In honour of this being Founder’s Day, I offer six comments about John Colborne. Think of this as “Everything you always wanted to know about Lord Seaton but were afraid to ask.”Most of this based on my reading of Richard Howard’s 1979 book, “Colborne’s Legacy.”
If I were to offer a thesis this morning, it would be that institutions, like individuals, are bundles of contradictions.
First, and I confess I find this of personal interest, Colborne probably didn’t sing “The Star Spangled Banner” on a regular basis. He had a distrust of American culture and education, and he hoped his school would actively counteract the republican influence, which he feared was entering the province. I am not sure Lord Seaton anticipated the dangers presented by Jay Z and company, but for the last 180+ years, UCC has been something of a bulwark for Canada. I think Colborne would have been proud of this, and he might give a very dignified shout out to Eamon O’Keefe and the Monarchist League. If you are interested in learning about how UCC students actually defended Toronto (then known as York), you might ask a history teacher about UCC’s role in the Fenian Raids. (I’m still not sure how Lord Seaton would have felt about his school’s having an American principal…)
Second, Colborne wanted his secondary school to prepare boys for their future professions. In 2013 this may seem like a common sense approach to education, but in the 1830’s — at a time when the typical secondary school curriculum in England consisted primarily of Latin and Greek — Colborne’s insistence that UCC boys study mathematics and drawing was progressive.
For those of you sporting stylish orange house ties this morning, you should know that John Howard, after whom Howard’s House is named, was hired as UCC’s very first drawing master. Howard actually went on to a brilliant career as an architect; he designed many iconic Canadian buildings, including the first building at Queens University. He also donated to the citizens of Toronto High Park, where today Colborne Lodge (named after you know who) now stands.
Third, Colborne was something of a dreamer, and he had a huge sense of ambition for his school. Richard Howard writes that, “Colborne’s attitude was unrealistic, considering the financial and social limitations of a pioneering community. In attempting to develop a school in York, superior to those in the districts, he drew upon UCC a good deal of hatred. The school survived, but it was never popular. You could argue that we still wrestle with this tension today. We want to be elite without being elitist. And there is always the concern about how our profound sense of ambition is perceived by those beyond Lonsdale Road. I remember a UCC student once captured this when he said, “Whether we like it or not, we will always be seen within the shadow of the Rogers Clock-tower.”
Point Four, Howard points out that by allowing such an overwhelming proportion of the masters to be Anglican clergyman, Colborne tarred the college with a sectarian brush, negating his farsightedness in making the College non-denominational. This is another interesting institutional contradiction. When in 1829 it was decided that UCC would be non-denominational, the founder never would have imagined his school as a “secular” institution. Think for a second about the profound difference between “non-denominational” and “secular.” And in a school with a chapel, a school hymn, and a tradition of “prayers” (that is what Old Boys over the age of 40 called assemblies), it’s no wonder that so many believe UCC, like BSS, is an Anglican institution. Colborne, by the way, became a lay minister during his retirement.
Point Five: Colborne was a very wise soul. While he founded the school, he was smart enough to never become its administrator. Instead, he hired Reverend Harris to deal with that task. By the way, I find solace in discovering that the good Reverend experienced some morale problems in the 1830’s. Howard writes, “Members of the Classics Department questioned Colborne about their position vis-a-vis the principal. They had thought they were to be his colleagues, and he was treating them as assistants or ushers.” They say there is no such thing as original sin; it is the same sin we keep repeating over and over! By the way, after 8 years as principal, Reverend Harris wrote, “The labours of the present situation were too onerous to be relinquished with regret.” He retired, apparently exhausted, at the age of 38.
If you are a fan of “Fawlty Towers” by the way, it’s worth noting that both Rev Harris and Lord Seaton eventually retired to Torquay. I hope that there isn’t a link between Basil Fawlty, bold and daring leader that he is, (“Don’t mention the war!”) and the present day leadership of UCC.
Finally Colborne was known for his bravery, especially for the courage he displayed during the Battle of Waterloo. There is a reason that the statue of Lord Seaton commands the quad, in the same way that the largest portrait in the hall looms over all of us in Laidlaw. At his school, courage and leadership are values that spring from deep within his DNA. And it makes sense that we continue to stand, 184 years later, still somewhat in awe, under his shadow today.