Bonavista's "Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water": The First School in Newfoundland

Hans Rollmann and Bonita Power

Published previously in Bulletin of the Humanities Association of Canada , 17/1(April 1989), 27-33.

I: The Charity School Movement

The eighteenth century was an age in which self-confidence in human intellectual abilities went hand in hand with the most abysmal social conditions. It was the age of reason, amelioristic optimism and philanthropy. But philanthropy did not always mean selflessness. Often it was motivated by class interest. As one interpreter phrased it - "Charity must promote the glory of God by promoting the usefulness of man."

Education became the field on which practical knowledge, philanthropy, and plain denominational self-interest blossomed into a most fruitful symbiosis affecting not only the social conditions and cultural ambitions of England but even the most remote communities in her colonial empire - to wit, the ancient settlement of Bonavista on the wind- swept rock called New-Found-Land.

One of the major instruments of societal betterment through education in eighteenth-century England was the Charity School movement. Its institutional patrons were the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.) and her younger missionary twin, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.). While the S.P.C.K. had a direct educational intent and sought to counter Dissenting pedagogical initiatives and anticlerical attitudes, the S.P.G. sought to further Anglican missionary endeavours at home but especially abroad. Thomas Bray, the Ecclesiastical Commissary for Maryland, was the driving force behind both societies, although their support was broadly based and effective on account of episcopal patronage. And both had relations with Newfoundland almost from the beginning. In fact, Newfoundland served as Bray's example to illustrate the religious needs of the colonies and encourage the founding of the S.P.G. In A Memorial Representing the Present State of Religion on the Continent of North America, published in 1700, he implored his English readers

Not only the formal services of the Christian ministry but also - and in accordance with the boundless faith of the eighteenth century in the moral efficacy of cognitive endeavours - the reading of religious literature was thought to improve the moral fibre of the nation at home and abroad. To that end Bray instituted lending libraries, one of which is still preserved in the rare book collection at Queen's College, St. John's, Newfoundland. But before one could profitably read, one needed an education. And educational opportunities in eighteenth-century England were widely available only to the middle and upper classes, not to mention their total absence in a seasonally frequented "fishing station". The tradesmen, so it appears, did their best to discourage education of the poor lest their reservoir of cheap labour dry up.

Besides workhouses, charity schools recommended themselves to remedy the conditions of poor children. Advantageous, in the mind of Evangelicals, were the anti-Roman attitudes the religious instruction promised to implant in the pupils attending such schools. On the basis of their support, charity schools can be divided into endowed or subscription schools, but either one had as its design a "Christian and useful education."

Educational philosophy, influenced by the thought of John Locke, regarded the mind as a "tabula rasa" capable of unlimited improvement and demanded that students be imbued with the formation of good habits. From this educators reasoned that pauper children could best be conditioned into being good "hewers of wood and drawers of water." The socially unfortunate were to carry out these tasks in a willing Christian spirit. Based on such a philosophy, education for the poor was not aimed at improving their social conditions. Instead, the religiously flavoured literary curriculum of the charity schools was designed to ensure that pauper children remained contented with their station in life.

Echoing the opinion of his day on the type of education desirable for pauper children, the Bishop of Norwich expressed the following thoughts in a charity sermon:

Already the school uniforms worn by charity school students were "designed to drive home the lessons of poverty, humility, and submission."

The so-called "literary curriculum" of these charity schools falls into three categories - religious instruction, the three R's, and vocational training. Religious instruction represented the heart and soul of the curriculum. The primary responsibility of the teacher was to teach pupils to pronounce distinctly the principles of the Church of England as found in the Church catechism. The emphasis here was on memory and recitation, not on understanding.

Reading was taught using the alphabet, and continued by "the alphabetic-spelling method" until students had mastered the spelling of complete words. The Anglican catechism, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer served as the chief texts for reading instruction. Writing at a more advanced stage was offered to pupils only when they had mastered the reading process. Arithmetic, available exclusively to boys, was taught to make students capable of keeping accounts and chart navigations, and followed once reading and writing had been mastered. According to Clarke, charity schools thus had basically four classes.

Starting in the London schools, singing also found its way into the curriculum of the charity schools. Solo singing, however, was only short- lived, for "children who 'sang singly' were thought to acquire a pride in themselves." Girls were rarely exposed to writing and arithmetic. In addition to reading, they were offered "plain needlework, knitting, sometimes spinning and when possible, housewifery." This, it was felt, prepared them for domestic service.

The vocational instruction of boys centred on preparation for sea service. Here mathematics was an essential prerequisite to mastering navigation. It also encouraged the setting up of charity schools near ports so that boys could be prepared for careers at sea.

One of the significant contributions made to education by the charity school movement was the introduction of teacher professionalism, which until then had been absent among the teachers of the poor. The London charity schools set a precedent in requiring their teachers to teach full time. Teachers were asked to teach eight hours during the summer and seven hours during the winter per day and measures were taken to assure professional competence. Yet the qualifications of a charity school instructor were as much religious and ethical as they were pedagogical. A contemporary code required

1. A member of the Church of England, of a sober life and conversation, and not under the age of twenty-five years. 2. One that frequents Holy Communion. 3. One that hath a Good Government of himself and his Passions. 4. One of a meek temper and humble behaviour. 5. One of a good genius for teaching. 6. One who understands well the Grounds and Principles of the Christian Religion, and is able to give a good account thereof to the Minister of the Parish or Ordinary on Examination. 7. One that can write a good Hand, and who understands the Grounds of Arithmetic. 8. One who keeps good order in his family. 9. One who is approved by the Minister of the Parish (being a subscriber) before he be presented to be licensed by the Ordinary.

Women were generally exempt from teaching writing and arithmetic. Their instructional duties consisted often - but not always - in teaching needlework.

But the movement had its share of critics. In addition to those who were opposed to any form of education of the poor, the charity schools encountered fierce criticism from the working trades people. One group saw the poor as a reservoir of cheap labour and dreaded the drying up of this cheap labour source. And class-conscious tradesmen feared that poor children were receiving a better education than their own sons and daughters. Although not by design, the charity schools had contributed to the upward mobility of pauper children. Students educated at charity schools were especially better prepared for manual trades than the sons and daughters of tradesmen. As a consequence of this the graduates of charity schools rose socially at the expense of the children of tradesmen, who were now in danger of occupying the ranks of the poorer class. Universal education for the poor thus posed a threat to the established social order.

In an attempt to prohibit pupils of the charity schools from becoming proud and advancing in the social strata, pressure was put on the S.P.C.K. to send children who attended charity schools to work. Furthermore, it was advised that the curriculum offered in the charity schools contain only those subjects necessary for the children's station in life. Hence the study of mathematics and writing came under attack.

Class conflict pulled the charity school movement also into the political arena. It was even - unsuccessfully - linked with disloyalty to the crown. Rumours circulated that

Moreover, it was avowed that "`under the guise of charity schools, children are brought up in disaffection to the government, [and] malice against Protestant Dissenters....'" In 1713, Newman reassured the Electress Sophia, mother of George I, about "`the care that is taken to preserve the Protestant religion'" and further stated that the charity school movement

A variety of public exhibitions of loyalty and patriotism involving charity school pupils sought to convince King and country of their innocuous nature.

Not as easy was the defence of charity schools on economic grounds. Mandeville, one of their most vocal critics, argued that charity schools were a serious threat to the economic and social well-being of the nation. He maintained that they deprived the country of the cheap labour of the poor, especially in agriculture. Newman, using letters of influential persons in agricultural areas, did his best to refute Mandeville's claim of dire social consequences. Furthermore, the Society under Newman opposed with equal determination Mandeville's suggestions that charity schools were detrimental to the social order by depriving the wealthy of servants.

After 1725, the S.P.C.K.'s emphasis shifted from charity schools to missions overseas. Together with the S.P.G., this cooperative effort had a considerable impact upon religion in the colonies. A good example of the symbiotic relationship of S.P.C.K. and S.P.G. in the colonies can be found in the person of John Jackson, the first missionary supported by the S.P.G. in Newfoundland. When Jackson, in 1701, arrived in St. John's as chaplain to the garrison and minister of the town, he had the support of the S.P.C.K. and was instructed by this society "to visit the 6 other Bays, and to appoint a Reader to celebrate Divine Service in each of them." Later, in 1703, when the promised local support was no longer forthcoming, the S.P.G. supported Jackson's missionary endeavours in Newfoundland through an annual stipend. But with the coming of Henry Jones at Bonavista in 1725, the missionary presence of the S.P.G. asserted itself fully.

II: The Charity School in Bonavista

At the time of Jones's arrival, Bonavista was one of the major fishing stations and settlements of Newfoundland. It was rumoured that John Cabot had given Bonavista its name. And the fishing village appears already on John Mason's map of Newfoundland in 1616.

By 1677, Bonavista could boast a male population of 159, and by 1697 it had increased to 300. After this, however, the population remained constant for the next six decades, for in 1732 it is still listed as 300. In 1732 there were in Bonavista "16 housekeepers, 13 wives, 21 sons, 13 daughters, and 96 men servants." Twice surrendered to the French and since the Treaty of Utrecht formally belonging to the French Shore, the town, nevertheless, preserved a decidedly English West Country character.

Of the twenty-two years that Henry Jones ministered as an Anglican priest in Newfoundland, nineteen were spent in Bonavista (1725 - 1744). After a short stay in Trinity Bay (1745 - 1747) Jones became a missionary in Jamaica. At Bonavista, Jones's lasting contribution to Newfoundland's educational and cultural history was the establishment of the first charity school for educating the poor children. While this school is known to have existed, the specifics have up to now remained much a matter of conjecture. And yet from the S.P.G. and S.P.C.K. Archives, and from the manuscript collection at Lambeth Palace, the contours of this first Newfoundland school emerge with some precision. The following can be said about it.

Jones arrived in Newfoundland in 1725. Among a series of queries from June of the same year, the new minister included the following one to his parishioners: "Shall a charity school be begun to be founded in this place?" He already had the pledges of some patrons who promised to pay for the education of "one child each - to be sent as soon as the winter is past." Also in separate letters addressed to the S.P.G. and the Bishop of London, Jones mentions his plan to open a charity school at Bonavista. In a letter to the Society dated 6 November 1725, he wrote, "I have very much at heart the opening of a charity school amongst us for" instructing "poor children in reading and the knowledge and practice of their duty as Christians." And in correspondence with the Bishop of London of the same date Jones spoke of his desire to build a school at Bonavista for teaching children to read, something sorrowfully neglected up to that time. He also informed the Bishop that he had petitioned the S.P.G. and wealthy inhabitants at Bonavista to assist in defraying costs associated with maintaining a school mistress there. It seems, however, that before Jones could set up the school he became ill and had to return to England.

During his absence, his parishioners pledged themselves "to provide a maintenance and habitation for the minister, to rebuild the church, to set up a charity school, to build a schoolhouse..." Since this seemed to go beyond the power of the inhabitants, Jones, writing from London, sought the further assistance of the S.P.G. In this letter he also pointed out that he had

The Anglican missionary intended "to set sail with...wife and family in order to return thither sometime in the next month."

From a letter of 7 November 1727 we can date the return of Henry Jones in Bonavista as 30 May of that year. He was able to report that "all the poor children of this port, whose parents wou'd send them to School, have been taught this year gratis."

As was the case with charity schools in England, also the school in Bonavista had a thoroughly religious orientation. There is no evidence to suggest that Jones was interested in developing the cognitive and affective powers of the charity school children. Rather, from the start he regarded the school as a means for spreading the Gospel and as an instrument for moral improvement. This, he felt, was all the more required since the children were ignorant of "the Knowledge and practice of their Duty as Christians" on account of "the Poverty or Ignorance and vice of their Parents."

In Henry Newman, Secretary of the S.P.C.K., Jones found an important ally, one who pled Jones's case before the Bishop of London and the S.P.G.. Newman, an American by birth and a former librarian of Harvard College, was familiar with the problems of Newfoundland. Before he settled in England, his work between 1697 - 1703 often took him to Newfoundland. There is even reason to suggest a considerable stay on the island prior to 1700. Newman, the S.P.C.K.'s "corresponding member for Newfoundland" since 1703, sent to Newfoundland a veritable flood of literature, including two hundred and fifty copies of "The Obligations Christians are Under to Shun Vice and Immorality." In later life, Newman remembered Newfoundland as a place that "claims the preference in respect of wilderness in all places, and that all the inhabitants of Newfoundland are too much disposed to ridicule all things serious." From his earliest contacts with Jones, Newman was anxious to help him promote the Christian gospel "in a country so destitute of the means of knowing Him and His Son Jesus Christ as Newfoundland is."

Like charity schools throughout Britain, the one set up at Bonavista received no state support. The school was supported by subscriptions as Jones's proposals of 1725 suggest. Local patrons pledged to sponsor the schooling of individual poor children. The S.P.C.K. helped out with school books, and additional support in the amount of eight pounds was raised by subscriptions. Moreover, Jones received further pledges of support.

Throughout his tenure, the S.P.G.'s support for Jones's ministry and charity school remained unwavering. But the contributions of the people at Bonavista should not be underestimated. In his letter of 16 February 1726/27 to the Society, Jones wrote that the inhabitants were "truly... willing to provide a maintenance and habitation for the minister, to rebuild the church, to set up a charity school, to build a schoolhouse and to provide all things necessary to be used in Divine Service (as a Communion Table and Font, etc.)."

Although no gender is specified of the children taught at the charity school established by Jones, the inclusive language of "all the poor children of this port, whose parents wou'd send them to school" suggests, in charity school parlance, that both girls and boys received instruction. The words of Sir Joshua Finch, written at a much later time but applicable here as well, show the inclusive nature of the charity school. "A girl is not expected to serve God in Church and State, and is not invited to the university, or the grammar school, but she may, if poor, be wanted to contribute to the comfort of her betters as an apprentice or servant, and the charity schools are therefore open to her."

Can we be more specific about the curriculum than Arthur Barnes is in his doctoral thesis on "The History of Education in Newfoundland"? Barnes writes about the charity school in Bonavista: "There is unfortunately no record available to show in detail the course of study pursued which must have been essentially religious, nor just how long the Society maintained the school."

Records from the S.P.C.K. Archives show that in addition to plain primers and hornbooks, John Lewis's Catechism and Dixon's Speller were used as textbooks. These primers combined catechetical instructions with reading and spelling techniques. Used in classrooms for most of the eighteenth century, the hornbook was composed of a one-page sheet "on which was printed the alphabet, the nine digits, and the Lord's prayer, covered with transparent horn and fixed in a frame with a handle." Jones also used John Lewis's Exposition of the Catechism. This ninety-six-page book was written by Lewis for the S.P.C.K. and followed a question-and-answer format. The queries centred on the Christian Covenant, Faith, Obedience, Prayer, and the Sacraments.

Written by the charity school teacher Henry Dixon (1675 - 1760), The English Instructor, or in Jones's terminology "Dixon's Spelling book," was "one of the most successful elementary textbooks of the eighteenth century. Its popularity lasted well into the nineteenth." Jones's specific request for a supply of these textbooks allows some conclusions about the teaching method used at the Bonavista school. Dixon, together with other contemporaries, believed that students could best be taught to spell and read by dividing words into syllables. However such approach provides far too few examples of syllables and monosyllables, in fact only a little more than half a page.

Based on our sources and the nature of the community in 1732, there is reason to believe that the curriculum for girls included, in addition to reading, vocational training in knitting, housekeeping, and the like. The training for boys corresponded most likely to their maritime vocational interests. This may be one reason why they were instructed in mathematics. It is also safe to suppose that the children were taken out of school when needed at home to help with the fishery.

The primary sources available to us leave no doubt that the first professional teacher in a Newfoundland school was a woman, a school mistress. Unfortunately, her name is never mentioned. As early as 6 November 1725, Jones had procured the services of a school mistress to teach the poor students, granted that sufficient funds could be arranged for her maintenance. Since he had doubts about raising the necessary subscriptions, Jones sought the assistance of the S.P.C.K. Apparently in an attempt to help the missionary, Newman wrote to the Bishop of London informing him of the situation. The Bishop replied that while the S.P.C.K. was able to assist Jones with books "settling any salary upon himself or a master or mistress to teach school at Bonavista, ... is entirely out of the province of the S.P.C.K..", so Newman implored the Bishop to present Jones's case before the S.P.G..

The next mention of a school mistress occurs prior to Jones's departure with his family from England to Newfoundland in February of 1727. There is no indication whether this school mistress is the same one referred to in the correspondence of 1725. By 1731 the school mistress taught between twenty to thirty children and - unlike in some charity schools in England - instructed her pupils in writing. She is praised for her independence and penmanship. It is also clear from his letters that Jones instructed children as well. After his departure, the inhabitants of Bonavista lamented "the Sad State of the Place in regard to the Education of Children, whereof there are not less than One Hundred and fifty without the means of Instruction or Learning. Their Parents, for the most part Incapable, Or otherwise by the nature of their Calling, wanting the time to afford them any..."

In his letter to the Society dated 7 November 1727, he mentions that the inhabitants of Bonavista were going "to set up a charity school, to build a schoolhouse." "Schoolhouse" refers here most likely to the physical structure housing the charity school. Ambiguous and somewhat enigmatic is a reference to "two schools" in a letter of 9 October 1735. Jones writes: "I use my utmost Endeavour and Encouragement for keeping up two schools here, for instructing of Youth." Could it be that one of these schools was for boys and one for girls? Or may one of these schools have been for "children" of the more prosperous patrons who could afford to pay for the education of their children, while the other one was used for the poor children who could not afford to pay for their education? Or could it simply refer to different grades? In the later years of Jones's stay at Bonavista, there is scarcely a mention of school matters. Whether this means that the school had collapsed is uncertain.

During the winter months Bonavista's population shrank and many made their homes further inland. Jones supplied their spiritual needs by providing them with lay readers in addition to Bibles and Prayer Books. In 1744 Henry Jones was transferred to Trinity Bay, where he succeeded Reverend Robert Kilpatrick, while Bonavista welcomed as Jones's successor the Reverend William Peaseley. Peaseley, too, became involved in teaching children to read without any remuneration. He "set apart 4 hours every day to teach as many children (of which there is a great number) to read that Time will permit." Dissatisfied with his salary, however, Peaseley left soon for St. John's. The S.P.C.K. assisted Peaseley's missionary work by ordering for him a variety of religious books. The missionary distributed these supplies between Bonavista and St. John's. With Peaseley's withdrawal to St. John's, the residents at Bonavista were asked to provide - as in St. John's - "a house, a glebe, and a settled income", if they wanted a full-time missionary. And thus, prematurely, missionary work in Bonavista ended.

The school may soon have disappeared as well. And yet its presence for a decade or two in a fishing village in eighteenth-century Newfoundland prefigured a larger educational enterprise, which was to take roots in the following century and to which we today are heirs.



Barnes, Arthur. The History of Education in Newfoundland. A thesis submitted to New York University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Pedagogy, 1917.

Cowie, Leonard W. Henry Newman. An American in London 1708 - 43. London: S.P.C.K., 1956.

Clarke, W. K. Lowthier. Eighteenth Century Piety. London: S.P.C.K., 1945.

Jones, M. G. The Charity School Movement. London: Frank, Cass, and Company Ltd., 1964.

Rodgers, Betsy. Cloak of Charity. London: Methuen and Company Ltd., 1949.

Unwin, Richard. "The Established Church and the Schooling of the Poor: The Role of the SPCK 1699 - 1720." The Churches and Education. Proceedings of the 1983 Annual Conference of the History of the Education Society of Great Britain (London: 1984). Pp. 14 - 32.


"The Fulham Papers at Lambeth Palace Library." London: World Microfilms Publications, Volume I.

"S.P.G. - Letter Books, Series A." East Ardsley, Wakefield: Micro Methods, 1964, Vols. 19 - 26.

"Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts: The Journals, 1725 - 1730." Wakefield: Micro Methods, 1964.

S.P.C.K. Letters (S.P.C.K. Archives, London, kindly furnished by Dr. Phillip McCann), 1726 ff.


John Lewis's Exposition of the Catechism

Dedicatory Epistle to members of the S.P.C.K.             2 pages
Preface                                                   4 pages
Introduction from Dr. Comber                              2 pages

PART I.  The Christian Covenant                          13 pages
Section  1.    Of the Benefits of Baptism; Or, the Mercies 
               afforded on God's Part.
Section  2.    Of the Vow of Baptism; or the conditions           
               required on our Part.

PART II.  The Christian Faith                            25 pages
Section  3.    Of the Creed; particularly what we                 
               are to believe concerning God the Father.
Section  4.    Of God the Son; particularly his Names             
               Offices and Relations.
Section  5.    Of Christ's Humiliation.
Section  6.    Of Christ's Exaltation.
Section  7.    Of God the Holy Ghost, and the remaining           
               articles of the Creed.

PART III.  The Christian Obedience                       22 pages
Section  8.    Of the Ten Commandments; particularly              
               of our Duty towards God, contained in the          
               four first commandments.
Section  9.    Of our Duty towards our Neighbor; contained        
               in the six last commandments.

PART IV.  The Christian Prayer                            9 pages
Section 10.    Of the Lord's Prayer.

PART V.  The Christian Sacraments                        17 pages
Section 11.    Of the two Sacraments; and first of  Baptism.
Section 12.    Of the Lord's Supper.
Section the last.  Of Confirmation.
Morning and Evening Prayer                                2 pages
Prayers for the use of schools                            2 pages

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