The Bishop Strachan School (BSS), Toronto, was founded in 1867, on the initiative of Reverend John Langtry, who was responding to contemporary concerns about the education of young women. The school was named for Bishop John Strachan, the first Anglican bishop of Toronto, who died shortly after the founding of the school. From its first year of operation, it served a number of students, both day pupils and boarders. Today, the Bishop Strachan School is considered Canada’s oldest continuously operating independent day and boarding school for girls.
The school’s first calendar stated, “from one end of the Dominion to the other, there has not been a single institution for the proper training of those who exercise the deepest and widest influence over the character and happiness of the rising generation.” Although this statement was an exaggeration, the Bishop Strachan School was formed to address the very real need to which it spoke.
The school’s original location was on a property adjacent to the present-day Art Gallery of Ontario. In 1868, it moved to the former home of Bishop Strachan (known as the “Palace”) on Front Street, but by 1870, the school had outgrown this facility and relocated to College Avenue at Wykeham Hall, the former home of Sir James Macaulay. There it remained for 45 years, and was known variously as Wykeham Hall, The Church School, and The Bishop Strachan School.
The school’s Lady Principal from 1872 to 1875, Mrs. Anne Thomson, summed up the school’s philosophy when she addressed the students at the end of one school year saying: “Remember girls, you are not going home to be selfish butterflies of fashion. The Bishop Strachan School has been endeavouring to fit you to become useful and courageous women. I believe you will yet see our universities open to women. Work out your freedom, girls! Knowledge is now no more a fountain seal’d; drink deep!”
The school’s current vision statement echoes Mrs. Thomson’s sentiments when it declares, “BSS will be an inspirational force for women to reach their full potential as transformative leaders.”
Despite facing some financial challenges during its early decades, by the 1880s the school was firmly established as an academic institution. This was due in large part to the leadership of Rose Grier, who served as Lady Principal from 1876 to 1899. The curriculum was rigorous and comprehensive enough to prepare young women for university when the doors opened to them in the 1880s, but it also included dancing, needlework, and calisthenics. By the turn of the century, physical education was introduced, and the school held its first Sports Day in 1906.
BSS, as it is commonly known today, continued to need more space. As a result, the school moved in 1915 to its current home — an imposing grey stone building in the Collegiate Gothic style, found in the heart of Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood, just down the street from Upper Canada College. At this location, the school continued to grow and develop its identity as a place to educate and empower young women.
In 1926, the school dedicated its large, new chapel, which quickly became an integral part of the school’s atmosphere and traditions. While its roots are in the Anglican faith and its official motto remains In cruce vinco (In the cross I conquer), ideologically, the school today embraces a diversity of faiths.
As was the case at many schools in Canada at the time, the Second World War made its presence felt at BSS. Three of the school’s teachers were aboard SS Athenia when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on 3 September 1939. One of the teachers, Dorothy Hutchings, was killed in the attack. Students at BSS responded to the war effort by volunteering in the Red Cross, knitting, conducting drives, and selling war stamps. More than 160 alumnae of the school have been identified as serving with the Canadian, British or American services during the war, including the Canadian Red Cross Corps. The Second World War was not the first time global conflict affected the school; BSS also lost two alumnae who served as nurses during the First World War.
While BSS is an all-girls school, for a number of years, and at various times, it admitted boys in order to fill spaces in the Junior School. As far back as the 1915‒1916 school year, there were more than 20 boys. Between 1937 and 1969, no boys attended BSS. But in 1970, again due to shrinking enrollment in the Junior School, boys returned to the school. The last five boys to attend BSS “graduated” from Grade 2 in 2003, and the school abandoned the practice of admitting male students.
Founded in the same year as Confederation, the school will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2017. This connection to Canada’s beginnings has always played a role in milestone anniversaries for BSS. In 1967, the school’s choir was chosen to sing at Expo 67 in Montréal, and in 2017, it will unveil a new anthem. The school will also send a delegation of students to Vimy Ridge for the centennial celebrations of the famous battle.
Additionally, a multi-million dollar addition is set to open in 2017, featuring facilities designed to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math. New art and music studios as well as a theatre will also be included. The school’s tagline — distinct from its motto — is, “Girls Can Do Anything,” and reflects BSS’s commitment to giving girls the tools to succeed.
In the 2015–2016 academic year, BSS had an enrollment of about 900 students, including approximately 80 boarders from 18 different countries.
Over the school’s 150 years, a number of notable Canadians have passed through its doors as students, including Emily Murphy, first female magistrate in the British Empire and one of the Famous Five, poet Marjorie Pickthall, and composer Ann Southam. In addition, BSS educated the daughters of Prime Ministers Lester B. Pearson and John Turner.