Manual Training

Manual training, South Park School, Victoria
British Columbia Archives D-01802

Manual training courses were introduced into British Columbia's public schools in the early 1900s  Courses in the "manual arts," as they were first styled, were developed partly in the spirit of progressivism and partly in response to contemporary concerns for national efficiency.

Manual training courses were designed for boys in the upper divisions of provincial elementary schools (grades 5 to 8). Basically, the courses were intended to develop dexterity and practical skills in the belief that "the head" and "the hand" should work in concert.  However, the curriculum had a larger purpose: it sought to promote positive attitudes towards work and wage labour by "popularizing industrial providing youth with a positive conception of manual employment, and by teaching industrial disciplines."As education historian Timothy Dunn put it, "How to work efficiently was a central thrust of manual training."

J. W. Robertson, a Dominion agricultural commissioner and educational reformer, and Sir William Macdonald, the Montreal tobacco magnate, were two of the most zealous proponents of manual training in Canada's public schools.  In order to demonstrate the benefits of manual training, Macdonald offered in 1900 to equip manual training centres and pay the salaries of manual training instructors for a period of three years in each of  the provinces.  School trustees in Victoria and Vancouver accepted his offer, along with the services of Harry Dunnell, a British-trained instructor who was subsequently appointed provincial Inspector of Manual Training.

In 1903, at the end of the demonstration period, Macdonald offered to turn over all equipment and supplies to participating school boards on condition the boards would, at their own expense, retain manual training instructors for a further year. The school boards of Vancouver and Victoria accepted the offer. New Westminster introduced manual training courses in 1905, and over the next ten years other city and municipal school districts -- notably Nanaimo, North Vancouver, Saanich and South Vancouver -- instituted manual training programs in their elementary schools.

The Public School Act was amended in 1905 to give manual training instructors the same status as other certified school teachers.  In response to a resolution from the British Columbia School Trustees Association, the provincial government agreed in 1910 to contribute to the costs of benches, lathes, tools, and other manual training equipment in the public schools. Manual training thus entered the mainstream of the provincial public school curriculum.

Timothy A. Dunn, "Teaching the Meaning of Work: Vocational Education in British Columbia, 1900-1929," in David C. Jones and others (eds.), Shaping the Schools of the Canadian West (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1979); Patrick A. Dunae, The School Record (Victoria: Ministry of Government Services, 1990), pp. 55-57.