Elora had to fight to appoint David Boyle principal

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.|Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

This is the first part of a three column series on David Boyle, Elora’s outstanding educator.

David Boyle’s name has already appeared several times in this column. The key figure in Elora’s 19th century intellectual life, Boyle enriched the village with his pioneering work in ecology, geology, and archaeology. His labours as public school principal and teacher, and his pet project, the Elora Museum, brought him renown far beyond the village of Elora.

Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1842, David Boyle came to Canada with his family in 1856, settling in Salem, where his father, John, worked in a blacksmith’s shop. John Boyle was a skilled blacksmith and wheelwright, and soon found a better position in the locomotive shops of the Great Western Railway, in London.

John Boyle valued learning and literacy, and instilled these values in his son; in Scotland, he had sent young David to a private school. When his father went to London, David Boyle went to Eden Mills to apprentice as a blacksmith.

He completed his apprenticeship in 1860, at the age of 18. He had already determined that he would not spend the rest of his life working at a forge. Inspired by his father’s fondness for learning and literacy, Boyle made plans to continue his schooling, and began to set his sights on a career as an educator.

His plans became resolute after he heard a lecture given in Guelph by Elihu Burritt, the American “Learned Blacksmith.” At the time, Burritt ranked high on the lecture circuit as a temperance and anti-slavery orator. He was a brilliant scholar and linguist, though he had virtually no formal schooling.

Burritt’s self-education served as a continuing inspiration for David Boyle. Burritt’s Guelph lecture also provided an early example of David Boyle’s energy and determination; He walked from Eden Mills to Guelph after a full day’s work to hear Burritt, and back home again the same night.

The opportunity to attend Elora’s Grammar School attracted Boyle to this village in 1860. He found a job at Hugh Hamilton’s blacksmith shop on Carleton Place, and boarded with the Hamilton family while continuing his studies with the Rev. J.G. MacGregor, the headmaster of the school. Because he worked, Boyle could not always attend classes, and had to study on his own a great deal of the time. Some of the subjects on the classically-oriented curriculum — specifically Greek, Latin, and French — gave Boyle trouble, but he excelled at literature, history, and geography.

When he graduated in 1864, Boyle wrote additional examinations to acquire a teaching certificate. At the time, the test consisted of little more than a literacy test; there was no formal training or even any educational requirements. In January of 1865, Boyle abandoned the forge permanently when he accepted appointment as the teacher at Middlebrook school in Pilkington township. (The log schoolhouse on Middlebrook Road, the extension of David St in Elora, was replaced by a stone schoolhouse, which is now a residence.)

When they hired David Boyle, the Middlebrook school trustees anticipated that his brawn would cure a history of discipline problems at the school; fistfights between the teacher and some of the older students had been regular occurrences at the school.

Boyle tried something different; he appealed to the sense of honour of the students, stating on the first day that he could see they were all gentlemen and would do nothing to disrupt the classroom. He never had any problems.

Though he possessed no formal training as a teacher, Boyle was obsessed with theories of education, and had been even when he was still an apprentice blacksmith. For 20 years, he built a collection of scrapbooks containing articles and lectures on teaching methods, and he bought or borrowed every teaching manual he could find.

As his own thoughts on the subject firmed up, Boyle increasingly rejected the rote learning and memorization of facts that often passed for education in the 19th century. Instead, he developed a child-centred philosophy that encouraged reasoning and understanding, fostered by the students’ own natural curiosity about the things around them.

He rejected a formal curriculum with specific times for individual subjects. Instead, he would bring an object, or an article from a newspaper, into the classroom — and build a lesson around it. In good weather, he had his students outside on field trips, studying scientific subjects and geography. Boyle believed that over the course of a year he would cover everything that was included on a formal and rigid course of study. He desired to impart skills to his students that would allow and encourage them to continue their self-education through the rest of their lives.

Boyle was not the only teacher in the province to use these methods, but he did push them further than most other teachers, and he gave them his own personal stamp, derived from his own background in the workshop. He especially valued practical subject matter. He also emphasized good grammar and proper pronunciation, telling his students that slang and dialect would hold them back in their careers.

Swimming as he was against the stream of 19th-century educational practices, Boyle soon found critics. As a consequence, inspectors and ratepayers’ committees often visited the school; invariably, Boyle and his methods were vindicated each time. During his six years at Middlebrook, his reputation spread through the area, leading to the next step in his career.

In August of 1871, J.M. Fraser, Elora’s volatile reeve, invited David Boyle to apply for the position of principal at the Elora Public School.

Compulsory schooling had just been introduced in Ontario. The Elora School was nearing the end of a period of restructuring and turmoil that had begun in 1866. Since the beginning of public school education in Elora, the board had maintained a boys’ school and a girls’ school, in separate buildings and with differing course matter. In 1866, the board constructed a new boys’ school adjoining the girls’ school. (Both structures still exist as part of the Elora Art Centre) Additional construction took place in 1867, 1870, and 1871.

Against the recommendations of the inspector, the board began the process of integrating the two schools in 1869. The changes and developments at the school created contention in the village and animosity among the board members, which culminated in the controversial appointment of David Boyle as principal in 1871. Supported by men on the school board who were familiar with his methods, Boyle received the appointment over four other applicants who had better qualifications.

Though he had many friends in Elora, Boyle’s appointment created controversy. Some residents complained that the least qualified man had been hired; the Ontario department of education informed the board that Boyle’s second-class certificate did not allow him to be a principal. Fraser and others on the board told the Toronto bureaucrats, in effect, to “Go to blazes.” Boyle kept the job, and held it for ten years.

Boyle had his hands full when he began his new job. He had been a one-man show at Middlebrook School; now he had a staff of three other teachers to supervise, and a parsimonious board to battle to get his classrooms fitted properly. The integration of the two schools had to be completed, and there were additional administrative duties, as well as larger classes, with the introduction of compulsory schooling.

Boyle had a hand in the design of the school. The relatively small windows provided Boyle and the other teachers with plenty of wall space for maps, charts, and diagrams. All six rooms had windows on three sides for cross-ventilation. The Elora Museum began upstairs in the north wing; it was later moved downstairs to facilitate the handling of large crowds. The trees were planted by Boyle and his students as a class project in conservation; a single specimen from this planting still survives.

One of his first tasks was to get additional seating in the school. Classes often were standing room only, with 290 on the register and average attendance of 210 in a four-room school. Boyle persuaded the board to install a school bell to encourage punctuality, and was even able to get money for maps, charts, and other teaching aids.

On taking over the school, Boyle discovered the books belonging to the Elora Mechanics Institute library. The Mechanics Institute had been idle for a number of years. Boyle enlisted the support of several Elora residents, and reorganized the library, moving it out of the school to a room over Robert Mitchell’s harness shop on Mill Street.

Mechanics Institute libraries were originally conceived as a means for working men to improve their knowledge and to provide a healthy alternative to saloons, race tracks, and other amusements. In practice, few working men joined, and most were dominated by businessmen, clerks, and clergymen.

Under Boyle’s influence, the Elora Mechanics Institute built a broad base of support and membership, which quickly reached the 200 mark; the $1 annual fee represented a day’s wages to many working men.

Boyle viewed the library as an important part of adult education. He prepared lists of new books, and posted them all over the village, in factories, public places, even the barrooms. He organized, on his own time, a series of night classes, and tried to expand the library to include books of interest to women. He urged the other directors of the Institute to admit women as members of the board, but this proposal was too radical for his colleagues.

As principal, Boyle completed the integration of courses for boys and girls. He believed that women were fully capable of understanding scientific subjects and solving mathematical problems. The needlework and etiquette classes that had filled the girls’ curriculum disappeared from the Elora school. Boyle’s opinions on this matter were shared by many in the village: a number of families through the 1860s had insisted on sending their daughters to the boys’ school.

To be continued next week.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Aug. 11 and 18, 1992.

Thorning Revisited