WEBSTER, JOSEPH HARDING, educator; b. 1833 or 1834 at Cambridge, Kings County, N.S.; d. 21 April 1868 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
After being educated in Nova Scotia, Joseph Harding Webster taught for three years in the model school at Truro. He accepted appointment in November 1859 as master of the Normal School in Charlottetown, P.E.I. Although this institution had been the centre of intense controversy between Protestants and Roman Catholics since its opening in 1856 [see George Coles*], Webster was able to reform and expand its operations. The term was increased from three to five months, and two additional teachers were hired for the associated model school. In early 1862 Webster could announce that the number of trainees attending the Normal School had grown from the six he found on arrival to 45. In his periodic reports he continued to express pleasure at the development of the institution, and the Board of Education appears to have been satisfied that the Normal School was fulfilling its purposes.
Webster nevertheless became a frequent target for virulent abuse in the Liberal and Roman Catholic press. His harshest critic was the editor of the ultramontane Vindicator, who was widely believed to be Father Angus MacDonald*, rector of the rival St Dunstan’s College. The newspaper condemned the Normal School as “essentially a Protestant Institution” and Webster himself as a “foreign educational humbug”; the coeducational classes meant that the Normal School provided “little else than rendezvous for flirtation and courtship.” When the Vindicator also insinuated that Webster, then a bachelor, had improper relations with female students and that he had driven a female colleague to an early grave, Webster initiated a libel suit against the publisher, Edward Reilly*. The matter ended on 5 Oct. 1864 with a complete retraction by Reilly, but not before this libel case had become probably the most sensational news item in Prince Edward Island in the year of the Charlottetown conference.
In succeeding years Webster attracted little public attention and he appears to have performed his duties efficiently. On 9 March 1868 he retired as master of the Normal School for reasons of ill health. In the following month he died of “pulmonary consumption” at age 34, leaving a wife and one young child. He had played a decisive role in establishing the Normal School as a central institution in the Island’s educational system during its formative years.
PAPEI, P.E.I., Executive Council, Minutes, 10 March 1868. P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 1860, app.J; 1861, app.W; 1862, app.DD; 1864, app.N; Legislative Council, Debates and proc., 1879 (2nd session), 152. Examiner (Charlottetown), 3, 24 Dec. 1860; 26 Oct. 1863; 9 May 1864; 23 March, 27 April 1868. Islander, 13 March, 24 April 1868. Patriot (Charlottetown), 12 March, 23 April, 11 June 1868. Protestant and Evangelical Witness (Charlottetown), 26 Nov. 1859; 31 Jan. 1863; 9 Jan.; 14 May, 17 Sept. 1864. Ross’s Weekly (Charlottetown), 30 Nov. 1859. Summerside Journal (Summerside, P.E.I.), 26 March, 23 April 1868. Vindicator (Charlottetown), 21 Oct., 4, 11, 25 Nov. 1863; 6, 27 Jan., 2 March, 15 June, 13, 27 July, 5 Oct. 1864. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in P.E.I.,” chaps. 1–7.