Lottie Bowron

1879 - 1964

"Teacher's Welfare Officer Braved the Wilds of British Columbia"

In 1928, Lottie Bowron was appointed to an unusual job: Rural Teachers' Welfare Officer (Women). The job was a new position, created by Joshua Hinchliffe, Minister of Education in a Conservative government, in an attempt to support young female teachers facing many difficulties in the rural schools of British Columbia.

Bowron, part of the family for which the Bowron Lakes are named, was born in Barkerville in 1879. Her story paints an interesting picture of this period in B.C.'s social and education history.

As the Rural Teachers' Welfare Officer, she visited and reported on the districts where female teachers -- many of them desperately in need of employment -- were having trouble. Her primary concern was to make the women's lives more bearable: she bolstered their morale, offered advice and support, and did her best to resolve conflicts, confronting difficult school board members and parents on the teacher's behalf.

Her reports, which are preserved in the provincial archives, notified school inspectors and senior education officials in Victoria of existing and potential situations of risk for women teachers -- particularly young, inexperienced ones. Comments such as "this is not an easy place" and "this is a hard place for a young teacher" are frequently found. Bowron designated some schools as "a man's school," in hopes that female teachers -- especially inexperienced ones -- would not be posted there. Others she designated as schools that would be best served by "a man or a married woman." By 1932, she had added the category: "Not for inexperienced women teachers."

Bowron travelled the province in her job for five years, meeting with approximately 250 teachers per year. Transportation was a challenge: in 1929 there were only 18,000 miles of road, and to reach the northern part of the province by rail, one had to go to Edmonton first. Some communities could be reached only by boat, others only by foot or on horseback.

When Bowron arrived in the communities, she often found teachers living in appalling conditions. A few school boards erected teacherages near the school, but these buildings were frequently little more than lean-tos or rough cabins. Hotels were also undesirable and sometimes dangerous, as they usually had a beer parlour down the hall and the teacher would be the only female guest.

Most teachers boarded with a family in the community, which worked well in some cases but caused many problems in others. Because the rental money was extremely valuable in cash-poor communities, there was often quarrelling or jealousy over who would board the teacher.

Also of concern to Bowron was the distance teachers had to travel to get to and from the school. Some teachers had to cross extremely difficult terrain. One teacher had to "climb down a steep bank to the Kootenay River, cross in a small boat and climb up the other side." Another had to make a half-mile trek through the woods on a rough and sometimes steep trail, and then cross a stream on a makeshift bridge.

Few teachers had much companionship or social life and, even when there were opportunities, the teacher was carefully scrutinized and judged. A trustee who found fault with a teacher's behaviour could make her position in the community unbearable.

In the West Kootenays, Doukhobor resistance to public schooling created challenges of a different kind. "There is no doubt that the experience of a bomb having been placed under the building rather unnerved them, nor is it at all to be wondered at," noted Bowron of teachers in Fruitove.

Given the prevailing circumstances in many areas of B. C. during this time, it is surprising that there weren't more teachers who felt overwhelmed by difficulties. For this reason Bowron was greatly valued.

In addition to trying to help teachers throughout the province, Bowron also tried to educate future teachers about the reality of working in B. C. communities. She spoke at the Normal Schools in Vancouver and Victoria, telling the students about her job and trying to give them an accurate idea of what teaching in remote, rural areas was actually like.

Lottie Bowron worked as the Rural Teachers' Welfare Officer until 1934, when the new Liberal government discontinued the position. [She retired to Victoria, where she was active in various community organizations and church groups. Until her death in 1964, she resided in an apartment suite in Victoria's Strathcona Hotel.]

Why a Rural Teachers' Welfare Officer?

Two incidents in particular had acted as catalysts in the government's decision to appoint a Rural Teachers' Welfare Officer: the murder of a young teacher at Port Essington in 1926, and the suicide of a 20-year-old teacher in Cowichan Lake two years later. Although such tragedies were not commonplace, the conditions that had given rise to them were.

At the time, 80 percent of B. C.'s rural teachers were women, many of them only just out of school themselves. Districts had not yet been consolidated, and community enthusiasm and support determined whether or not there was a local school and whether conditions were good or bad. Although living and working conditions varied greatly from community to community, they were primitive at best, a far cry from what urban dwellers were used to. Many teachers had to contend with barely habitable living quarters, as well as loneliness, isolation, and difficult or unfriendly parents and school trustees.

This article was written by Shirley Cuthbertson, formerly a curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum, and an authority on school textbooks and school heritage artifacts. The article orginally appeared in the Ministry of Education newsletter, BC Education News (March 1995).

Thomas Fleming and Carolyn Smyly, "Beyond Hope, Past Redemption: The Lottie Bowron Story," The Beaver, vol. 71, no. 2 (April-May 1991), 33-41; and J. Donald Wilson, "'I am ready to be assistance when I can:' Lottie Bowron and Rural Women Teachers in British Columbia," Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 25, no. 2 (Summer 1990), reprinted in Jean Barman, Neil Sutherland, and J. Donald Wilson (eds.), Children, Teachers & Schools in the History of British Columbia (1995).