A great uncle’s school certificate sparked a search for one of Toronto’s “vanished” halls of learning. Opened in 1874, Wellesley Public School sat like a fancy wedding cake on the north east corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets in downtown Toronto. The “most handsome and best-furnished school building in Toronto” featured the “mod cons” of its day: running water, good ventilation, cloakrooms, blackboards, and individual desks for students. Wellesley was one of just three Toronto “advanced schools” that offered Fourth and Fifth Book classes. (The other two schools were Lord Dufferin and Ryerson, which both opened two years after Wellesley.)
Following the Irish National Series of readers, students were not divided into grades, but grouped according to which reader or “book” they were in. The readers had lessons on all subjects, as well as stories, and poems pupils were expected to memorize.
Eleven-year-old Thomas Jackson got credit for punctuality and regular attendance on his second-class certificate. He also had a stern reminder that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs IX: 10) and “Learning refines and elevates the mind.” If not yet intimidated, young Tom perhaps squirmed under the watchful gaze of Socrates and Newton. Education was not to be taken lightly in 1880s Toronto. Disney characters and action heroes on lunch bags and backpacks were unknown in the days of Biblical quotes, physicists, and ancient philosophers.
The certificate’s St. John’s Ward—bounded by College Street, Queen Street, Yonge Street, and University Avenue—became “The Ward,” and is now the Discovery District. Two signatures are probably those of Toronto Public School Board members: F(rank) Somers (1881-91) and John Kent (1888-90). Inspector James L. Hughes, who also signed, had a long career in Toronto schools. Among many accomplishments, he saw that Toronto was the second city in the world to have kindergarten as part of its regular program, beginning in 1883.
Operating as a school until 1956, when students moved to Church Street School, the once-proud Wellesley, grimy with years, then housed the Ontario Water Resources Commission until damaged by fire in the early 1960s. In 1967, the 33-storey Sutton Place Hotel replaced the demolished Wellesley. The Sutton Place closed its 400 rooms on June 15, 2012, soon to be refurbished as The Britt, a 600-unit condo.
Information from this simple school certificate tells us of vanished and vanishing times.
Thomas Jackson taught school briefly, joined the U.S. Signal Corps and went to Cuba, where he died, aged 23, of yellow fever in August 1900. His heart-broken mother and seven older brothers and sisters couldn’t part with the small tokens they had of him. Thus this paper record of Wellesley Public School survives.
Much background information on Wellesley Public came from: Centennial Story: The Board of Education for the City of Toronto 1850-1950. Toronto: Thomas Nelson & Sons (Canada) Limited, 1950.
Note: A WWII memorial has recently been located for Wellesley Public School.