Long walks to primitive schools through the wilds of Nepean

By Dave Allston – 

There’s a wide variety of schooling available for children living in Kitchissippi in 2019, with options for language, faith, special needs, and more. For the majority of kids, their school is just a short walk or bike ride away. Sometimes we take this kind of easy access to school for granted. Most KT readers have surely heard at least one person in their lifetime boast about walking 10 miles uphill in a snowstorm to get to school. Today, most kids don’t need to do this on a daily basis but there was a time that this was absolutely true, especially here in Kitchissippi.

In the first half of the 19th century, most children were schooled at home, if they were educated at all. The more affluent families sent their children away. Nepean Township was sparsely populated, and particularly in our neighbourhood, there were just a few families living along Richmond Road so local schooling was not an option.

Fresh Air Experience: Celebrating 50 years in Kitchissippi

In 1850, the Common School Act legislated the establishment of school boards across Ontario (Canada West), requiring townships to provide funding for schools (though townships could still charge student fees to supplement costs). The Act also allowed for the creation of separate schools, leading to the establishment of provincially funded Catholic schools (the dual school system was later built into Section 93 of the Canadian Constitution in 1867). It also regulated school construction, teacher examination and licensing, and curriculum.

“School Sections” were drawn up for Nepean Township, with virtually all of Kitchissippi falling within S.S. 2. A year later (July 1851), the Thomsons of Maplelawn, who owned most of the land west of Churchill, donated a 66’x99’ choice parcel of land and a wood-frame schoolhouse was built on the spot where Gezellig stands today. Though a basic structure, it was actually the first school in Nepean Township not made of logs. It was built literally in the wilderness, where bears and wolves still roamed.

In The City Beyond, Bruce Elliott noted that schools in Nepean Township at the time “had from 40 to 50 pupils on the rolls though only half that number attended at any one time. Three-quarters of the children studied reading, two-fifths tackled writing and fewer than a third were instructed in arithmetic. Only 40 out of the 616 students [in the township] studied grammar.”

Though the population in the vicinity of the school increased slowly (the arrival of Skead’s mill at Westboro Beach in 1870 helped spur significant growth), by 1866, the schoolhouse was deteriorating. Led by the efforts of Buckingham lumberman George W. Eaton (who in 1865 had moved into the new stone mansion on Richmond Road, now better known as a former convent), the wealthier residents of the area contributed towards the construction of a larger brick school house. (The new school also featured two outhouses!) Eaton had a significant personal interest in the new school as he was a widowed father of ten children. 

Secondary and post-secondary school was really only accessible to a privileged few families in Kitchissippi. Though facilities existed in Ottawa and rural students could even attend Ottawa Collegiate Institute (Lisgar) for free, it often required relocation and room and board as the streetcar was still nearly thirty years away. In the 1890s, when the OCI considered charging fees for rural students, a call was made to build a rural high school (though this would not occur until Nepean High School opened in 1922). 

The 1870s were a turning point in education, and for Kitchissippi. The area began its transition from rural farmland, its population rose, and more schools (and more types of schools) were needed.

[Click images to enlarge.]

The School Act of 1871 made elementary education compulsory and free up to age 12. The railway arrived to Bayview and LeBreton the year prior, leading to a flood of new residents in Hintonburg and the new Mechanicsville subdivision. Children in this area were technically part of S.S. 2, which required them to attend school in Westboro but they were allowed to cross Cedar Street (Somerset) bridge to attend school in Rochesterville, where, in the early 1870s, a wood duplex house had been converted to a two-classroom school. To deal with the demand – and its own growth – Rocherterville Village built a large four room brick school directly across the street in 1884, behind where Plant Bath now stands. However, when it was announced that Rochesterville would be annexed to Ottawa in 1889, it meant Hintonburg students would be charged 50 cents per month to attend a city school. Families already paying a levy for the Westboro school – which was simply too far for young children to attend – would now be double-charged.

It became clear that Hintonburg and Mechanicsville needed its own school. Prominent local residents Jonas Bullman, George Young, David Moodie, and Alex Stewart established a committee, holding meetings in Moodie’s blacksmith shop. New School Section 18 was established (cutting S.S. 2 in half at about Patricia Avenue), and construction of the new public school occurred during 1888. Neither Rochesterville nor Westboro were pleased, as both had been banking on fees from Hintonburg to help pay for their schools. 

Hintonburg Public School on Rosemount (after a renaming and two rebuilds is now Connaught P.S.) opened on January 8, 1889, as a two-room brick schoolhouse that was already too small at its opening to house its 149 students. The wall between two cloakrooms was removed to create a third class, and in 1891, the roof was raised, and two classes added on a second floor at a cost of $7,000. In 1898 it was expanded again when the student count hit 245. (The original school was replaced in 1915 by the old Connaught, which itself was replaced in 1994.)

Not surprisingly, at around the same time there was a call for both separate and French schools in Hintonburg as well. Nepean Township had almost exclusively English public schools, where children of all denominations, English and French attended together. 

In 1886, the Mechanicsville Separate School (later named St. Antoine de Padoue) opened on Forward Avenue, run by the Grey Nuns (it was demolished in 1955). As it became overcrowded, Mechanicsville told Hintonburg it would not allow its residents to send their children, so Hintonburg established St. Mary’s Separate School in 1894, at first in a building on the southwest corner of Somerset and Bayswater, then in 1897 to a new brick schoolhouse on the southeast corner of Irving and Laurel (replaced in 1909 by the school on Bayswater). 

Meanwhile, the Westboro school house at Churchill and Richmond remained in use until 1886 when John Cole, proprietor of the Highland Park Dairy Farm provided land at the highest point of the village, for the construction of a new black limestone-finished school. This school was rebuilt in 1910 as Main Street (Churchill) Public School, which was later replaced in 1991 with the Churchill Alternative School that stands today, with the original 1910 east entrance preserved. Hilson Public School and Broadview Public School were built just prior to WWI as Westboro boomed.

Certainly by the turn of the 20th century, all of Kitchissippi’s schools were thriving and each new generation of Kitchissippi children benefitted from the improved education available to them. It was a vast improvement from the early days of long walks to primitive schools through the wilds of Nepean.

Dave Allston is a local historian and the author of The Kitchissippi Museum. His family has lived in Kitchissippi for six generations. Do you have early memories or photos to share? Use this form to contact us!


*This feature is brought to you in part by Fresh Air Experience. Celebrating 50 years in Kitchissippi!

Leave a comment