The videos are difficult to watch. What the sons of settlers assembled with their skilled hands over many weeks, the cold steel bucket of a demolition machine knocked apart in seconds. We have seen it before in this city, and we will see it again. Progress and money care little for the pride and sweat of the long-ago tradesman.
Prince of Wales School, a long-time fixture on Bradford Street near Dunlop Street West, did not crumble without a fight. Some say that Barrie has no love for its history, and that the wrecking ball has swung far too often here, but the battle that I witnessed for the preservation of this school, and her sister school next door, proves that there is heart here to save our precious links to the past.
Despite the will of community groups, and support from councillors on up to the mayor’s seat, not all buildings can be saved though. Private owners, boards and other government agencies have their rights, too. After our voices have been heard and the protests and meetings have ceased, often we can only stand by as heartbroken witnesses as the demolition crew gets to work.
At least we remember that Prince of Wales once stood here, and we can answer our grandchildren when they ask us why a school should be torn down. We can explain to the curious why a modern building has some parts that are decidedly Victorian looking, as I understand there is a plan to mix old and new in the coming structure.
As we watch the end of the story unfold, we might want to think about the beginning and how it happened that a school came to be built on this spot. To really appreciate what Prince of Wales once was to Barrie residents, we have to go back to the very earliest days of Upper Canada when education was only for the wealthy.
Under the English system on which our first schools were modelled, people with prestige and money attended private elementary schools, while the children of the working class were taught in schools run by churches. The next step forward was another English invention, the system of grammar schools and high schools.
The districts of Upper Canada agreed to build and maintain the schools if the students would pay to attend, which still left the majority of students without proper schooling. Rural areas, such as Simcoe County, were especially underserved as room and board would have to paid as well by the children residing far from the nearest school.
From this slow start, new Canada made rapid progress in the first half of the 1800s, and actually left England in the dust. The Common Schools Act of 1816 gave communities the authority to build a school and hire a teacher, if 20 students could be guaranteed. It was the 1870s before England realized that educating the masses might be a good thing for the nation as a whole.
Arising finally from the mixture of parochial and private schools in Barrie, the town finally erected what would be the first real common school for all in 1854. By now, the schooling of children was free. In under a year, it outgrew itself and it was thought that another school house would have to be built. The opening of a separate school gave some relief for a while, but soon an addition was required.
When schooling became compulsory for children aged 7 to 12 years in 1871, Barrie built a solid brick school house the very next year. The Barrie Public School, later called Central School, and finally called Victoria School, was built at the northwest corner of Collier and Owen Streets for a cost of $8,000.
Within four years, the fast-booming town had filled their school to capacity and the need for more halls of education was becoming obvious. At a public meeting on March 9, 1876 attended by the mayor, various clergymen, legal professionals, educators, businessmen and others, it was decided that $12,000 could be spent to build two new schools, one in the east and one just west of the downtown business section.
That West Ward School was the original name for the institution later known as Prince of Wales School. These royal names, including King George, King Edward and Victoria, replaced the utilitarian school names in 1920 to commemorate a visit by the Prince of Wales to Canada.
West Ward School was built by the Loan and Strong Company and opened as a six-room school house. After both world wars, there was a sudden increase in attendance which necessitated addition and renovation in 1919 and again in 1949.
The tales and memories from West Ward/Prince of Wales are many. Boys from different neighbourhoods liked to engage in regular fist fights, local creeks and garbage dumps were both forbidden and popular with the children, and the nearby tannery gave the school grounds a certain ‘air’ in warm weather. Waves of disease at times caused high absenteeism, complete closure or the burning of school supplies.
However, things change. In 1947, Prince of Wales School had 624 students. Forty years later, the population was 195. People had moved their families out of the downtown core and into subdivisions, and their former homes had become places of business.
In 1987, Ron Sclater, a former Prince of Wales principal, told Barrie Banner reporter Lori Martin that “Prince of Wales is the oldest school in Simcoe County still functioning in its original purpose.” The fact that it continued on for several decades more is quite amazing.
As sad as I am that these walls have come tumbling down, I still have hope for the historic buildings of Barrie. Yes, there will be more that fall, but in this work of mine I have been privileged to meet a number of local business people and private persons who are extremely passionate about our past. Despite the extra expense involved, they have had their properties researched and are now carefully restoring them.
Take a walk along Dunlop Street and see if you can spot some of these works in progress. Beautiful things are coming.
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.