On February 2, 1852, the Galt Grammar School was officially opened with one headmaster and eight boys in the upper room of the old township hall in Galt, a village of approximately 3,000 inhabitants situated along the Grand River in Upper Canada. Michael Howe, a scholar from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, taught this small group of students English and Classics. Although his knowledge in Classics was impressive, his teaching methods, compounded with his eccentricities, were not. He typically spent the school day seated at his desk, reading a newspaper and inhaling snuff, while his students taught themselves. Criticisms of Howe's teaching methods inevitably led to his resignation within the first year.
William Tassie succeeded the disengaged Howe in 1853. Also a scholar from Dublin, Tassie had already made a name for himself as an excellent educator in nearby Hamilton. Over the course of two decades, the Galt Grammar School, under Tassie's leadership, became recognized as one of the finest grammar schools in North America, attracting boys from prestigious families from the across the continent. The school achieved an enrollment of between 250 and 300 boys within the first decade, roughly 80 percent of whom hailed from elsewhere in Canada, the United States, England, and the West Indies. Meanwhile, the school itself underwent significant changes, with a move to a new one-room schoolhouse at its present location in 1853, and which was subsequently enlarged to resemble a two-storey stone cross by 1870.
William Tassie, photographed in 1872. (GCI Archives).
Galt Collegiate Institute in 1872. (GCI Archives).
Despite being described as strict and cold towards his students, Tassie was also highly respected by his pupils and colleagues. He was recognized for his successes in furthering higher education in Upper Canada with an honorary LLD from Queen's University in 1871. The following year, the Galt Grammar School was among the first Ontario schools to become a Collegiate Institute (GCI).
In later years, however, Tassie was increasingly pressured to conform to new reforms in education in the province. Although Tassie had employed Sarah Crawford as the first female member of his teaching staff from 1870 to 1877, he only reluctantly allowed the establishment of a separate girls' school under his direction in 1872. Provincial examinations that emphasized practical rather than classical education were introduced in 1876 and Tassie, who stubbornly refused to change his teaching methods, saw a gradual decline in enrollment as students consistently failed to meet provincial standards. Tassie, together with his entire staff of teachers, ultimately felt compelled to resign in 1881.
Tassie's successors, John E. Bryant (1881-1884) and Thomas Carscadden (1881-1914), readily embraced changes made in education reform. Bryant closed the separate girls' school and adopted co-education at GCI. A number of clubs and sports teams were organized during this period, including the Literary and Musical Society, and the hockey and soccer teams. A cadet corps—the Galt Collegiate Institute Cadet Corps No. 21—was founded in 1899, which overtime became a significant part of the school's activities until the 1970s, and which eventually became the 21 Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada Army Cadets.
School enrollment had increased to the point that additional space was required. A year of extensive renovations were completed by the time the school re-opened in September 1906.
Arthur Presland Gundry succeeded as principal in 1914. Although there were plans to establish vocational education at GCI at the time, those plans were postponed with the onset of World War I. During the next four years, GCI staff and students participated in the war effort by holding fundraising activities for the Red Cross and Patriotic Fund, as well as sending Christmas parcels to former students serving on the frontlines in Europe. By the end of the war, at least 348 alumni and former teachers had been in active service, and 48 of that number had died overseas. The marble memorial tablet, which occupies the main corridor of the school, was erected on June 4, 1921.
Galt Collegiate Institute, c. 1907. (GCI Archives).
Tassie Hall, the auditorium at Galt Collegiate Institute, June 1926. (GCI Archives).
With the end of the war, plans for a vocational education at GCI were resumed. To accommodate the new program, new additions were made to the former building, which included machine shop, woodworking, drafting, dressmaking and millinery classrooms, as well as a new auditorium (Tassie Hall) and gymnasium. After roughly two years of rather invasive construction, renovations were complete by August 1925.
During this time, students and staff became actively involved in theatre productions in the newly constructed Tassie Hall. The Galt Staff Players Club was organized and performed its first play, Bayard Veiller's The Thirteenth Chair in February 1925. This group would eventually become the present-day Cambridge Community Players. The first student production was Stop Thief in 1926.
Meanwhile, more student activities and student organizations emerged so that by the end of the 1920s there were soccer, hockey, rugby, football and basketball teams for the boys, and basketball and softball teams for the girls. A school captaincy was set up in 1924, as well as a girl captaincy the following year. In addition, the first yearbook was published in 1922.
The Great Depression ushered in a period of financial strain and instability, which also affected education in Ontario. For a brief period of time, the staff at GCI was reduced and some shop classes closed. The school's cadet corps was under threat of being disbanded altogether. Yet, the school managed to pull through the economic crisis by the end of the decade with the help of the staff who were determined to not let the school's fame and effectiveness suffer.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the staff and students were immediately and energetically involved in the war effort. The school raised funds for relief organizations from proceeds from bake sales, concerts, plays, and cash donations. The school also offered the use of its machine shop classroom to the Royal Canadian Navy for the training of Engine Room Artificers. By the end of the war, about 790 former pupils had enlisted for active service, the majority serving in Europe and the Atlantic. Seventy-eight men from GCI had lost their lives, and their names were added to the memorial tablet some time later.
Engine Room Artificers trained in Galt, Ontario, July 1943. (GCI Archives).