South Park School
By Danda Humphreys
Recalling the good, old golden school days from 1894 in a building that is still educating Victoria’s young people.
South Park School
What is large, brick-red, and the only one of its kind on our Island? It’s South Park School—the oldest school in Western Canada still in use as an educational facility.
The school was built on Douglas Street 114 years ago, so to appreciate its origins you have to close your eyes and imagine the Victoria of years gone by. The 1890s—an important decade for the former fur-trading post that had grown to become first a city, then the capital of British Columbia.
A castle built by a wealthy coal baron now stood at the top of the Fort Street Hill. There was talk of a railway line between Victoria and Sidney. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was just a few years away. On the south side of the Inner Harbour, Victoria’s first residential area—James Bay—became home to an ever-increasing number of families.
The Victoria School Board finally faced facts: the city had too many young students and not enough places to educate them. Accordingly, in 1894 the board proposed two new elementary schools, one at either end of the city.
North Ward School was built close to where Gorge and Government meet Douglas Street, on land that once was part of John Work’s vast Hillside estate. South Ward School stood at the east end of Michigan Street, on what had been the northeast corner of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Beckley Farm.
While Rattenbury’s magnificent copper-cupola’d legislature slowly rose on the site of the old wooden “Bird Cages,” William Ridgway Wilson’s Queen Anne-style school dominated the area near the northwest corner of Beacon Hill Park. It made perfect sense to change its name to South Park.
Brick-built, with a stone basement and a slate roof, the school was designed to accommodate just under 500 pupils in eight high-ceilinged classrooms. Multiple tall windows enabled natural lighting. On the ground floor, separate play areas for boys and girls book-ended the heating plant, where four large wood-and-coal-burning furnaces laboured to take the chill off the air.
First principal of the new school was Victoria-born Agnes Deans Cameron, who had attended Victoria High School and qualified as a teacher at age 16. At 27, she became BC’s first high school teacher. Now she was BC’s first female principal. Her salary was $100 a month.
Miss Cameron was a feisty, forthright individual who constantly challenged “the establishment” by lobbying for women’s rights. Not surprisingly, considering all South Park’s teachers were female, equal pay for women was the first item on her list. Cleverly, she pointed out that not only was sex discrimination unfair to women, it was also unfair to men, who might find themselves out of a job if women could be hired for less.
Miss Cameron proved to be a constant, unrelenting thorn in the School Board’s side. They made several unsuccessful attempts to oust her from her post, and finally succeeded in 1906. Having decreed that the use of rulers in drawing exams for high school entrance was strictly forbidden, the board was doubtless delighted to learn that South Park’s students had apparently flouted the rules. Despite the fact that she was one of four principals—the others were male—found guilty of the same misdemeanour, Miss Cameron was the only one hauled up before a Royal Commission and fired.
She left behind a legacy of strict discipline. Her liberal use of the strap, when warranted, numbed the hand and curbed the naughtiness of the most disobedient child. Children sat in class with their hands behind their backs. Students were forbidden to go across the dirt road to Beacon Hill Park. However, that didn’t stop a group of excited schoolboys clambering up on the rocks one day in 1900 to witness a promised doomsday event—the end of the world, beginning with the eruption of Mt. Baker—and being sorely disappointed.
The rocks near the park’s northwest corner are still there. The dirt road in front of the school is now Douglas Street. Since 1975, South Park has been a co-operative family school, where parents take an active part in their children’s education experience. It’s a “family school” in the truest sense of the word, as generation follows generation through its doors.
A few weeks ago, the gymnasium was packed with people who had come to celebrate the launch of a new book describing the school’s 114-year history. Co-authors Debbie Marchand and Linda Picciotto addressed the standing-room-only crowd. Youngsters sat cross-legged on the floor and listened quietly while former students recounted experiences and escapades from years gone by. It was a special time, at a building that holds a special place in Victoria’s history—South Park School.
Danda Humphreys is the author of several books about Victoria’s early history. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the April 2008 edition of Focus Magazine.