In the province of Ontario there was a need for homes for troubled youths’. Some of these were institutions were run by religious organizations, and some by the municipalities and the provincial government. In the East End of the city near the present Victoria Park and Kingston Road area in the period starting around 1880, there were two such schools – one was a school for boys called the St. John’s Industrial School (run by the Roman Catholic order), the other was a girls’ school called Alexandra Industrial School located on Blantyre Avenue, north of Kingston Road. This was run by the Provincial Government.
Alexandra Industrial School for Girls
Alexandra Industrial School for Girls was to be a ‘model school’ for young girls who had problems. They came from many different towns and villages in the area to be rehabilitated and learn life skills. These girls came from families from all walks of life, and had a variety of different problems. The girls were aged 14 years to 18 years. The main objective of the school was to teach them to be able to get back into society and lead a productive life.
Because the school was located near the Town of East Toronto and the Beach area, there were many people who helped the girls and the school out financially and socially. This became a way of life for many of the people of the area with the school as their objective.
One must remember this was only 24 years since Confederation and the Province of Ontario did not have the social workers and infrastructure that they have today. There were prisons for both men and women. The central prison for men was Kingston Penitentiary and for women, the Mercer Reformatory near King and Dufferin. As most of the crimes were committed by men, women went to this special holding place.
Most of the penal reforms for children and older adults were based on the British System. Later Ontario was influenced by the Americans, and finally we came with our own plan. There were, as I mentioned before, many homes and institutions for orphans and lost children run by public and religious order but the main one for girls (outside the Roman Catholic system) was the Alexandra Industrial School. This school was built and maintained with the most progressive and educational tools and staff that could be found in the province of Ontario. The A.I.S. over the years housed thousands of wayward girls. The term ‘wayward’ was used to describe run-aways, orphans, girls who may have mental disorders and pregnant girls. Nowadays, we would probably assess them with different psychological problems, but in the end many of these girls were helped by the patient staff of the A.I.S.
The school was large and stood on quite a good parcel of land – not hundreds of acres but enough for the purpose of the school.
Sixty wayward girls
What was the purpose of the school? It was to help and rehabilitate the girls so they could lead a productive life and return to society better than when they arrived. The school itself could hold 60 girls. Sometimes, if they were pressed, they could hold up to 100 girls but this was the exception.
The staff was hand-picked by the penal service and education ministry of the province and the city. There were sometimes as many as 20 people (including volunteers) working at the school. The majority of them were of course women, with men working in construction or as watchmen.
There was a dormitory where all the girls slept together – remember there were at least 60 of them – and a large kitchen where the food was prepared for them and by them. A lot of culinary arts were taught to make these girls able to cook a good meal when they left the A.I.S. There was an assembly hall, a library, several rooms also used for schooling, sewing and embroidery. Cleaning each room was the girls’ responsibility.
The school was staffed by women with experience. Discipline was also a way of life for these young ladies. This school was not a ‘bed of roses’. Rules were meant to be obeyed!
The girls farmed
There was also a model farm outside of the school itself where the girls and staff grew and raised fruit and vegetables. They were almost self sufficient at times. Many of these girls were from rural backgrounds and farming and agriculture came naturally to them. Other girls were trained to be ‘young farmers’.
It is interesting to note that, during periods of war such as the Boer War of 1899-1901 and the First World War (1914-1918), the girls did more than their share of sending food from their farm to help the young soldiers. This was quite a chore and the girls did contribute their efforts for the country.
In the beginning. the person in charge was a Miss A.E. Green who oversaw the staff and the girls. She was in charge of the discipline, teaching and the social conscience of the A.I.S. and was called the Principal.
Staff like Miss Green lived on the premises and over the years this became their home and the ‘wayward girls’ were their ‘children’. They did face problems and challenges. That’s why the girls were sent there.
Over the years, the people in charge of the A.I.S. formulated different programs for the girls to modernize the system. The title for the person in charge became ‘Directress’. Over 30 years there were only five women in charge: Miss Green, Miss M. McGowan, Mrs. R. Kilgvur, Miss Josephine Parrott and Miss Brooking. The staff included matrons and teachers, each with their own ideas and specialties.
The community cared
There were special events where the girls and staff dressed up in their best uniforms and dresses such as the Queen’s Birthday, Christmas and special concerts. One of these occasions was the end of the semester (as I would call it for want of a better term) when many of the girls would be discharged. This was called the annual meeting and, at this time, Lt. Gov. M.J. Gibson, officiated. The superintendent /principal Miss Parrott gave a talk and statistics on what progress had been made during the years and how good or bad the A.I.S. girls were – 60 girls were admitted and 50 of them discharged to make their way in the city and province.
There were many people who like now donated their time and financial efforts to these less fortunate girls. The ministers from the different churches would come on Sunday and preach to them. Volunteers would come in and sing and stage plays and other events for the benefit of the girls. Occasionally even family members would come and visit. There were musical interludes for the girls. Mr. S. T. Barulch from Bell Telephone donated an organ to the school for the benefit of the girls to hear and play different types of musicals and instruments.
But there were many instances of girls escaping from the school over the years. For example, three girls escaped and for a day or two, the constables with the East Toronto Police DEpartment were on the lookout. Eventually the girls were returned.
It also didn’t help that there was a boys’ industrial school in the area.
There were good and bad times, but, in the end, thousands of girls went through the school and became part of society for the better. However, in the early 1910s, the Alexandra Industrial School was closed and this chapter of Beach history came to an end.