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Sep. 23, 2018 | Sunday
Local News
Niagara's History Unveiled: Parliament Oak School
An inscription on Parliament Oak school. (Niagara Now)

With the controversy that swirled around the closure of Parliament Oak Public School and now the refusal of the Niagara District School Board to sell the property back to the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, I thought this would be a good time to do some research. 

No, I didn’t find any treasure of information that would force the change of any decisions, but just maybe someone will realize how historical this property is and that it should remain as property of the people of NOTL.

The first school in the town, Niagara Public School, had its property gifted to the town by James Crooks in 1854 with the only condition being “to be use of a Common Schools and Grammar Schools in the town of Niagara (now NOTL) forever.”

The school was later constructed in 1859 on the property, located at 40 Platoff Street; a two storey, red brick building with four classrooms, two upstairs and two downstairs. All eight grades were taught in those classrooms and one teacher — and later the principal of the school — was Janet Carnochan, the renowned historian of NOTL.

The school was used until 1947. 

In 1948, the students were, in grand style, marched over to their new elementary school Parliament Oak — a school so big that every grade had its own class room, as well there was a kindergarten and a gymnasium.

The location of the new school was an entire town block, fronting on King Street, and bounded by Gage, Centre and Regent Streets. 

Imagine the delight of students, teachers and parents to have such a modern facility for their children with a playground area that included a baseball diamond and football field.  

It is the history of this lot that is so relevant to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The first owner of this property was Judge Edward C. Campbell. Not only was he a respected lawyer and judge, he was also very involved with the town society, serving as president of the Niagara Public Library and a member of the Turf Club (the race track club on the commons). 

Upon his untimely death at the age of 54, his widow Mrs. E. Campbell did her best to keep up the property. However, in 1871 she sold the property to a very successful politician named Josiah Plumb.

In 1874, Plumb was elected to parliament and in 1882 he was called to the Senate. 

Plumb and his wife Elizabeth Street built a magnificent home on the property. It was red brick villa with twenty rooms and ten fireplaces — all with marble mantels. 

There were five staircases in the home, one being a secret staircase that led to a billiard room hidden in the home.

The Plumbs were also well established in Ottawa and were able to host some very notable guests in their homes both there and in NOTL. 

Both Lord Dufferin, the third Governor General of Canada from 1872 to 1878 and his wife Lady Dufferin were welcomed visitors of the Plumbs.  

Lord Dufferin is best known for being on hand during some very notable changes in Canada. His term saw the inclusion of Prince Edward Island into Confederation, the implementation of the Supreme Court of Canada, the opening of the Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario and the intercontinental railway known as the Canadian Pacific, which Lord and Lady Dufferin at one point both drove spikes into. Dufferin also started the Governor General Academic Medal, awarded to Canadian students for superior academic achievement. Over 50,000 medals have been awarded and continue to be awarded to this day.

The fourth Governor General of Canada, from 1878 to 1883, was the Marquise of Lorne, whose wife was Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria.

By this time, Plumb was now the Speaker of the Senate and with his influence invited the Marquise and his wife to his home in NOTL somewhere in the summer of either 1879 or 1880.

The new Niagara Golf Club, built on the Commons across the street from the Plumb residence, had been open for just a short time. Plumb, who was a distinguished member, took advantage of the “royal” visit and had the golf club renamed the Royal Niagara Golf Club.

Another notable guest of the Plumbs was Prince George, the future King George V of England. It was noted he loved to stay with the Plumb family as he enjoyed the billiard room that was in the house. Prince George was also often seen playing croquet on the grounds of the home with the Plumb children.

In 1888, Josiah Plumb died and very little is known of what became of the family or the property after his death.  

As well, between 1910 and 1920 there are no documents which indicate ownership of house and property.

What is known is during the First World War, Polish officers were boarded in the home during the training of the Blue Polish Army in NOTL.

After the war, the property was purchased by the White family and for the period following there is only a murky picture of property ownership and how the town eventually became the owners. However, there is documentation available to show several land transfers and name changes that occurred after 1940. 

On Oct. 31, 1944, the Corporation of the Town of Niagara (now NOTL) conveyed to the Board of Education of the Town of Niagara (now DSBN) that the land is now Parliament Oak School, in other words, the town had given the land to the town’s school board. 

No one at the time would have thought one small town board would eventually be taken over by a regional board — a government entity that would not care how decisions, once made, would affect a very historical town.

On Jan. 18, 1945, the land was sold from the Town to the Town’s school board for $1.

On June 22, 1966, the land was sold from the Town School Board to the Niagara Public School Board, again for $1.

In 2013, there was a name change of ownership of the property to the District School Board of Niagara.

In that year, the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake lost a very valuable heritage site, Parliament Oak Public School.

Now one might ask, why is the school called Parliament Oak and not Senator Plumb School?

We must delve even further back in the history of NOTL — way back to a time when it was called Newark.

In 1791, Lieutenant Governor Sir John Graves Simcoe chose Newark as the first capital of Upper Canada. Under the leadership of Simcoe, from 1792 to 1796, the first parliamentary sessions of Upper Canada were held.   

The Free Mason’s Lodge, on King Street is where parliament was conducted although there have been suggestions that other sites were used as well.

It was during one summer session, when the heat was extreme, that a decision was made to move parliament outdoors. With desks and chairs, the members of parliament moved along King Street and set up under a stand of oak trees. Simcoe conducted the proceedings of the day in the shade of those oaks.

The new school, when opened in 1948, was named Parliament Oak in honour of that session of parliament conducted on the same site as the school.

It should be noted that the school has maintained a stand of oak trees on the property. All the trees are of different ages to ensure the continuance of the oak and its significance to the heritage of Niagara-on- the-Lake.

It is a shame that such a wonderful piece of history can be lost to the highest bidder. A piece of history donated to a school board that at one time was part of the town; a parcel of land that should now be returned to the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, niagarahistorical.museum.ca, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.

Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Denise's full profile can be found here.

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