Photo courtesy of the B.C. Provincial Archives The provincial boarding school near Cache Creek, built in 1873.

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The Cache Creek boarding school scandal

During the years after the First World War each school in the province was inspected annually

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune/Advisor

During the years after the First World War each school in the province was inspected annually by a person appointed by the Department of Education in Victoria.

The man who did these inspections for the northern part of the province (from Ashcroft to the Yukon border) was Alex Lord. He wrote a book of recollections about his time as rural school inspector from 1915 through 1936.

It’s entitled: “Alex Lord’s British Columbia,” and it’s a fascinating account of his travels through the province. As I was reading it, I came across an interesting reference to a school at Cache Creek.

When Lord was just starting out, he saw the need for central boarding schools and he mentioned this to his superiors. He wrote: “My suggestion that a boarding school might be a solution brought a departmental rebuke, and the query ‘Did you never hear of Cache Creek?’ I had not, but it seemed wise to find out. Enquiries revealed that several years before, a government-supported residential school had been maintained at Cache Creek and that it had been closed “because of conditions embarrassing to those in authority.”

Now that got me curious, so I began my own search into the Cache Creek Boarding School. Here is what I found:

Where did a student go to school after he/she had completed Grade 8? Back in 1870 or so, that was becoming a major question. Typically, the schools in those communities that had one, went from Grade 1 through to Grade 8.

For a university education, students were sent back to Ontario, but what about high school? The Gold Rush had occurred 10 to 15 years before, and there were more and more young people reaching high school age.

In 1872, B.C.’s first school superintendent, John Jessop, toured the province to assess its educational needs. His goal was “to provide schools for a scattered people.”

In his report, he noted that only 258 of the 1,768 children of school age in B.C. (not counting First Nations children) were even registered in a school

In the “Upper Country” (the area above Lytton on the provincial map), there were more than 200 children far removed from any school.

Jessop recommended that a large, co-educational, central provincial boarding school be built to (a) provide a grade school education to those students without ready access to any school, and (b) to provide a high school education to students who had completed Grade 8 in their home communities.

It was also recommended that the first such school be built in Kamloops, but through much political string-pulling, Charles Semlin, a prominent rancher and hotel owner from Cache Creek, secured the school for Cache Creek.

It just so happened that Semlin was the current MLA for Yale/Lillooet, and he was also appointed as the new school’s chief trustee.

Later, Semlin went on to become B.C.’s 12th Premier.

In June of 1874, the Cache Creek Central Boarding School was completed. Robert Midgely Clemiston, Jessop’s deputy, was appointed as its first principal.

In September, it opened its doors to 18 students. The following year there were 45. In order to be accepted into the school, students had to have white parents or, at least, a white father.

Included in the first year’s enrolment were Archie McLean and Alex Hare, who later murdered Kamloops government agent John Usher in 1879.

Almost from the outset, the co-educational situation at the school was a concern. Later, theft became a problem as equipment and funds went missing. Then, in 1877, the “Cache Creek Boarding School Scandal” hit the newspaper. According to the Victoria Colonist of April 15, 1877, there was “great cause for complaint” that students were “engaged in immoral behaviour.”

The newspaper further alleged that by the summer of 1876, school officials were dealing with the situation “by keeping the boys and girls wholly separate outside of classes.”

Yet, in the spring of 1877, one of the teachers was quoted as saying “I made the discovery that the girls had, on at least two occasions in the dead of night, left the dormitory, passed down the stairs, and unfastened the door between the dining room and the passage leading to the boys’ dormitory.”

I should describe the layout of the school. It was a big, two-storey structure with the boys’ dormitory on the upper left, the girls’ dorm on the upper right, and offices and teachers’ dorms between the two.

Downstairs were classrooms on the left and the right with a large kitchen/dining room facility in the middle.

Each dorm had its own access to the dining area via a staircase. To prevent the mingling of students after hours, the access doors were kept locked.

After some serious investigation, it turned out that on at least five occasions, three girls had spent the night in the boys’ dorm, and that their male partners were willing and enthusiastic participants in the scheme.

There were allegations that some boys had spent the night in the girls dorm as well, but these were never proven.

Once the problem was identified, the blame game began. Trustee Semlin wrote to his boss, John Jessop in March of 1877 that the staff was “so taken up with themselves and each other that they allowed things to come to a pretty pass.”

In his view, “They seem to have been sleeping all winter, serenely oblivious to the most scandalous conduct on the part of the larger pupils.”

So, heads began to roll. The head teacher (not the principal) of the school was dismissed outright.

All of the teachers were warned and put on notice. One female music teacher who “was of questionable moral character” because she occasionally wore slacks and “by determined manipulation of her shawl and by a delicate cough, which no doubt was assumed for the occasion, had managed to deceive everyone until it was too late to perceive the evil” was also fired.

The nature of “the evil” was not revealed, but presumably it was unabashed flirtation with the older boys and a tolerance for, if not encouragement of young love.

Three boys and one girl, all from the Williams Lake area, were sent home. The records of their names have been lost over time, and their identities would be hard to find now.

John Jessop reported in the school inspector’s diary of 1877 that “the head teacher hastened to protect himself by meting out punishment on the guilty parties and requesting that the trustees have the ringleaders expelled. When I visited the school later in the spring, I was informed that all the offending boys were gone, but that all the offending girls but one were still at the school.”

The whole sordid incident made it into the annual printed report of the Department of Education for 1876-77: “That children so young should show themselves capable of such depravity is a revelation of youthful vice for which we were not prepared.”

After that, the school really never recovered. It never grew beyond 50 students.

Jessop was blamed for having promoted an experiment, and having failed to supervise it properly.

As other schools opened up in the home communities, the need for a grade school boarding situation dwindled.

Other secondary schools opened up in Victoria, New Westminster, Yale and Vancouver.

Roman Catholic Mission schools would occasionally take students beyond Grade 8.

Then in the late 1880s, the Department of Education began its correspondence program.

So it was that the Central Boarding School in Cache Creek closed in 1890.

It was the only one of its kind, and it occupies its own unique chapter in the history of education in B.C.

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