Wetherell, James Elgin, educator, editor, author, and office holder; b. 20 Sept. 1851 in Port Dalhousie, Upper Canada, second child of James Solomon Wetherell and Sarah Jane Hilts; m. first 15 Aug. 1878 Rebecca Randle Nason (d. 29 May 1912) in Weston (Toronto), and they had three children; m. secondly 2 Aug. 1916 Margaret Theresa Hübner Smith (d. 2 April 1933) in Toronto; they had no children; d. there 20 Oct. 1940 and was buried two days later in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
James Elgin Wetherell’s career in education and publishing was a departure from his family’s occupational background: his father was a blacksmith and carriage maker and his siblings found employment in the skilled trades and retail work. In 1853 the Wetherells moved to Newmarket in York County; from 1869 to 1872 James attended high school there. He then entered University College at the University of Toronto, where he studied classics and received a number of awards and scholarships.
After graduating with a ba in 1877, Wetherell taught Latin for two years at the Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock, served as headmaster of St Marys Collegiate Institute from 1879, and in 1883 accepted an appointment as principal of the Strathroy Grammar School. He retained his position at the school, which became a collegiate institute in 1885, until 1906. His students remembered him as a hard worker and a strict but fair disciplinarian, one who did not believe in corporal punishment and preferred to govern by winning his pupils’ respect and setting examples of blameless moral conduct. Stephen Butler Leacock* recalled that Wetherell gave him “my first lesson in the need for human kindliness as an element in humour.” During his time at Strathroy Wetherell’s academic ambitions grew: in 1891 he applied for the principal’s position at a new collegiate institute in west Toronto and in 1895 he sought to become a professor of Latin at University College. While neither application was successful, the two books of testimonials that Wetherell compiled demonstrate support for his administrative and pedagogical accomplishments from a wide range of fellow educators in southern Ontario schools. Wetherell’s association with the University of Toronto continued in 1905, when he joined its senate as a representative of the province’s high-school teachers. He succeeded John Seath* as one of two provincial inspectors of high schools in 1906, an appointment that shortly brought him to Toronto, and he held this post until 1917. From then on his other great interests – writing, editing, and publishing – defined his career. In the 1880s he had begun preparing schoolbooks for the Department of Education, and between 1917 and 1924 he served as its general editor of textbooks. In 1927 he became Canadian editor for the Scottish firm of Thomas Nelson and Sons.
During his years as a school administrator Wetherell had participated in the growth and consolidation of high schools in the province, although he had done so from a privileged position as the principal of a collegiate. Despite his love for the classics and Strathroy’s reputation for strong academic instruction, one credited largely to his efforts, Wetherell was also a proponent of the “new education” movement that would have some effect on the province’s schools [see Clarence Bartlett Edwards*; John Millar*]. In an address to the Ontario Teachers’ Association in 1886 he argued for a curriculum that went beyond the study of books and took as its mandate the development of “the whole being, the mental, the moral, and the physical.” In 1899 he wrote to Richard Harcourt, the minister of education and a fellow reformer, decrying the exodus of rural students from high schools to commercial colleges. Wetherell proposed a school year and curriculum such as he had introduced in Strathroy, which allowed students to start their year in early November, after the harvest, and to study a range of commercial as well as more academic subjects. This program, he noted, had greatly improved attendance at the collegiate; high schools, he said, must meet “the reasonable demands of all classes” in society.
Yet although he might have believed in new pedagogical methods, books remained at the centre of Wetherell’s life. Among the collections of poetry he edited are Later Canadian poems (Toronto, 1893) and Poems of the love of country (Toronto, 1905), a volume that included many Canadian authors. In the course of these undertakings he corresponded with a number of his country’s leading literary figures, including Archibald Lampman*, William Bliss Carman*, Duncan Campbell Scott*, Charles George Douglas Roberts*, and Emily Pauline Johnson*. In addition to general anthologies of recent English and American verse, Wetherell brought out selections from the writings of such authors as Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron, Scott, and Longfellow, and published, among other studies of the classical period, editions of works by Cicero and Virgil. His devotion to Canada’s culture embraced its history, an interest that produced The story of the Canada Company (Toronto) in 1930 and Three centuries of Canadian story (Toronto) in 1937, the latter illustrated chiefly by Charles William Jefferys*. Wetherell enjoyed travelling abroad and visiting the “homes and haunts” of his favourite authors. His accounts of his adventures, particularly Over the sea: a summer trip to Britain (Strathroy, Ont., 1892), first published in 1890 in a Strathroy newspaper, confirm his passion for history and his belief in culture’s significant moral and pedagogical role; they reveal as well a lively, if sometimes hyperbolic, style. He often contributed to magazines and newspapers, and in the late 1890s and early 1900s the Modern Language Association of Ontario published a number of his papers. Wetherell also participated in various endeavours devoted to intellectual and moral improvement and the formation of national identity: he was a founder of the Champlain Society, sometime president and director of the Strathroy Mechanics’ Institute, and a member of the Canadian Club.
Little has survived to provide many insights into Wetherell’s private life. Brought up as an Episcopal Methodist, he had become a Presbyterian at the time of the 1891 census and by 1919 he was attending St Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto. His second wife, Margaret, some 20 years his junior, belonged to the Church of England. A high-school teacher at the time of her marriage, she was also a journalist with a particular interest in housing matters. Wetherell’s love of literature, travel, and history appears to have been passed on to his daughter, Alice, whose work appeared in Saturday Night (Toronto) among other forums; she published a short biography of her father in Western Ontario Historical Notes (London) in 1951.
James Elgin Wetherell’s career encompassed a variety of closely linked activities that, taken together, demonstrate his keen commitment to education and learning in late-19th- and 20th-century Ontario society. As well as helping to develop secondary education, Wetherell formed part of a wide circle of authors and editors who shaped aspects of the province’s literary and scholarly culture in this period.
James Elgin Wetherell is the compiler of Testimonials … (n.p., 1891; available as CIHM no.28825) and Application and testimonials … ([Toronto?, 1895?]; copy at UTARMS).
AO, F 5; RG 2-42, files 4121, 4338, 4340, 6920; RG 80-5-0-78, no.12736; RG 80-5-0-847, no.4929; RG 80-8-0-451, no.3838. LAC, Census returns for the 1911 Canadian census, Toronto North, Ward 4:10; R233-34-0, Newmarket, Ont., dist.43, subdist.D: 12; R233-35-2, St Mary’s, Ont., dist.171, subdist.B, div.2: 36; R233-36-4, Strathroy, Ont., dist.93, Ward 1: 22; R233-37-6, Strathroy, dist.90, subdist.H, div.2: 4. Univ. of Toronto Libraries, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, ms coll. 00028 (James Elgin Wetherell papers). UTARMS, A1973-0026/507(72–74). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.3. Famous and successful S.D.C.I. [Strathroy Dist. Collegiate Instit.] students and graduates: a history of the school and students, comp. J. G. Sifton (Strathroy, 2007). R. D. Gidney and W. P. J. Millar, Inventing secondary education: the rise of the high school in nineteenth-century Ontario (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1990). History of the county of Middlesex … (Toronto and London, Ont., 1889; repr., intro. D. [J.] Brock, Belleville, Ont., 1972). Robert Lecker, “Nineteenth-century English-Canadian anthologies and the making of a national literature,” Journal of Canadian Studies (Peterborough, Ont.), 44 (2010), no.1: 91–117. Albert and Theresa Moritz, Stephen Leacock: his remarkable life (Markham, Ont., 2002). R. M. Stamp, The schools of Ontario, 1876–1976 (Toronto, 1982). Alice Wetherell, “James Elgin Wetherell, b.a., 1851–1940,” Western Ont. Hist. Notes (London), 9 (1951): 16–33.