Of almost 100 rural one-room schoolhouses that existed in Peel County from the early 1800s to the mid-1960s, only one continues to have children attend every day of the school year. The Britannia Schoolhouse, S. S. No. 12 on Hurontario Street near Matheson Boulevard in Mississauga, Ontario, is maintained by the Peel District School Board as a living history centre. The story of how this came about speaks to the dedication of many people to preserve for future generations the history of early education in Ontario.
Education in the community of Britannia began early in the nineteenth century in a little log building. A crude log structure or a room in the home of the teacher was often the first attempt to provide schooling in a growing community. In 1833, land was granted for school purposes; and in 1842, a one room clapboard schoolhouse was built. This building was replaced ten years later with the brick one-room schoolhouse which still stands. The land grant was unique. The King of England gave 200 acres of land to three men of the Britannia community for the purpose of educating children. This land was to remain forever in trust, and today the Peel District School Board is trustee of the property on which the schoolhouse stands. For over one hundred years, children from the community of Britannia and surrounding area attended classes here. By the 1950s, with the growing urbanization of the area, school boards began closing the small schools and building large amalgamated schools. In 1959, S. S. No. 12 closed its doors and the building was left to pass into history. Fortunately, that is not the end of the story.
After the school closed in 1959, it stood empty and deteriorated badly. The school bell was removed. For a time the building was used by a plastics and paint company. Vandals used old school registers left in the schoolhouse to burn a hole in the floor. Fortunately, the fire caused minimal damage. Then in 1971, the Britannia Restoration Club, an organization of students and teachers at Streetsville Secondary School, received permission from the Peel Board of Education to restore the schoolhouse. In 1978 the Britannia Schoolhouse was designated an historic site. Students cleaned up the site, doing minimal repairs, and eventually the school board took over, completing the restoration in 1982. In choosing the furnishings and artifacts for the restoration, it was decided not to portray one particular decade or generation but to reflect the classroom's appearance over its life span.
The schoolhouse was restored to be a “living history” site, opening to the public in 1982. Elementary and secondary classes from the Peel District School Board could visit for a day and participate in lessons of “long ago,” taught by a schoolmaster or schoolmistress. In this way the students' regular classroom studies could be enriched.
Now, each year, about 2,000 elementary school children, mostly in grade 3, attend the school for a day and recreate a classroom of the late 1800s. Lessons are based on what might have been taught in Ontario in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Students use slates to write the answers to mental arithmetic questions and spelling drills. There are stories and, at the lunch break, old-fashioned games like stilts, hoops and more recently cricket and lacrosse. Children learn about the old-fashioned methods of school discipline. Some volunteer to demonstrate standing on a log while holding two logs at shoulder height. Girls with long hair can try the “hair puller.” When the day ends at about 2:30, the children board the school bus and return to the world of the 21st century.
The schoolhouse is open to visitors on Open Sundays (the second Sunday of the month during the school year), from 1- 4 p.m. Each Open Sunday has a theme, as announced, along with the dates, on the website’s Events page.
The Friends of the Schoolhouse Organization helps to support the preservation of the building and the program for students, with a variety of fundraising events held each year. Volunteers have created gardens around the schoolyard with plants that would have been found in a Victorian garden. They also created and maintain a website with information about the schoolhouse and with a current news page which changes monthly and provides interesting historical information, as well as activities for children.