Sydenham Public School

On June 10, 2009, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Friends of the Sydenham Public School unveiled a provincial plaque to commemorate the Sydenham Public School in Kingston, Ontario.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    This building, opened in 1853 as the Kingston County Grammar School, replaced the earlier Midland Grammar School, a log and frame structure located at King and Gore streets. The new building consisted of two classrooms and accommodated over 100 students on each storey. Its elegant symmetrical exterior, dressed stonework and expansive two-acre site testified to the importance of education to the local community. In 1876, the school was severely damaged by fire and subsequently reconstructed and enlarged through the addition of a rear wing. After the Kingston Collegiate Institute opened on Frontenac Street during the 1890s, Kingston County Grammar School became a primary school. It was named for Lord Sydenham (1799-1841), Governor General of British North America in 1839. The structure was expanded again in 1952. The successful operation and survival of this school is a testament to its architectural and historical significance to Kingston and to the development of public education in Upper Canada.


    Ce bâtiment ouvre ses portes en 1853 sous le nom de Kingston County Grammar School, en remplacement de la Midland Grammar School, une construction antérieure en pièce sur pièce qui se trouvait au croisement des rues King et Gore. Chaque étage du nouveau bâtiment compte une salle de classe pouvant accueillir plus de 100 élèves. La symétrie et l’élégance des abords extérieurs, la maçonnerie en pierre de taille et la superficie du terrain (deux acres) témoignent de l’importance accordée à l’éducation au sein de la collectivité locale. En 1876, un incendie endommage gravement le bâtiment, qui est par la suite reconstruit et agrandi par l’ajout d’une aile arrière. Après l’ouverture du Kingston Collegiate Institute sur la rue Frontenac dans les années 1890, la Kingston County Grammar School est transformée en école élémentaire. En 1839, on lui donne le nom de Lord Sydenham (1799-1841), gouverneur général de l’Amérique du Nord britannique. Le bâtiment est à nouveau agrandi en 1952. La réussite et la survie de cette école témoignent de son importance architecturale et historique pour la ville de Kingston et pour le développement de l’éducation publique dans le Haut-Canada.

Historical background

Sydenham Public School has operated as a school at 5 Clergy Street East in Kingston almost continuously since it was built in 1853. The evolution of the building and the educational institutions within it is tied directly to the early and somewhat tenuous years of secondary school education in Ontario. Its successful operation and survival is a testament to its architectural and historical significance to the history of Kingston and to the development of education in Upper Canada.

The history of today’s Sydenham Public School can be traced back to the passage of the 1807 District Public School Act. This legislation authorized annual subsidies from the provincial treasury for the financial support of one school above the primary level (then called a grammar school, now called a high or secondary school) in each of the colony’s seven existing districts. In the Midland District (today’s Frontenac, Lennox and Addington counties), this financial support was offered to the already existing school founded in 1792 by Reverend John Stuart. The Midland District Grammar School was located in a late-18th-century log and frame building on the corner of King Street East and Gore Street, in Kingston.1 By the late 1840s, the dilapidated condition of this structure condemned it for use as a public building and classes were held in rented quarters in the east wing of Summerhill, the residence of the then-schoolmaster, Reverend George O’Kill Stuart, who was John Stuart’s son.2

The province continued to advance economically and socially, and Kingston was named the capital of Upper Canada, a title it held from 1841 to 1844. A central educational bureaucracy was established under the Chief Superintendent of Schools, Reverend Egerton Ryerson, and a series of provincial enactments initiated the slow process toward compulsory, publicly supported education at the primary school level. In the mid-19th century, the province’s population was predominately rural, and agricultural pursuits were the occupation of the majority of the province’s workers. Attending school was just one of many childhood pursuits. Provincial authorities reported that 40 per cent of school-aged children never attended a school at all and, of those who did, many were present only occasionally.

In addition to the changes to educational reform, Ryerson was a strong advocate for new and improved school buildings that would provide healthier and conducive environments for successful learning to occur. To improve the design of school buildings, provincial authorities undertook a series of reformative measures. In 1848, they commenced publication of a monthly magazine aimed at school trustees — the Journal of Education for Upper Canada — which included numerous articles on school design and equipment, many derived from the 1848 edition of the pioneering American book, School Architecture by the noted Bostonian Henry Barnard. Two years later, the Legislature required the appointment of local school inspectors. These officers, chosen and paid by provincial authorities, enabled officials in Toronto to gather information about the quality of local schools, while transmitting the government’s wishes and standards directly to trustees.

In Kingston, a new permanent school was built on Clergy Street East to replace the earlier one located at King Street East and Gore Street. It opened in 1853 as the Kingston County Grammar School. Although the building itself was architecturally impressive for its use and time,3 it was emblematic of a period that had very different educational standards from the present.4

The pursuit of a secondary education was understood, at the time, to be necessary and possible only for a relatively small proportion of the province’s population ― males who were destined for university training or the professions. Only those who wished to pursue professional careers in the ministry, teaching, medicine and the law, rather than farming or industrial labour, needed to attend grammar school. The then-largely agrarian and rural society of Upper Canada required few people with training in grammar school subjects such as the sciences, advanced mathematics, classical languages such as Latin and Greek, and modern tongues such as French and German. Therefore, a small and specialized market made the province’s grammar schools few in number. Sydenham Public School is thus an important representative example of Ontario’s educational past.

Female students were not allowed access to secondary education until the passage of the School Act of 1871. Indeed, secondary school attendance was so rare in the 1850s that provincial educational officers did not bother to keep statistics on the number of attendees and graduates. In 1877 ― 10 years after Confederation ― less than two per cent of the pupils enrolled in the province’s public schools were students in post-primary institutions. Even into the 1920s, less than 10 per cent of the province’s youth went to public high schools.5

The original section of the Kingston Grammar School, rebuilt after a fire in 1876, exhibited the balanced façade and solid construction typical of Kingston’s public buildings of the period, but included Gothic decorative touches that recalled English cathedral schools of an earlier age. Among these elements are a triple lancet window over the main entrance and a Gothic revival porch.6 The design, the work of a yet-to-be-identified architect,7 was likely inspired by models illustrated in Henry Barnard’s School Architecture, a copy of which was provided to the Kingston school board before the final drawings were approved.8 The building’s original internal spatial arrangement hints at the nature of mid-century teaching, where students were instructed in large groups using memorization of textbook materials, and the notion of rigid grades and separate classes did not yet exist. Each floor consisted of a large, open space, the lower level accommodating 100 students and the upper storey up to 150. Five teachers managed classes in these two teaching areas. It is still possible to stand in the original building and imagine what those large open spaces must have been like.

In 1862, the grammar school and the Queen’s University Preparatory School ― both suffering from low enrolments and prohibitively expensive costs ― amalgamated and affiliated with Queen’s University. Thomas Gordon, a future university president, was principal. Over the years, additional subjects were introduced, including drawing, modern history and music. This expansion in the curriculum, coupled with growing student numbers, required the construction of additional classrooms to the rear of the original wing. This work was completed in 1876 at the same time that the 1853 building was rehabilitated and reorganized internally after a destructive fire. The Kingston architect Thomas Gage designed the new addition. Female students were admitted for the first time when the school reopened in January 1877.

By the 1880s, growth in the professions and the demand for educated professionals led to the transfer from a grammar school to a public collegiate institute, opened in 1892 and now known as Kingston CVI. The Clergy Street building became the home of Queens University’s School of Mining and Agriculture (now the Faculty of Applied Science at Queen’s University).

In 1936, the Clergy Street facility resumed its use as a public school when it became known as Sydenham Public School. The sequential expansion of the Kingston County Grammar School and its conversion to the Sydenham Public School represented the evolution of education in the province.9 Further structural expansion in 1952 and regular updating of the interior of all three wings resulted in a building that reflected the changing trends in schooling and in educational architecture in postwar Ontario.

The building was designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act in 1984. Sydenham Public School is presently owned and operated by the Limestone District School Board and serves the Sydenham Ward in Kingston. The school teaches students from kindergarten through Grade 8.

Sydenham Public School is the oldest known structure in this province still in use as a school that was originally used as a grammar, or high school.10 Distinctive among Ontario’s educational institutions in its design and age, Sydenham Public School fortunately remains as a building of architectural and heritage significance within the province and provides us with an excellent record of the development of public education in Upper Canada.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dana Johnson in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2009

1 Sir John A. Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada, attended this school as a boy.

2 Rev. George O’Kill Stuart previously served as the first headmaster of Jarvis Collegiate, Toronto, from 1812-1822. An Ontario Heritage Trust provincial plaque commemorating Jarvis Collegiate Institute is located on the grounds of the school, 495 Jarvis Street, Toronto. For more information, please see the online Plaque database.

3 Please see City of Kingston, Ontario. Buildings of Architectural and Historic Significance, Vol. 5, ed. Margaret Angus. Kingston: City of Kingston, 1980 and Jennifer McKendry, With Our Past Before Us: Nineteenth-Century Architecture in the Kingston Area. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, for architectural description and discussion.

4 In Ontario today, virtually everyone can attend a tax-supported secondary school. In 2009, 77 per cent of high school students graduate from Grade 12. See

5 The early history of secondary education in Ontario is discussed in Dana Johnson, “Pursuing Higher Education: Going to Secondary School in Ontario, 1800-1930,” Research Bulletin 214 (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1984) which may be updated by reference to the online exhibition at the Archives of Ontario website, entitled “Lessons Learned: The Evolution of Education in Ontario,” available at; by Susan E. Houston and Alison Prentice, Schooling and Scholars in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988); and by R.D. Gidney and W.P.J. Millar, Inventing Secondary Education: The Rise of the High School in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).

6 McKendry, p.20.

7 The building is often attributed to William Coverdale, City Architect for Kingston from 1846-1865. Coverdale was charged with designing schools for the city that followed an innovative style.

8 Provincial authorities purchased 400 copies of the 1848 edition of Barnard’s book and distributed a copy to every school board in the province. A second copy was provided to the Kingston board to guide them in the planning of the Kingston County Grammar School; see Jennifer McKendry, With Our Past Before Us: Nineteenth-Century Architecture in the Kingston Area (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), p.150. The 1855 version of Barnard’s book is available to readers online at

9 The history of the school after its opening in 1853 can be found at the school’s website.

10 The Cornwall Grammar School, in Cornwall, is the oldest grammar school institution still in existence (the original school building is no longer extant). It was founded by John Strachan in 1806. An Ontario Heritage Trust provincial plaque commemorating the Cornwall Grammar School is located at the Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School in Cornwall. For more information, please see the online Plaque database.