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Egerton Ryerse: The Father of Education in Ontario
by Bruce M. Pearce

Of the many public leaders who have gone from Norfolk County to serve their country in a larger sphere, Dr. Egerton Ryerson may be regarded as having achieved the greatest distinction and as having made the greatest contribution to the public welfare.

This distinguished native of Norfolk became one of Ontario's greatest educational leaders and he is still revered as the founder of Ontario's public schools system. 

His memory is preserved in the form of a statue on the grounds of the Ontario Department of Education at Queens Park, in the way of an official plaque in the foyer of the Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe, and in the form of numerous written tributes to his work. His name is also preserved in the Ryerson Institute of Technology and the Ryerson book publishing firm in Toronto.

Egerton Ryerson was born in the Township of Charlotteville a short distance south of the village of Vittoria, once capital of the London District, on the 24th of March 1803. He was a son of one of the pioneer United Empire Loyalist families, which settled in Norfolk County just before the turn of the 19th century.

His father Colonel Joseph Ryerson, a native of the State of New Jersey, distinguished himself for his bravery during the American Revolutionary War, having entered the ranks of the Loyalists when a mere lad of 15 years and having taken part in many battles. 

When hostilities came to an end, he and his brother, Samuel, who had also fought as a Colonel on the British side during the war, joined the trek of Loyalists to the province of New Brunswick. Here Colonel Joseph Ryerson married Mehetabel Stickney, said to have been the first child of English stock born in the colony.

In 1794, Colonel Samuel removed to Upper Canada and settled at the mouth of Young's Creek, where Port Ryerse stands today. Five years later he was followed by Colonel Joseph Ryerson and his family, who endured great hardships during the journey, as well as during the early years of their pioneer life in this province. He received a grant of 2,500 acres of land lying between Vittoria and Port Ryerse, as well as a deed of the island now known as Ryerson's Island, adjoining Long Point Island.

Colonel Joseph fathered six sons, five of whom became ministers of the gospel. Egerton was the fifth son. The three older boys took an active part in repelling the American invaders in the War of 1812. Egerton, although only 10 years of age at the time, was fully imbued with the patriotic ardour of his brothers and regretted that his tender years did not permit him to share their experiences.

Young Egerton was bred to farming pursuits and expected to do a man's work long before he was manís age. He was always given to study however, and even when busy in the fields, he would find odd moments in which to acquire useful knowledge from his books.

He also attended the District Grammar School near Vittoria at intervals. Judge James Mitchell was the able teacher of this school and he afterwards married a younger sister of Egerton.

At an early age, Egerton was strongly drawn towards that militant Christianity preached by the early Methodist Society. This fact created an estrangement between him and his father. Colonel Ryerson was an Anglican, though he already had two sons in the Methodist ministry, which he evidently considered enough.

He gave Egerton the choice of leaving the church or quitting his house. The young man revealed his independence of spirit by choosing the latter alternative.

He obtained a position as usher and assistant teacher in the District Grammar School, which he filled successfully for two years. Then his father capitulated and requested him to come home again and devote his energies to the task of farming. Egerton was proud of the fact that he could do more farm work in a day than any hired man his father ever had. 

Complying with his father's request, he returned to the farm where he remained until he attained his majority. Then the urge for learning was too great and he enrolled in the Gore District School at Hamilton, where he placed himself under a talented classical master.

So diligently did he apply himself to his new studies that after six months a breakdown in his health occurred and for a time his life was despaired of. He decided at this time that if he recovered, he would devote his abilities to the Methodist ministry.

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* Transcription footnote: United Empire Loyalist Colonel Joseph Ryerson's brother, United Empire Loyalist Captain Samuel Ryerse, was promoted to Lt.-Colonel in 1800 by Upper Canada Lt.-Governor John Graves Simcoe when Samuel  was appointed head of the  Long Point settlement's  first militia.


Ryerson by Cantelon


 

"... education...
 is as necessary
 as the light --
 it should be as
 common as water,
 and as free as air."

 



"... the first object
 of a wise
 government
should be
the education
of the people ...Ē


Copyright 2000-2012 Norfolk Historical Society and John Cardiff

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