Digging up bones. Central School. Brantford

“…he was startled and dismayed when a finger bone flowed out of the pump.”

A look at Brantford Central School

By Ruth Lefler [excerpted]
Friday, May 30, 2014 

The first Central School building stood on the north side of Sheridan Street on the site of Brantford’s first municipal cemetery. Egerton Ryerson, founder of Ontario’s education system, opened the west wing which was designed by John Turner.  In 1857, the centre block was added and the east wing was completed in 1872. The building was destroyed by fire in 1872. 

Since 1850, Central School has played a significant role in the education of thousands of students.

In 1830, Lewis Burwell, deputy surveyor to Peter Robinson, commissioner of Crown Lands, surveyed the site for the Village of Brantford. Among the six blocks of land that he designated were the Market Square where the first school already stood, a public square, now Victoria Park and the burying ground where Central School now stands. Among the people buried here were victims of the cholera epidemics in the 1830s and ’40s and Irish immigrants, who had left Ireland during the potato famine.

Central School, 1850 to 1890

In 1850, a decision was made to erect Central School on the cemetery site. The town council minutes of June 25, 1849, requested that a person be paid five pounds to assist in the removal of “nuisances” from the school site. On Aug. 22, 1890, a Brantford Expositor article stated that a great majority of the headstones and monuments were broken or re-erected in such a manner that they fell and crumbled or were thrown beside the fence and finally disappeared mysteriously.

It was now time to build the west wing. In 1850, John Turner, a well known architect, designed the first Central School in Italianate style. Egerton Ryerson, the founder of the education system of Ontario, opened the building on March 14, 1850.

Joseph Saldarelli in his book, A History of Central School, Brantford, Ontario, mentions that the first floor was used by the boys and the second floor for the girls and the smaller boys. The school could accommodate 500 students.

In 1855, the 21-year-old Michael Kelly, a colourful individual, became principal. One of the female teachers on staff was Emily Jennings, who later became Dr. Emily Stowe. She graduated from the Normal School of Upper Canada in1854 and became principal at Central School. She was the first woman in Canada to hold this position. Later, she became a medical doctor and, in 1880, she was the second woman licensed to practise medicine in Canada.

Because more people were attracted to the Town of Brantford, enrolment increased and, in 1857, it became necessary to add the centre wing in the same architectural style. It was one of the best modern, well-equipped schools in Canada West.

In 1861, Dion Sullivan became principal and was known as being fair and just. An incident proved that fact. Little Joshua Hamilton, who later became Major J. S. Hamilton of the 38th Dufferin Rifles, Brantford, along with several older boys, was sent to the principal’s office to be punished. The boys were arranged according to size and the strap was administered beginning with the largest culprit. After watching all of the boys get the strap, it was finally Joshua’s turn. He must have been quaking in his boots. Instead of having sore red hands, Mr. Sullivan shared this advice with him, “Well you’re a small boy and you haven’t been sent to me before. You may wait until the next time to get yours.”

By 1872, the third addition was added to the school.

Model School at Central School

In 1877 County Model Schools were established by the Province of Ontario for teacher training. After graduating High School, the students attended this school for one year and upon successful completion, received a third class teaching certificate which allowed them to teach for two years. The certificate could be renewed for another two years at which time it was imperative that they attend Normal School.

William Aberhart, Premier of Alberta

At 21 years, William Aberhart began his teaching career at Central School. He was a strict disciplinarian and often used the strap. He also called the students by numbers rather than their names. When Principal Wilkinson died in 1905, Aberhart filled the position. Because Aberhart was a very religious man who carried his Bible wherever he went in Brantford, he received the nickname ‘the Bible carrying school teacher’. In 1910, a dispute over his salary encouraged him to accept a principalship in Calgary, Alberta where he gained the nickname “Bible Bill.” During the Great Depression, he founded the Social Credit movement and, by 1935, he was premier of Alberta, a position he held until his death on May 25, 1943.

Signs of the Former Cemetery

In 1991, Gary Muir interviewed Dorothy Patterson who was born in 1906 and attended Central School. The thing that she remembered most was when students went out on the gravel playground to dig for bones under an old tree on a little hill going down to Marlborough Street.

On a sunny spring day in the 1940s, Russ Brown, the school caretaker, was cutting the grass when an elderly gentleman came along and mentioned to him that bodies were buried under the front lawn. He recalled, as a boy, while pumping water from a hand pump in the front yard, that he was startled and dismayed when a finger bone flowed out of the pump.


1 courtesy Brantford archives