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Valuing Our History
by Stephen Thorning
Elora principal George Edgcumbe ended his career in disgrace
Members of Elora’s High School Board did not know much about George Edgcumbe when they hired him as principal in the summer of 1875.
He had been on the staff of Victoria University, then in Cobourg, for a couple of years, and he did have excellent letters of recommendation, but he was silent about his personal affairs.
He seemed to be a friendly, engaging and competent man, possessing a bachelor’s degree, and plenty of enthusiasm to take charge of the high school, which was a small affair at the time with one other teacher.
The new principal quickly made his mark. He was popular with the students, and under his guidance most of them achieved outstanding results. His specialty was chemistry, and his classes in that science were a delight to his pupils.
He was also an outstanding musician, and was soon a popular entertainer at concerts in Elora. He taught Sunday School at the Methodist Church and citizens were delighted that he neither drank whiskey nor smoked cigars.
In the summer of 1876 a woman arrived in Elora from the United States. Her visit was a quiet one. Few knew that she was Edgcumbe’s wife, whom he had married at age 19. The couple called on Elora’s lawyer, Edward Burns, and drafted a deed of separation. Edgcumbe agreed to pay her $200 per year in support, and she duly left town to return to the United States, with local residents none the wiser.
In the standardized tests at the end of that year, Elora’s students were the best in Wellington County. Word of that standing circulated around the area, and the result was an upswing in attendance, with children of farmers boarding in Elora taking advantage of its superior school.
In 1876 the school undertook the training of teachers, which further elevated the attendance. The number of regular students plus teachers in training hit the 90 mark in the fall of 1876. The board realized that a third member of the teaching staff would be necessary.
The results of the examinations at the end of 1876 were another feather in George Edgcumbe’s hat. Elora’s high school students had topped the province with their marks on the standard tests. That further impacted enrolment with the start of the new semester in January of 1877.
In the meantime, a new student arrived in Elora, a Miss Bolster, from Cobourg. She boarded at the residence of Reverend and Mrs. Cobb. At Christmas, Edgcumbe returned to Cobourg for the holidays. Miss Bolster left Elora on the same train. No one thought it unusual, as they both were destined for Cobourg.
However, the pair did not go to Cobourg. Their destination was Niagara Falls, New York, where they were married. She then went to Cobourg, and Edgcumbe returned to Elora. When school reopened the pair carried on as they had before, continuing to live in their old quarters. No one had a clue that they were married.
For a few weeks everything seemed normal.
J.M. Shaw, editor of the Elora Lightning Express, commented that “the headmaster, George Edgcumbe, Esq., B.A., is a good teacher, painstaking, and thoroughly competent to impart the necessary instruction to enable students to pass their examinations with honours before any Board of Examiners.”
At the meeting of the school board on Jan. 23, Edgcumbe outlined the accommodation problem, which had reached crisis proportions. They agreed to buy six more double desks, and to hire another teacher.
Jane Smith, of Guelph, daughter of the editor of the Elora Observer, had read that a new teacher might be hired and submitted an application before the position was advertised. The board voted to interview her at once, and offer her $150 salary for the six months remaining in the school year.
That night was undoubtedly the peak of Edgcumbe’s career in Elora.
A few days later, rumours began to circulate that he was involved romantically with one of his students and that it appeared that he may have married her. Neither Edgcumbe nor the members of the board would say anything to the press, but it was obvious there was something to the stories. The board dithered on a course of action during a series of meetings at the end of January 1877.
Meanwhile, Elora was in an uproar. Edgcumbe was only separated, not divorced, from his first wife. The board could not reach a decision on what course of action to take. Two ministers on the board, Rev. Middlemiss and Rev. MacDonald, both Presbyterians, were livid and demanded Edgcumbe’s resignation at once. The board decided to take no action until its missing member, MPP Charles Clarke, returned from Toronto.
In the face of the uproar Edgcumbe submitted his resignation. Eventually, the board decided to retain him, recognizing his abilities as a teacher. That did not play well with a number of parents, who withdrew their children from the school. Middlemiss and MacDonald, who vehemently dissented from the board’s decision, wrote a letter of protest to the board and submitted it to the press for publication.
In it, the ministers claimed the board had to dismiss Edgcumbe at once because his conduct was clearly in violation of provincial statutes that required teachers to be of “good morals.”
The other board members, meanwhile, had contacted Clarke in Toronto, who took the matter up with Department of Education officials. They agreed that Edgcumbe had to go, but were unable to give the name of a suitable replacement.
Notwithstanding the loud objections of the two ministers, the majority of the board wanted him to stay until a replacement had taken over. The board decided to advertise immediately for a new principal in the Toronto Globe, with duties to commence at once.
The Elora High School Board met on the evening of Feb. 20 to consider any applications that had come in for the principal’s position. They were surprised that 14 men had applied, all of them suitable candidates. After reviewing the applications and letters of reference they decided on R.A. Switzer. He possessed an M.A., and was at the time on the staff of the Oakville High School. They requested that he assume his duties on March 1.
Out of a job, Edgcumbe went on the defensive, claiming that an injustice had been done him, particularly by Presbyterian ministers Middlemiss and MacDonald. He said he was forced from his job. In particular, he disputed the label of immorality they had hung on him.
Rev. Middlemiss could not resist replying in print, with a long-winded but well-written tome.
The minister agreed that Edgcumbe might well be a moral man, according to the principles in place in places such as “Illinois and Mormondom.”
Middlemiss believed the board had committed a serious error in not dismissing Edgcumbe at once, and that the board had “done a grievous wrong to the best interests and good name of Elora” in allowing him to continue for a little more than two weeks after the scandal broke.
Though Rev. Middlemiss and a few others tried to keep the matter alive, the Edgcumbe affair quickly faded into history and R.A. Switzer quickly gained the confidence of both students and the public.
Edgcumbe’s efforts at defending himself late in the affair won him no friends, particularly after it became clear that he never had, nor attempted to get, a divorce from his first wife. He quietly left Elora. His ultimate fate is unknown. He may well have assumed a new identity, perhaps south of the border in the land of the free - something relatively easy to do at the time - and started a new life.
The final reference to him in the public record is a report of an order-in-council of the Ontario government at the end of April 1877, depriving Edgcumbe of his teaching certificate.
Vol 48 Issue 08
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