clergyman, teacher, leading light of Upper Canada
principal of Jarvis
schoolmaster of Samuel Jarvis
This portrait shows Strachan when he was 49
years old, in about 1827.
ohn Strachan was not born to riches or aristocracy,
but an abundance of personal qualities—intelligence,
principle, will—drove him to success.
During the War of 1812, when the American invaders were occupying the city York (Toronto) on the morning of April 27, 1813, the British troops had withdrawn from Fort York, and none of the town's civilian leaders seemed ready and able to negotiate with General Dearborn to stop the looting and burning. Strachan was untried, a new arrival from the town of Cornwall, but as rector of the church he stepped into the breach, going out to the American warship to represent the citizens of York. Strachan's will power and personal presence was so strong that it was later said that it was difficult to tell from the interview which of the two men was the conquered and which the conqueror. Hinting at the possibility of a terrible retaliation by the British Navy, Strachan went a long way toward saving York from destruction.
The son of a poor stonemason in Aberdeen, Scotland, Strachan was a self-made man. Earning a bursary to King's College, Aberdeen, he encountered his first major hurdle when, during his first session at the university, his father died. Supporting himself by teaching in various places near Aberdeen, Strachan graduated in 1797. In 1799 he accepted a position in Upper Canada to tutor the children of prominent citizens in Kingston. He "fervently held to the idea of an educated aristocracy"
Ever energetic and ambitious, he soon became ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England.
Marriage came in a roundabout way. He and Ann Wood were in love, but
John was penniless. When Ann received a marriage proposal from another
man, Andrew McGill, a rich but elderly bachelor in Montreal, John is
said to have told her, "Tak' him. I can afford to wait." Andrew soon
died, leaving Ann wealthy. She and John married.
After Kingston, Strachan taught for nine years in Cornwall. In 1812, on the death of Rev. John Stuart—a
, by the way—Strachan hoped to take his place as minister of the Kingston parish. But Stuart's widow lobbied against Strachan so that her son could inherit the position. Strachan lost, and
George O'Kill Stuart resigned his position as headmaster of the Home District Grammar School in York (forerunner of Jarvis Collegiate) to become the Anglican minister in Kingston. Strachan was offered the position of headmaster of the Home District Grammar School, but it involved a smaller salary than he was earning in Cornwall, and he turned it down. When a better offer was made for him to take charge of both St. James' Cathedral and the school in York, with a larger salary, Strachan accepted. He and Ann, now wealthy after the death of her first husband, moved to York and
built a grand, two-storey brick house popularly known as 'The Palace' on Front Street. Liveried footmen at the Palace ensured that everyone
understood the social standing of the Strachans.
To prevent people from misunderstanding his importance, Strachan signed official documents as "John Toronto."
Strachan believed that education had three aims:
- to form character with sound moral and religious principles.
And, in his view, "To this end the greatest asset of a school is the personality of the teacher."
- to instil religious conviction.
For Strachan, religious conviction meant adherence to the doctrine of the Church of England.
- to develop a deep affection for the British Monarchy.
This was another pillar of Family Compact Toryism, one of its chief aims being to arm the mind against ideas of American Republicanism, with it "leveling down" of the class system and the outrageous notion of electing most public officials.
Letter from John Strachan to Thomas Jefferson. An interesting little document from from a Government of Canada collection. In this biting letter, dated January, 1815, Strachan writes as Treasurer of the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada and accuses the ex-President of the U.S. of cupidity. He suggests that Jefferson ought to be grateful to the British army because he is benefiting from the burning of the White House and other public buildings in Washington.
- Dendy, William, and William Kilbourn, Toronto
Observed, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1986.
- Medland, Harvey, Minerva's Diary: A History of Jarvis Collegiate Institute, Mika Publishing Company, Belleville, 1979. ISBN 0-919303-36-6.
- Robertson, John Ross, Landmarks of Toronto, Vol.1.
Mika Publishing Company, Belleville, 1976. ISBN
0-919302-04-8. Facsimile edition of the original
Poem by John Strachan. In 18th Century style, in rhyming couplets, with Greek and Roman allusions everywhere. Recited at the examination of Strachan's pupils in 1802.
Bibliography of Jarvis Collegiate, Toronto
More on early Toronto.
The Formidable "John Toronto"
Strachan in 1818 had this grand house built, popularly known as "The Palace."
The photograph is from the 1890s, with the house past its prime.
Strachan as an old man