HOW, FRANCES ESTHER (Hester), educator and social reformer; b. 29 Jan. 1848 in Ireland, daughter of Thomas Ferguson How, an accountant, and Catherine J. —; d. unmarried 22 Sept. 1915 in Toronto.
Hessie How’s family emigrated to Toronto in 1849. Following her early schooling, she graduated from the Toronto Normal School in 1866. Employed by 1871 as a governess in a girls’ school on Jarvis Street, she was hired on 29 Dec. 1874 as a replacement teacher by the Public School Board and assigned to York Street School. The next year, How, who lived on Church Street with her widowed mother, transferred to George Street School at an annual salary of $286.25; by 1881 she was teaching the junior third-book division at Winchester Street School and earning $421.84.
In June 1881 businessman-reformer William Holmes Howland* made a proposal to the board to establish a school in St John’s Ward to serve truant, delinquent, and homeless boys. Convinced that “the terrible rowdy element . . . of uneducated children growing up with a perfect disregard to the law and morality . . . are becoming a most dangerous class,” he offered to furnish a room and provide a caretaker and fuel. Publisher William James Gage* volunteered books, stationery, and other supplies. The board, which was to appoint a suitable teacher and manage the school, accepted the proposal, but others were sceptical. “The only hope,” the Globe declared, “would be the slender one of finding a man of such exceptional skill and power in the management of bad-boy nature as would enable him single-handed against a host to gain a victory.” Instead, James Laughlin Hughes*, the inspector of public schools, chose How.
The first class was held at Grace Church on Elm Street, which Howland and others had built to serve the poor in St John’s Ward. From the outset the experiment provided Hughes with valuable ammunition in his tireless campaign for tighter regulation of school attendance and street trades involving youths. He reported gleefully in 1881 that How had had immediate impact on the “roughest boys,” who were totally unaccustomed to authority. He underlined her “kind treatment,” her rare resort to whipping, and the strength of her personality. By April 1883, with a class of 70, her school had moved to Chestnut Street. Continuing growth in the numbers of pupils and teachers forced relocation to College Avenue in 1889 – How became principal that year – and to Elizabeth Street in 1892. By 1890 classes for girls and smaller children and a half-day class for newsboys and bootblacks had been added.
Early in her career How had realized that schooling alone could not improve the lives of urchins. In the late 1880s she started a crèche. Subsequently How developed a free-lunch program, a penny bank, summer camps, and health and dental services. Before a juvenile court was set up, she dealt with the magistrates on behalf of her more troublesome students.
Aunt Hessie, as this gifted teacher was known to the children, was a recognized leader in the moral reform movement. A Congregationalist, she worked in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (she was vice-president of its Central Union in 1894–96), sponsored temperance lectures, and established a temperance library in her school. At the first meeting of the Anti-Tobacco League, chaired there by Hughes on 31 May 1895, 92 of her boys pledged to abstain until age 21. Fired by evangelical zeal, How and women like her, in organizations such as the WCTU and the Young Women’s Christian Association, also launched wider initiatives aimed mainly at women and children, in education and moral and prison reform.
The activities of How and her school in St John’s Ward were part of a broader attempt to modify the school system to meet the problem of impoverished children and the threat to social stability that they and their parents were thought to pose. During her years in the Ward, its character changed drastically as immigrants settled there, adding to its congestion and poverty [see Macarios Nasr*; Francesco Glionna]. How’s school acquired the task of teaching English to these newcomers as part of a long-term goal of assimilation. From the turn of the century Jewish children were a particular target of Protestant missionary activities, which frequently found a place in the precincts around Elizabeth Street School.
In 1912 the school was replaced by a new building, renamed the Hester How School. On How’s retirement in September 1913 a portrait by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster* was unveiled there during a ceremony in which Hughes described her as the Jane Addams of Toronto, referring to Chicago’s famed social reformer. After a lingering illness, she died in 1915 and was buried in St James’ Cemetery.
[The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Leigh Valliere, a graduate student in history at York Univ., North York, Ont., in researching this biography. s.e.h.]
AO, F 885, MU 8432–33; RG 22-305, no.30928. NA, RG 31, C1, Toronto, 1871, subdist.B, div.6: 16; 1901, Ward 3, div.32: 5 (mfm. at AO). Toronto Board of Education, Records, Arch., and Museum, Hist. Coll., Toronto Board of Education, annual reports and minutes, 1874–90; Vert. files, schools, elementary, Hester How P.S. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 23 Sept. 1915. Toronto Daily Star, 22 Sept. 1915. Centennial story: the Board of Education for the city of Toronto, 1850–1950, ed. E. A. Hardy and H. M. Cochrane (Toronto, 1950). School (Toronto), 4 (1915): 301. S. A. Speisman, The Jews of Toronto: a history to 1937 (Toronto, 1979). Toronto Public School Board, Annual report of the inspector of public schools, 1881, app.37.