The Story of the First Public School on the Saanich Peninsula


The story of the first public school on the Saanich Peninsula is, not unlike many tales of our past, a blend of fact and folklore. It is a popular belief, for example, that Mrs. Fanny Butler — the wife of Captain George Butler, the patriarch of the Butler clan — was the first teacher. Archival records, on the other hand, unequivocally show that the first teacher was a young man by the name of Charles Newton Young, who would later distinguish himself in Nanaimo. This story of the first public school on the Saanich Peninsula is based on archival records and newspaper reports of the day.

Need for a School

Following the official survey of 1858, settlement of the Saanich Peninsula accelerated, and by 1861, the population of settlers was about 200 (population estimates of the day did not include First Nations).1 The first public expression of interest in education appeared in a series of newspaper articles on a proposed “Saanich Town” to be established just south of Bazan Bay. In July 1861, The Daily Press wrote that school lots were to be donated by prospective developers of the town site.2 Two months later, Saanich representative John Coles addressed the House of Assembly. He observed that there were plenty of schools in Victoria, and suggested that he could build a school in South Saanich for £60, noting that 15 children lived within a range of a quarter mile. The House was sufficiently impressed, and voted £60 towards “a school and school purposes” in South Saanich (in 1853, “South Saanich” was the name given to the geographic area that is now the District of Central Saanich).3

Early Schooling at St. Stephen’s Church

Within four months, prayers for a school had been answered. In January 1862, the Daily Press informed its readers that land near William Thomson’s farm had been surveyed under the direction of the Bishop of Columbia for a school, adding that “an institution of this kind was greatly needed in the vicinity.”4 (Newspaper stories of the day vary on whether a school or a church was being built; Church accounts show payment of $25 in February 1862 to William Thomson for land for a church and a parsonage.)5

Construction of St. Stephen’s Church6 began in the spring of 1862, and on June 3, the Church was dedicated. The Daily Press observed that a portion of the structure was “parted off to serve as a school, the whole being in one building.”7 The first teachers were the Rev. Richard Lowe, the minister of St. Stephen’s Church, and probably his wife, which was a common practice in new communities at the time.8

Was the school simply part of the original church, or a separate building? The answer is complicated by early newspaper accounts, but evidence suggests the school was part of the church as reported in the Daily Press.9 Later requests for a public school make no reference to a school at the church. In June 1863, through a letter written by the Rev. Lowe, settlers appealed to the Rev. Edward Cridge, the Superintendent of Education, for a school.10 In September 1863, newly-elected Saanich representative Charles Street seconded a motion in the House of Assembly to form a committee on education since “there was no school provided” in South Saanich for 26 children living within an area of 1½ miles, and he “hoped soon to see a school in his district side by side with the church.”11

The First “Free School”

By March 1864, the wishes of the settlers for a free school independent of the Church were satisfied. The diary of William Thomson for March 1864 refers to survey of the school site, approval by the Governor, and delivery of building materials. However, several months later, there had been little progress: “It appears that they are now holding off from dissatisfaction felt by some at the location chosen,” the Daily Evening Express reported, “each one selfishly wishing that the school should have been erected opposite his own front door.”12 These difficulties were soon overcome, and construction of the school was completed by the end of 1864.

The school was built on four acres of land reportedly taken back from William Thomson, who had not paid for the land according to school records.13 It was located just north of Mt. Newton Cross Road on the lower slopes of what is now Raven Hill Herb Farm, next to the section line (Thomson Road).

There is uncertainty as to how many buildings were constructed. Local lore states that the school was a single four-room structure, housing both the classroom and teacher, but the observations of Alfred Waddington, recorded in his school inspection notebooks, suggest the school and dwelling were distinct structures.

Waddington was the Superintendent of Education for the Colony of Vancouver Island, a postion created in May 1865 by the Common School Act. On July 1, 1865, Waddington observed: “The school room and dwelling house were [italics ours] built not quite a year ago and cost the government $750. The schoolroom is 20 ft. by 30.”14 On August 2, he visited the school again, adding to his initial description: “The school is situated on rising ground some 60 yards from the road, with the dwelling house in front. The teacher at the window in his shirtsleeves in conversation with another person, hour 3 p.m. Entered the school room by a side door, at the same time as the teacher with his coat on by the front door.”15

Waddington also offered his views on the state of the new school: “Schoolroom a good one, but without a ceiling and very cold in winter; the boards generally much shrunk, and the building open under the floor. Benches much too high and without backs. Two desks, one on each side of the chimney, badly situated. Teachers dwelling composed of four rooms divided by naked boards much shrunk. No well, the water ¼ of a mile off. Three backhouses all built together.”16

Teaching at the School

The first teacher at South Saanich School was Charles Newton Young, the son of a British clergyman. Mr. Young, who came to this country from England in 1862 to take part in the Cariboo gold rush, eventually located in the Victoria area.17 By December 1864, he was in South Saanich, and filed pre-emption papers on 100 acres of land near present-day Saanichton.18 He began teaching at South Saanich school in January 1865. We know little of Mr. Young’s past, except that he had been a professor of English in the Netherlands for eighteen months.19 He was hired at a salary of $500 per year, with the added incentive of an extra $5 for each student who attended.20

Charles Young’s enthusiasm for religion attracted the scorn of Superintendent Waddington: “Mr. Young considers grammar useless for farmer’s children. The Bible is read before leaving every afternoon.”21 He later advised Young “to avoid all approaches to Sectarian demonstrations by reading prayers in the Church or otherwise, but that he may very properly assist in the Sunday schools if so inclined.”22

Mr. Young’s abilities as a teacher may have been in doubt. In those days, student examinations were public events, and parents were invited to attend (although their offspring were probably unhappy with this arrangement). At the August 1866 examinations, Superintendent Waddington observed that the performance of younger students was quite unsatisfactory, describing their reading as “very poor” and recitation (“The squirrel”) as “worse.” Young seems to have had more success with older children, whose recitation (“My father at the helm”) was described as “Fair.”23 Later reports by Waddington suggest significant improvement was made by the teacher and his students.24

Problems, however, soon arose on the political front. A change in government direction and a shortage of public money meant there was less support for education, and less tolerance for schools with low attendance. As a result, South Saanich school was effectively closed in June 1867; there were 14 children from 5 pioneer families registered at the time.25 Young offered his resignation, and moved on to be Vice-Principal at Collegiate Institute, a fee-paying school in Victoria.

After Young left for Victoria, no classes were taught at the school for some time. Eventually, however, a new teacher arrived — Mrs. Fanny Butler. Miss Fanny Brett became Mrs. Fanny Butler in March 1868, three years after the South Saanich school opened, when she married Captain George Butler who had recently returned to Victoria from the Fraser River gold fields.27 Immediately following their marriage, the Butlers set up residence in the school dwelling house at South Saanich.28

Mrs. Butler taught at the school over a period of four years, from 1868 through June 1872, when the Saanich School District was formed. Fanny had no formal training as a teacher, but had been a governess in England and specialized in teaching piano.29 During 1868, she taught at South Saanich school without regular pay: In 1869, the Board of Education, noting that it had a surplus of $94.81 for 1868, adopted a motion to hand the money to Mrs. Butler, as she had taught during 1868 without any remuneration.30 During her tenure as a teacher at South Saanich, Fanny gave birth to her two eldest children (apparently Mr. Butler was the substitute teacher in her absence).31 She eventually resigned in June 1872 to spend more time with family; by this time, she was receiving a monthly stipend of $40.32

Fanny was not only not the first teacher at South Saanich, neither was she the last. Mr. George Wilson, a graduate of Aberdeen, Scotland, was hired in July 1872, shortly after Butler resigned. He taught at the school until its permanent closure a year later. Mr. Wilson received $60 a month — 50% more than Mrs. Butler.33

The Beginning of the End

As the population grew, pressures mounted to move the South Saanich school to a more central location, and to open a school in North Saanich. In March 1873, the school board approved sites for a new school in North Saanich, as well as a more centrally-located school in South Saanich, on land donated by William Turgoose.34 The new South Saanich school, located near the East Road, opened in June 1873.35 Mr. Wilson moved over to the new school, where he taught until April 1874.36

There are no records of what happened to the original school house on Mount Newton after the mid-1870s. The North and South Saanich Agricultural Society used the building for its meetings through 1873 and 1874, before moving to a permanent location in Saanichton on land purchased from Henry Simpson.37 In fact, at the same time the School Board was approving the new South Saanich school site on the Turgoose property in March 1873, the Agricultural Society was asking the government to turn over the old schoolhouse and grounds to the society.38 Betty Bell, whose childhood in the Mount Newton Valley is recounted in The Fair Land (1982), does not recall the school and simply assumes that it disappeared sometime in the early 1900s.39


The grounds of Raven Hill Herb Farm yield no obvious clues to the site of the first public school. We can only imagine a gaggle of pioneer farm children straggling to school along primitive roads, later staring wistfully out the schoolroom windows at the wild beauty surrounding them. From this region of the valley emerged the heart of a young community: a church, a school, and later, the Saanich Fair. While St. Stephen’s Church and the Saanich Fair flourish as icons of our past, continuity between the first little schoolhouse on Mount Newton and modern, computer-based schools has been broken, lost in the myths of time. Education is a keystone of 20th Century Western culture: Restoration of our educational heritage, therefore, should help us understand who we are, and where we are going in the next millenium.

Contributed by Robert Thompson and Brad Morrison, April 1999

Notes and References