MHS Centennial Organization: St. John’s Ravenscourt School / St. John’s College School / Ravenscourt School
On All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1820, Reverend John West who was chaplain to the Hudson’s Bay Company, opened a school for the Protestant settlers. By 1822 there was a log building sixty by twenty with “apartments for the schoolmaster ... accommodation for the Indian children ... a day school for the settlers.” Supported by the Church Missionary Society, West’s dream was that some of the Indian children would some day become missionaries and catechists to their own people.
Another idea put forward was that this Indian or Mission School could grow into a dormitory-vocational school to house the many “orphan children” then living around the Company’s posts throughout the Northwest. The germinal idea of the present school can be found in the suggestion that “other children” might receive the same education and religious instruction to be offered in the proposed “School of Industry” on payment of “a moderate fee.” These ideas were not realized.
The “other children” were the sons and daughters of the Chief Factors and Chief Traders of the HBC. After West had founded the Mission School and the day school. Many of these men sent their children to live with friends at Red River, to board with West’s successor, Reverend David Thomas Jones, or with his assistant, Reverend William Cockran, so that they might attend the day school in the settlement.
There was such a clear and strong demand by the HBC officers for the education of their children that, in May 1832, Jones wrote to Governor George Simpson that he hoped to establish “a respectable seminary for the sons of the gentlemen belonging to the fur trade.” Simpson replied that the officers of the Company wanted their daughters educated too. Mary Jones, who for two years had been putting up girls from distant posts, agreed to share with her husband the responsibilities of supervising the proposed boarding school for girls and boys.
Simpson gave so much encouragement and support to the idea of “an academy at Red River,” that he might well be thought of as the School’s first patron, or even as the School’s first Chairman of a Board of Governors consisting of the Company’s Northern Council. Simpson urged the Chief Traders and Chief Factors to send their children to the Academy. “Pray give publicity to it,” he wrote to John George McTavish at Moose Factory, “and endeavour to send scholars.”
He personally directed young Alexander Isbister to the Academy in 1834. Eight years later, no longer a boy, Aleck left for the University of Aberdeen, earned a Master of Arts from that institution, was called to the English Bar, became Headmaster of a school in London, wrote a lot of text books, and founded the Manitoba Isbister Scholarships.
“The foundation of our seminary building was laid today,” Jones wrote in his journal on 16 October 1832. The building was located on the Mission School grounds on the west bank of the Red River near the present-day St. John’s Park in the north end of Winnipeg. This is the school which has come to be known as the Red River Academy. Jones moved the Indian School down river to what is now St. Andrew’s under the direction of Cockran. The Red River Census of 1834 records twenty boys and twenty-one girls in attendance at the Academy, most under sixteen.
When Jones left the settlement in 1838 after the death of his wife, tutor John Macallum, who had arrived in 1833 and later married one of his pupils, took over the Academy. One of Macallum’s students, an Anglican clergyman by the name of Benjamin Mackenzie, lived to 1928, and recorded that the red-wigged, snuff-taking headmaster “prepared a goodly number of postmasters, clerks and future Chief Traders and Chief Factors for the Hudson’s Bay Company.” Besides copy paper and quill pens, slates and chalk, Macallum kept on his desk, “a finger-sized native willow stick, about three and a half feet long.” Mackenzie remembered Macallum as “a conscientious and faithful worker, but perhaps he overestimated the use of the rod.”
Macallum died on 3 October 1849, the very day that David Anderson, the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land, arrived at Lower Fort Garry. Macallum had suggested that the first offer to purchase the Academy should be allowed to the Bishop. Anderson accepted the offer to buy the Academy, giving “£300 for the buildings and fences and taking nearly all the furniture and books at valuation.” He purchased as well seven cows, three pigs, an axe, and a wheelbarrow for £30. The Bishop bought the Academy buildings with Church Missionary Society funds and planned to add a training school and college for Indian catechists and missionaries.
Anderson renamed the Academy, St. John’s Collegiate School. Governor Simpson, now Sir George, was still interested in the School and its graduates. He took the trouble to write old Roderick Mackenzie at Ile-a-la-Crosse, that his grandson was now settled in at St. Peter’s College, Cambridge, and under the charge of Mr. Manly Hopkins, “brother of my secretary.” Colin Campbell Mackenzie would be introduced, he said, to some young men of studious habits “who will be of service to your grandson & prevent his feeling lonely." This young man became the first superintendent of education in British Columbia.
St. John’s Collegiate School did not prosper under Anderson and was closed in 1854, while the girl’s school which had been discontinued in 1849, started up again from 1851 to 1859 when it lapsed too.
The next bishop, Robert Machray, re-opened St. John’s for boys only on 1 November 1866. One of the old Red River Academy buildings was refurbished and refurnished. Reverend William Cockran’s home of solid oak logs which had been the girl’s school to 1859 became a students’ residence and, as enrolment grew in the 1870s, new buildings were added and the School’s named changed to St. John’s College School. In 1884 new buildings which were raised on Main Street stood as a landmark in Winnipeg’s North End, and in the memories of hundreds of alumni, until they were demolished in the early 1950s. Some students at the school during those years who have included accounts of it in their published autobiographies are Charles Camsell, Son of the North; W. A. Griesbach, I Remember, and A. D. P. Heeney, The Things That are Caesar’s.
Ravenscourt School was founded in 1929. Norman Young was its first Headmaster, encouraged and supported by a group of prominent Winnipeg business and professional men, most notably J. Stewart, Hugh F. Osler, and E. S. Stovel. The School began in Tupper House (formerly Bannatyne’s Castle) at Armstrong’s Point on the Assiniboine River; then in 1934 it moved to the home built by Colonel R. M. Thomson in Fort Garry on the banks of the Red. In 1937, the Richardson Gymnasium was erected with a donation by James Richardson, along with a dormitory and classrooms.
In 1950, when a board of Anglican churchmen decided that they did not want to continue St. John’s College School, many of its alumni decided that they did and held talks with Ravencourt’s Governors. So, in that year. St. John’s joined with Ravenscourt on the Fort Garry site.
Ogden Turner, who had seen Ravenscourt through “the Great Flood of 1950”, became the first Headmaster of St. John’s Ravenscourt. Under his successor, Richard L. Gordon, and a Board of Governors headed by James A. Richardson, enrolment climbed, classes were doubled and many new buildings were constructed: the Memorial Wing, Hamber Hall, the Camsell Science Laboratories, Dutton Memorial Arena, and the new Lower School complex.
Since 1969, when John Schaffter was appointed Headmaster, SJR has become a school for girls again, numbers have soared past four hundred, and scholarships multiplied.
It is perhaps worth noting that in the 1970s there is in the School a student who is a direct descendant of one of the few survivors of the Massacre of Seven Oaks and another whose great, great, great grandfather, Chief Factor Donald Ross of Norway House, had one or more of his children at the Red River Academy during the whole of its existence from 1833 to 1859. There is also an Indian boy whose great, great grandfather was baptized David Anderson by the Bishop of that name, and a boy of French descent whose forebears arrived in the St. Lawrence in the 17th century.
John Messenger became Principal of St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in September 1977.
St. John’s Ravenscourt School was presented with an MHS Centennial Organization Award by Jacqueline Friesen on 16 April 2004.
Headmasters of Mission School / Red River Academy / St. John’s Collegiate School / St. John’s College School
Headmasters of Ravenscourt School
Headmasters / Principals of St. John’s-Ravenscourt School
“New addition to Ravenscourt School planned,” Winnipeg Free Press, 24 May 1937, page 8.
“St. John’s-Ravenscourt gets new Headmaster,” Winnipeg Free Press, 17 May 1952, page 3.
“Minister urges graduates to be firm, self-reliant,” Winnipeg Free Press, 14 June 1952, page 3.
“St John’s-Ravenscourt School announcement,” Winnipeg Free Press, 11 October 1968, page 16.
Much of this text was provided by St. John’s Ravenscourt School and we thank Nathan Kramer for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 6 February 2023