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Lansdowne College - A Product of the Depression of 1885

by Norman J. Williamson

Manitoba Pageant, Summer 1976, Volume 21, Number 4

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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1880 was the boom year for the town of Portage la Prairie. In 1882, the Portage public school system was able to open its Collegiate Institute. However, by 1885, Portage was deep in the depression which once more gripped the boom and bust economy of western Canada.

On 12 June, the Conservative Review announced the first cut of social services, as it backed the school board’s decision to fire all the first class teachers (all male), thus leaving one male teacher as principal of Central School with the less expensive lower class teachers (all women).

Two days later, The Review announced the closing of the Collegiate Institute:

The school Board have at last come to the wise conclusion to close the collegiate institute. This is what should have been done more than a year ago. It is to be hoped that it will never be opened again until it is opened upon a proper basis. Then it will live. When the Central Judicial District and the Government are prepared to contribute the lion’s share of the expense ...
(12 June 1885, The Review)

The financial crisis worsened and in 1886, the town of Portage la Prairie declared itself bankrupt. However, it must not be thought that the citizenry were as a whole equally ruined. Indeed, a faction flourished exceedingly due to the low purchase prices being paid for produce and real estate.

In an attempt to keep some semblance of public education alive, the elementary schools were kept open. The school board had resigned to avoid the possibility of personal liability for the public debt. The board then reformed itself into a standing citizens’ committee. The committee declared a number of guidelines under which education would have to function. The fourth point was the main one:

That it is the duty of such committee to see that the most rigid economy is practised in the management of the schools and to see that no teacher has less than sixty pupils with an average attendance of at least 45 except in the two lower classes where the number should be no less than 50 with an average attendance of 45.
(15 October 1886, The Liberal)

The surplus teachers were given a month’s notice. The system collapsed into chaos and soon the public schools were closed.

With the closing of the public school system, the Reverend B. Franklin, the minister at West Prospect 1884-87, began to promote the creation of a private school, Lansdowne College. On 13 May 1887, The Liberal ran an article on the subject:

A meeting of those interested in Lansdowne College was held in Central school on Monday evening. The meeting was a very representative one and showed that a great deal of interest is being taken by our citizens in the establishment of the proposed institution.

The meeting was called to order at about 8:30 and Mr. Chas. Hay was elected to the chair. In a few introductory remarks the chairman called on Rev. Mr. Franklin, the promoter of the proposed institution to address the audience. Mr. Hay, in introducing the speakers said he thought the scheme was as good a one as had ever been undertaken in Portage, one he was surprised at the success which attended the promoters efforts - success which showed that Mr. Franklin possessed the virtue of perseverance.

Mr. Franklin was glad to see such a large number of the leading men of the town present. He explained the proposed scheme giving in detail his intentions regarding the management of the College ...

The speaker said there was no better location for an establishment of this kind than Portage la Prairie in the Province. Situated on the main line of the C.P.R. and at the terminus of the M & N - W Ry. it was convenient to students who might come direct from west, north west or east. A better class of families would settle in the town or vicinity in order that they might enjoy the benefits of higher education for their children; the town will be benefited in all its business departments and the tone of society would be elevated. Mr. Franklin said he believed in Providence and that he thought that Providence must be directing him in this undertaking for he had been unusually fortunate in securing a staff of teachers ...

While some of them invested their capital in this new venture, the leaders of Portage sent J. Martin, M.P.P. to the provincial legislature with a bill to get the government to accept responsibility for the town’s public debt. They also demanded that the Minister of Education collect the taxes to keep open the public schools.

These demands were of course added to the whole quagmire of the Norquay - Greenway political struggle and the growing agitation which was to become the "Manitoba School Question."

In the meantime, Franklin had found his capital and formed his college. He named it after the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Governor General of Canada. The institute had a brave start.

Lansdowne College is founded for the purpose of supplying a great and growing need of higher education for young ladies and gentlemen in this western country.

Students will be prepared for matriculation in law, medicine and arts, and for now - professional examination of teachers.

A thorough training will also be given in commercial branches, music, etc.

The College will be under the strictest moral and religious supervision. Parents may rest assured that their denominational preferences will be scrupulously respected.

Only young ladies will have rooms in the College building. Young men can find suitable rooms, furnished or unfurnished, at very reasonable rates in the immediate vicinity, and can receive table board in the college.

The building is centrally located and well adapted for the purpose and is being well furnished. The lower flat will be occupied as class-rooms, dining room, etc; The upper flats as sleeping apartments.

The teaching staff is as follows:
Rev. B. Franklin, M.A., Ph.D. Principal - Mathematics and Classics.
Miss Carrie E. Day - Vocal and instrumental Music.
Prof. J. D. Holmes - Commercial Branches.
Miss Mary F. Colby, M.L.A. - English and French.
Miss Freeman - Drawing and painting.
(19 August 1887, The Liberal)

The Rev. Franklin opened his private college on the first of September. In late October or early November of the same year, the Superintendent of Education called a meeting in Portage la Prairie in an attempt to get the public schools open again. He suggested that the education committee come to terms with the town’s creditors. If they did not:

... it would be his duty to appeal again to the people of the town by calling upon them to elect school trustees, and if then they did not [unknown] in sufficient numbers to show that they were desirous of electing a school board, he would not feel called upon to interfere further, because the responsibility of inaction would then rest upon the people themselves.
(4 November 1887, The Liberal)

As the edge of the depression dulled, the town managed to get the public schools opened again. However, the collegiate was to remain closed for some time.

As the new decade opened, Lansdowne College was in financial difficulty. Most of the well-to-do of Manitoba West still preferred to send their children to the older established schools like Manitoba College. Indeed, most of the old Portage families continued to do the same.

The college struggled for a few terms, but the writing was on the wall. In March of 1893, the last directors’ meeting was held and it was decided to auction the building and grounds in an attempt to cut some of the investors’ losses. However, at the time of auction, there were no bidders and the establishment went into the hands of the mortgagee. In time, the building became an apartment block, Lansdowne Villa.

The next year, 1894, the senior room teachers in the public school were providing unofficial classes in collegiate subjects.

Finally in September 1895, ten years after it had closed, the collegiate opened again. There were forty students registered. Mr. Argue was principal, and taught Mathematics. Mr. Loftus taught Latin and English Poetry, Mr. Finn the Science and Miss Ham the French, English Prose and History. Higher education was once more available to the children of the common people.

Author’s Note: The information for this paper was gleaned from the papers of Portage la Prairie and the diary of Mamie Pickering, who attended those first unofficial collegiate classes of the spring of 1895. She later attended Normal School in Winnipeg and taught in the rural schools of Manitoba, leaving a vivid record of Manitoba education in the 1890s.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Lansdowne College (Portage la Prairie)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Portage Collegiate Institute (Portage la Prairie)

Page revised: 1 January 2012

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