AYRE, WILLIAM, teacher; b. 1782 or 1783 in Ireland; d. 14 April 1855 in Halifax.
Little is known of William Ayre’s early life. By his own account, he taught school in Nova Scotia for some time before 1832 when he was teaching in the vicinity of Antigonish. In 1835 he left the mainland for Port Hood, Cape Breton, where after a short stay his licence was withdrawn. Despite reputedly excellent qualifications, his career was marred by one serious flaw – he found it difficult to remain sober for any length of time! His career thereafter was remarkable for great bouts of spending, innumerable debts, and an almost constant flow of petitions to government officials to have his licence restored.
In 1836 Ayre left Port Hood but remained in Cape Breton, teaching without a licence and without government assistance in Hillsboro and Mabou during the following year. In June 1837 he began building a seminary for general education at Mabou, but lack of money soon caused his school to become known as “Ayre’s Folly.” In 1839 he sent a petition to Lieutenant Governor Sir Colin Campbell* asking that his licence be restored, which would make his school eligible for government aid. He tried yet again in the following year, but his application was opposed by the authorities at his former school in Port Hood. Defending himself against their allegations, Ayre argued that the “petitioner’s school regulations provide that after each examination, he shall have a few days vacation, when if he visits his friends and takes a Gala day to himself, it is not understood that he was accountable for the same. . . . It is notorious that the Port Hood schoolhouse was the place where the guardians of youth and education met to fight their family battles. . . . Petitioner quit Port Hood schoolhouse. The school did not quit him.” Despite his best efforts both petitions were refused. Undaunted, he appealed again, and on 22 April 1841, by order in council “in consideration of his age and great usefulness as a teacher,” the amount owing him was paid, and it is presumed his licence was reissued at this time as he continued to teach in the province.
In 1844, while teaching in North East Margaree, Ayre advertised his school in the Novascotian, noting that “the School Department is furnished by the Teacher with a Library consisting of: approved School Books, Nautical and Scientific works, Drawing Paper, Stationery, . . . Spelling Books, Chambers’ Educational course, Grammars, Dictionaries, Jones’s writing system, Morrison’s and other Arithmetics, . . . all of which he vends to his students on accommodating terms.” He also appears to have had an interest in adult education for he added, “to which Library, as well as to the perusal of two weekly newspapers, adult scholars have access on favourable conditions.”
Ayre’s well-written complaints to various school boards and government officials suggest that he himself had probably had a superior education. His bills were always detailed. In 1849, when his annual salary was about £128, he sent in another petition claiming £121, including five shillings for the “treats” of rum and shrub, a beverage made from fruit, sometimes containing spirits. Writing to the Nova-scotian in April 1851 from a school at the Ross settlement (Rossville), Margaree, where he had constructed a sundial for the use of his students and had purchased a globe recommended by the superintendent of education, John William Dawson*, Ayre described the general indifference of the community toward his efforts to improve education: “I cannot offend truth when I assert that the majority of this community have not acquired a desire of reading, either as regards mental improvement, or amusement; that to read or understand what we read, are indubitably the first requisites; [with] which to establish a sound system of Education.”
William Ayre was still teaching in Cape Breton and writing letters to government officials in 1852. By this time he had taught in Nova Scotia for more than 35 years and was anxious to “secure a resting place for the remainder of my days.” Teaching in Inverness County until 1854, he eventually retired to Halifax where he died on 14 April 1855, aged 72 years.
PANS, MG 5, Halifax County, Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax, reg. of burials, 1855 (mfm.); RG 14, 3, 1832; 39, nos.64–65; 70, 1852. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), Reg. of burials, 1855 (mfm. at PANS). “A documentary study of early educational policy,” ed. D. C. Harvey, PANS Bull. (Halifax), 1 (1937–39), no.1. Novascotian, 18 Nov. 1844, 28 April 1851, 21 April 1853. Place-names of N.S., 399, 409. H. H. Johnston, “The contributions of the Scottish teachers to early Cape Breton education, 1802–1865” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1973), 99–105.