Sapperton School

The Crown Colony of British Columbia was created in 1858 and in 1859 New Westminster was selected as the colonial capital. A detachment of Royal Engineers was sent from Britain to survey town lots and lay streets and roads in the new community.1 The Engineers' camp was located close to New Westminster at Sapperton, so named because Engineers were historically known as "Sappers" in the British Army.

In 1859 the first school for non-native children in British Columbia was established at Sapperton under the direction of the Rev. John Sheepshanks, acting chaplain of the Royal Engineers.2 Initially, he taught the children himself on the stipend he received as chaplain, but in 1860 Governor James Douglas authorized a grant of £160 for the support of the Anglican Church, a grant which Sheepshanks allocated for school purposes.3 An additional sum of £70 was subscribed by parents in Sapperton to defray the cost of a teacher's salary.4

The location of the "Camp School" is somewhat of a mystery as "layouts to the Camp site do not seem to indicate any actual school building."5 It is likely that classes were held in "the Club and Library Room where the church services were also held."6 In any case, twenty-eight children from thirteen families stationed at Sapperton attended the Camp School, which operated four hours a day.7

The first teacher at Sapperton was Miss Emily Herring, stepdaughter of Philip Crart of the Royal Engineers. Not much is known about Miss Herring, other than the fact that she was dismissed in March of 1861 for "misconduct."

The broad definitions of "misconduct" -- especially in this period of social conservatism -- make it difficult to ascertain the reasons behind Miss Herring's termination. In her book New Westminster, The Real Story of How It Began (1985), Hellen Pullem argues that Miss Herring's stepfather was financially insecure and that her dismissal may have had some connection to her inferior social position.8 Outside of speculation, however, there is no explanation for her dismissal. But when she was dismissed from her post in the Spring of 1861 the Sapperton School closed. It was not reopened until 1863, when Mrs. Anne Moresby was appointed teacher.

Mrs. Moresby was the widow of William Moresby, a lawyer who had practiced in Victoria.9 After her husband's death, Mrs. Moresby was financially distressed and so she accepted the position at Sapperton School, in part because "teaching school was one of the few occupations available to respectable educated women who had to earn their own living."10

The school reopened early in 1863 with Mrs. Moresby as teacher. By that time, the British War Office was providing a small (£18 per annum) operating grant and parents were able to subscribe an annual fee of just under £80.

When the Royal Engineers left Sapperton in November of 1863 the school was taken over as a "colonial school" by the British Columbia colonial government.11 Mrs. Moresby stayed on as teacher and for a time was assisted by another teacher, Miss Jessie Nagle. However, attendance at the school fell dramatically with the departure of the Royal Engineers detachment, and "Mrs. Moresby was...obliged to advertise that she was setting up her own private boarding school for young ladies and also boys under the age of eight."12

Under the terms of the Common School Ordinance, 1869, local school trustees were made responsible for a significant portion of their school's budget. In most instances, funds were raised by levying household or poll taxes, or by charging tuition fees to pupils.

School trustees in Sapperton, however, were faced with a difficult task. Many families in the area had enrolled their children in private or church-sponsored schools in New Westminster, and so were unwilling to accept a levy of a public school tax. Also, many residents who did not have children of their own were opposed to any kind of universal school tax.13

In 1870, only sixteen children were enrolled in the school.14 The school closed and Sapperton was without a school until 1888, when a new school district was established. By that time, British Columbia had become a province and public schools were placed on a more secure financial footing.

The history of the first school on the mainland of British Columbia is testimony to the value placed on education by the Royal Engineers and to the sentiments of permanent residents in regard to publicly funded schooling. The value of the history of the Sapperton School lies within these more general observations rather than within the minute details of its existence.

Written and researched by Daniel Hardy, History 355, University of Victoria, April 1998

1 F. Henry Johnson, A History of Public Education in British Columbia, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1964), p. 22.
2 Hellen C. Pullem, New Westminster: The Real Story of How It All Began, (New Westminster: The Hawkscourt Group, 1985), p. 58.
3Ibid, p. 59.
4 Margaret L. McDonald, "New Westminster, 1859-1871" University of British Columbia, M.A. thesis, 1947, p. 355.
5 Pullem, New Westminster: The Real Story, p. 59.
6 Ibid.
7 Barry Mather and Margaret L. McDonald, New Westminster: The Royal City, (Vancouver: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1958), p. 54.
8 Pullem, New Westminster: The Real Story, p. 59.
9 Donald L. MacLaurin, "The History Education in the Crown Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia and in the Province of British Columbia," University of Washington, Doctorate thesis, 1936, p. 65.
10 Pullem, New Westminster: The Real Story, p. 59.
11 MacLaurin, "The History of Education in the Crown Colonies," p. 65.
12 Pullem, New Westminster: The Real Story, p. 60.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid, p. 78.