Author: Susan Ratcliffe

Publication Date: 2002

Edited: 2021


Historic Guelph V41P4

This magnificent Beaux Arts building was designed by Guelph architect W. Frye Colwill and is one of the few remaining examples of his work. Mr. Colwill is perhaps best known for his design of the Old Carnegie Library in Guelph.


"Education is a consideration so important to a community that it obtained my earliest attention, and accordingly in planning the town I stipulated that half the price of the building sites should be appropriated to endow a school, under-taking that the company, in the first instance, should sustain the expense of the building, and be gradually repaid by the sale of the town lots. The school-house was, therefore, among the first buildings undertaken to draw settlers."

- John Galt, Autobiography, as quoted by Shutt, p. 4.


The world was a different place in 1910 - 1911 - a place of promise, a place of innocence, a place of peace before the coming storm. In 1910, the anthem sung in Canada was, "God save the King," to celebrate the new monarch George V. In the world, the sun never set on the British Empire, and school children saluted the Union Jack. In London, the suffragettes were being thrown in jail for demonstrating for the right of women to vote. In Canada, women were not even yet 'persons.' Roald Amundsen reached the North Pole and the world still believed it was possible to build a ship that would not sink. A letter could be delivered in one day, twice a day even. The world WAS a different place back then.


In Guelph, construction was proceeding on the Reformatory, the new YMCA, and a new fire hall. Edinburgh was a dirt road with three bridges needed to cross the islands in the Speed River, and City Council was discussing paving Waterloo Avenue and taking over the Radial Railway, water and sewers and electricity from private interests. A young man was wanted to train in iron work for a salary of $1.25 per day and a brick cottage on London Road could be bought for $1,100.


For entertainment, Guelph citizens could attend vaudeville performances at Griffin's Royal Opera House at the intersection of Wyndham and Eramosa Road and see a comedy juggling team with a dancing dog, or a stock company performing 'Screaming Farces' (various issues of The Daily Mercury). Young people canoed down the Speed from Johnson's Boathouse, cruising the river at night with candles and song. Life was good then.


The population of Guelph was about 15,167 (Guelph Perspectives, p. 183), the largest city in the Upper Grand River Valley region. It had grown 32 percent since 1901 (Ibid, p. 223) and had become a significant industrial centre with three large industries: Sleeman's Silvercreek Brewery, Raymond Sewing Machines, and the Bell Piano and Organ Company, along with many small manufacturing firms. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Guelph's industrial leaders had begun to recognize that education could be useful in producing good employees. With that end in mind, they urged the City government to provide adequate school facilities in Guelph.


At the outset of Guelph's history, John Galt, the founder of Guelph, had recognized the importance of education in attracting settlers to his new community. As he said in the opening quotation, "Education is a consideration so important to a community that it obtained my earliest attention". The foundations for Galt's Academy or 'The Stone School,' the first permanent schoolhouse in Guelph, were laid in August 1827, only four months after he declared the founding of the new town. Through the years, changes in provincial education legislation required co-ordination and provision of different kinds of education and better buildings for local children (Johnson, p. 241).


In the first half of the 19th century, pupils paid fees towards their education and attendance was at the discretion of parents and their needs for their children to work. In 1871, however, Egerton Ryerson passed an amendment to the Education Act ending, "All fees for the common or 'public' school system and made attendance compulsory for all children between the ages of seven and twelve" (Johnson, p. 241). In Guelph, this change forced the United Board of Grammar and Common School Trustees to provide more schools for the larger numbers of school pupils. It had the legal right to require the Town Council to levy taxes for school purposes. These legislative changes and the growing interest of Guelph's business leaders led to the construction of larger and better public schools in Guelph, like Central School in 1876, and the Guelph High School (later Guelph Collegiate) in 1887. From that time on, the Board of Education struggled to provide new schools to meet the needs of the city's growing population of school-aged children (Johnson, p. 242-245). The days of one or two-roomed schools in the City of Guelph had come to an end.


The spending of taxpayers' money on public buildings has traditionally caused debate and the demand to prove need. Apparently, this was especially true in Guelph's South Ward. A two-roomed school on Waterloo Avenue had served the pupils of that area (later called St. James' Ward), but by 1907 it had become impossibly overcrowded. After a long and bitter debate at the Board of Education, the Trustees, led by the Superintendent, Reverend Robert Torrance, agreed to the building of a new school. They awarded the contract for the school design and construction to an interesting and controversial local Guelph architect, W. Frye Colwill.


Colwill had worked on mundane projects like factories and renovations until he seized the opportunity to submit a design for Guelph's proposed Carnegie Library ln 1902. This was a controversial project through all the stages of its development, and its design and consequent cost proved to be major factors in the controversy. Colwill chose to draw on the Beaux-Arts tradition for his design, a Classical style with characteristic columns, extravagant ornamentation, and strong central entrances. The design was criticized as grandiloquent and extravagant, but all agreed that the finished building was, "The most elegant and most attractive library building in the province" (Stelter, p. 22).


A similar dichotomy occurred with the design and building of the new school on Waterloo Avenue. Colwill had again shown, "A concern for style and that elusive quality, beauty...", rather than putting," The emphasis on form and function only" (Stelter, Guelph Perspectives, p. 180). When it was finished and with a distinct tone of triumph, William Tytler, Inspector of the Guelph Public Schools, announced in his Annual Report for 1911:


"Under this head [school buildings], the outstanding feature is the completion and opening of the new school in St. James' Ward. The Board and the citizens generally are to be congratulated on such a beautiful and commodious school edifice. The external appearance is dignified and appropriate" (Annual Report, p. 4).


The Guelph Evening Mercury was equally enthusiastic in its article, "A Résumé of Building Operations in Guelph during the past year":


"Possibly the largest building erected this year and certainly one of the finest of the public buildings of the city in appearance is the new St. James' School on Waterloo Avenue."


The construction was fraught with tension over completion of the building on time to start the new term, so the relief was palpable when the school opened for Feb. 1, 1971, with its formal opening later that year on April 25th.


Colwill had again drawn on the Beaux-Arts style for his inspiration. "This was a spectacular interpretation of Beaux Arts Classicism, in some ways even more daring than his Carnegie Library about eight years earlier. A classical temple form featured a strong frontispiece of three huge pilasters topped by a shallow dome"(Guelph Perspectives, p.188). The main portion of the building was constructed of brick, but the pilasters and columns were of artificial stone carved to resemble Classical buildings. At either end of the school was a grand entrance outlined with columns more than two-storeys high, each topped with an ionic capital. The Mercury reported that the lawn was so high that it needed two terraces leading down to Waterloo Avenue, thus adding to its imposing appearance from the street (Guelph Mercury, 1973). It was altogether, "A dramatic statement by an architect wishing to distinguish himself from what he would have considered to be the more mundane approach taken for most schools" (Stelter, p. 27).


Historic Guelph V41P8

Torrance School


Inside, according to the Inspector's report, the building was equally impressive. There were three large classrooms on each of the two floors, two across the rear and one across part of the front of the school. In the basement were small and large playrooms, a boiler room and lavatories. One classroom was used as a kindergarten and the sixth was intended to be held in reserve for future use, but it was actually filled by the end of its first year. Inspector Tytler described the interior:


"Internally there are as many features which make it a model for future schools. The spacious halls, the lofty ceilings, the large and comfortable furnished classrooms, with separate entrances and cloak rooms for boys and girls, the abundance and position of the light, and the plentiful supply of fresh air are all calculated to render this school a pleasant and profitable place for both teachers and pupils" (Annual Report, p. 4).


With perhaps a polite slap at the critics of the necessity for construction of the school, he concluded, "This shows conclusively that the erection of a six-roomed school in St. James' Ward was not undertaken too soon" (Ibid). The building was a success from all points of view: the practical, the artistic, the educational, and - it appears from a much later student comment - the appeal to a child's imagination. A student of the 1970s reminisced that the school, "Had character. As young children, we pretended that the school, complete with huge columns and grand entrances, was a castle and we its royal subjects" (Guelph Tribune, June 1998).


Inspector Tytler was also enthusiastic about two other aspects of the St. James' Ward school in its opening year - the Kindergarten and the School Garden. Education in Ontario has consistently been the battleground for contrasting views about its purpose and methodology, usually based on underlying conflicting beliefs about the nature of children. In 1886, J.E. Wetherell, principal of Strathroy Collegiate, addressed the Ontario Teachers' Association on 'Conservatism and Reform in Education Methods.' In that address, he described the differences in the Reform movement and summed up a debate that still rages in Ontario education in the new Millennium:


"The [Old Education] stored the mind with knowledge, useful and useless, and only incidentally trained the mind, while the [New Education] puts training in the first place and makes the acquisition of knowledge incidental. The Old Education was devoted to the study of books, while the New Education is devoted more to things than books. Rather than beginning with the unseen and the unfamiliar, the New Education begins with the seen and the common and gradually develops the reflective faculties by reference to knowledge already obtained. . . by the child. Finally, while the Old Education was too one-sided, the New Education promised to develop 'The whole being, the mental, the moral, [and] the physical'" (School of Ontario, p. 50).


This child-centred, activity-based, discovery-oriented philosophy led to many changes over the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century that had a direct effect on Torrance School when it opened. The inclusion of a Kindergarten and a School Garden were two such outcomes.


James Hughes, Toronto's Public School Inspector, had been excited by seeing the early Kindergartens in the United States in 1874 and was determined to see them in Toronto Schools; he succeeded in 1882. They represented the enhancement of, "Spontaneity and creativity. . . and engaged in what later came to be called reading readiness. . . it was a new bottom rung on the educational ladder" (School of Ontario, p. 55). The movement spread quickly and by 1902 there were some 120 kindergarten classrooms in Ontario where 247 teachers taught more than 11,000 five-year-olds (Ibid, 56). In Guelph Mr, Tytler reported:


 "After many years of limitation to one kindergarten with two daily classes, we have at length been able to extend this department of schoolwork. The completion of the new Torrance School made it possible to inaugurate a kindergarten for that part of the city, where it was much required. A bright and cheerful room, well equipped and in every way attractive, with a thoroughly trained and enthusiastic director, could not fail to draw a large number of children. The enrolment has been very gratifying, no fewer than 68 names having been entered on the register during the year."


This latter point was important to attendance at school, a topic of concern in many of the Inspectors' Annual Reports. Many parents liked the idea of their young children being cared for in school and the Inspectors hoped that this would be habit forming and increase attendance through the grades.


The other innovation at the new St. James' Ward School when it opened was the School Garden. There was considerable conflict about the value and inclusion of manual training or agricultural units in the school curriculum. Some middle-class parents saw them as menial and inferior to book learning and thought their study was more suitable for training poor or delinquent children (School of Ontario, p. 57), but Tytler obviously approved of the trend to practical education. He reported:


"A somewhat novel experiment for Guelph was made during the past year at the Torrance School. A portion of the school lot and some ground in a neighbouring lot, were utilized for School Gardens. Each pupil of suitable age was given a small plot of ground, which he cultivated under the supervision of Mr. Long, the headmaster of the school(Annual Report, p. 8).


He went on to praise Mr. Long for continuing to care for the garden during his summer vacation and reported that the Board gave prizes for, "Every pupil who had bestowed honest work on his plot" (Ibid).


Shortly after its opening, the Guelph Board of Education christened the new school 'Torrance School' after Dr. Robert Torrance (D.D., LL.D.); in honour of his long years of service to education in Guelph. Dr. Torrance was born in Ireland in 1822 and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Royal Academy College in Belfast, plus a degree in theology from Edinburgh University. He was licensed to preach at age 22, gaining the nickname of the 'Boy Preacher.' In answer to a call from a church in Toronto, he came to Canada in 1845, and went out to do missionary work through western Upper Canada, riding as a circuit preacher on horseback from Toronto to Goderich. The rural population was scattered; he stayed at settlers' cabins and conducted divine services there. After a year of travel, he was invited to a new Guelph church - the United Presbyterian Congregation, and remained as its first and only minister from 1846 to 1882. The Church building - no longer standing - was on Dublin Street near Central School. During his years as a Presbyterian Minister, he delivered lectures and served on the Board of the Mechanics Institute (a predecessor to the public library); was elected to the Guelph branch of the Upper Canada Bible Society; and in 1898, served as a moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.


Historic Guelph V41P11

Reverend Robert Torrance, D.D.


In Guelph, the Presbyterian church had, "A reputation of being among the strongest proponents of good education in the township and county and advocated the advancement of education through the common schools" (Johnson, p. 772). Dr. Torrance was among the most devoted of these advocates; a trustee of the Board of Education said that he was known for, "His insistence on scholarship and his doughty Scottish fighting spirit" (Shutt, p. 17). His service to education and the schools and students of Guelph was devoted and legendary. He served as both Superintendent and Secretary of the Board of Education and Inspector of Public Schools in Guelph and Wellington County from 1856 to 1892. In these roles, he supervised teachers, mediated Trustee-ratepayer disputes, managed school buildings and resources, oversaw curriculum implementation and adherence to Department of Education policies and rules. He also ensured that students had achieved the appropriate standards required to pass their grades. Public examinations were required of students in the mid-19th century and it was Dr. Torrance who asked the questions of students; his particular interest was grammar and spelling. Mary students trembled as they awaited their questions, but parents were assured in a very public way of the superior knowledge and skills of their children and of the educational value of the schools.


Early in his tenure with the Board, Reverend Torrance developed a clear outline of standard pass requirements for entrance to Grammar School; they were as follows:


  1. To read intelligently a passage from any Common School Reading Book.
  2. To spell correctly the words of any ordinary sentence.
  3. To write a fair hand.
  4. To work questions in the four simple rules of arithmetic.
  5. To know the rudiments of English Grammar so as to be able to parse an easy sentence.


This open and fair measure was an example of Dr. Torrance's devotion to principle in educational matters. Greta Shutt described his rather epic battle of will with John May, headmaster of the Grammar School (predecessor to the High Schools). Part of a headmaster's salary came from pupil fees at that time, so it was to their financial advantage to have high enrollment. Mr. May had admitted applicants whom Dr. Torrance did not consider qualified for entrance to Grammar School and their dispute went to the Board, then on up to Egerton Ryerson. Dr. Torrance submitted his resignation rather than agree to lowering his educational standards to enable the mercenary purposes of the headmaster to succeed. Mr. May stayed only two more years and the Board passed Dr. Torrance's standards of entrance in 1866.


In recognition of his impressive service to his Church, to his community and to education in Guelph for more than 30 years, the Board of Education honoured his memory after his death in 1908 at age 86. His son Robert Lindsay Torrance, also a long-serving trustee of the Board, thanked the board for the honour, calling the Torrance School, "A handsome and artistic structure, which the Board has been kind enough to link with my family name and in honour of my father who gave 35 years of his life to educational affairs in the city" (Board Minutes, Jan. 11, 1927). When the new addition was opened in 1959, his granddaughter Phyllis Higinbotham presented a portrait of Dr. Torrance to the school to commemorate his service. Greta Shutt observed of him at the time, "In those days, men knew what they believed, they thought deeply, and they acted bravely on their convictions" (Daily Mercury, March 3, 1959).


The world lost its innocence after 1914 and Guelph's population and size continued to grow through the 40 years after that until the boom times of the 1950s. Through it all, Torrance School remained a vibrant centre of the community around it. It harboured many strong staff and produced many notable graduates. George Couling was principal for 19 years from 1942 to 1961, one of the longest serving principals in the Guelph school system. Among the most distinguished of the staff, perhaps the person who most embodied the spirit of the school, was Miss Alice Scott, kindergarten teacher for 40 years. After graduating from Guelph Collegiate, she trained at the Model School in Toronto. After completing her studies in 1918, she immediately began teaching at Torrance where she remained until she retired in June of 1959. She was remembered as, "An outstanding gentlewoman . . one who believed in and followed the love and understanding theory," of educating young children. More than 1,000 students remembered her compassion and gentle reassurance in the frightening period of starting school for the first time.


Historic Guelph V41P14 Alice

Ms. Alice Scott.


For one pupil of Torrance, Miss Scott was the teacher who remained in his memory of the six years he spent at the school. Hugh Guthrie was born and grew up in the neighbourhood of Torrance School and reminisced about the life of an elementary school boy of the 1930s. His memories give a snapshot of a boy's life in a time when perhaps school was not the main focus. He remembered the great neighbourhood around Torrance with its families of many backgrounds, where every kid walked home for lunch. In this neighbourhood, families raised chickens in their backyards, and some even had cows. Across Edinburgh Road from his family's big stone house was a world-renowned breeder of fancy fowl and exotic birds. He remembered playing hockey at the rifle range behind Stirling Rubber where the Bridon apartments stand now. He remembered swimming and hunting ducks and pheasants behind Sleeman's Silvercreek Brewery where the Hanlon interchange is now. He remembered collecting whisky bottles to get the refund of $.05 each that he and his friends could spend at the soda bar at the corner of Edinburgh and Waterloo Avenue. It was a warm and busy neighbourhood and at its heart was Torrance School.


 By the end of the 1950s, the growing neighbourhood once again needed a bigger school and an addition of 19,935 square feet was constructed on the west side of the old building. Its architect, T. Allan Sage, did not seem to have beauty in mind. He said, "It is a good set up. You won't be accused of putting any frills on this addition... It is low-cost good construction making full use of an awkward site. But you must also remember that in good low-cost construction, you have to strike a balance between longevity and economy" (The Daily Mercury, March 3, 1959). There had been considerable controversy over too-high tenders and the Board had cut $10,000 in expenses from the original estimate of $90,000. There was also controversy about how close to Waterloo Avenue to put the playground fence; the school needed more playground space but did not want to alter the, "Fine appearance of Waterloo Avenue" (Ibid). One praiseworthy feature of the old school was its original heating system: "The most elementary form of steam heating known to man. Single lines go out from the boiler and heated steam goes all along the pipe, condenses, and returns as water along the same pipe. It provided adequate heating even for the new addition" (Ibid). The original Duncan McPhee store made the curtains and the drapery and donated a silk Union Jack at the opening ceremony. Altogether, the new addition was praised as being one, "Of which all connected with the school could be justly proud" (Ibid).


The closing chapter in the story of the Torrance School is one of both good news and bad news, and certainly outdid all other chapters in its controversy. In the 1980s, the neighbourhood around the school was facing a severe decline in school-age children because young families had migrated to the burgeoning suburbs south of Guelph and they wanted a school out there. The Torrance families fought loudly and succeeded in gaining a temporary extension to its life. Sufficient numbers of students from two other school areas were bussed in to keep the school population viable. In the late 1900s, however, the imposition of the provincial government's new 'Funding Formula' spelled the death knell for Torrance. Old schools with spacious hallways, large classrooms and gracious open areas could not survive the exigencies of financing based on tight fiscal controls. The school was in need of extensive repairs and costs exceeding $1 million. In 1998, the newly formed Upper Grand District School Board announced the closing of the grand old building.


This announcement galvanized the community, as had the earlier closure announcement in 1986. A 'Save the School Team' was formed; research was done, data was collected, and several reports were written. A LACAC report to Guelph City Council said, "Torrance School is recognized as an important landmark in the central part of the city by virtue of its age, its distinct style, its historic associations and its contribution to the character of Waterloo Avenue" (as quoted in The Guelph Tribune editorial, June 17, 1998). The building was given a heritage designation to stave off its demolition by any future purchasers. In the end, all appeals failed, and the school was closed in June 1998. Its ending was shadowed by the outcry over the sale of the building to Charleston Homes. There were rumours of corruption, illegality, unwise actions, a too-low price of $175,000 and bad faith with community groups. The sale was the subject of a special review by an independent company, and the Board was cleared of all charges. But just as Rev. Torrance's dispute with Mr. May had led to clear standards, so did this controversy lead to new clear and fair guidelines for selling surplus school property. Once again the Torrance spirit had shone. And the building has now gained new life with the sounds of happy children ringing through the halls of the Guelph Montessori School.


Its ending should be remembered by a happy day, not by this cloudy shadow. The fine old school was packed up in fine old style by its staff, its students, its graduates, and its community on June 20, 1998. Over 700 visitors showed up for the tribute and celebration. Speakers included present and former staff and students and the usual dignitaries. Students reminisced about its eccentricities: creaking floors and stair steps that prevented sneaking around, the unavoidable stairs, the grand entrances, the tradition of annual operettas, and the, "Outstanding quality of life gained on Waterloo Avenue" (The Guelph Tribune, June 17, 1998). The words of a song, written for the occasion by Mrs. Chery Wallace, sum up the spirit of the day and of 90 years of history:


"Voices now we join together
For a tribute to our school
Almost 90 years of learning
Memories of Torrance School
Staff and students, there have been thousands
Through the pillars - up the stairs
Proud to attend Torrance School

For the future - lives prepared!"


- Tribute to Torrance (1911-1998) (to tune of Beethoven's Ode to Joy)


The last words should come from the school community's most important members. One parent with three grown children who attended the school summed it up in her comment in the Tribune in 1998, "It is an old building, but it's also a great place to educate kids". And one small child, asked for her memories, wrote, "There are more things I can tell about Torrance. P. S. I want to say I like Torrance. P.S. Why it have to close?" (Z. Ling, June 1998).


The world is a different place in 2002 than it was in 1970 - a place of promises broken, a place of cynicism, a place where war and terrorism are ever-present threats. Information whirs through cyberspace, humans whir through outer-space, and cities cover land space. But there are special spaces left as monuments to a grander time - and Torrance School is one of those special spaces.




Anderson, Rosemary and Matheson, Dawn, ed. Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, 2000. Guelph: Perspectives on a Century of Change 1900-2000.

Colwill-Maddock, Marian Frye. Diary of Fanny Colwill Calvert: portrait of an artist, 1848-1936. Guelph & Printing, 1981.

Harris, Robin S. Quiet evolution: a study of the education system of Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

Johnston, Leo. History of Guelph, 1827-1927. Guelph: Guelph Historical Sociely, 1977.

Shutt, Greta Mary. The High Schools of Guelph. Guelph: Board of Education for the City of Guelph, 1961.

Stamp, Robert M. The schools of Ontario, 1876-1976. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Stelter, Gilbert A., "The Architect and the community: W. Frye Colwill and turn of the century Guelph." in Historic Guelph, the Royal City. Volume XXXIII Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, 1994.

Tytler, William. Inspector's Report for the Guelph Public Schools for 1911.

The Daily Mercury, The Guelph Mercury, and The Guelph Tribune. Clipping files from the Guelph Public Library and Collin Lutzi, last principal of Torrance Public School.

With thanks to Hugh Guthrie, former student, for the time taken to share his memories and to Cindy Dumas, Upper Grand District School Board, for finding the boxes and putting them away.