Upper Burlington
Community Hall
"The Old Schoolhouse"

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Nova Scotia's Rural School History

How the School Started

The history of the school in Upper Burlington can only be understood in the context of the school system in Nova Scotia of which it was part. One of the early educational laws passed by the Nova Scotia Assembly that itself had been formed 250 years ago in 1758 was the Schoolmasters Act of 1769. It allowed no one to set up a school unless first examined by a local minister or four justices of the peace. Recall that adherence to the established Church of England was required in those days to hold most government positions. The Act also set aside 400 acres in certain districts for the support of a school.

Early schools in rural areas were rough log cabin style with benches placed facing the wall. Most early schoolmasters were men.

As early as 1807 the appointed governor of the British colony of Nova Scotia had pressed his legislative council to make provision for tax assistance for common schools (grades 1-8). This was hardly a radical notion, free schools having been a feature of the British colony of Massachusetts since 1647. The proposal came to nothing, as the members were fearful that property would be the basis for the taxation and wanted no part of it. Later governors made further intense efforts in the 1825-1832 period with the same result. There was some progress in districts such as Halifax, Annapolis Royal, and Pictou where local taxes supplemented by provincial grants supported academies, but these were anomalies. Religious divisions were another major reason for reluctance to support free schools. The Catholic-Protestant divide was one such barrier, but the Anglican predominance as well as Baptist and Presbyterian sections were just as strong in opposition to measures that might benefit another group to their own detriment.

Although the Hon. William Young’s government was in 1854 able to pass the Normal School Act, its attempt in 1856 to found a system of free schools supported by assessment foundered on the Catholic-Protestant divide and in 1857 Young’s party lost the election. The new government of Joseph Howe did not feel confident enough to introduce such a measure in spite of Howe’s strong preference to do so.

The Nova Scotia census of 1861 may have been a further prod to enact the free common schools principle to the next government elected in 1863. In a Journal of Education article of December 1939 D.C.Harvey paints the dismal picture of illiteracy. The total population that year was 330,857, or about one-third that of today. Of those 302,371 were age 5 and above. The average illiteracy rate was startling and in rural areas much worse.

Nova Scotia Census of 1861

Age Group


Unable to Read

Unable to Write









Above 15








Harvey continued  “Of the 84,965 persons between 5 and 15 only 33,652 were in more or less irregular attendance at school during the year, so that the number of illiterates was tending to increase annually with the increase in population; and yet the government hesitated to risk its fortunes on compulsory education.”

Many children received no education outside their home. The opposition leader to Tupper’s premiership, Joseph Howe, had long been an advocate of free public education, a requirement he believed if the people were to be worthy of the recent boon of responsible government achieved in 1848.

In 1863, just over one hundred years after the Planter immigration, the government in Halifax of the British colony of Nova Scotia, led by the Premier Dr Charles Tupper, introduced the Free Schools Act. Tupper was a few years later a Father of Confederation and many years later Prime Minister of Canada. The Free Schools Act established that all children could freely attend the common schools in their district and that expenses would be met by compulsory subscription. Prior to that parents paid individually by choice to a private schoolmaster, should one even have set up in a community.

Teaching itself was not a reliable occupation in most Nova Scotia localities. Typical was the arrangement in Bible Hill in the early 19th century, reported in an address by Mrs. Edith J. Archibald to the N.S. Historical Society in 1922, reprinted in the Journal of Education in 1938. Mrs. Archibald was long a leading citizen in Nova Scotia, heading the Red Cross efforts during WWI, and for many years a leader of the effort to extend the voting franchise to women in Nova Scotia.

            To add insult to injury, teachers were supposed to take what is called a "poor scholar" (a whole one, not a fraction) to every eight or ten paying scholars!  The term paying was misleading; and not infrequently for coin of the realm there was substituted grain, vegetable, or other garden truck available at the time. 
        During the winter, these scholars were required to provide the fuel.  A number had their portion sent from home; but others, not so fortunate, were compelled to gather wood along the road on their way to school in sufficient quantities to heat the schoolhouse for the day.

The Free Schools Act was finally passed in 1864. It met with bitter opposition. The government was petitioned from several counties for its repeal. Nevertheless Superintendent Theodore H. Rand began enacting its provisions setting out over 1400 school sections exclusive of the City of Halifax. Over 200 of these sections had no school building, and those buildings that did exist were too small. Textbooks were in short supply.

Attendance increases from 50-400% were noted in school sections. The Lunenburg Academy reported a great surge of “bright and eager pupils”. Amendments in 1865 further strengthened the legislation, insisting that all teachers pass provincial examinations to be licensed, or enroll in the Normal School that the province had recently established in Truro in 1855. Opposition continued and in five counties (King’s, Annapolis, Halifax, Cumberland and Pictou) schoolhouses were burned. In 1866 compulsory assessment was settled as the means of support in the sections, and with other amendments including financial arrangements for some provincial support of teachers the legislation was complete.

This basic framework for public education in Nova Scotia then remained virtually unchanged for the eighty-five year period from the 1860s legislative sessions to the early 1950s, especially in the rural areas with their one-room schools. It is described in this excerpt from a standard Nova Scotia textbook familiar to many who attended school in the 1926-1950 period.

From “Studies in Citizenship” by James McCaig, Educational Book Co Ltd, Toronto, 1925

“The Free Schools Act of 1864 provided for the division of each district into a number of school sections of about four miles diameter. The school was to be located as near as possible to the centre of the section so that the pupils would not have to walk more than two miles from their homes. This system has continued to the present day… sections with only one teacher are known as rural sections.

This division of the province into sections is for the purpose of administration and for assessment of local taxes for maintenance of schools. In every section there is an annual meeting of persons liable to pay school rates or taxes, together with the wives of resident ratepayers. The chief business of this annual school meeting is to elect trustees and determine the amount of money which shall be raised in each section for the support of schools… every section has a board of three trustees. The term of service is three years, one trustee retiring at each annual meeting…

The school trustees have important duties to perform. The control of school property of the section is vested in them, and they are also required to employ teachers and exercise a general supervision over their work. At their first meeting after the annual meeting, the trustees appoint a secretary who keeps the accounts and records of the trustees, sees that the schoolhouse is kept in good repair, and transacts the business of the school section as directed by a majority of the trustees.

…At each annual meeting of the section, the school trustees present their estimate of the expected expenses of maintaining the school(s) during the ensuing year. The school meeting of the section then votes an amount of money sufficient to meet these expenses and agrees to tax its members in order to raise the required sum….”

Such was the system under which the the older Harvie children of what is now 303 North River Road in Upper Burlington and Mary Athalia Smith from what is now 60 Barkhouse Road, would have attended school in the late 1860s and 1870s. The same system governed the schooling of Willis Fish, born to Mary Athalia and husband John Edward Fish of Upper Burlington in 1878. Willis went as far as grade 6 in the local school during the 1880s from his home at 48 Old Walton Road before leaving to take up the trade of carpenter. That system also applied when Mary Athalia’s nephew Roy, son of her brother John Smith, attended school in Upper Burlington from about 1910-1920. Roy immigrated to Pittsburgh about 1925. It applied also to Willis Fish’ children in the same period as Roy Smith, and to most of Willis’ grandchildren in Upper Burlington through the 1935-50 period. Four generations could relate to a near identical education experience.

From 1864 until 1949 the provincial Education Office which set policy for sections to follow, was under the control of the Council of Public Instruction and presided over by the superintendent of education as secretary to the Council. The Council was comprised of the provincial government cabinet led by the premier.

By the late 1930s there were almost 1500 rural one-room schools in the province each with three trustees and a secretary for every teacher. As McCaig described, the trustees’ and secretary’s positions had key operational duties, and were not merely advisory. Local property taxes and discretionary provincial grants financed rural school operations.

One of the few financial changes was the introduction of free textbooks for grades P-8 in 1935. Before 1935 all students’ books were purchased by their parents, a cost of $3-5 per pupil depending on the grade. A table of the prices for elementary books, and the postage required shows many of the titles in use at the time. Although both the cost and postage seem very low by today’s standards, recall that the teacher’s monthly pay at the time was in the $30-40 per month range, and typical family incomes no better.

Given the large families common in rural areas at the time the family cost for school books could be $25-30, a major household expense even with sharing and hand-me-down texts from older siblings. That cost added to the reasons why very few students from rural areas such as Upper Burlington went beyond grade 8. In fact few went even that far in school.

Price List for School Texts and Postage in the 1940s

Soft cover books for $.15 and hard cover for $.30-50. If one relates a tradesman’s pay at the time, the price for a text was 1-2 hour’s work so perhaps not all that different today. A few of the listed titles were still in use in the 1960s.

Teachers’ salaries in N.S. had regressed from 1930 to 1936 and we expect that of Thelma Sanford who taught both those years in Upper Burlington was no different, although likely well below the $536 average for rural Nova Scotia schools that year. Of course she did live with her parents about 100 yards from the school so possibly had lower expenses than average for room, board and transportation. Rev. Dr. MacLellan of St FX claimed 1936 school conditions were vastly improved on average in N.S. from 15 years previous. He may have been speaking of the free textbooks for P-8 introduced in 1935.

A lengthy “Report of the Commission of the Larger School Unit” issued in 1939 summarized the many problems of operating this by then antiquated system, and the inequality of opportunity between rural schools and those in urban areas. It called for a comprehensive change in school administration and financing, and the salaries of teachers.

That report followed many years of agitation by education leaders at the universities, the Normal School, and within the inspection division. Here are two examples, from Dalhousie and St FX faculty.

Journal of Education, March 1937
The Needs of Our Schools by Prof B. A. Fletcher, Dalhousie University

The average Canadian parent does not know that he is asking an impossibility of the average Canadian teacher. He expects too much from a badly paid and often inexperienced teacher, who is generally attempting to teach twice as many children as any one person can handle efficiently, in an antiquated building, with a tenth of the apparatus he needs.

The first and by far the most important objective should be the raising of the average salaries and hence the average length of service…No degree of curriculum reform, no improvement in buildings and equipment, no scheme of administrative improvement will be of any value at all unless the actual teachers engaged in the day-to-day task of education are trained well, well paid, and stay long enough in the profession to become efficient teachers….”

 The learned Prof Fletcher was British. The covering letter for the 1939 report mentions that Prof Fletcher had by then returned to Great Britain from the impossibility of Canadian school teaching, but had cabled back his agreement with the report.

Journal of Education, January 1938
“Rural Reforms by Rev. Dr. Malcolm MacLellan, St FX University

Average Salaries of N.S. Teachers

  1930  1936
Rural $543  $536
Urban   $1080  $1077

 …the present condition of rural education in Nova Scotia is vastly superior to that of 15 years ago.

… a great deal must still be accomplished.

1.     An antiquated system of taxation must be revised.

2.     Education administration should be centered in the county unit.

3.     Professional status must be accorded to rural teachers…a minimum salary of $1000 for men and $750 for women…make teaching a permanent position rather than a stepping-stone.

5.     … almost impossible for one teacher to teach 8 elementary grades and 3 high school grades

6.     …electrification of rural areas

…Let our people arise and gird themselves with the armour of education, and the breastplate of social justice, but first of all, let us give the rural teachers a chance to live.”

Two pages of the report as printed in the Journal of  Education for January 1940 are included below. The Council of Public Instruction published the Journal with copies distributed to all schools. Fred C Campbell’s autographed copy was found in the school attic in 2008. Fred C taught in Upper Burlington for the 1939/40 year. Problems in collecting school taxes, inefficiency in administration of schools by local officials, and poor performance of rural students in provincial examinations are cited in the report, along with trends in the U.K. and the USA to larger administrative units. Clearly the move from small schools run by local trustees to larger schools administered by municipal school boards was in the offing.

Excerpt from the 1939 report of the Commission on the Larger School Unit

Premier Angus L. MacDonald gave an eloquent address, supportive of public school education, in January 1940 at the opening of the new Academy in Annapolis Royal. It was titled “The Place of Education in Democracy”, an interesting topic today given the Democracy 250 celebrations being held in 2008.

“In such a place one’s mind is inevitably drawn to the past and to reflections upon the history of education in this province. It is now almost 100 years since Howe in the Assembly of Nova Scotia, advocated the establishment of free schools. Not until 1864, however, did free schools in the sense that we know them today come into being, and their creation can be traced to the Education Act of that year…introduced and supported by Dr. Charles Tupper,… who had long been a formidable political opponent of Joseph Howe.

If we believe in democracy we must have an enlightened and intelligent citizenry…The children of Nova Scotia should know well the romantic story of its past, its early settlement, its colonization by various races. They should know something of the great men who lived here, men such as McCulloch and many others in the field of education, Cunard in commercial life, Haliburton in literature, and Howe in statesmanship…We must not live in the past, though we should look to the past for inspiration and guidance, and no part of Canada has a history so rich and romantic as this province…

In Nova Scotia Providence has been generous to us in many respects, while in other respects He has withheld some of his gifts… Our real assets here, just as in any country, are our natural resources and our human beings. If we train our human beings to make intelligent use of our natural resources, to conserve and develop them carefully but fully, we shall have a prosperous and happy Province. In the training of our human beings, I look to the schools of Nova Scotia to do their full part.”

With WWII intervening, Premier MacDonald left to serve as Minister of the Navy in Ottawa. Little action followed publication of the 1939 report until MacDonald’s return to the premiership after the War.

In 1949 under MacDonald’s leadership a new Education Act was passed, the long-lived Council of Public Instruction was abolished, a minister of education appointed and the superintendent replaced by a deputy minister. In 1953 the Education Act was revised and consolidated and the modern Department of Education came into existence. The wave of school consolidation followed that led to the elimination of the one-room rural school in Nova Scotia.

While some improvements in teachers’ compensation also followed further legislation in 1953,  that compensation was a further battle as we saw here in West Hants with the teacher’s strike of 1960. It was not until Premier Gerry Regan’s government of the 1970s that teachers’ salaries and benefits reached the levels for which the advocates in the 1930s such as Fletcher and MacLellan had pleaded. Those pleadings are documented back to the 1826 period!  A teacher’s salary could finally sustain a family.

By 1980 the challenge of teaching in a rural one-room school was already just a memory in Nova Scotia. The successors to those who labored in them reaped the reward their predecessors could not have dreamed.