Cornwall Grammar School

On Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12 p.m., the Ontario Heritage Trust, the Upper Canada District School Board and the Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School unveiled a provincial plaque commemorating the Cornwall Grammar School at the Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School in Cornwall.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School traces its beginning to an educational institution founded by John Strachan in 1803. Strachan, an Anglican priest, opened a private school in his home where he hoped to educate young men to take on leading roles in society. In 1806 he built a schoolhouse that became one of the first provincially funded district grammar schools one year later. Many of Upper Canada’s elite received their education under Strachan’s respected and progressive tutelage. After he left for York (now Toronto) in 1812, various masters ran the Cornwall Grammar School. With provincial educational reform in 1871, it became Cornwall High School and began a new life as a modern secondary institution, becoming a collegiate in 1925, and adding vocational courses in 1938.


    L’école secondaire polyvalente Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School a pour origine l’établissement d’enseignement que fonda John Strachan, en 1803. Le révérend Strachan, prêtre anglican, ouvrit, à Cornwall, une école privée à son domicile dans l’espoir d’y former des jeunes hommes qui joueraient par la suite un rôle prépondérant dans la société. En 1806, il construisit une école qui devint, un an plus tard, la Cornwall Grammar School. Elle fut une des premières écoles à bénéficier d’un financement de la province. De nombreux membres de l’élite du Haut-Canada y firent leurs études sous la tutelle respectée et progressiste de l’estimé révérend Strachan. Après son départ pour York (désormais Toronto) en 1812, l’établissement fut dirigé par plusieurs administrateurs. En 1871, dans le cadre de la réforme de l’éducation provinciale, il fut rebaptisé Cornwall High School, et il entama une nouvelle vie comme établissement secondaire moderne. En 1925, il devint un « collegiate » qui encourageait la diversité. On y ajouta l’enseignement de divers métiers à compter de 1938.

Historical background

Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School is descended from a private school founded in 1803 by the Reverend John Strachan. That institution moved into a purpose-built structure in 1806, and became the Cornwall Grammar School in 1807 when the province of Upper Canada (now Ontario) provided oversight and funding for an early form of secondary education. Under Strachan’s direction, it probably was the finest such institution in the colony and attracted students from leading families in both Upper and Lower Canada (now Quebec). Strachan left Cornwall in 1812, but the school continued to serve the community for decades to come. When the post-Confederation province of Ontario enacted a law modernizing secondary education in 1871, the old grammar school became Cornwall High School and took on a new life in the changing environment of the latter 19th century. As the years passed, the school continued to grow and evolve to meet the needs of its students with vigour, as it does today.

John Strachan’s private school, 1803-07

John Strachan (1778-1867) was a Scot who received his education at the universities of Aberdeen and St. Andrews. He taught in his native country before moving to Canada in 1799 to work as a tutor to several prominent Kingston families. In 1803, the Anglican bishop of Quebec, Jacob Mountain, made Strachan a deacon and sent him to Cornwall to begin his parish ministry. Upon his arrival in Cornwall, Strachan opened a private school in his home. A year later, Mountain ordained him a priest and in 1839 Strachan was consecrated the first bishop of the new diocese of Toronto.1

John Strachan used his excellent reputation as a teacher and the connections he had made in Kingston to attract boys from prominent families to Cornwall, where he worked to educate them and encourage development of the gentlemanly, patriotic and religious virtues he believed would prepare them to take on leading roles in society. By 1804, he had about 20 students — a number that rose to 40 by 1808 (ranging in age from seven to 16).2 Strachan moved the school into his church, constructed late in 1805, and then, in 1806, into a new purpose-built structure at the southeast corner of Augusta and Second streets.3

Strachan’s curriculum — influenced by his Scottish experience but modified by Canadian needs — covered classics, history, religion, geography, science, English, public speaking, bookkeeping and arithmetic. Much of his teaching emphasized practical applications, as represented by the inclusion of land surveying in his mathematics classes. He even published his own 214-page arithmetic book in 1809 to meet colonial conditions.4

While in Cornwall, Strachan joined others to persuade the province to improve funding for education. In 1804, he successfully asked for money for “philosophical apparatus” for the colony’s schools. The legislature granted the school £400 for this purpose in 1806, with the instruments arriving in Cornwall three years later.5 He may have supplemented the appropriation with his own money to help purchase devices to teach astronomy, chemistry, electricity, hydrostatics, mechanics, optics, pneumatics and other subjects.6

Various students wrote about their experiences at Strachan’s school, either at the time they studied with him or later in their memoirs and other writings.7 One of them was Thomas G. Ridout from York (now Toronto), who provided this description in 1807: “I am now in the surveying class, and Mr. Strachan gives us a figure to work every night. We have made ourselves quadrants out of cherry-wood … and we are now in Euclid, sixth book, which is the furthest Mr. Strachan teaches his boys. … We are now making preparations for the examination … Some have to make their own speeches, and I among the number. The question is whether general history or biography is the most useful. Mr. Strachan has now been married nearly two months [to Ann Wood McGill]; he lives in great style, and keeps three servants. He is a great friend to the poor, and spends his money as fast as he gets it.”8

Strachan’s Cornwall Grammar School, 1807-12

The province of Upper Canada passed the District Public Schools Act in 1807. It represented an important early move by government into secondary education through giving £100 per annum per district to masters to operate a “public school.” Five trustees, chosen by the lieutenant-governor, oversaw the appointment and operations of each master. The law did not create free schools, as parents had to pay tuition (however, Strachan reduced his annual £10 fee or even did away with it altogether for a small number of students). Critics claimed that these schools primarily benefited the elite, especially those who lived in close proximity to them. Another concern was that grammar schools, with their focus on the classics and preparing students for university or the professions, did not meet the pressing demand for lower-level common schools in the colony. Many in the religiously diverse province objected to the schools’ close affiliation to the Church of England. In defence of grammar schools, people argued that they were needed to provide advanced education because parents otherwise would send their children to the United States, where — it was argued — students might be corrupted by republican sentiments, to the long-term detriment of Upper Canada.9

In 1812, John Strachan left Cornwall for the provincial capital of York to become master of the Home District Grammar School, rector of the Anglican parish and chaplain to the garrison and legislature.10 As part of the move, he conveyed the school and its land in Cornwall to the trustees, as the property had been granted to him personally.11

During the War of 1812, Strachan distinguished himself through his tireless service, for which he was rewarded with appointments to the provincial executive and legislative councils. He used his time in the colonial parliament to promote favourite causes, especially education at the primary, secondary and post-secondary levels. Strachan’s High Tory views, however, and his efforts to have the Church of England established as Upper Canada’s state religion put him at odds with many people in an age of reform and democratization. Today, history tends to condemn his conservatism rather than celebrate his achievements in education and in Canadian Anglicanism.12

The Grammar School, 1812-71

After John Strachan, a succession of clergy and laymen ran the Cornwall Grammar School, with the best known being the Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Hugh Urquhart, who served as master from 1827 to 1840.13 The school lost some of its status without Strachan and faced challenges from limited funding, uneven standards, inadequate oversight and increasing competition as colonial society matured and new educational institutions arose. Yet the number of students remained respectable. In 1827, for instance, eight girls and 30 boys attended the school.14 As well, people who would become prominent in the province’s history continued to study there — such as John Sandfield Macdonald, who led the government of the United Province of Canada from 1862 to 1864 and who was premier of post-Confederation Ontario from 1867 to 1872.15

In 1854, the school came under greater local control as part of the reforms introduced by the government superintendent of education at the time — the Methodist minister, the Reverend Egerton Ryerson. Another major development occurred in 1856 when a new, two-room brick building on the site of today’s school replaced Strachan’s 1806 structure. James Coyne, who taught at the school, recalled his experiences there: “I was headmaster — and the entire teaching staff … in 1871. My recollection is that there were 40 or more pupils, 25 classes and 25 hours a week to teach them in. The classes ranged from elementary English up to Latin, Greek, French, Euclid and bookkeeping. I am not sure but they included German and trigonometry. As I taught them all, the effort broke down my health, so that I was twice laid up with rather serious illness, and made up my mind at the end of the year to take up something easier — so I went back to law.”16

The modern secondary school, 1871-present

A major change occurred with the 1871 Act to Improve the Common and Grammar Schools of the Province of Ontario promoted by John Sandfield Macdonald’s government. That law created modern high schools and absorbed the old grammar schools into the reformed system. Significant changes included admitting male and female students on an equal basis, entry examinations, a relaxation of classical studies and an increase in the attention paid to English, modern languages and science.17

A few years later, in 1877, a new two-storey school opened as enrolment at Cornwall High School grew, followed in 1906 by the first of a number of enlargements and major renovations. By 1918, there were 240 students under the supervision of nine teachers. In 1925, the school met the provincial standards in terms of its teacher qualifications and facilities to become a collegiate institute. Then, with the introduction of courses in such areas as woodworking and home economics in 1938, its name changed to Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School.18 Since then, the school has continued to play a central role in the educational, social and cultural life of the community to the present time.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Carl Benn in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2006

1 G.M. Craig, biography of John Strachan, Dictionary of Canadian biography online, accessed November 2005.

2 Ibid.; Susan E. Houston and Alison Prentice, Schooling and scholars in 19th-century Ontario (Toronto, 1988), 72-73; and George W. Spragge, “The Cornwall Grammar School under John Strachan, 1803-1812,” Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records 34 (1942), 66.

3 Alexander Caldwell and Mary H. Stewart, “Historical sketch,” Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School website, accessed November 2005; Spragge, “The Cornwall Grammar School,” 64; Lady Matilda Ridout Edgar, ed. Ten years in Upper Canada in peace and war, 1805-1815 (Toronto, 1890), 25; and D.J. Phelps, John Strachan comes to Cornwall (Cornwall, c.1967), 19.

4 Craig, Strachan biography; Spragge, “The Cornwall Grammar School,” 68-71; and Houston and Prentice, Schooling and scholars, 72-73. Cf. John Strachan, A letter to the Rev. A.N. Bethune, rector of Cobourg, on the management of grammar schools (York, 1829); and John Strachan, A concise introduction to practical arithmetic (Montreal, 1809).

5 Houston and Prentice, Schooling and scholars, 24-25; and George W. Spragge, “John Strachan’s contribution to education,” Canadian Historical Review 22/2 (1941), 147-48.

6 Spragge, “The Cornwall Grammar School,” 66.

7 Some of them can be found in: Edgar, ed. Ten years in Upper Canada; Spragge, “The Cornwall Grammar School”; Alexander Neil Bethune, Memoir of the Right Reverend John Strachan (Toronto, 1870); and The Cornwall tribute: a piece of plate, presented to the Honourable and Venerable John Strachan (York, 1833). Strachan wrote voluminously on education, but texts by him of particular relevance to Cornwall can be found in The Cornwall tribute; and John Strachan, A letter to the Rev. A.N. Bethune.

8 Thomas G. Ridout to his father, June 16, 1807, in Edgar, ed., Ten years in Upper Canada, 25.

9 Houston and Prentice, Schooling and scholars, 25-27, 44.

10 Craig, Strachan biography.

11 A.H. Young, The mission of Cornwall, Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records 25 (1929), 483.

12 Craig, Strachan biography.

13 Caldwell and Stewart, “Historical sketch.”

14 Grammar and common school returns for 1827, in J. George Hodgins, ed. Documentary history of education in Upper Canada, volume 1 (Toronto, 1894), 227.

15 Caldwell and Stewart, “Historical sketch.”

16 James H. Coyne, 1932, in ibid.

17 Caldwell and Stewart, “Historical sketch,” Houston and Prentice, Schooling and scholars, 329-37; and Archives of Ontario online exhibit, “Lessons learned: the evolution of education in Ontario,” accessed November 2005.

18 Caldwell and Stewart, “Historical sketch”; and Archives of Ontario, “Lessons learned.”