Then and Now: South Park School Part I

Then and Now: South Park School Part I

Above: Image G-04893 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Then and Now

By Ted Ross

As the transit bus travels north on Douglas Street, passengers see Beacon Hill Park on their right. On the left towers a wall of apartments. The wall suddenly transforms into a playing field at Toronto Street. The north boundary of the green is Michigan Street.

Across Michigan stands a handsome brick structure, in the Queen Anne Revival style. This is South Park School, the oldest continually functioning school west of Montreal.


With the passing of the Public Schools Act of 1891, schooling became a public function in British Columbia. School boards were established throughout the province to bring this system into operation. In Victoria classes were offered at Vic West and Spring Ridge schools.

Overcrowding led to plans to construct South Park School, originally called South Ward School. The School Board wanted a building to: provide all the necessary accommodations for eight classrooms of sixty pupils each, an assembly room capable of seating four hundred eighty pupils and one hundred visitors, and a reception room with not less than two hundred feet of floor space. The building was to be substantially built of brick with a stone basement not less than eight feet in the clear. It was to have a slate roof, and must also be properly heated and ventilated and on the most approved sanitary system.

Architects for the school were Ridgeway Wilson and J.C.M. Keith. They designed a building in the Queen Anne Revival style, used on schools in England. The builder was J.G. Brown. The school opened for classes August 13, 1894.

South Park's first principal was Agnes Deans Cameron. Raised and schooled in Victoria, Cameron had achieved her teaching certificate by age 16. She was a graduate of, and had been the first female teacher at, Victoria High. Now she would be the first female school principal in British Columbia, at a salary of $100 per month.

Cameron was often at odds with the School Board as she reacted to unfair treatment of women, especially regarding unequal pay between the sexes, with the men getting the higher rate. She was also a stern disciplinarian, not afraid to strap recalcitrant pupils. Cameron, however, was much-loved by her students.

Cameron remained at South Park until 1906, when the School Board dismissed her over "cheating" by her students on a final art exam. The dismissal was very contentious, and stifled her teaching career. She moved to Chicago where she became a celebrated magazine writer, published in the United States, Great Britain and Canada in many journals.

In 1908 she and her cousin went on an incredible six-month journey north of the Arctic Circle down the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean and back. She recounted the trip in a book, The New North; An Account of a Woman's 1908 Journey Through Canada to the Arctic with photographs she had taken. She died at Victoria in 1912 following complications from an appendix surgery.

In 2017, on the occasion of Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation, Cameron was named as one of the 150 noteworthy British Columbians who have contributed to the development of British Columbia.

Manual training, South Park School, Victoria. 1915. Image D-01802 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Manual training, South Park School, Victoria. 1915.
Image D-01802 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Manual Training was considered essential for the older boys. Early on, boys would travel to other schools for the training. By 1910 a shop had been set up in the boys basement area of South Park. There Mr. Breadner gave classes five days of the week. Woodworking and drawing were taught, and led up to independent samples of work planned, drawn, and completed by students by the end of the three-year course.

These included a set of hall furniture in oak consisting of a mirror, chest, coat tree and umbrella stand, all beautifully finished. Also crafted was a piano bench with a hinged lid, showing good use of mortise and tenon construction. Other samples included a piano stool, tabouret, medicine chest, upholstered foot stools, copper-bottomed umbrella stand, mantel clock, and a steering wheel for a launch.

In 1914 the house next to the school was purchased and moved. The school annex was built on that site to provide manual training for the boys and domestic science training for the girls.

A noteworthy teacher at South Park, and in all Victoria schools, was Captain Ian St. Clair. He was Physical Director of Victoria School District from 1895-1930, as well as being a cadet instructor and active with the YMCA. The remarkable thing about St. Clair was that he was completely deaf and almost totally blind. Early on, his wife would bring him to the school in a horse and buggy. Later he would arrive by streetcar and be met by a student from the school. Communication was by "Deaf and Dumb Language" using finger spelling. The student assistant, like many of her classmates, had learned the language from Capt. St. Clair, and she would take him safely to the school.

St. Clair would give lessons in physical fitness, coupled with short lessons in basic hygiene, honesty and loyalty. Students remembered his clear, powerful voice. He was a tall, imposing man who always dressed in his army uniform. Captain St. Clair was respected by all. He became the first recipient of the Victoria Citizen of the Year award in 1928.

In South Park School; Memories Through the Decades, Hubert Smith (1928-1931) recalls, The principal rang the bell at five minutes to nine. We formed up in classes, girls first. Then the principal blew his whistle and there was silence and nobody moved. This forming up took place in front of the school. On the command "quick march," we marched into the school and on arriving in our classrooms we stood alongside our desks, again in silence. The teacher would lead us in the Lord's Prayer and on conclusion of this called the roll, and then we sat down and began our lessons.

On March 31, 1937, South Park PTA organized a reunion for the school. Over 250 students and former students attended. The main auditorium was decorated with flags and masses of daffodils. A four-piece orchestra played music for dancing. South Park was 43 years old.

Helen Warwick Joslin, (1940-1945) recollects from World War II times. We were each also issued a gas mask that we had to take everywhere with us. We did hate putting the mask on. It smelled of rubber, and it was hard to breathe when wearing it. We had air raid drills at school, just like fire drills. At South Park School we had to go across the road to a field, lie down, cover our heads, and put an eraser between our teeth. It all seemed a waste of time to us, but we did get out of some schoolwork. We were only children.

From that same era Dorothy Atkinson, nee Halliwell, (1942-1945) remembers, I recall the field across Michigan Street had rather tall grasses and wildflowers. All students were issued gas masks. When the siren sounded for practice air raid, we all donned our gas masks, walked quickly in line to the field, and lay down in the grass and weeds, trying to be inconspicuous.

By 1953 a bell, mounted on a wooden board was rung to announce recess and lunch breaks. One student had the job of ringing the bell, a much coveted position. Carol Jenkins, nee Rivers, (1953-1955) relates, I got the job one year, but almost lost it for being unruly in class. I was severely admonished by the teacher and warned. I buckled down after that because the shame of losing that job would have been more than I could bear!

Doreen Marion Gee, (1960-1963) reminisces, My strongest memory of my South Park days was when President John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. The principal, Mr. Orchard, gave us the day off school. This taught me the impact a single person can have on the planet. The loss of the hope he inspired was felt worldwide, all the way to an elementary school in Canada.

Wilf Orchard, principal of South Park School from 1955-1971 gave an interview to The Daily Colonist in 1970, a year before his retirement. In the resulting article the unnamed writer refers to the potential of a multi-storey apartment block rising on the school and annex site. The winds of development were blowing along Douglas to the south of the school. It seemed natural that this kind of development would go ahead. The piece goes on to say that principal Orchard would be the sorriest to see the school go. Orchard said proudly, This is a real school. It looks like a school, not like those boxes they're building nowadays.

At the time of the Orchard interview there were 12 teachers at South Park with 262 pupils, including six regular classes from grades five to seven and five special classes: three for slow learners, one for emotionally disturbed children and one for neurologically disturbed.

The school was heated by four wood-fired furnace units cast in 1885. Wood was piled outside to feed these burners. There was supplementary heating in the upstairs classrooms with coal-burning heaters. This system remained in use until 1987 when radiant heating was installed.

South Park's next principal, from 1971, was Dave Allan. He approached Assistant Superintendent Dr. John Wiens with the idea of starting a community school at South Park. Permission was given to go ahead and Community School began in January 1972. It became the James Bay Community Project. James Bay Community Association was involved. Funds were raised through Local-Initiative grants and other sources.

The community was involved in programs. School was open in the evenings. There were pot-luck dinners, classes in many subjects, movie nights, floor hockey, festivals and meetings. A hot lunch program was established. Community members worked with children. Connections were formed with the University of Victoria, St. Ann's Academy, and service clubs. The effect was to mobilize the community for the good of all.

Late in the fall of 1974, Dave Allan and the community school moved to newly completed quarters on Oswego Street where James Bay Community School became the official designation.

Next month we will pursue the rest of the tale about this remarkable school, South Park.

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