Newmarket Schools by George Luesby; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; National Archives.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews. You can reach him at