JESSOP, JOHN, teacher, printer, journalist, traveller, educational administrator, political aspirant, and immigration agent; b. 29 June 1829 in Norwich, England, eldest son of John Jessop and Mary Phillipps; m. 30 March 1868 Margaret (Meta) Faucette in Victoria; they had one adopted daughter, Jessie Scott (Agar); d. 30 March 1901 in Victoria.
British Columbia’s first provincial superintendent of education was a typically Victorian schoolmaster, inasmuch as he placed considerable emphasis on the study of history and on the lives of great men. Yet John Jessop was notably reticent in discussing his own boyhood and early schooling in England. Since his family was not wealthy, it is unlikely that he received a classical education; he may, however, have attended a local grammar school in Norfolk.
The Jessop family immigrated to Upper Canada in 1846. After a perilous voyage they landed at New York and from there made their way to Toronto. They settled on a farm near Port Perry in Reach Township. Little is known about young John Jessop’s activities during his first years in the province, but he may have worked as a printer on one of the newspapers in Whitby or Oshawa. He left the Church of England in 1849 and joined a Methodist congregation in Whitby.
Methodism was closely associated with public education in Upper Canada and, through the efforts of superintendent Egerton Ryerson*, the province had established a well-organized system of tax-supported elementary schools, usually called common schools. Jessop, who greatly admired the system and its founder, began his career as a teacher in May 1853 when he enrolled in the Toronto Normal School. In October, having completed a standard six-month course of study, he was awarded a second-class teaching certificate, and for the next two years he taught at a common school in Durham County. He returned to the Normal School in May 1855 and after a further six months’ study obtained a first-class A certificate. The A designation indicated that he had graduated in the upper division of his class.
Jessop then taught for two years at Fingal and at Whitby. Despite his qualifications and testimonials from the local board of public instruction, he inexplicably quit teaching in the spring of 1858. His activities during the months that followed are uncertain. Possibly he was in Toronto, or in Oshawa working on the town’s newspaper, the Vindicator. He was definitely in Oshawa in the spring of 1859, preparing to commence a three-thousand-mile overland journey to the gold-fields of British Columbia.
The reasons for Jessop’s decision to travel overland to the Pacific are clouded by romantic speculation. No doubt he was dissatisfied working as a village schoolteacher and imagined a brighter future across the Rockies. But he evidently intended to establish himself there as a newspaper proprietor, not as a teacher. He may also have been motivated by the annexationist sentiments that were current in Upper Canada concerning the Red River settlement and Rupert’s Land. These sentiments were fuelled by reports from the expeditions of John Palliser*, Simon James Dawson, and Henry Youle Hind, and were fanned by many Ontario newspapers, including the Vindicator. Jessop persuaded its owners to support an expedition that would demonstrate the feasibility and value of an overland route via Red River to the Pacific coast.
Jessop left Oshawa on 25 April 1859 in company with Elijah Duff of Belleville and four other adventurers. They travelled by steamer to Fort William (Thunder Bay), where they purchased a north canoe and hired a native Indian steersman and a Métis guide. They followed an old fur-brigade route via Great Dog Lake (Dog Lake) to Lake Winnipeg and, with great difficulty, reached Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) on 13 June 1859. Jessop and Duff resolved to continue to the Pacific after they had recuperated, unlike their companions who decided to remain at Red River.
During his month-long layover in Upper Fort Garry, Jessop was introduced to James Ross* and others who favoured annexation to Canada. He expressed many of their concerns in a dispatch sent to the Vindicator on 13 July, calling for the overthrow of “that monstrous incubus, the Hudson’s Bay Company, that has been and is still spreading itself like a deadly pall over half a continent, crippling and stultifying the projects of all who have attempted in any way to interfere with its unjust monopoly.” He castigated the Canadian government for “weak, vacillating supineness” in not embarking on a vigorous annexation program. It was his first published political diatribe and would stand him in good stead with those who were critical of the HBC on Vancouver Island.
On 23 July 1859 Jessop and Duff set off on the second leg of their journey. They reached the foothills of the Rockies after two months’ travel and, with the help of a native guide, crossed the mountains via the Boundary Pass (South Kootenay Pass). At Colville, in Washington Territory, they parted company. Alone and on foot, Jessop followed the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.). He arrived in Victoria early in January 1860, nearly eight months after leaving Oshawa. It was a remarkable accomplishment, marred only by the fact that he had had to dip into American territory on the final stage of his all-British route across the continent.
In the spring Jessop travelled to the Cariboo gold-fields. After a few fruitless months of prospecting, he made his way to New Westminster where he found work with Leonard McClure*, proprietor of the New Westminster Times. While working as a printer at the Times he met a fellow Methodist from Upper Canada, John Robson*, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Early the next year Jessop returned to Victoria to work on McClure’s new journal, the Daily Press. Before leaving New Westminster, however, he had written a long letter to the Daily Colonist (Victoria) in which he declared that he was “entirely antagonistic to the existing government” and to the “misrule” of Governor James Douglas*. The letter resulted in a favourable notice from Amor De Cosmos*, the newspaper’s editor. While disclaiming any designs on public office, Jessop was already positioning himself, and over the next few years he came to be associated with the element on Vancouver Island that favoured political reform and confederation with Canada.
By mid 1861 Jessop had decided to quit the newspaper business and resume his teaching career. Only three government-supported schools existed on Vancouver Island: one at Victoria, established in 1852; one at Nanaimo (1853); and one at Craigflower Farm (1855). A handful of other schools in Victoria were conducted as private ventures or were maintained under religious auspices. In a letter written from Victoria in August 1861 he informed Egerton Ryerson that he intended to open a non-sectarian school modelled on the “admirable system” Ryerson had instituted in Upper Canada. “My object,” he wrote confidently, “is to establish its reputation, and when the city is incorporated to fall in with the common school system that will then be adopted, and place myself at the head of the common schools of Victoria and Vancouver Island.” The following month he opened a private, fee-paying academy called Central School. Initially housed in rented premises in Victoria’s commercial area, the school was so named to distinguish it from the government-supported Victoria District School situated at the edge of the city. As he predicted, the venture flourished, and in December he moved his school to a large new building which he had erected.
At its height Central School accommodated close to a hundred pupils and employed two assistant teachers. But its success may have been due to more than its modest fees, non-sectarian syllabus, and convenient location. In the early 1860s Victoria’s population included a number of white American families who refused to send their children to the Victoria District School or other racially desegregated schools in the city. Jessop apparently agreed to set the admission policies of Central School to suit the prejudices of these families. That he did so (and the evidence is not conclusive) does not mean that he harboured the same prejudices. But it does suggest that he was more interested in exploiting a commercial opportunity than in promoting a truly public school-system. In the event, his school suffered when the economy worsened and the city’s population declined. Despite frantic and sometimes churlish appeals from Jessop – who drew attention to the “thankless task” he had undertaken on behalf of the people of Victoria – enrolments fell and in March 1864 Central School closed. A sympathetic Daily Colonist reported that the closure was due to the “ill health” of the school’s proprietor. Jessop’s malady, however, was mainly financial.
Soon after, Jessop aligned himself with a movement, led by De Cosmos, for a free, non-sectarian, common school system. Writing in the Daily Colonist (then edited by McClure), he offered a five-point plan that was virtually identical to the Upper Canadian system. He also became active in a local citizens’ group campaigning for a government-supported school closer to the city. As it happened, the largest building in Victoria “consecrated to the service of education” was Jessop’s defunct Central School, a building he offered to lease to the government should it establish a common school system.
The agitation for free, non-sectarian, elementary schools came to fruition in May 1865, when the Vancouver Island Legislative Assembly passed the Common Schools Act. The measure established a General Board of Education, provided for more common schools, and authorized the appointment of a superintendent of education. Alfred Penderell Waddington*, a Victoria entrepreneur, was chosen over Jessop as superintendent. However, the board agreed to lease Jessop’s Central School and – having organized it into boys’ and girls’ divisions – to incorporate it into the newly created system. Despite opposition from some of its members, the board also agreed to hire the owner of the building as a teacher. But in confirming the appointment, it emphasized that Jessop’s title was to be “Boys’ Teacher, Central School,” rather than “Principal” or “Headmaster.” Indeed, although he implied otherwise, Jessop had no more status and no greater salary ($1,200 per annum) than his colleague William Henry Burr at the Victoria District School.
The Common Schools Act of 1865 remained in force on Vancouver Island for three years after that colony was annexed to mainland British Columbia in 1866. The system, however, soon began to unravel. As British Columbia teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, Governor Frederick Seymour* enacted stringent financial measures. In September 1867 Waddington resigned as superintendent; by that time funds had dried up entirely and for the next year Jessop and his colleagues, who had been working on reduced wages, were not paid. Their situation did not improve when new school legislation was introduced in February 1869.
The Common School Ordinance of that year, which dissolved the General Board of Education, made local trustees responsible for raising a portion of school funds. When that amount was in place, the Executive Council would provide a grant for teachers’ salaries. The Victoria school district, whose residents had balked at a poll tax, was unable to meet its obligations. Since it did not receive its grant, it could not pay its teachers. In protest, Jessop and Burr announced in September 1870 that they were withdrawing their services. They hoped that their action – which has been called the first teachers’ strike in Canadian history – would pressure the city government into enacting a school tax by-law. The tactic failed, and for the next two years the Victoria District and Central schools remained closed.
In the meantime Jessop continued to angle for a position of influence within the nearly moribund system. After Waddington resigned the superintendency, he had applied for it. His services were declined and the post remained vacant until it was abolished by the 1869 ordinance. He also applied for the unsalaried position of inspector general of schools when it was created in 1870. It was awarded to a Cambridge-educated barrister, Edward Graham Alston*, who resigned it the following year. Once more Jessop applied; once more he was disappointed, and the post remained unfilled.
Jessop was also disappointed in his bids for elected office. He made the first of these in September 1870, just a few weeks after instigating the so-called teachers’ strike, when he announced his decision to stand for Kootenay and Columbia River in the last election of the colonial legislature. He embarked on an arduous tour of the vast and sparsely populated riding, on a campaign advocating tariff reform and responsible government. His opponent, Robert James Skinner, district agent for the HBC, focused on local concerns such as improved roads and postal service. Not surprisingly perhaps, Skinner was elected. Jessop was rebuffed again at the polls a year later when he stood for the federal riding of Vancouver Island.
After this defeat Jessop worked briefly as a printer for the Daily Colonist. The paper was then in the hands of John Robson, who had supported Jessop’s candidacy in both his electoral bids. Jessop also re-launched Central School as a private academy with the help of his wife Margaret, a schoolmistress. More important at this juncture of his career, he was introduced, probably by his wife, to Alexander Rocke Robertson*. Like Mrs Jessop active in the Sunday school of the Church of St John the Divine, Robertson was provincial secretary in the newly elected government. In December 1871 he asked Jessop for assistance in drafting a bill that would establish a comprehensive public school system for the province.
The bill and the statute subsequently passed by the legislature in March 1872 were modelled on legislation adopted in Ontario the year before, with two important exceptions. The British Columbia Public School Act did not provide for separate denominational schools and in this sense it carried on the strictly non-sectarian system established in Vancouver Island in 1865. It also differed in the narrow way in which it defined qualifications for the position of provincial superintendent of education. He had to have had at least five years’ teaching experience and hold “a first class certificate from some College . . . in some other Province . . . where a Public School system has been in operation.”
Jessop later denied having been the author of the contentious section, and possibly it was the work of his well-meaning friend Robertson. Even with it, he had to lobby the lieutenant governor, Joseph William Trutch, and the premier, John Foster McCreight*, aggressively when another teacher whose qualifications were similar to his unexpectedly applied for the superintendency. Fortunately for Jessop, his rival withdrew at the last moment, and on 17 April 1872 Jessop was officially confirmed as superintendent of education. The office carried a salary of $2,000 per annum, which made it one of the best paid in the provincial civil service.
Jessop’s appointment marked the pinnacle of his educational career. During his six-year superintendency the public school system expanded rapidly and improved immeasurably. The number of common schools increased from 14 to 45, and the number of teachers more than tripled. Arrangements for annual teachers’ institutes, or conventions, were made in 1874 to promote professional development and in 1876 the province’s first high school was opened in Victoria. Jessop was largely responsible for both innovations. Each year he dealt with a staggering volume of correspondence; he also travelled – on foot, on horseback, and by canoe – over immense distances and across difficult terrain in order to inspect every school in the province.
The educational policies Jessop espoused were grounded on a simple conviction that schools were fundamental to the peace and good order of society. Children, he wrote in 1872, “will be just what education or the want of it may make them. With it a majority may grow up respectable members of society, without it many will become inmates of our jails and penitentiaries.” Thus he did not hesitate to berate parents who failed to enrol their children. And, although he was unable to secure an effective compulsory attendance clause in the school act, he did institute a policy whereby teachers’ salaries were tied to enrolments. Jessop’s goal of providing “schools for a scattered people” also led him to advocate the establishment of provincial boarding-schools in sparsely settled districts. Unfortunately the only one ever established, Central Boarding School, which opened in 1874 at Cache Creek, was plagued with problems. Equipment and funds were misappropriated by the resident managers amid scandals of immorality among pupils. While the problems were eventually resolved, Jessop was blamed for having promoted the experimental school and for failing to supervise it adequately.
The controversy severely damaged Jessop’s reputation as an administrator and thereafter he was criticized on a growing number of counts. He was accused of favouritism towards Ontario-trained teachers and of bullying local school trustees who disagreed with his policies. By 1878 the Victoria Daily Standard, which had initially applauded his appointment, was demanding the dismissal of the “Caesar of the educational system.” He also came under fire in the provincial legislature when George Anthony Walkem formed a government in June 1878. Ultimately the attacks led to Jessop’s resignation. But although the criticisms may have been politically charged, he was not (as some writers have asserted) the victim of an “unscrupulous clique” of politicians who had long intended to “liquidate” him.
The Walkem–Beaven faction, the “government” party that forced Jessop’s resignation, was the successor to the De Cosmos–Walkem faction that had originally supported him. Aside from a brief period when an opposition coalition led by Andrew Charles Elliott* held office, the Walkem faction was in power continuously from 1872 to 1883. For most of his tenure Jessop worked comfortably with Walkem’s colleagues, including Minister of Finance Robert Beaven*, who is alleged to have been Jessop’s “old bête noire.” Unwisely, however, in a province notorious for political partisanship, Jessop allowed himself to be identified with the Elliott faction. Unwisely, too, during a period marked by a severe economic recession, he was critical of financial stringencies imposed on the education office. He also incurred the government’s ire in July 1878 when he forwarded a resolution from the provincial teachers’ convention criticizing proposed changes to the school act. The situation came to a head on 23 August during a budget debate in the legislature. When the opposition leader, William Smithe*, condemned plans to reduce the superintendent’s salary, Walkem maliciously derided the incumbent. He accused Jessop of holding antiquated and inferior qualifications, of committing gross grammatical errors in his published reports, and generally of being “unfit in point of education” to hold office. Three days later, citing the premier’s attack, Jessop submitted his resignation. It was accepted at once.
Earlier that month the entire Board of Education had resigned, an action taken not in support of the beleaguered superintendent, but in protest against the government’s plans to curtail its powers. Walkem’s government was unimpressed by the resignations. Within weeks a new superintendent had been appointed and in 1879 a new school act was in place. Modelled on policies and regulations in Ontario, it abolished the Board of Education and made the office of superintendent directly accountable to the minister responsible for schools.
Immediately after he resigned, and in an effort to vindicate his reputation, Jessop once again stood as parliamentary candidate for the Vancouver Island riding. He was well known in the constituency through his work as school inspector, and so expected to do well at the polls. However he suffered a humiliating defeat in the election held in 1878. He placed last among the four candidates. His critics in the teaching profession later pointed to the results when refuting claims that Jessop had been a popular school administrator persecuted by a few venal politicians. Certainly Jessop was acutely embarrassed by his poor showing and never again stood for public office. Neither did he involve himself in any way with the public school system, ever again.
In 1879 Jessop applied unsuccessfully for the post of senior clerk in the Victoria post office. He then rejoined the press-room staff at the Daily Colonist, where he worked until March 1883, when he was appointed provincial immigration agent. He owed the appointment to his long-time friend John Robson, provincial secretary in a newly elected government led by William Smithe. The federal government subsequently assumed responsibility for the immigration office and on 4 Dec. 1883 Jessop was gazetted dominion immigration agent. He occupied the office, which in May 1892 reverted to provincial jurisdiction, for nearly 18 years.
The salary was not handsome; in the 1890s, Jessop was earning less than half the amount he had received as superintendent of education. But the agency was a congenial position for him, since it gave him an opportunity to visit outlying districts, manage a hostel for newly arrived immigrants, gather statistics on the local economy, and dispense promotional literature on the province he knew intimately. His reports were consistently optimistic about British Columbia’s future, especially after the transcontinental railway, which he had advocated in 1859, was completed. Like many of his contemporaries he regretted the presence of the Chinese who had helped to build the line, but he was not virulently racist. In his testimony to the dominion royal commission on Chinese immigration in 1884 he described the Chinese as an “industrious and quiet population.”
Early in 1900 Jessop wrote a poignant letter to Premier Charles Augustus Semlin* requesting a pension for his many years’ service. He noted that he was 71 and suffering from heart disease, and so was unlikely to draw on the government for long. His request was still under consideration on 30 March 1901 when he collapsed from a heart attack during a lunch break. He was buried on 1 April at Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery beside his wife, who had died about three years earlier.
Jessop has been called “the Ryerson of British Columbia,” but to give him this title is to exaggerate his stature. His contributions in the field of education were, nevertheless, considerable. As a schoolmaster in the 1860s, he was instrumental in introducing the Ryersonian educational model to Vancouver Island and in the process he helped to Canadianize the public school system there. As superintendent, he deserves credit for developing a workable school system throughout the province, for promoting the concept of compulsory education, and for advancing the teaching profession. And although other Ontario-trained administrators might have followed a similar course, few could have matched Jessop’s energy and stamina in carrying out the duties of the province’s chief education officer.
Of his many accomplishments, the one in which Jessop took greatest pride was his work with the Methodist congregation in Victoria. In 1861 he had been elected to the board of trustees of the city’s first Methodist church, Pandora Avenue Church, and in 1862 he was named to the church’s quarterly official board. He served on both boards until his death. He organized the church choir and was for many years superintendent of the Sunday school. In 1869 he was appointed an exhorter and, to the relief of his congregation, succeeded in closing a brothel which had long operated next door. He played a prominent role when British Columbia Methodists attained the status of a conference in 1887 and he represented his province at general conference at least once. He helped raise money for the city’s second Methodist church, dedicated in 1885, and contributed substantially from his own savings towards the cost of a new church on Pandora Avenue. Metropolitan Church, designed by Thomas Hooper and opened in 1890, remains one of the most impressive buildings in the city. Jessop also bequeathed $3,000 to the church for a peal of bells. The bells were eventually installed in 1937 and dedicated as the John Jessop Memorial Chimes. They are his only public memorial.
John Jessop’s 1859 letter to the Vindicator (Oshawa, [Ont.]) was reprinted in the Globe of 2 Sept. 1859 as “North-west correspondence.” His account of his journey to the Pacific, “Over the plains in ’59,” appeared in the Victoria Daily Colonist, 1 Jan. 1890; it was evidently based on a journal Jessop had kept during the trip and had allegedly published in the 1860s, but these other versions appear not to have survived. Jessop’s letter to Egerton Ryerson of 16 Aug. 1861 appears as “An early letter from Victoria, V.I.,” ed. G. W. Spragge, in CHR, 29 (1948): 54–56. His reports as superintendent of education are found in B.C., Education Office, Annual reports of the public schools (Victoria), 1872/73–1877/78, and those as dominion immigration agent in the immigration branch reports in Can., Parl., Sessional papers, annual reports of the Dept. of Agriculture, 1884–92. His reports as immigration agent for British Columbia, 1892–1901, were not published and are no longer extant.
AO, RG 2, C-6-C; F-3-B; H-1. BCARS, GR 450; GR 526; GR 1372; GR 1467; GR 1468. UCC, British Columbia Conference Arch. (Vancouver), Mrs T. R. Johns, “History of Metropolitan Church, Victoria, B.C.” (typescript, n.d.); Metropolitan United Church (Victoria), Heritage Committee Arch., 83-85 (John Jessop). Jean Barman, “Transfer, imposition or consensus? The emergence of educational structures in nineteenth-century British Columbia schools,” Schools in the west: essays in Canadian educational history, ed. N. M. Sheehan et al. (Calgary, 1986), 241–64; The west beyond the west: a history of British Columbia (Toronto, 1991). BCARS, The school record: a guide to government archives relating to public education in British Columbia, 1852–1946, comp. P. A. Dunae ([Victoria, 1992]). John Calum, “Becoming a teacher: some historical perspectives,” Alberta Journal of Educational Research (Edmonton), 27 (1981): 272–84. Thomas Fleming, “In the imperial age and after: patterns of British Columbia school leadership and the institution of the superintendency, 1849–1988,” BC Studies, no.81 (spring 1989): 50–76. F. H. Johnson, A history of public education in British Columbia (Vancouver, 1964); John Jessop: goldseeker and educator; founder of the British Columbia school system (Vancouver, 1971); “The Ryersonian influence on the public school system of British Columbia,” BC Studies, no.10 (summer 1971): 26–34. Kerr, Biog. dict. of British Columbians. D. L. MacLaurin, “Education before the gold rush,” BCHQ, 2 (1938): 247–63; “The history of education in the crown colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia and in the province of British Columbia” (phd thesis, Univ. of Washington, Seattle, 1936). Methodist Recorder (Victoria), February 1900: 9; April 1901: 9 (copies in UCC, British Columbia Conference Arch.). R. T. Wright, Overlanders (Saskatoon, 1985).
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Cite This Article
Patrick A. Dunae, “JESSOP, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jessop_john_13E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Patrick A. Dunae|
|Title of Article:||JESSOP, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||April 2, 2023|