A Victorian Lesson

MissPoole (4)

As Miss Poole introduced herself to her class, she looked very much like a Victorian school marm – brown hair pulled back, wire-rimmed glassed, stern expression. She wore a maroon-coloured full-length skirt and long-sleeved, high-collared white blouse and she carried a thin cane, hooked at one end. In many Victorian schools, teachers used a cane like this to beat children who misbehaved. “This school was established by Dr. Barnardo who didn’t believe in beating children,” she said. “I won’t be hitting anyone.” The six and seven-year olds in front of her, a class from a nearby school, relaxed. Then she demonstrated how she would only wave her cane at them if they disobeyed the rules.
“Sit up straight. Put your hands in your lap. No talking or giggling. If I ask you a question, stand up straight beside your desk to answer it. You must use your right hand for writing,” she continued. “No left-hand writing is allowed.” The girls and boys were seated on opposite sides of the classroom in traditional wooden desks, two children in each desk. When one little boy squirmed, she walked toward him briskly and waved her cane. He froze. Other children did too.
I had received permission to observe Miss Poole take the children through brief lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The children used slate pencils to write words and numbers. As she taught, Miss Poole sprinkled her lesson with moral guidance from the Victorian era. More haste, less speed. Silence is golden. There is no fun like work. Miss Poole is in fact an actress, hired by the Ragged School Museum in East London, UK. The museum was established in 1990 in a warehouse that was previously used for Dr. Barnardo’s Copperfield Road Ragged School.
Today the Ragged School Museum is much like the one-room school museums in Ontario. It offers lessons to local school children. Their visit includes time in a Victorian kitchen with various items for children to test — a washing board, tub for bathing, and hand-operated meat grinder. It’s an experiential history lesson. I enjoyed it too.
Millie Morton


Ragged Schools


A hundred and fifty years ago, the adjective “ragged” was attached to schools providing free elementary education to poor children in England – “ragged” because of the children’s clothes and lack of shoes. Such schools were funded by wealthy philanthropists who wanted to give poor children a chance for a better life.

In the 1860s, poor children spent their days as street sellers or beggars, earning a bit to help feed their families. In East London, near the docks, many children were mudlarks – wading into the mud in their bare feet in search of bits of coal, copper, or any scrap they might sell. Most never learned to read or write.

Thomas Barnardo, (the same Barnardo later associated with Home Children emigrants to Canada), saw the need for free schooling and established the Copperfield Road Ragged School in a warehouse. The school opened in 1877 and operated until 1908, when public education became widely available in the area.

Similar “free schools” operated in Canada too. For example, Enoch Turner, a wealthy brewer and philanthropist donated funds for the first free school in Toronto. It opened in 1849, providing education to the children of poor immigrants from Ireland. Now it is a public museum and an events venue.

Millie Morton

Radio Interview Rebroadcast

On January 8, 2017, Radio station Northumberland 89.7 rebroadcast my interview with Word on the Hills. In the interview I explain how I came to write the book Grace and read two passages — the first on Grace’s haircut when she was a teenager, and the second on what she did to discipline a young student at a one-room school near Norwood. Both readings illustrate Grace’s determination and creativity. Listen at www.wordonthehills.com.

Grace: A teacher’s life, one-room schools, and a century of change in Ontario is available locally at Lighthouse Books in Brighton, Kerr’s Corner Books in Campbellford, and Books and Company in Picton. See the How to Order page for other bookstores in Ontario and how to order a copy by mail.
Millie Morton

School Days

Last month I had the pleasure of hearing school children singing “School Days,” the old song about “ reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of the hickory stick.” The Leeds and Thousand Islands Historical Society organized the event to unveil a plaque honouring schools of the past in the Landsdowne area, their teachers and students.
The plaque, made possible by a grant from the Retired Teachers of Ontario and the hard work of several historical society members, is located near a red maple in front of the Thousand Islands Elementary School. It depicts photos of education in the past. A bench under the tree offers a place to contemplate how education has changed since 1825 when settlers built the first one-room school in the area. Eventually there were nine one-room schools, and only one remains – Greenfield School, a frame building built in 1894.
The Leeds and Thousand Islands Historical Society has a project to restore this school. Eventually it may join the 41 one-room school museums in Ontario that help us remember our educational heritage.
Millie Morton

Radio Interview – listen in
I’m delighted to share a small joy. Last month I was interviewed for a radio program – Word on the Hills (Northumberland 89.7) in Cobourg. Co-hosts Felicity Sidnell-Reid and Gwynn Scheltema asked the questions. I talked about my experiences in writing Grace and why I chose to feature a hibiscus in the story. In each of the two segments, I read a story from the book. The program was broadcast on Nov 22, 2015.
If you’d like to listen in, go to http://wordonthehills.com and click on Recent Programs. Scroll down to find my name. Then click again to listen through your computer.
Millie Morton

Sleeping in School

Schoolhouse near Beaverton
Schoolhouse near Beaverton

I slept in school – or, more accurately, I slept in a former school. The opportunity came when I was invited to speak to the Beaverton, Thorah, Eldon Historical Society. One of their members owns a renovated one-room school. She very kindly offered hospitality
When it was new in 1926, the school had many features considered modern at that time – separate entrances for boys and girls (still there – see photo), an office for the teacher, and a bell on the roof. A finished basement partitioned into two sections, each with its own chemical toilet, provided separate play areas for boys and girls. Until 1969, it was a school. Now it is a roomy home, with a modern kitchen, four bedrooms, and modern bathrooms.
Nearby in Beaverton, the Historical Society maintains a museum and archives. It includes an old stone jail, a log house (1850), and a storey-and-a-half brick home furnished to about 1900. On display were many household items mentioned in my book, including a butter churn and a treadle sewing machine.
I was pleased to discover the friendliness of the historical society’s members and their extensive efforts to preserve their heritage. As the noted scientist Carl Sagan said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”
Millie Morton

Remembering Our Roots

1920s Schoolhouse at Moreston Heritage Village

1920s Schoolhouse at Moreston Heritage Village

In writing Grace, the story of a teacher’s life, I wanted to share what life was like in previous times and remember our roots.
The same motivation spurs the creation of Heritage Villages and museums. Last week I visited Moreston Heritage Village and the Grey Roots Museum on the outskirts of Owen Sound. Some of the buildings, including an 1853 log cabin, have been relocated from the former County of Grey. The schoolhouse was constructed as a close replica of S.S.#1 Derby, with modern amenities added. It’s a joint project of two retired teachers organizations (RTO and Grey County RWTO). Inside, it looks like a 1920s rural schoolroom. Retired teachers volunteer as interpreters for school children and adult visitors. Other museums celebrate Owen Sound’s marine and rail history and the works of Tom Thomson, a renowned Canadian artist and native son.
I went to Owen Sound to share stories from my book at a luncheon meeting of the Retired Women Teacher’s Organization. Through conversations and exhibits, I discovered a city that is connected to its past and proud of its heritage.
Millie Morton