CORNISH, GEORGE, Congregational minister, educator, and librarian; b. c. 1828 in Wotton-under-Edge, England; m. 10 Aug. 1858 Martha Harvey in Montreal, and they had one son; d. there 17 Aug. 1895.
Upon graduation from Highbury College and the University of London, George Cornish was ordained to the ministry in the Congregational Church on 30 April 1855; he was sent out to Nova Scotia as an assistant to Frederick Tomkins at Gorham College, Liverpool, and as minister to the small congregation at Milton. The college was destroyed by fire in 1856, and Cornish removed to Halifax where he taught classics for a session at Dalhousie College.
In the summer of 1857 Cornish accepted an invitation to the chair of classical literature at McGill College, and thus began his long association with that school and its affiliated institutions. At the same time he became a member of the Congregational Union of Canada. Cornish served on various committees of the union, occupied the presidency of the Canada Congregational Missionary Society for the ten-year period 1883–93, and was honoured with the chairmanship of the union in 1871. However, his greatest service to the church lay in his role as professor and secretary at the Congregational College of British North America. In this latter capacity he was instrumental in reviving the church’s educational work beginning with the college’s removal to Montreal and affiliation with McGill in 1864. In addition to his educational activities, Cornish served as corresponding secretary of the Montreal Auxiliary Bible Society, was a member of the Council of Public Instruction for the province of Quebec, and served on the McGill Normal School committee.
The McGill to which Cornish came in 1857 was a college precariously balanced between scholastic greatness and financial collapse. He arrived in the wake of John William Dawson, who seems to have provided for Cornish throughout his career. Plagued by ill health, Cornish often had to cancel classes and take restorative holidays in the summer recesses. He was described as conscientious but not brilliant by colleagues, who claimed that he seemed to care only for his Greek and a quiet nook in the library. His teaching career was undistinguished at the college, and references to him in its records largely concern his attempts to augment his salary.
In 1873 Cornish and three other professors had the temerity to suggest to the board of governors that they could not live on their incomes. They gently chided the board for its parsimony, pointing out that the fixed salaries had lost 50 per cent of their purchasing power and that a promised share of examination fees had not been forthcoming. Conscious of the acute state of the college’s finances, and tender about the scholars’ mode of expression, the board threatened immediate dismissal if it were addressed again in such language. Cornish dared place a second demand on college funds that year. McGill was without student residences, and Cornish and his wife had operated the College Boarding House in their home since 1860. By 1873 Cornish was tired of this duty, and only pressure from Dawson, coupled with the promise of a new water closet, induced him to continue; the following year he was graciously granted $400 for 14 years’ expenses.
In 1873 Cornish had been named to a committee of the faculty of arts charged with overseeing operation of the library. The most pressing need was a revision and updating of the author catalogue, which Cornish undertook with John Clark Murray, professor of moral philosophy. Published in 1876, the Catalogue of authors was the first printed record of the McGill collection. The two men were granted $100 each for their labours. In 1883 Cornish was appointed honorary librarian. His work-load was light, consisting of weekly visits to his assistant and the secretaryship of the library committee, but this did not prevent his applying for an honorarium; he was awarded $100 per annum. He held this appointment until 1892 when the Redpath Library was opened and a permanent librarian engaged.
On the affiliation of the Congregational College of British North America with McGill in 1864 Cornish had immediately been named secretary, and the subsequent success of the college was largely due to his skill and fidelity. Part of his duties involved promotion and fund-raising in Canada and England. In 1864 Cornish also took the college’s chair of Greek exegesis, without remuneration, and he continued in this position until poor health forced him to resign in 1876. When, in 1883, the college was short of staff and in a delicate financial position, he resumed teaching for a nominal salary.
By the 1890s age and ill health had led Cornish to cut back on his activities. In 1891 he ceased teaching at Congregational College, accepting the less taxing position of chairman of the board. He continued to teach at McGill until the spring of 1895 when worsening health brought about his resignation. He was named emeritus professor by the governors, who then proceeded to diminish the standing of such faculty members by removing most of their privileges.
In a life plagued by health problems and financial troubles, however, perhaps the cruellest irony suffered by Cornish was that an annual pension of $1,200, voted to him by McGill in 1895, was paid for the first time in September of that year; Cornish had died on 17 August.
George Cornish is the author of “Sermon,” Canadian Independent (Toronto), 11 (1864): 32–39, and of “Retiring address to the ministers and delegates of the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec,” 19 (1872): 10–18. With John Clark Murray he compiled Library of McGill College, catalogue of authors (Montreal, 1876).
ANQ-M, CE1-91, 10 août 1858, 19 août 1895; CE1-95, 10 août 1858, 19 août 1895. McGill Univ. Arch., RG 2, c.3, c.5, c.10, c.15; RG 4, c.3–6; RG 32, c.705–7. Canadian Independent, 26 (1879). Colonial Missionary Soc. in connection with the Congregational Union of England and Wales, Report (London), 1855–63. “Congregational College of British North America,” Canadian Independent, new ser., 2 (1883): 229–32. Congregationalist and Canadian Independent (Toronto), 2 (1895). “In memoriam: the Rev. George Cornish, M.A., LL.D” Montreal Auxiliary Bible Soc., Annual report, 75 (1895): 8. Gazette (Montreal), 19, 21 Aug. 1895. Congregational Church, Yearbook (Toronto), 1860–65, 1868, 1870, 1873–77, 1882–83, 1890–96. Encyclopedia of library and information science, ed. Allen Kent and Harold Lancour (42v., New York, 1968–87), 17: 311–20. Frost, McGill Univ., vol.1. F. H. Marling, Congregational College of British North America: the story of the fifty years 1839 to 1889 . . . (Montreal, 1889). John Wood, Memoir of Henry Wilkes, D.D., LL.D., his life and times (Montreal and London, 1887).