Schools of the Glebe Annex

By Sue Stefko
(Appeared in the Glebe Report, March 2024)

In 1869, Mount Sherwood became a village, and families soon started moving to the neighbourhood. The village’s first school was built on Bell Street in 1876. While much needed, it was so poorly constructed that one could see through the gaps in the wooden board walls. Although there was a large box stove in the centre of the room, the children nearly froze in the winter.

Fortunately, the first wooden schoolhouse was soon replaced by the handsome brick Mount Sherwood School in 1877, on the site of what is currently Dow’s Lake Towers at 360 Bell Street South. After the 1889 annexation of Mount Sherwood by the City of Ottawa, the school was renamed Bell Street Public School. It was a two-room school in the district known as the cliff (due to an elevation drop-off between Bell and Lebreton streets), with one classroom upstairs, another on the main floor and a large bell on top which called the children to class.

The school was likened to a country school. The students drank from a large communal tin cup pulled from a pail of well-water, and in summer many children attended class in their bare feet. A 1928 Ottawa Evening Citizen article wryly remarked, “In those days nobody knew anything about germs and not knowing anything, the school was very healthy.”

In 1937, a former student penned a poem in tribute to the school, describing it as between fields, pines, flowers and marshes with cows ambling by, and even recalling a cowboy calling to his dog. Indeed, the surrounding land was undeveloped, enabling the children to use nearby fields or Stewart’s bush, a wooded area stretching from Bronson to Bank Street, as their playgrounds. In the field across the street, “circus folk yearly pitched their tent,” much to the delight of the nearby schoolchildren, according to a 1947 Ottawa Evening Citizen article.

By the 1890s, it was considered out of date, and the school board started to consider other locations to build a larger, more modern school. However, when the Mount Sherwood trustees originally bought the land (for $400) from the Nepean Township, the deed contained a proviso that should the land be utilized for any other purpose than as a school, the property would revert to the Crown. While the Ottawa Public School Board contemplated building a school in a more central location, it didn’t want to lose the property. Fortunately, in 1892 an order in council was passed which granted the board a clear title to the land, providing more flexibility.

The poor condition of the school sparked a debate among school board trustees, with some preferring to fix the current property and others wanting instead to build a new school. Repairs were put on hold for two years while the debate raged, making the problem even worse.

Mr. MacNab, a local trustee from Dalhousie Ward, was perhaps the most fervent supporter of a new school. He argued that the children of the poor should have the same accommodation as others in the city and that space for a kindergarten was sorely lacking in the current location. A visit to the site finally convinced school board trustees that the school wasn’t worth trying to fix. Trustees described it as having a nauseating stench, with the halls icy cold, and the school’s shallow cellar filled with litter. One trustee commented that the Bell Street school belonged to the ‘60s rather than the 20th century – of course referring to the 1860s! When the motion carried to abandon the Bell Street school in November 1905, trustees even jokingly referred to the new school as “MacNab’s school” due to the trustee’s tireless efforts in advocating for a new school. The replacement school, the Bronson Avenue School, was opened at Bronson and Powell in February 1906.

The school board decided to use the Bell Street site as an administration and workshop area. In 1950, the building was expanded to create a storeroom and parking garage for school buses, before the space was turned a warehouse. The school board put the property up for sale in 1964 when it bought the old Coca Cola plant at Bronson and the 417 as its new warehouse and garage space. The Bell Street building continued to function as a warehouse until it was torn down to make way for the Dow’s Lake Towers building, which was built in 1972.

Stay tuned for a future article on the Bronson Avenue School.

Photos:

The Old Mount Sherwood school, the Ottawa Evening Citizen, December 29, 1928

Ottawa’s 1901 Fire Insurance map shows the Bell Street School at the corner of Bell and Ernest (now Powell) streets, near empty fields and JR Booth’s Fraserfield Lumber Yard.

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