William Fraser Tolmie

1812 - 1886

Surgeon, Hudson's Bay Company officer, politician and Board of Education member

William Fraser Tolmie was born on 3 February 1812 at Inverness, Scotland, oldest son of Alexander Tolmie and Marjory Fraser. He was educated at inexpensive private schools in Edinburgh, at Inverness Academy and at Perth Grammar School. He spent two years, 1829-1831, in medical school at the University of Glasgow. "Although almost invariably referred to as Dr. Tolmie, he was not an MD: during these two years he worked toward a diploma as licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, a body independent of the university."1

In September 1832, Tolmie signed a five-year contract with the Hudson's Bay Company [HBC]. He was hired to serve in the dual capacity of clerk and surgeon for the Columbia District. On 15 September 1832, Tolmie set sail for North America in the HBC supply ship, Ganymede2. Tolmie arrived at Fort Vancouver in May 1833, where he was greeted by the Chief Factor of the Columbia District, Dr. John McLoughlin. (A few months later, on 2 September 1833, Tolmie was the first white man to reach the summit of Mount Rainer, a point now known as Tolmie Peak.) From 1833-1840, Tolmie spent time at Fort Nisqually, Fort McLoughlin and Fort Vancouver. After a brief visit home in 1841-42, Tolmie returned to Fort Nisqually sometime shortly after May 1843. At Nisqually, Tolmie acted as medical officer and trader, and as manager of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, the HBC's farming subsidiary. On 26 November1855, Tolmie became chief Factor at Fort Nisqaully.3

Tolmie left Fort Nisqually for Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island in 1859. Afterwards, he "appears to have had little or no subsequent medical practice."4 At Victoria, Tolmie was appointed manager of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, a position he held until his retirement in 1870.5 He was elected to the House of Assembly of Vancouver Island as member for Victoria in January 1860. He was re-elected in 1863, and remained a member until Vancouver Island was annexed by the mainland colony of British Columbia in 1866.6

On 15 May 1865, the Vancouver Island Assembly passed the Common Schools Act, legislation that provided for free, non-sectarian public schools. Under the terms of the act, colonial schools were administered by a General Board of Education. Dr. Tolmie served as chairman of the board from 1865 to 1867. Under the Common Schools Act, government expenditure on education doubled, rising from about $5000 to $10,000, and the number of pupils attending subsidized common schools increased from about 125 in 1865 to four hundred in 1867.7 However, in the economic depression that gripped the "united colony" of British Columbia, the schools were starved of funds. The liberal Common School Act was repealed and replaced by a more parsimonious Common School Ordinance of 1869.

Differences of opinion between the Board of Education and Governor Frederick Seymour, on the issues surrounding free schools, led to Dr. Tolmie's resignation as board chairman in June 1867. He was succeeded by Dr. Israel Wood Powell. However, Tolmie remained an active member of the board. Minutes of the board's meetings indicate that from the time he resigned as chairman, until the board was forced to disband on 9 March 1869, "he either moved or seconded most of the resolutions passed."8

Dr. Tolmie was afterwards a member of the provincial Board of Education, which operated from May 1872 until August 1878. He confirmed the appointment of John Jessop as the province's first Superintendent of Education and he recruited Stephen Daniel Pope, Jessop's successor.

Dr. Tolmie and Jane, the daughter of Chief Factor John Work, were married in February 1850. They had five daughters and seven sons, including Simon Fraser Tolmie who later became the premier of British Columbia. In 1859, Tolmie and his family moved to Cloverdale Farm, in Saanich, near Victoria. Their home was the first stone house ever built on Vancouver Island. Dr. Tolmie died at Cloverdale on 8 December 1886.

Tolmie was keenly interested in agriculture and in 1862 was elected the first president of the Victoria Agricultural Association. He was also interested in people and their languages. With Dr. George M. Dawson, he compiled and published The Comparative Vocabularies of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia in 1884.

Simon Fraser Tolmie recalled that his father was a serious man, who ingrained his children with studious habits. "We arose at 5 in the morning and foregathered in his library about 5:20 am, and there we would go over my lessons for the day - Euclid, Algebra, Latin, French and Greek. He was an excellent scholar in all these subjects." Dr. W. Kaye Lamb said that Tolmie was "puritanical, and extremely conservative in political and religious opinions. He seems to have totally lacked a sense of humour." But Lamb also noted that Tolmie was "a tireless worker" who played a significant part in British Columbia's history.

Dr. Tolmie is commemorated by several landmarks in Victoria, including Mt. Tolmie and Cloverdale Elementary School. Tolmie School, which now serves as the administrative centre for School District 63 (Greater Victoria), was also named after him.

Researched and written by Dixie Turner, History 355, University of Victoria, 1999

Illustration: British Columbia Archives, PDP 00450


Secondary Sources

Jean Barman, "The Emergence of Educational Structures in the Nineteenth-Century" in Jean Barman, Neil Sutherland, and J. Donald Wilson (eds.), Children, Teachers and Schools in the History of British Columbia, Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1995.

Barman, "A Tradition Emerges," in Patricia E. Roy (ed.), History of British Columbia: Selected Readings, Mississauga: Copp Clark Pitman, 1989.

Dunae, Patrick A. The School Record: A Guide to Government Archives Relating to Public Education in British Columbia 1852-1945, Victoria: Ministry of Government Services, 1992.

Kerr, J, B. Biographical Dictionary of Well-Known British Columbians, Vancouver: Kerr and Begg, 1890.

Lamb, W. Kaye, "William Fraser Tolmie," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1881-1890.

Lupul, Manoly R. "Education in Western Canada Before 1873." in J. Donald Wilson, Robert M. Stamp, and Louis-Philippe Audet (eds.), Canadian Education: A History, Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice Hall of Canada, 1970.

Ormsby, Margaret A. British Columbia: A History. Vancouver: Evergreen Press, 1958.

Phillips, Charles E. Development of Education in Canada. Toronto: W.J. Gage and Company Ltd., 1957.

Robinson, Alexander. "History of Education." in Adam Short and Arthur G Doughty (eds.), Canada and Its Provinces, vol. XXII, Toronto: Edinburgh University Press, 1914.

Tolmie, Simon Fraser, "My Father: William Fraser Tolmie. 1812-1886," British Columbia Historical Quarterly (1937), 225-240.

Tolmie, William Fraser, The Journals of William Tolmie: Physician and Fur Trader. Vancouver: Mitchell Press Ltd., 1963.

Wallace, Stewart W. (ed.), Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1978.

Archival Records held by the British Columbia Archives

Simon Fraser Tolmie, Add. MSS. 557.
Allen Francis, Add. MSS 2350.
R.H. Ker, Add. MSS 793.
Robert Brown Collection, Add. MSS 794.
William Fraser Tolmie, A/C/20/Vi 3T.
Dr. William Frasser Tolmie-Testimonials, NW 971.5/T652T.
Washington Historical Quarterly, NW 906 W317, Vol. 23.
William Fraser Tolmie, NWp 971HT652J
Victoria School District, GR 2055.
Victoria School District Board of Trustees, GR 1465.
Vancouver Island Board of Education 1865-69, GR1467
British Columbia Board of Education 1872-1884, GR 1468.
William Fraser Tolmie (Photograph), PDP 00450.