History from Here: St. Catharines Collegiate

In the 100 years since William Hamilton Merritt set up his first mill, St. Catharines was on its fourth canal project, had built an extensive street railway system, constructed a state-of-the-art hydroelectric power system, and boasted an impressive manufacturing sector. But in that same time frame, the city had only managed to build a single public high school. And the situation was getting dire. 

In this episode of History from Here, host Sean Dineley visits the St. Catharines Collegiate which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2023. History from Here is a video series presented by the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.  

100 years is certainly impressive, but the history of the St. Catharines Collegiate goes back almost another full century. The building behind me opened in 1923, but the institution had its beginnings 1829 when the “Grantham Academy” was opened by a group of private shareholders in a small building on Church Street. At this time, secondary education was a novel concept. These schools, known as academies, grammar schools, and later collegiates, were primarily meant for the upper classes, whose children would go on to university. Though they did receive some government funding, secondary schools did not come under full public control until 1871, and it was not until 1919 that students were legally required attend school until age 16. These early schools also charged tuition.  

Grantham Academy Building, late 19th Century.

The Grantham Academy underwent several renovations and expansions in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was renamed the “St. Catharines District Grammar School” in 1845 and the “St. Catharines Collegiate Institute” in 1890. The original school building on Church Street still stands, having later housed the Robertson Public School and now the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre. The story of the Robertson School is best saved for another History from Here video.  

With a growing population, ageing infrastructure, and changing education regulations, the St. Catharines Collegiate was in need of a new building from at least 1900. The project was continually delayed due to ballooning costs, a large city fire that required immediate public resources, and the outbreak of the First World War. The new school building was planned to be built on the original property, but this replacement project was deemed too expensive and the site too small. Determining where to build became a heated controversy, with the school board, city councillors, the public, and The St. Catharines Standard all weighing in. There were disagreements regarding size, location, cost, and even whether two separate schools should be built – one for academic and one for vocational streams. 

Vocational students at the Collegiate, 1940

One issue regarding the site that was eventually chosen was that it was a lacrosse field used by the St. Catharines Athletics, having even hosted an 1896 championship game against Toronto. A proposed compromise was to allow teams to continue play on the school grounds after hours, as well as access to the school’s dressing rooms. St. Catharines Standard founder W.B. Burgoyne was so against this location that he ran for the Board of Education on the platform of having the school built on a site on Church Street. Burgoyne received the third most votes even though he died the day before the election! In response to the impasse, contracts were drawn up and preliminary work began on a third site at St. Paul and Geneva, but public opinion of this plan was so low that contractors were forced to start again on the Lacrosse Grounds 14 months before the school was to open. 

Opening ceremonies came on November 5th, 1923. The schedule featured a nearly nine-hour program including seven musical acts, 11 speeches, and an evening dance! The new school’s design was considered ultra modern for its time. It included 70 rooms, six science labs, machine and wood shops, a medical room, and a cafeteria. It also featured an open concept rotunda, modern heating and ventilation, a telephone in every classroom, and a centrally controlled clock and bell system. Critics said the school was too big and would never be filled, but within about ten years it was out of room. Additions were added in 1949, 1965, and 1969. 

Collegiate Glee Club, 1940

One of the most notable parts of the Collegiate’s long history is its contributions to the Second World War. Over 1400 Collegiate students and alumni fought in the War, including famed “Saviour of Ceylon” Leonard Birchall. 98 of these brave young men were killed in action and the school immortalizes their names in an honour roll in the second-floor rotunda. During the War, the Collegiate also hosted “War Emergency Classes”, staying open 24 hours a day to offer adult educational programs to aid in the war effort. 

The St. Catharines Collegiate was the city’s only public high school when it opened its doors 100 years ago, but now it’s one of nine! But with 30 clubs and teams, 13 academic departments, and a staff compliment of 85, this institution shows no signs of slowing down. 

Sean Dineley is a public programmer with the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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