Home > About B.U. > Historical Timeline > 1981–1997 > Dr. Robin Burns on the founding of Bishop’s University
Dr. Robin Burns

The foundation of Bishop’s University in the Eastern Townships of the Province of Canada in 1843 must have been an extraordinary act of faith. What was that faith and the world of 1843 like? The engraving of the first building (shown below) is worth more words than this introduction is allowed and provides a glimpse of a part of that world. It was a brick building with some stone, in a British style, and an assertion of permanence when most buildings in the region were wooden and American inspired.

Photo: Dr. Robin Burns (1944 – 1998)

The earliest British brick building in the area was only a few years older. It was the Sherbrooke jail; the “city’s” population having reached 800 souls. Civilization had come to an alien, and sometimes hostile frontier, as barren and bleak as the landscape in the engraving mentioned above. There was no railway, and, in good weather, it took several days to reach the St. Lawrence by coach on primitive roads and then on to Montreal or Quebec by steamer. Many families still lived in log cabins. Queen Victoria was but 24 years old, but local subjects could not find a Union Jack to celebrate her birthday. Most Townshippers were descended from American pioneers and preferred to celebrate the Fourth of July and fly the Stars and Stripes. Confederation was a generation away.

Engraving of the first building at Bishop's

Looking back, 150 years later, the faith of those founders seems to have been based on a certainty which has long since been undermined. It was a time before Charles Darwin, before Sigmund Freud, and before Albert Einstein.

That certainty was reflected in the curriculum, a corpus of received truth which was recognized throughout the civilized world: the classics in the original Latin and Greek, ancient history, theology, natural philosophy and mathematics. Of course no attention was paid to anything Canadian. The corpus was transmitted in a setting and style by learned gentlemen designed to cultivate other educated gentlemen some of whom might hopefully study divinity and become priests. Recti Cultus Pectora Roborant. Of course there was no place for women as students or members of faculty.

If the faith of the founders was certain, it was hardly complacent. Lesser men would have despaired. Bishop’s College began with one full-time member of faculty who was also the Principal, Jasper Nicolls. In the first year of operation there were ten students, one of whom died of typhoid fever at the beginning of term. Although incorporated by provincial legislation in 1843, Bishop’s was unable to grant degrees until it received its Royal Charter ten years later. The bill to incorporate caused some debate in the Assembly. One member objected to incorporation on the grounds that Bishop’s was “a poor institution…whose durability was quite uncertain;…of [not] much use to the Church of England or to the cause of literature and science….” Tuition fees in 1843 may appear to be a pittance today, but for the people of the Eastern Townships then, they were prohibitive. George Stacey, a recent emigrant from England was attempting to support his family on a farm in nearby Ascot Corner. When he learned of the plans for Bishop’s, he wrote, “It will be a great advantage to those who can afford to be educated. The expenses for tuition will be about L 20 or L 25 per annum, far beyond my means.” The one advantage he obtained was to supply some of the wood needed for the construction of the college building. One of the earliest trustees wrote to advise that no one in the Brome area could even afford to send a son to the Bishop’s grammar school, adding, “…instead of being a popular school with its hundreds, it is … a penal settlement for Quebec and Montreal.”

In 150 years, Bishop’s has proved to be durable and has made a contribution to the cause of literature and science. What would the founders think of Bishop’s today: the campus, the curriculum, 2,000 students, women and men? What would Queen Victoria think? Would Jasper Nicolls still be as amused as he appears to be in his portrait? Probably.

Jasper H. Nicolls
Jasper Nicoll