TASSIE, WILLIAM, teacher and headmaster; b. 10 May 1815 in Dublin (Republic of Ireland), third of the eight children of James Tassie and Mary Stewart; m. in 1834 in Dublin Sarah Morgan, and they had no children; d. 21 Nov. 1886 at Peterborough, Ont.
William Tassie immigrated to Nelson Township in Upper Canada in 1834 with his wife, parents, brothers, and sisters. He taught briefly in Nelson Township before accepting a position at the first common school in Oakville. In 1839 Tassie went to the Gore District Grammar School at Hamilton as assistant master under John Rae*. In 1853 he moved to Galt (now part of Cambridge) where, as headmaster of the newly established Galt Grammar School, he built a national reputation for both himself and the school.
Under Tassie the enrolment in the school grew from 12 in 1853 to between 250 and 300 at the height of its fame in the 1860s. Four out of five boys who attended came from homes outside Galt: from across Canada, from the United States, and even from the West Indies. Tassie’s role was similar to that of John Strachan* during his teaching career at Cornwall and York (Toronto) earlier in the century; the alumni of their schools later formed a large percentage of the élite in Upper Canada. Families such as the Tuppers, Blakes, Mowats, Oslers, Codys, Keefers, Cronyns, Becks, Carlings, Boultons, Cayleys, and Galts sent their sons to “Tassie’s School.”
Tassie was an “old school” educator who opposed coeducation, favoured a curriculum centred on the classics, was a strict disciplinarian, and preferred residential schooling where the boys could be under constant supervision (at times over 40 boys stayed in his own home). According to a former pupil, the headmaster had “the bearing and dignity of a field-marshal and the walk and tread of an emperor.” Yet he was a dedicated, high-principled teacher who drove himself as well as others. Tassie’s aloofness was balanced by his sincerity and the warmth of his wife’s character. Left in a difficult financial situation after his death, she received a life annuity of $340 from the school’s old boys.
By the 1870s educational reform in Upper Canada had led to a stress on practical rather than classical education. In 1871 the Galt Grammar School was the first school in the province to be named a collegiate institute, but the introduction of provincial examinations, especially the intermediate examination begun in June 1876, and a system of grants paid according to the results of these examinations, precipitated the decline of the school. Students, especially those who had to pass the intermediate examination to become teachers, began to turn elsewhere and by 1881 the annual enrolment at the school had fallen to 50 boys. Tassie, however, held that education was largely for the building of character and remained a firm believer in education for its own sake, in clear defiance of the mounting preference for more scientific and practical training. But when many of his students were unsuccessful in provincial examinations his entire system came under criticism and pressure mounted on him to change his methods or leave. Unwilling to abandon his principles, he chose the latter course and resigned in the spring of 1881 under a cloud of controversy. He was succeeded by John E. Bryant, principal of Pickering College.
That fall Tassie opened a private boarding-school in Yorkville (now part of Toronto) where he again emphasized the classics. In 1884, still refusing to adapt his ideas to the changing conditions, he returned to the public system by accepting an appointment as headmaster of the Peterborough Collegiate Institute where his talents were sought, according to Henry John Cody*,”to improve its discipline.” Indeed enrolment did increase and one year later students and teachers were reported to be working harmoniously.
While an active teacher, Tassie had advanced his own educational qualifications. He had received a ba from the University of Toronto in 1856 and an ma two years later. In 1871 he was awarded an honorary lld from Queen’s College in Kingston. Tassie had also served as president of the Ontario Grammar School Teachers’ Association in 1869 and 1870 as well as in 1871 when it became the Ontario Grammar School Masters’ Association.
On 21 Nov. 1886 Tassie suffered a fatal stroke. Tributes poured in but perhaps the most appropriate summary of his later years came from the Educational Weekly: “Doctor Tassie . . . belonged to a school of educators whose opinions and methods have had to succumb to newer educational ideals.” By the last quarter of the century Tassie’s educational methods were clearly outmoded.
“The late Dr. Tassie,” Educational Weekly (Toronto), 4 (July-December 1886): 728–29. Galt Reporter (Galt, Ont.), 20 June 1871; 21 May 1875; 9 Dec. 1879; 6, 13, 20 May, 3, 24 June, 16 Sept. 1881; 3 Feb., 3 March 1882; 11 Dec. 1885; 26 Nov., 24 Dec. 1886; 7, 21 Jan. 1887. The Canadian almanac and repository of useful knowledge . . . (Toronto), 1869–71. Canadian biog. dict., 1: 478–81. Encyclopedia Canadiana. H. J. Cody, “Dr. William Tassie (1815–1886),” Canadian portraits: C.B.C. broadcasts, ed. R. G. Riddell (Toronto, 1940), 107–16. Picturesque and industrial Galt (Galt, 1902), 39. Thomas Carscadden, “History of the Gait Collegiate Institute, 1881–1914,” Waterloo Hist. Soc., Annual report (n.p.), 13 (1925): 134–38. H. J. Cody, “Dr. William Tassie,” School . . . Secondary Edition (Toronto), 26 (1937–38): 565–72, 652.
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