Ryerson, Egerton (DNB00)

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RYERSON, EGERTON (1803–1882), founder of the school system of Ontario, born at Charlotteville, Upper Canada, on 21 March 1803, was the youngest of the six sons of Colonel Joseph Ryerson (1761–1854), and his wife Mehetabel Stickney. The father, who was born at Paterson, New Jersey, suffered as a loyalist during the American war of independence. After the peace he settled near Fredericton, New Brunswick; thence he removed in 1799 to Port Ryerse, near Long Point, co. Norfolk, Upper Canada, and took an active part in the war of 1812–14 against the United States. He died in 1854 (see Ryerson, The American Loyalists, ii. 257). Egerton was educated at the district grammar school, and then worked on his father's farm. In 1821 he joined the methodist church against the wishes of his father, who gave him the option of leaving his house or renouncing his methodist principles. Adopting the former alternative, Ryerson became an assistant teacher in the London district grammar school, Ontario. Two years later he returned home at his father's request, and again took to farming; he continued his studies, however, and at the age of twenty-one was admitted a minister of the methodist church, and assigned to the Niagara circuit. Thence he was transferred to the Yonge-street circuit, including York, as Toronto was then called. In 1826 he made his first appearance as an author by publishing a reply to archdeacon (afterwards bishop) Strachan's strictures on the dissenters [see Strachan, John, (1778–1867)]. In 1829 he started at York the ‘Christian Guardian,’ of which he was appointed editor. In 1833 he was sent as a delegate to the Wesleyan conference in England, and succeeded in bringing about a union between it and the methodist episcopal church in Canada.

In 1835 Ryerson again visited England to enlist support for the establishment of a methodist academy in Canada. The scheme resulted in the erection of Victoria College, Coburg, Ontario; and Ryerson was appointed first president of the college upon its incorporation in 1841. During this visit he wrote several letters to the ‘Times’ to counteract the support Hume and Roebuck were giving to William Lyon Mackenzie [q. v.], whose reform principles Ryerson disliked. On the same occasion he supplied Mr. Gladstone, then under-secretary of state for war and the colonies, with materials for his reply to Hume's attack on the government with reference to Charles Duncombe's petition. During Lord Durham's mission to Canada [see Lambton, John George] Ryerson was frequently called upon to advise the government, and furnished some of the data for Durham's report. Similarly he supported Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe [q. v.] against the reform party, and published a defence of the governor.

In 1844 Ryerson was appointed superintendent of schools in Upper Canada, and he at once set to work to remodel the existing system of education. He travelled through the United States, England, and the continent of Europe to study educational methods, and on his return published an elaborate report of his results (Montreal, 1847). His ideas were approved by a majority of the legislature of the province, and a school bill which he drafted became law in 1846. Three years later the Baldwin-Lafontaine administration passed another act making radical alterations in Ryerson's scheme; but owing to Ryerson's representations the governor suspended the working of the act, and, in conjunction with Baldwin, Ryerson drafted a measure which retained the chief features of the 1846 act, and became law in 1850. Public education in Ontario is still directed on the lines there laid down. In 1853 he induced the government to pass a law revising the Grammar School Act, and he drafted the Education Bill of 1860. In 1854 he severed his connection with the Wesleyan methodist body, publishing his reasons in a pamphlet entitled ‘Scriptural Rights of the Members of Christ's Visible Church’ (Toronto, 1854, 8vo). In 1855 he established meteorological stations in connection with the county grammar schools throughout the province. He was created LL.D. by Middletown University in 1842, and D.D. by Victoria College in 1866. In 1876 he resigned his position as superintendent of schools; the office was abolished and its functions transferred to the minister of education. Ryerson died at Toronto on 19 Feb. 1882, and was buried in Mount Pleasant cemetery. A statue with an inscription to his memory was unveiled in the grounds of the education department, Toronto, in 1889.

Ryerson was twice married, first, in 1828, to a daughter of John Aikman of Barton township, who died without issue in 1832; and, secondly, in 1833, to a daughter of J. R. Armstrong of Toronto, who with a son, Egerton, and a daughter, Mrs. Harris, survived him.

Ryerson's chief works were: 1. ‘The Loyalists of America and their Times,’ 2 vols., Toronto, 1880, 8vo; containing much historical information (cf. Times, 31 Jan. 1882). 2. ‘The Story of my Life,’ Toronto, 1884, 8vo, completed and edited by J. G. Hodgins. He also contributed ‘First Lessons in Christian Morals’ and ‘First Lessons on Agriculture’ to the Canadian Series of School Books, 1867, &c.; edited ‘The Journal of Education [Toronto]’ from 1848 to 1876, and published numerous tracts, letters, and reports in reference especially to the clergy reserve and education questions.

His eldest brother, William Ryerson (1791–1882), born near Fredericton, New Brunswick, took an active part in the war of 1812–14; on its outbreak he received a commission as lieutenant in the 18th Norfolk regiment of Canadian militia, was present at the capture of Detroit on 21 Aug. 1812, and carried the despatches announcing the event at headquarters; he was incapacitated for several years by a wound received at the battle of Lundy's Lane. In 1819 he entered the ministry of the methodist church, and in 1831 was sent to England as a delegate to conference. There he met Edward Irving, and became a convert to his views; on his return to Canada he established the catholic apostolic church in that country, and acted as its head until 1872. He was thrice married, and left a numerous family. He died at his son's residence, 317 Church Street, Toronto, on 19 Dec. 1882 (Toronto Globe, 21 Dec. 1882).

[Story of my Life, ed. Hodgins, Toronto, 1884; Hodgins's Ryerson Memorial Volume, 1889; Toronto Globe, 20 and 23 Feb. 1882; Richardson's Eight Years in Canada; Appleton's Cycl. of American Biography; McClintock and Strong's Cyclopædia (Supplement); Allibone's Dict. English Lit.]

A. F. P.