The eldest child of a Scottish schoolmaster who emigrated to eastern Nova Scotia in 1833 and moved to southeastern Prince Edward Island in 1844, William McPhail was a licensed teacher at Newtown (Newtown Cross) by 1847. He taught in a number of districts over the next several years and established a reputation for being progressive, capable, and strict. In 1854 he won praise from John M. Stark, the highly critical school visitor recruited from Glasgow to oversee implementation of the Free Education Act of 1852 [see George Coles*]. McPhail married Catherine Elizabeth Smith, a native of Lower Newtown, in Belfast on 3 Aug. 1858. They were to have ten children who reached adulthood; seven, including two of four daughters, earned university degrees, three becoming engineers and three physicians. To provide for his growing family McPhail operated a farm in addition to teaching. Around 1860 he also engaged in a commercial experiment, buying tea and tobacco for resale; this endeavour was unsuccessful and resulted in a net loss of more than £20. Throughout his adult life McPhail was an elder in the McDonaldite sect of the Church of Scotland founded by Donald McDonald*.
In June 1868 McPhail was appointed school visitor for Queens County at an annual salary of £150, more than double the maximum he could earn as a district schoolmaster. He produced reports which were models of thoroughness, and displayed greater energy and attention to detail than any school visitor since Stark, who had been dismissed 11 years earlier. His reports also addressed popular attitudes towards education, attacking, for example, the idea that the education of females was less important than that of males. His frankness, like Stark’s, elicited letters of protest from angry teachers. He was particularly outspoken about the inadequate condition of schools in Charlottetown, where the public system was breaking down in the first half of the 1870s. Many years later Alexander Anderson, the legendary principal of Prince of Wales College, Charlottetown, would remark that McPhail, “in his day, did a good deal to keep the flame of intelligence burning in this Province” – a revealing choice of words. With the exception of seven months in 1872–73, he remained school visitor until the end of 1878, when he failed to meet a new set of qualifications. Ironically, he was displaced by requirements established under the reforming Public Schools Act of 1877 [see Thomas Heath Haviland*] any of whose features he had advocated for years. He returned to school-teaching, which at least had the advantage of relieving him from the constant travel involved in inspecting, on average, two schools a day.
The Conservative provincial government named McPhail supervisor of the Prince Edward Island Hospital for the Insane at the beginning of 1882. His appointment followed a scandal over mistreatment of a patient, George Manson, the year before. Religion was a factor in the public outcry, for most of the five attendants implicated were Roman Catholics, and Manson was a McDonaldite; in fact, McPhail, as a leading McDonaldite layman, had participated in organizing a denominational protest over the incident. A commission of inquiry reported in November 1881 that “those in charge” had “wanted due diligence.” The supervisor was dismissed at the end of the year for malfeasance and, as recommended by the commissioners, the duties of the position were redefined to allow closer oversight of subordinates.
The major reason the government turned to McPhail was his exceptional reputation for integrity. Yet William Wilfred Sullivan*, the first Roman Catholic premier of the Island and only two years in office, probably perceived an additional advantage in McPhail’s being a prominent McDonaldite. He was also known to be a Conservative, and after the Liberals under Frederick Peters took power in 1891 they reduced his salary by 25 per cent to $600. According to the available evidence, McPhail had been performing his duties conscientiously and efficiently. His minutely detailed statistical tables on the number of patients, their ages, and their periods of incarceration are reminiscent of his reports as school visitor, and Edward S. Blanchard, the medical superintendent, praised him frequently in annual reports. McPhail’s responsibilities had increased significantly since 1889, when Blanchard ceased to be resident, for, without a physician present around the clock, he had become the chief officer living on the premises. McPhail believed that the Liberals wanted him to resign, but he remained supervisor until 1900. Early that year the Liberal government of Donald Farquharson appointed a new medical superintendent, Victor Lyall Goodwill, with instructions to reside at the hospital and devote his entire time to it. Clearly enjoying the support of the government, Goodwill made sweeping changes, emphasizing professionalism in the staff and treatment, as opposed to restraint and safe custody, for the patients. McPhail was relegated to the new position of bursar, responsible only for business matters, as distinct from ward work. In a broad sense, he had been displaced by the same sort of modernization that had cost him the school visitorship. He retired on 30 June 1903, and died of a heart attack two years later.
The most vivid account of McPhail, and one which indicates the sense of personal rectitude and authority he conveyed, is in The master’s wife, a memoir of rural Prince Edward Island written by his son Sir Andrew Macphail*, an eminent man of letters. In that volume the values and customs of the Scottish pioneer community of Orwell, where William had acquired a house in 1864, come to life. The “master” of the title was William McPhail, and his son recalled that “everything the Master did was correct – his manner of eating, of drinking, of holding a pen or a book, of sitting on a chair or arising from it. . . . He had words of deadly directness. To stroll on a forest path with motive ulterior to the purpose of passing through was ‘to lurk in the woods.”‘ McPhail’s lifelong example of Victorian earnestness and sense of public duty had a major impact on his children: in 1914 James Alexander, age 44, a professor of engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and Andrew himself, 49, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, would volunteer for active military service in Europe. The house at Orwell was donated to the provincial government in 1961; the spirit of William McPhail continues to haunt the room in which he died.
[Information concerning William McPhail’s cause of death was provided by Mrs Dorothy [Macphail] Lindsay, a granddaughter, in an interview with the author on 29 July 1970. Additional material for this sketch was supplied by the William McPhail papers and the Sir Andrew Macphail papers, both in private family possession when consulted by the author. i.r.r.]
A portrait of McPhail executed in 1899 by Alphonse Jongers faces p.52 and an 1860 photograph faces p.33 of the original edition of The master’s wife (cited below).
PARO, RG 6, Supreme Court, minutes, 28–30 June, 4–6, 16 July 1881; RG 15, land title docs., lot 50, lease 109. Charlottetown Guardian, 5, 8 July 1905. Daily Patriot (Charlottetown), June–December 1881; 4, 5 July 1905. Watchman (Charlottetown), 7 July 1905. Andrew Macphail, The master’s wife (Montreal, 1939; repr. Toronto, 1977). P.E.I., Board of Education, Reports of the visitors of schools (Charlottetown), 1868–78; House of Assembly, Journal, app.O; Legislative Assembly, Journal, 1900, app.G; Prince Edward Island Hospital for the Insane, Annual report of the trustees (Charlottetown), 1881–1903 (available in two bound vols. at PARO). I. R. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in P.E.I.,” c.10; “Sir Andrew Macphail as a social critic” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1974), c.1. S. N. Robertson, “The public school system,” Past and present of Prince Edward Island . . . , ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, ), 362a–90a.