McGregor Street

Alexander McGregor, first schoolmaster.

Alexander McGregor. Photo: Metropolitan Toronto Library Board

A learned man, Alexander McGregor, 24, came to Stratford from Scotland in 1843, in possession of a freshly minted teaching certificate. He was hired immediately by the settlement's school trustees and began his teaching career at the common school, which was which a log building on the front lawn of what is now the Stratford Public Library, at the corner of Church and St. Andrew streets. It functioned as a "common" school, which meant it was open to all students.

The log schoolhouse (see St. Andrew Street) was a small building, only 20 feet by 30 feet, built by the people of the town. McGregor sat on a raised platform, the students on benches in rows, where they used pencils and individual slates for their work. The pencils scratching on the slates made a terrible racket. Discipline was firm. The rod, a thin wooden stick, was used by teachers as needed.

McGregor taught all subjects, which was normal for teachers of the day, but he had he also duties beyond that. In winter, he kept the fire going in the pot-bellied stove and was responsible for the school's general maintenance. He was also secretary to the board of trustees.

His records were kept in a fine, slanting hand, and in his first classes of 30-plus students were all the young of the hamlet’s leading citizens, the children of Linton (see Linton Avenue), Daly (see Daly Avenue), McCullouch (see McCullouch Street), and Orr (Alexander Barrington Orr; Thomas Orr (see Cobourg Street).

One young man was James Peter Woods who became a the Perth County County Judge (see Woods Street) in 1886. Apparently, young Woods enjoyed launching his sleigh from the steps of John Monteith's store, and sledding to the river. The store was located on the south side of the river at the site of what would become Victoria and Grey Trust Co. at 1 Ontario St. John Monteith the father of Andrew Monteith, who became the trust company's first president (see Monteith Avenue).

McGregor, like his students, must have felt the small classroom confining, because he left teaching briefly to try his hand at business. His successors did not last beyond a few months, and when he found the world of business unsuitable to his talents, he returned to Stratford where he was welcomed back in November 1847. The school trustees met him with unconcealed delight and gave him a raise in salary to 85 pounds, about $340 a year. In time he discovered his academic nature was suited to teaching.

McGregor taught, with considerable dedication, all subjects on the curriculum: the three R’s plus grammar, history, geography, and some basic Latin. Once, he used his own money to buy a large Canadian map the trustees refused to make that purchase.

McGregor did more than teach for his salary, as did all teachers in the mid-1800s.The brunt of all school business fell upon his shoulders, in that he was also secretary to the board of trustees. He made up the accounts for school repairs, prepared the collection roll whereby each family was assessed for the education of its children. A widow, unable to pay, applied for, and received free tuition for her child -- a foreshadowing of free schools.

In 1848, McGregor became involved in straightening out some irregularities in the deed for the school property with the Canada Company. It was a lengthy process and, though it was eventually resolved by the school trustees many years later, McGregor was by then retired.

In addition to being learned and a true academic, McGregor was known to the boys in their school as a fair and understanding man. In winter, he ignored their sleigh runs from the schoolhouse down to the river. However, his turning a blind eye to those runs did not sit well with Dr. John Hyde, (see Hyde Road), who tried to end them. The boys dubbed the worthy doctor, “Old Mercury,” a name that stuck rather unfairly, for years.

Apparently, the headmaster was not a man to cross. Adelaide Leitch tells this story in the book Floodtides of Fortune: "It was his habit to return to his home over a footbridge across the Avon. At one end was a piece of square timber laid angle-wise over a ditch, and the right of passage went, as a matter of course, to the strongest. One day a particularly loutish young man caught Mr. McGregor right there and did not offer to retreat. Scarcely missing a stride, the master dumped the fellow into the mud and continued on his way."

In 1855, the log schoolhouse was replaced on the same site by a new Central Common School. (see Central School, St. Andrew Street). In 1926, the site of those schools was marked by a stone and plaque in a ceremony on the library lawn, at the same time as the library addition was celebrated.

McGregor remained schoolmaster for some years, but after he retired, for some unknown reason, he moved to Texas, where he lived until his death in 1892.

Footnote: In 1855, another MacGregor, unrelated to Alex, a Scottish-born Charles John MacGregor (1833-1904), was hired as the first teacher at the new grammar school, the "high school" on Norman Street. He was a teacher, but also a customs clerk, and, in 1886-1987 the first mayor of Stratford after the city separated from Perth County.

In the first written report on this school by the inspector to Egerton Ryerson, dated March 1855, there was an assessment of this young MacGregor’s prospects: 'The master is mild but firm, seldom using the rod. He is young and inexperienced but, as he is willing and winning in manner, he is likely to succeed."

MacGregor succeeded well enough to still be there in 1882, as headmaster at the "new" high school, known as Stratford Collegiate, which had been 1878 on St. Andrews Street when young Cam Mayberry (see Mayberry Place) came to Stratford, also young, inexperienced and willing. Mayberry was hired first as the classics master, in 1882, and eight years later, in 1890, became principal at the Stratford Collegiate (see St. Andrew Street). Source: Adelaide Leitch: Floodtides of Fortune. Compiled by Gord Conroy