How the History Program began at BU

Early development (1845-1905)

Bishop’s was at its inception a formally denominational institution. In 1855, it had received its royal charter as a university and started granting degrees in “the several arts of Divinity, Law and Medicine.” In its first forty years, students pursued Holy Orders or careers in Law, Medicine, or Education. Early curriculums focused on the humanities that mirrored other English institutions which were limited to Greek and Latin literature.

Eventually, English, History, Modern Languages and “Political Economy” were added. Back then, History was not a major subject in the University and it did not premise on critical analysis of primary documents.

According to the Rules, Orders, and Regulations of 1849, the four year curriculum included courses in:

  • Classical and English Literature and Composition
  • History
  • Math
  • Natural and Experimental Philosophy
  • Chemistry
  • Logic, Rhetoric, Moral Philosophy
  • Hebrew
  • Divinity

Rev. Robert Walker, rector from 1867-70, wanted the emphasis to be on classical learning. History as it is taught today was not a classical subject at the time. Teaching resources were insufficient so it took some time for History to be seen as an essential subject. Degrees in History only emerged at Cambridge and Oxford in the last three decades of the 19th century.

Jasper H. Nicolls
Rev. Jasper H. Nicolls

Ancient History at BU was taught by Edward Chapman, Rev. Nicolls and Rev. Dr. J.A. Lobley of Trinity College, Cambridge. In the syllabus of 1857, only Roman History was taught but matriculating students were expected to be acquainted with Herodotus, Xenophon, Sallust, Cicero, and Caesar in the original Greek or Latin. Matriculating students in 1864 were required to master the “History-Outline of Grecian and Roman.” Examination subjects included Ancient and Modern English History (from the Conquest to Henry III, or from Henry III to Queen Anne, or from Queen Anne to the Congress of Vienna).

Bayeux Tapestry
Battle of Hastings (1066) as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (aka the Norman Conquest). Photo courtesy of

The exam subjects from 1884 under “Law & History” included four topics:

  • Phillimore’s Private Law among the Romans first published in 1863
  • The Constitutional History of England with a focus on the Anglo-Saxon period
  • European History from 1600-1700
  • History of Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia

Ten years later, English History since 1815 had replaced 17th century European History. Students at BU would only see Greek and Roman History, except for those who took the “History option.”

From just three instructors in 1857, the teaching corps had expanded to eight members by 1913.

The first professor of Mathematics, Henry Hopper Mills, had left BU in 1867. Three years later he published A School History of Canada and then in 1872, he published The History of Canada under French Regime, 1535-1763. At this point, teachers were becoming more critical of textbooks and more sophisticated in their historical explanations. Ernest Smith stressed the importance of the growth of the Canadian nation as the basic unit of history.

During the Second World War, Smith became the only Canadian private to earn the Victoria Cross after almost single-handedly fighting off German tanks and soldiers during the Italian Campaign.

While historical textbooks were donated to Bishop’s library, the position of modern history remained stagnant because learning was done under the strict guidance of professors who required specific texts. The professors did not encourage external research.

Anna F. Bryant
Anna F. Bryant, B.A. 1905

Bishop’s College School (the Grammar School), initially a branch of the College, prepared pupils for university-level studies and offered them a foundation in history, which probably explains the lack of historical content at the more advanced level.

In 1901, Principal James Pounder Whitney introduced an honours concentration in the 2nd or 3rd year of study. In this degree, students wrote nine papers in their second year and ten in their third. They could choose English, Medieval European, or General Modern History as their area of specialization.

Two students graduated from the History option in 1905: C.W. Ford and Anna F. Bryant, a teacher who had briefly studied at McGill. She became the first Lady Graduate in Arts at the University of Bishop’s College.

By 1905, academic prizes were awarded for Ancient History, Church History and Modern History.

Eric Edward Boothroyd was hired at BU in either 1904, 1905 or 1906. He was only 22 years old and would teach until 1944. His courses in History and English Literature became an essential element of the BU education. There is no clear information on why he taught until 1944, but it is possible he retired after losing his son who was killed in action in 1944. Eric Edward Boothroyd died a year later following the loss of his son.

Edward Francis Herbert Boothroyd
Lieutenant Edward Francis Herbert Boothroyd 1914-1944 (Killed in Action)

Lieutenant Edward Francis Herbert Boothroyd, son of Eric Edward and Lois Muriel Boothroyd. (Education: Bishop’s College, Lennoxville), B.C.L. (McGill University). Member of the Bar, Province of Quebec.

From 1905 onwards

Eric Edward Boothroyd’s wife, née Lois Rimmer, became the director of the Women’s Glee Club when it was formed, circa 1925. By 1922, there were sixty students at BU: 52 in Arts and 8 in Divinity. The admission of female students first welcomed them in 1903.

Donald Campbell Masters (1908-2001) succeeded Boothroyd in 1944 as professor of History. He was involved in original scholarly research and made significant contributions to Canadian historiography. He stayed at BU until 1966.

Roderick Page Thaler (1927-1974), editor of A Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (1958), from Knoxville, Tennessee began at BU in 1955 and taught Russian History until 1974 when he suddenly died in his residence, correcting his students’ papers. Nicknamed “Daddy-O,” he was the softest spoken professor in the entire university that people had to lean forward to hear. He had the highest proportion of student athletes in his classes. He also taught a course in Russian literature. Thaler always carried a book bag with him that was full of dog biscuits: big ones for big dogs and small ones for small dogs, because he was terrified of dogs.

Phyllis “Momma” Van Vliet Home (1908-1998) came to BU in 1925 and studied under Boothroyd. She married Maurice Home in 1930 who taught Natural Sciences at BU. Phyllis began working as professor in 1962 where she taught British History and British Constitutional History. Also in 1962, Canadianist Claude Thibault was hired and became the head of the Department. He taught Canadian and Quebec History.

From 1962 on, Greek and Roman History belonged to a “Civilization” area of study and Ancient History had its own place in the academic calendar. Until 1973, the curriculum would undergo annual modifications for cultural and academic reasons, as well as institutional, with the establishment of the CEGEP system in 1967.

In 2008, the Senate had authorized the creation of a program in Public History that prepared students to work in museums, government agencies, consulting firms and other non-academic settings.