The Reverend Robert Hill Thornton, D.D.

“An Enthusiast for Education”

Written for the Dr. Robert Thornton Public School

By Walter Jackson


Robert Hill Thornton

Born 1806 in Calder near Edinburgh, Scotland. Died 1875 in Oshawa. Form 1833-1875 minister in Whitby Township (42 years).

Robert Thornton’s father was a crofter (a tenant farmer) and an elder in the Secession Church. The Secession Church had broken off from the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). This church emphasized that the Church must be a missionary society. It was strongly reform minded towards the community but conservative in attitude towards the church. His older brother was connected with a school for boys. While preparing for university, Robert Thornton did some teaching in that school which created an interest in education which was to last all his life.

He attended the University of Edinburgh and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Then he took theology in the Secessionist Church College in Glasgow. There were calls for ministers to go overseas. The people in the new distant wild country of Upper Canada were making strong requests for ministers. Robert Thornton was one who volunteered to go to Canada. He was set apart as a minister by the Scottish Church in 1833. The boat trip by sailing ship to the New World took seven weeks. Nowadays emigrants come directly to Canada; in those days it was easier to go to the United States and then come north. He arrived in New York in July, 1833, with his Scottish bride, Margaret Thompson. From New York he went north to Lake Ontario and crossed to Cobourg. On arrival there, he surveyed the surrounding area. The settlers in the Township of Whitby, then part of the Home District, presented a call (i.e., asked him to be their minister), which he accepted. In October, 1833, at the age of 27, he began his life’s work as a minister in Whitby Township.

Presbyterian services had been held from time to time by the Rev. John Jenkins, the minister in Markham. Robert Thornton began the first regular services. There was a log church already built by the Baptists on the Kingston Road (now No. 2 Highway). For two years the services were held in this building. The cairn at the K Mart marks the site of the old church. When the cairn was built in 1933 (the centenary of the first service), it was east of its present position. It was located almost on Kendalwood Road. When the road was put in to serve the K Mart, the cairn was moved to its present site.

There were about 25 families who signed the call for the young minister. They were mostly farmers; the majority lived to the north, some near the present village of Columbus. Many of them had been Secessionist Church members in Scotland. Before 1830 many of the settlers had come from the Northern United States. There was a sprinkling of British and German settlers, some of these former soldiers in the campaigns of 1794 and 1812. After 1825, settlers began to come in waves from Great Britain; first from Scotland and England and a few years later from Ireland. Most of the Presbyterians came from Scotland and Ireland.

Robert Thornton was called as minister of the new settlers. The American settlers had their own churches. There was the Baptist Church which the Presbyterians first used and a Congregationalist Church, which was formed in Whitby. The Methodists had wandering ministers taking services and by 1835 Whitby Township was a regular church which shared a Methodist minister (i.e. a circuit with a minister who was called a “circuit rider”). The Church of England had a minister in Whitby Township who built a church also in 1835 near Columbus, then called “English Corners”. From this church new congregations were organized in Oshawa (St. Georges) and Port Whitby (St. Johns). Although Robert Thornton was not the first minister in Whitby Township, he was the first minister to establish a permanent congregation. Many years later (in 1861) this church divided into two congregations, one in each town; St. Andrews in Oshawa and St. Andrews in Whitby. From this congregation other congregations were formed in Toronto, Pickering, Dunbarton, Columbus, Claremont, Newtonville, and no one knows how many more. Much of this was done before railways and before regular stagecoach runs when the only built up road was the Kingston Road.

Robert Thornton wrote “we went out into the field of labour literally ‘not knowing whither we went’ or where to find a friendly home or heart to welcome us, or desiring our services. Our congregations were slowly formed, by first seeking out, with unwearied toil and amid innumerable obstacles, in many cases, the people dwelling solitary in the woods. We had then constant cause to admire all the way by which the Lord or god led us, both from place to place, and in the location of the few first ministers.”

He saw himself as the Township minister. The present Town of Whitby was still farm land. The present Town of Oshawa had one store. The major community, and it was only a hamlet, located on No. 2 Highway (i.e. the Kingston Road) was at the present Anderson Street. Here was a store and the one and only Township Post Office. Peter Perry, a few years later, set up a store at what is now the Four Corners of Whitby and gradually the centre of business moved to Perry’s Corners. Edward Skae set up a store at the four corners of Oshawa and Skae’s Corners and became a hamlet. At this time the major settlements were along the waterfront. Port Whitby, then called “Windsor Bay” had an excellent harbour and soon became a shipping point for lumber and grain. A hamlet in “the back settlement” grew up at Columbus, then called “English Corners”. Brooklin, further back, first called “Winchester” was still bush country. Robert Thornton was minister to people who were establishing farms in the bush. He expected the people to come to a central church in the township, Thornton’s Corners was more or less central.

A second congregation was set up near the Darlington Townline which developed into the Columbus Church. He organized other congregations which other ministers took over but he remained minister of the second congregation at Columbus until sickness forced him to resign this second charge in 1856. He was minister of the Columbus Church for twenty-two years as well as minister of the church at Thornton’s Corners.

When he was sent to Canada, he went as a missionary…”whenever you settle your labours are not to be confined to your own congregation but you are to preach as often as possible at stations in the vicinity”. Through most of his forty years as a minister in the Thornton’s Road area, he considered himself a missionary. He made frequent tours of the surrounding area trying to establish and maintain contact with the new settlements. An elder from Clarke Township told how Mr. Thornton preached a sermon which stirred up the people to cut down the trees and draw in the logs to build their first churchy. He worked over a wide area; “his ministrations were extended for fifty miles along the lakeshore and northwards as far as there were settlers”. He made his most concentrated effort in Pickering, Reach and Whitby Townships. In his later years he served on the Home Missions Committee of the Canadian Church. Home Missions was his life-long concern.

The Whitby congregation developed very quickly. He was called as minister in 1833. The congregation met in a log church which was used for many different kinds of meetings. By 1835 his congregation had bought land and begun to build a brick church. The few churches that bad been built in the surrounding townships were frame or log. The Anglican Church at Columbus, built about the same time, was log. This was the first “better” church in the area. A manse was built and before 1840 there was a school built. Robert Thornton’s nephew, John Thornton, was the school teacher. This was an amazing achievement in such a short time… land, brick church, manse and school. Around the church a cemetery developed. All that is left today at Thornton’s Corners is the cemetery and the name. Many of the pioneers are buried in what was the old churchyard. St. Johns, Port Whitby, was opened almost ten years later in 1846.

After such an enthusiastic beginning, things got worse. We like to think that long ago everyone was good, everyone went to church and everyone was just waiting for the church to open. None of these ideas are true. In fact, most people did not attend church. They worked hard, played hard, and drank hard, and died young.

Some of the few who were interested in church did not want a reformer. Robert Thornton all his life tried to improve the community. There were those who thought a minister should keep to religion. Presbyterian churches of different kinds were opened, taking away some of his congregation. During the MacKenzie rebellion in 1837, Robert Thornton was thought to be a rebel sympathizer. There is a story of troops being stationed outside his home. For these and other reasons, many of his original congregation left. He was able to say, “At the first communion there were 76 members, ten years later there were only six or seven of these still with the congregation”. Some of the originals became part of Mr. Thornton’s second congregations at Columbus. Others moved to the growing towns and cities.

People lived differently in those days. Before buses and railways and when roads were poor the rivers and lakes were the favoured highways. Robert Thornton, of necessity, did much of his wide travelling on the trails, travelling by horseback. Before T.V., movies and radio, speeches and meetings were a favourite form of entertainment. Robert Thornton was in demand as a speaker, often for the reform causes. The difference between the present and the past can be seen in the way one student prepared for the new school year… “I got a quire of paper and a bunch of quills and practiced making capitals for a day”. The present roads were mostly trails. The first roads were the Kingston Road, running east and west; the two-Rod Road (Harmony Road), going north into the back settlement and later the Plank Road (No. 12 Highway) from Windsor Bay (Port Whitby) to Port Perry.

Even though Robert Thornton was disappointed in the way things went, he stayed with his Whitby congregation. He wrote some years later “after a long and trying ordeal from political agitations and commercial depression, from many local difficulties and opposition, our elder congregations are now advancing rapidly”. Perhaps he stayed in Whitby because he felt this was the centre of his missionary work. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his arrival in Whitby in 1858, his congregation had “a night” for him and his family. They said, “You have declined many offers of advancement and worldly profit that would have taken you from us… It is not often that a congregation is favoured with the continued ministrations of one pastor for so long a period and our lot is to us a cause of gratitude and thankfulness…” He was the 52 years of age.

As the communities grew and minsters came to take over some of the work he pioneered, he was able to concentrate on the work closer to home. For some years he took three services on Sunday. In the morning the service was in the Brick church in Whitby (Thornton’s Corners). In the afternoon he went to Columbus or further north to Reach Township. In the evening he preached either in the “Free Church” in Whitby or in Oshawa. Today in a car this would make a pleasant Sunday drive. It was a long way to travel each Sunday on horseback.

As part of his church work he was active in church administrative meetings held in his area and in Canada West (Ontario). These are called Presbyteries and Synods. He was either chairman or secretary (moderator and clerk) for most of his ministry. When his denomination united with another Presbyterian denomination in 1861, to form the Canada Presbyterian Church, he was chairman of the meeting and declared the new church established. To honour his work in the church and in education, Princeton University, the Presbyterian College in the United States, gave him a Doctor of Divinity degree (D.D.) “He was an acknowledged leader in his church”.

With the organization of the Canada Presbyterian Church, the old secessionist congregation at Thornton’s Corners was divided. The part that lived in the Town of Whitby joined with the Free Church congregation there. Those living in Oshawa built a new church on Simcoe Street. We now know this new church as St. Andrews United Church. For two years Robert Thornton was a minister of both Whitby and Oshawa and the brick church at Thornton’s Corners that had served the community for twenty-five years was closed. The cemetery continued to be used by the Presbyterians in Whitby and Oshawa and later became known as Union Cemetery, used by both communities and by people of all faiths.

In 1864 the Whitby and Oshawa congregations were separated. Whitby called a new minister and Robert Thornton remained as minister of Oshawa. The last ten years of his life were a happier, quieter time. Both Columbus and Whitby had ministers of their own which cut down on his travelling. He served on the Home Missions Committee, his first love, and he served as secretary of the Presbytery of Ontario and rarely missed a meeting. He had the love and respect of his new congregation (St. Andrew’s, Oshawa) and he saw the acceptance of universal free education for all children.

In the community Robert Thornton was a Reformer. He was a leader in the Temperance Movement and fought for better Sunday observance. He had as a goal a library in every community and an education for every child.

When Robert Thornton arrived in Whitby it was part of “the Wild West”... a frontier community. It was a hard drinking, anything goes community. Whiskey was sold by the gallon… 25 cents a gallon was considered expensive! By 1840 the new settlers began to battle the dangers they saw in drunkenness. Robert Thornton was a leader in this fight. The first demonstration, a march from Oshawa to Whitby, was organized in his home at Thornton’s Corners. The Sons of Temperance soon had halls in every town. Robert Thornton was very active with “The Sons” movement, speaking in surrounding townships and counties for temperance. One Oshawa old-timer (Samuel Pedlar) wrote that the rally of the Sons of Temperance held in Oshawa sin 1852, which included senators and congressmen from the United States “was the most memorable assemblage of prominent men ever witnessed in this part of Canada”.

In such a frontier community, a day of rest meant little or nothing. People worked long hours seven days a week, and sometimes they worked until the job was done. Sunday observance, a day of rest, meant that families could have some time together. It meant a six day working week, working sixty to seventy working hours a week. This was considered a big forward step. It meant time to read, time to develop the mind, time to spend on timeless values. Robert Thornton has been credited with doing the most towards Sunday observance in Ontario County.

Robert Thornton is remembered today for his work in education. As part of that work he fought for libraries in every district. An old minister wrote that he explained to meetings of young people how to get a library of their own for their own advancement. He is given credit for “the excellent system of school section libraries established by the township about 1854”. The libraries throughout the old “Canada West” that had the most books and were also close at hand were not the Public Libraries or the school libraries as we would expect but the church libraries. For many years each congregation was required to report the number of books in their library.

In education in Ontario County, Robert Thornton was the outstanding leader. “By his lectures and writings he aroused great interest in education. He published several useful school books, notably the ‘Instructive Reader’.” From about 1840 until his death in 1875 he held office in the Boards of Education. It is likely that his first job was as Inspector of Schools in 1839.

When he first arrived in Whitby there were only two or three schools in the township. The teaching was done by anyone who was willing and who also could read and write. His congregation not only built a church but also a school. They went to Scotland to get a qualified teacher in John Thornton. In 1841, the schools became “Common Schools” with a grant from the government. When the first school commissioners were appointed, Rev. R. H. Thornton was one so appointed. In 1846, under Egerton Ryerson, the common Schools were organized into a school system with local superintendents.

From that time he served as Superintendent of Schools in Whitby Township, and later when East Whitby Township was formed, as Superintendent of Schools there. When Robert Thornton was appointed Township Superintendent by the Ontario County Council, there were five basic issues… “A central school (for Oshawa), secondary education, a head teacher, education for all, and some way of paying for these”. He struggled with these e issues until 1871, a few years before his death.

Robert Thornton fought for education for all. In 1846 in Toronto, where the opportunity was greatest, the attendance at school was less than one quarter of the children of school age. About half the children were being educated. Parents who sent their children to school had to pay extra taxes. The children of bankers and lawyers would be educated but not so frequently the children of the poor. The reformers asked for a school tax on all property to pay for schooling for the poor. The other side suggested making the schools compete for students, thus getting better teachers, and exempt the very poor from school taxes. There were those who suggested that students would always appreciate schools more if they had to make some personal sacrifice. Unfortunately this would mean for large families an extra tax for each child attending school. A property tax with education for every child, won out. While Robert Thornton was superintendent in 1862, education for all was introduced in East Whitby Township.

Dr. T. Kaiser quoted the School Board Treasurer’s Report for 1861. The board spent $1,022.92. This amount paid all the salaries for changes in the school, the fuel to heat the schools, and equipment. Robert Thornton as superintendent received $10.00 for expenses. The cost of education has grown and grown.

Such a small amount of money to spend on schools meant poor buildings and scarcity of equipment. There were no pencils, pens, or paper given out. Robert Thornton had to struggle to get maps for the high schools. He struggled to get and keep good teachers. When there were more students than the Oshawa schools could hold, they used the Sons of Temperance Hall for classrooms until new schools could be built. Always there was too little money and too much to be done. In 1870, almost at the end of Robert Thornton’s time as Superintendent of Education, the assessment for educational purposes in East Whitby Township, including Oshawa, was $443.10. This would not pay for one caretaker for one month today. “Whatever might be the discouragements, I felt ever impelled onwards…” Robert Thornton wrote.

A secondary school was needed. After a student completed the fourth book (grade 8) he had to leave the county to go to high school. A grammar school was organized in Whitby in 1846. Robert Thornton was one of the first trustees. His son, Robert Junior, was one of the early students. The first grammar school building was built in 1849.

Robert Thornton gave as his aim in education to train… “Not only the teachers of Ontario, but the professors of the colleges, enlightened judges, large-hearted legislators, and Christian ministers”. How well he succeeded can be seen in the report from about 1875. “The Whitby Grammar School has sent to the university more students than any other high school in the province. Almost half of the successful candidates for Third Class Teachers’ Certificates come from this school”.

The Superintendent of Education not only worked with school programs and equipment but with teachers as well. When East Whitby and Whitby were separated, the teachers in Whitby Township made a presentation to Robert Thornton and said, “We would sincerely thank you for the friendly advice, ready sympathy, and kind encouragement so frankly and affectionately bestowed”. The chairman of the meeting, Wm. McCabe, then principal of the Whitby Grammar School, became influential as president of an insurance company. The secretary, J.H. Greenwood, went to England and became a cabinet minister in the British government, and was made Viscount Greenwood. We can never know how much Dr. Thornton’s encouragement meant to the young people who began their careers as teachers in Whitby and East Whitby Township.

During Dr. Thornton’s time many schools were built. This was the time of the little red school house. The old log or frame schools were replaced with brick. One such school is to be seen on Bloor Street just west of Oshawa. It was built in 1873. Sinclair School has a new addition but the old school is still there, built in 1874. Until 1970 there was a two-room yellow brick school north of Camp Samac, built in 1867. There was a school at Thornton’s Corners, near the present Thornton Community Centre which used to be a two-room school house. The red school house on Thickson Road was built in 1880, after Dr. Thornton’s time. There was a two-room school house in Columbus, School Section 6, built in 1882. The first meeting to set up the County of Ontario in 1852 apparently was held in the brick school house which was on Dufferin Street in Port Whitby. Most of these schools, if they are still standing, are now used for other purposes. In their time and in Dr. Thornton’s, they represented a great advance.

With very little money and very little to work with, Robert Thornton accomplished much in the pioneering of schools in our area. He gave the credit to his faith in education… “The vast importance of education”. The difficulties would have “Repressed the zeal and clogged the energies of anyone less untiring than an educational enthusiast”. This was a time of religious revivals and camp meetings. It was a time when the “better people” made fun of religious enthusiasm. “Some of my friends have regarded me as somewhat of an enthusiast in the matter of education”. He was willing to accept the name and the implied put down… an enthusiast for education!

Robert Thornton touched many young people’s lives. His influence was felt with many who became leaders in their fields. It would be easy to suggest that anyone who grew up in Whitby, East Whitby or Oshawa would have known Dr. Thornton and would have come under his influence, but that would be a great exaggeration. We know that there were people in the Dunbarton-Claremont area who told how Dr. Thornton had encouraged them and helped them with their education, and we know that there were young people in his own congregation whose lives he influenced.

William and David Ormiston were brothers who grew up on a farm north-east of Oshawa. Because at that time there were no high schools in the township, the older brother, William, lived for a year with the Thornton family. This enabled Dr. Thornton to help him prepare for university. William Ormiston became one of the outstanding ministers of his time. For some years he had a large church in New York City. The younger brother, David, became a lawyer and was active in the town and in the church in Whitby. William Smith was a young lad when Dr. Thornton was his minster but his influence was part of the Smith home. William Smith grew up to become the Hon. Wm. Smith, P.C. (Privy Counsellor) for almost twenty years a Member of Parliament for this area. Dr. T. Kaiser, who was a leading doctor in Oshawa and became Mayor of Oshawa and briefly and M.P., grew up under Dr. Thornton’s ministry. J.W. Bengough, who drew many of the cartoons that are reprinted in our history books, grew up in Whitby and his family went to the Presbyterian Church. He ran his own magazine in Toronto and “was an ardent church-goer and prohibitionist”. John M. King was the young minister who succeeded Dr. Thornton as minister of Columbus, and worked under his care. John King became principal of Manitoba College. A son in law, Thomas Kirkland, who married Jane Thornton, the eldest, became principal of the Toronto Normal School and was a leader in developing Ontario’s School System. A son, Robert Thornton, Jr., became a minister holding churches in Montreal, Glasgow, Scotland, and London, England. Several other young men of his congregation became ministers; among them were Albert Ormiston; E.W. Panton; John Dunbar; Gilbert Tweedie. There were those who taught in the schools: J. McBrien became Superintendent of Education in Ontario County and helped for some thirty years to shape the local school system. A. Marling was a principal of Whitby Grammar School and an elder in the Whitby Church, who became Inspector of High Schools for Ontario.

In 1875, Robert Thornton died, aged 68, in Oshawa. He had been minister of the Whitby congregation from 1833 to 1861. From 1861 to 1864 he had been minister of both the Whitby and Oshawa congregations. From 1864 to his death he had been minister for St. Andrews, Oshawa. At the time of his death he was one of the examiners for the Board of Education. His congregation wore black armbands to show their grief and loss and the schools and stores in the Village of Oshawa closed the day of his funeral. His congregation wrote that they had lost “their father” in the faith, a strange compliment to pay an old Secessionist minister.

Robert Thornton lived through al time of change. The community was moving from the wild west of the frontier of Upper Canada to the settled law abiding farms of old Ontario. He began his work in Canada when William the Fourth was king and saw the acceptance of the new order and new morality of Queen Victoria’s reign. “We are living in such a time of change. The new hymns of our day emphasize that “joy is like the rain; that life is a dance; they’ll know us by our love. The new morality is almost an ode to joy.” “Involvement” is a favourite word. The older people who think in terms of work and service and sacrifice don’t seem to understand the new morality, the new freedom. It was so in Robert Thornton’s time. He was part of the wave of the “new freedom”, the “new morality” of his time. The opportunity for education was a part of that new freedom.

The Dr. Robert Thornton Public School is named after him. There was a school at Thornton’s Corners apparently built by 1840. J. K. Ross says that it was a brick school. If it was brick, it must have been the first so built in the county. From that time there was always a school at Thornton’s Corners. For many years this was the school for School Section No. 5, East Whitby Township. A two-room school house was built some years later. In 1952, Oshawa annexed the area. The old two-roomed school was condemned. A new school, Woodcrest, was built and the students living in the annexed area attended the new school. In 1954, a new school was built in East Whitby Township to serve the south west area of the township including those in the township who had attended the old Thornton’s Corners School. This school was in Township School Area No. 3 (TSA3), replacing the old smaller school sections. In October, 1954, the Home and School Association held a contest to name the school. The name “Dr. Robert Thornton Public School” was chosen as the official name. The school was completed in December and officially opened in September, 1955. This new school is located within walking distance of the Cairn which marks the beginnings of Robert Thornton’s ministry in Whitby Township, and carries his name, Dr. Robert Thornton Public School.

If you were asked “Why was this school called after a minister, how would you answer?