"Catholic Schools for Catholic Children": The Making of a Roman Catholic School System in London, Ontario, 1850 to 1871

By Murphy, Michael F. | Historical Studies, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

"Catholic Schools for Catholic Children": The Making of a Roman Catholic School System in London, Ontario, 1850 to 1871


Murphy, Michael F., Historical Studies


By 1871, the year of Egerton Ryerson's last great public school act, the city of London, Ontario, had not only a well-developed system of public elementary and high schools but also generous provision for Catholic education. Twenty years earlier, this had not been the case. Most Catholic children had attended the Central School, the same institution as their Protestant peers, where teachers offered a program of study that ranged from the 3Rs to a superior education. This school was the pride of the city and a model for other urban communities across the province. Furthermore, it was attended by the vast majority (about 90 percent) of school-age children in the municipality regardless of faith or wealth (2) -- a phenomenon reflecting the broad-based social and cultural support for this flagship institution. Few private schools existed in the early 1850s; and about the only alternative to the Central School, and to some extent overshadowed by it, was the small, non-denominational grammar school. (3)

This amicable arrangement would be shattered over the next two decades. Fundamental social and economic changes in the city led to substantial modifications in the pattern of school provision, including the evolution of distinctive forms of schooling for Catholics. (4) Like their Protestant neighbours, Catholics developed two discrete forms of schooling after mid-century -- private institutions, for those who could afford them, and public (in their case, called "separate") schools, which since the early 1840s had been eligible for government education grants. During this period of reorganization, Catholic education emerged as an alternative system of education in London. That transition is examined here.

As the administrative centre for the district since its incorporation in 1826, London generally experienced moderate growth until the coming of the railway in December 1853, which dramatically transformed the community's economy and demography and consolidated its position as the metropolis for the southwestern part of the province. Railways initially created good times. Owing to a number of factors, however, not the least of which was the financial depression of 1857, the economic boom quickly turned into a bust, leaving many Londoners in dire circumstances and forcing thousands to leave the city. By the end of the decade, a general upturn in international trade and an oil boom in nearby Lambton County led to London's economic recovery.

Railways promoted dramatic demographic growth too. The number of London residents swelled from approximately 7,000 in 1852 to 15,000 three years later. The population reached 17,000 in 1858 before dropping to just over 11,500 in 1860. (5) More important than the sheer increase in population, however, was the recasting of its social character. During the mid-1850s, a wave of Famine Irish -- most of whom were Catholic and working class -- and of fugitive slaves flooded into formerly white, British, Protestant, respectable London. The impact on the common schools was profound. The population boom precipitated an immediate scarcity of teachers and school places; and it fundamentally altered the sexual, racial, religious, and class composition of the student population, leading to significant discipline problems and discriminatory attitudes. In reaction, many parents removed their children from the common schools and sent them to other institutions. This action fragmented the student population and removed these state-supported schools from their position of dominance (see Tables 1 and 2).

Where did these pupils go and why? One alternative used by wealthy middle- and upper-class Catholic and Protestant families, riding the crest of the economic boom, was to enroll their children in London's expensive grammar and private schools. Enrollments at the grammar school, a male-only preserve, almost doubled in the mid-1850s, while the number of private schools for boys and girls soared from a handful in the early 1850s to about forty-five during the second part of the decade. …

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