Waterdown’s First High School, Main Street South

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, September 2007
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Before 1850, education beyond Public School for the majority of Waterdown students was rarely considered necessary. Although the village had two of the earliest schools at the Head-of-the-Lake, neither of them provided free education or schooling after the age of 14 years.

During the 1840s, the work of Egerton Ryerson, Superintendent of Education, resulted in the establishment of Common or Public Schools throughout the province and by 1849, such a school was operating in Waterdown. In 1854, trustees for a Grammar or High School were listed in the same Minute Book as those appointed for the Common School. Following a public meeting in 1867, East Flamborough Township Council was authorized to purchase property for a new school. The site, located at the southern end of Main Street, was part of Ebenezer Griffin’s estate, with views of Hamilton and Burlington Bay. Later the same year, a two-storey stone schoolhouse to accommodate both schools was built, with landscaped grounds and a student play area.

The permanent name, Waterdown High School was introduced in 1871 and for the next thirty-five years, first under Principal David H. Hunter and then his successor, James Bruce, the school came to be regarded as one of the finest in Ontario. Although the curriculum was very narrow by present-day standards, an entry in the Trustees’ Minute Book notes, a “request for necessary scientific equipment and meteorological instruments.”

The school’s high accademic standards attracted students from almost every part of the province. A considerable percentage of these students came from outside the Flamborough area and boarded with village residents during term time. In 1873, the school’s reputation was further enhanced when it was awarded the honour of having its students be the first in the province to write the Entrance Exam for entering High School.

In the publication, ‘Establishment of Schools and Colleges in Ontario 1792-1910’ even its location was praised…”The Waterdown Public and High School is situated on a beautiful plot of ground on the south-eastern side of the village, and from it a fine view of the City of Hamilton, of Burlington Bay, and of the Beach may be obtained. The grounds are planted with a number of fine shade trees and the building is a substantial stone structure.”

The glowing description about the school’s exterior made no mention of the problems that were beginning to surface about the interior of the building, for the last years of the Waterdown High School on Main Street were sad and full of controversy. Beginning in 1900, entries in the Trustees’ records document many of the minor problems that began to cause the School Board concerns and eventually resulted in the closure of the building. By 1910, conditions appear to have become so serious that the Board selected a site on the outskirts on which to build a new school, but Council refused to approve any monies.

Not only were there grave concerns about the state of the building but also the conditions the students were being taught under. Serious overcrowding in 1914 had resulted in some classes moving to the East Flamborough Township Hall on Mill Street North. School Inspectors were far from satisfied with the small improvements the Board made following their visits which appear to have become more frequent during this decade.

The village newspaper, ‘The Waterdown Review’ became very vocal about the rapidly deteriorating situation. On 14 August 1919, the Editor published an article outlining the problems the School Inspector had noted in a report to the Board follosing his latest visit. Among the complaints…”the upper floor, reached only by means of a stairway is a veritable fire trap; classes at one end of the building can only be accessed by passing through other classes; floors worn to a wretched condition; no private room for teachers; classrooms heated by wood stoves which emit volumes of smoke and with no means of ventilation other than open windows.” The Inspector ended his report stating, “I am of the opinion that the Department should no longer countenance such a state of affairs and I recommend that no further grants be paid to the school while these conditions continue.”

William Attridge, the School Board Secretary wrote to the Department of Education stating the Board would be happy to comply…”and build a new school, if the electorate would supply the funds. However, a new Public School was being constructed and it would appear to be an inopportune time to secure the consent of the people for a new High School.”

The Secretary’s letter did little to satisfy the Department of Education, for within days another letter arrived. Written by Mr. Colquhoun, the Deputy Minister of Education, the letter simply said that the situation at the school could not continue and the harsh reality of the situation had to be faced. The Board met to discuss the Minister’s reply and realized that they had no option but to consider closing the school as soon as possible. The Department agreed to allow the Public School students who were housed on the ground floor to remain until their new school being built on Mill Street North was ready to be occupied.

The High School students spent the next seven years being educated in various locations within the village core. Classes continued to be held on the top floor of the East Flamborough Township Hall, in Grace Anglican Church and on the top floor of the new Public School. Once the Mill Street North School was opened in January 1921, the old school was closed and a decade later most of the building was demolished – leaving just a small section to serve as a community hall.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 2007, 2024.


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