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The boys would make ropes out of sheets, lower themselves in the night from the dormitory windows, climb the fence into the Hon. Alexander Macdonell's orchard, and fill pillowcases with apples or pears before sneaking back to bed.The pranks of boarders at Toronto's Upper Canada College (UCC) in the 1830s and '40s don't sound much like Tom Brown's Schooldays. The novel details the experience of an English boarder of the same era who was flogged, tossed in blankets and roasted in front of an open fire until he fainted.
Few institutions have been more reviled in literature and memoirs than boarding schools, especially the notorious British "public schools." (We remember Mr. Squeers, the monstrous head of Dotheboys Hall in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby: "Spare me, sir!" cried Smike. "Oh! that's all, is it?" said Squeers. "Yes, I'll flog you within an inch of your life, and spare you that.")
At Eton, founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, boys were roused at 5 a.m., chanted prayers while they dressed, and were at their lessons by 6 a.m. They had two meals a day - and none on Friday, a fast day - and lessons ended at 8 p.m., when they went straight to bed. They did have an hour off, during which they played an early version of soccer "with a bag full of wynde." In the 19th century, the British boarding schools perfected the system of oppression and bullying that would provide grist for many an author, including George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh (who called English boarding school ideal preparation for prison). Girls were not exempt; novelist Charlotte Bronte described icy dormitories, bad food and rampant disease that, in real life, killed two of her sisters.
Regimes were more benign in Canada, where many of the best-known schools were started in the late 19th century (Pickering College, 1842, Bishop Strachan School, 1867, Stanstead College, 1872, Ridley College, 1889, Ashbury College, 1891, St. Andrew's College, 1899). Canada's oldest boarding school, King's Collegiate School (now the co-educational King's-Edgehill School) was founded in 1788, with 12 boys lodged in a private home near Windsor, Nova Scotia.
For the school's first few years, the boys were under the motherly care of Susannah Franklin, widow of a former governor. The school produced two Fathers of Confederation, Robert Dickey and John Hamilton Gray. But UCC has produced some of the richest accounts of boarding school life in Canada, which are detailed in the book Upper Canada College 1829-1979: Colborne's Legacy by Richard B. Howard. Juniors complained at being forced to spend their pocket money buying bullseyes (candies) and ginger beer for the seniors. In 1847, Howard's book quotes boarder Frederick Hutt, who wrote to his brother, "I hope you will send plenty of nuts and cakes as I can hardly subsist on what we get."
The boys were not without recourse. "A riot might occur at the teatable if the food was not up to standard," historian and journalist John Ross Robertson recalled. Humorist Stephen Leacock, who attended UCC from 1882 to 1885, described it as "a fine, decent place, with no great moral parade about it, nor moral hypocrisy," with little bullying or flogging. He recalled fondly the weekly bath in the laundry tub "whether we needed it or not," and putting a bent pin on the seat of the master: "It was as good as trout fishing."
What would have been acceptable in that sterner time would raise eyebrows today. "We had snow this morning, and no fires in the rooms. It is very cold," G.H. Ronald Harris wrote to his parents. And, he wrote, John "Gentle" Martland, a popular housemaster who saw that his boys had oyster soup, turkey and plum pudding for Sunday dinner, had given the boys in the next room "48 cracks" with the cane for raising a row. In the 20th century, many boys resented that sort of treatment. "I rebelled against the whole system . . . which I thought sadistic and totally unimaginative," wrote actor and dramatist Mavor Moore.
But to media magnate Ted Rogers, whose father had died when he was five, UCC was like "a surrogate father." He got an early start on his career, secretly rigging a radio antenna across the prep headmaster's garden.
Times and temperament had a lot to do with how boarding schools were regarded. Girls at Bishop Strachan School (BSS) seem to have found little fault with 1870 rules that, for instance, required them to stand when "the Lady Principal" entered, or parade to the lunchroom, accompanied by a governess. Many had crushes on their teachers, and a disapproving look from a beloved mentor was often enough to enforce discipline. Yet school archivist Andrea Tufts reports that one word - "prison" - crops up constantly with BSS old girls who attended the school in the 1950s and '60s, and felt they were unfairly sheltered from a world where huge changes were happening for women.
Today's BSS girls are largely free to come and go, visit their friends and enjoy movie nights. Those 19th century disciplinarians would choke if they saw a school like Lakefield, in Ontario, with its boys' and girls' dorms, every student with a laptop, and vegetarian choices in the dining room. But Susannah Franklin likely would have approved.