This Week in Peterborough: 1883


Ad for one of Peterborough’s import shops, from the Peterborough Times, December 19th, 1883.

No big surprise, I suspect, that mid-December of 1883 found the people of Peterborough much involved in their Christmas shopping, at least to judge from the ads in the newspapers!  However, there were also other things going on amidst the seasonal merriment, so click on for troubles at the local high school, a mayoral campaign, and a mention of momentous happenings in Sudan…

In 1883, Peterborough had one high school: Peterborough Collegiate Institute, which later became Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School (the late, much-mourned, PCVS).  While on the surface the school seemed to be doing just fine (the December 19th Peterborough Times noted that the students’ exam results were 6th-best in the entire province), there were nonetheless deep concerns in the town, so much so that a special committee had been struck to carry out an inquiry.  The December 13th Peterborough Examiner summed up the perceived problems as follows:

“The staff was not doing what was expected of it, and some of the teachers were not showing a good example.  The principal was not up to the expectation of the Board — he lacked energy.  Complaints had been made against [one of the teachers], not that he lacked ability, but that he had not enough pupils to teach.  One of the other teachers was a good teacher but was otherwise objectionable.  There was a great need of a lady teacher.  On account of her absence many young ladies were leaving town for their education.”


A recent photo of the home, from 1907 on, of Peterborough Collegiate Institute. (photo via Peterborough Needs PCVS)

The principal of the school, a Mr. O’Connor, spoke up in his own defense against a motion to terminate his contract at the end of the school year.  He claimed that the school’s problems resulted from “failure to secure the cooperation of the town and county, and the too great prominence give to classics.”  He went on to state “that classics and modern languages were of no use in the public interest.”  At which point, had it been up to me, he would have been fired on the spot — alas, it was not up to me (my own academic background and interests are probably contributing some bias here).

Anyhow, the Committee adjourned without having made any concrete decisions (the motion to end Mr. O’Connor’s contract was defeated), but having resolved that Peterborough did need a good high school, with everything taught including the classics and modern languages.  The major issue was quite clearly the lack of a female teacher, and the resulting departures of female students.  The Committee deplored the fact that the previous “lady teacher” had been let go for economic reasons, and discussed a number of options for fixing the problem.  One other item, lightly touched on, was the fact that the Collegiate Institute did not have its own home, being housed with one of the elementary schools.  That, at least, would eventually be fixed, although not until the construction of the building pictured above in 1907.


Undated photo of Cox Terrace, Peterborough, built in 1884 for George A. Cox. (photo from the Peterborough Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, via Canada’s Historic Places)

The other big decision facing Peterborians in the week before Christmas, 1883, was the choice of the town’s new mayor.  H.H. Smith had held the position since 1881, but was not in the running this time.  Instead, the race was between C.W. Sawers (possibly the son of previous mayor Augustus Sawers, whom we have met) and the noted railwayman, and largest landowner in Peterborough, George A. Cox.  The Examiner, at least, was firmly behind Cox, and on December 20th published letters accusing Sawers of, among other sins, being wasteful of public money and wishing to jail the poor:

“Mr. Sawers says that there is no necessity for a House of Refuge for the helpless poor, who in consequence of disease or old age are unable to work.  Poverty and loss of health are misfortunes sufficiently hard to be borne without… treating the unfortunates as felons and sending them to jail to associate with criminals.  This is, I understand, the course at present pursued…”

Interestingly, the Times, which generally steered clear of political editorializing to a much greater degree than did the Examiner, also explicitly backed Cox, with a blunt statement in it December 19th issue that “we have every confidence that the enlightened ratepayers of our town will place Mr. Geo. A. Cox in the civic chair for 1884.”  They did so — Cox was elected mayor on January 7th, and served in that capacity for the next two years.

And there was also some local railway news, as the first train of the Ontario and Quebec Railway had arrived in the village of Norwood, providing Peterborough County with another important connection to the growing Ontario rail network.  The December 13th Examiner reported that the arrival of the train in Norwood was greeted with “pomp and splendour,” “the ringing of church bells,” and “flags and bunting flung to the breeze.”


Sir Laurence Olivier as The Mahdi, with Charlton Heston as Col. Gordon, in the 1966 MGM film Khartoum. (Photo via the New York Times)

There was little in the way of national or international news catching the eye of the average Peterborian at his time in 1883.  However, there was one little matter that should not be overlooked.  On December 19th, the Peterborough Times contained a brief note on ominous events south of Egypt:

“The news of the defeat of the Egyptian troops in the Soudan is spreading in Arabia, and numbers of recruits are joining the insurgents…  The Mehdi is advancing on Darfour with ten thousand men, according to one dispatch…”

This, in fact, was the beginning of an affair that would within half a year directly involve the town of Peterborough.  The Mahdi (or Mehdi), Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, laid siege to Khartoum in the spring of 1884.  By summer, Britain had appointed Sir Garnet Wolseley to lead an expedition up the Nile to relieve the besieged British garrison, under the command of Col. Charles Gordon.  Wolseley had led the expedition against Louis Riel in Red River in 1870, and he knew where to find accomplished rivermen.  When his expedition set out in late 1884, it included a large number of canoeists, river-boaters, and log-drivers from Canada, including a significant number from Peterborough itself.  How that all turned out, however, is a matter for a future post in this series.

‘Til next time, when we look at Christmas in Peterborough in 1884!


Peterborough Times, Dec. 19th, 1883.




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2 Responses to This Week in Peterborough: 1883

  1. Pingback: Christmas in Peterborough: 1884 | Peterboriana

  2. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1927 | Peterboriana

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