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d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


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Original title:  James Laughlin Hughes. From: Commemorative biographical record of the county of York, Ontario: containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens and many of the early settled families by J.H. Beers & Co, 1907. https://archive.org/details/recordcountyyork00beeruoft/page/n4

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HUGHES, JAMES LAUGHLIN, public speaker, educator, school inspector, and author; b. 20 Feb. 1846 near Bowmanville, Upper Canada, son of John Hughes and Caroline Laughlin; m. first 1870 Annie Agnes Sutherland (1850–84), and they had two sons and two daughters, of whom a son and a daughter predeceased him; m. secondly 1885 Adaline Augusta Marean (d. 24 Dec. 1929) in Toronto, and they had a daughter, Laura Caroline*, and a son, who predeceased him; m. thirdly there 24 Oct. 1930 Estella Rounding; d. there 3 Jan. 1935.

James L. Hughes’s father emigrated from County Tyrone (Northern Ireland) to Durham County, Upper Canada. His mother was the daughter of a British artillery officer serving in Lower Canada. James was the eldest of their 11 children, several of whom, including his younger brother Samuel*, would have prominent careers in public service. While his parents farmed and his father occasionally taught school, young James spent hours roaming the countryside. He believed that the “glorious” days growing up close to nature had given him the best possible experience in his early years. He would later tell Lorne Albert Pierce*, editor at Ryerson Press and Hughes’s biographer, that “a boy who is perfectly free until six years old, and who has a stream and woods of his very own, has the finest possibilities of perfect development physically, intellectually and spiritually.”

Raised a Methodist, Hughes began public speaking at engagements sponsored by temperance organizations and literary societies when he was 11. These early efforts were not easy; as he explained to Pierce, “I was a painfully shy boy” who would “walk through the woods in order to avoid meeting a man or woman.” His success at local spelling matches, including a competition against adults, surprised the young Hughes, who later recognized that the experience was one of the “most important epochs in my development. I needed faith in myself, and I know how happy I was when I measured myself with men and won.” He nurtured his budding oratorical skills while driving the family’s plough, developing arguments as he worked the fields, declaiming to none but the horses for hours on end.

At age 12 Hughes passed the examination for a second-class teaching certificate and finished his schooling two years later. He worked on the family farm until he was 17, when he accepted a six-month teaching position in Hope Township’s school section 10. Now passionately fond of teaching, Hughes enrolled at the Toronto Normal School, where Thomas Jaffray Robertson* was the headmaster. He graduated in 1866 with a first-class certificate – a qualification that not only made him a more desirable teacher, but also promised higher pay and opened avenues to future leadership positions. A short teaching stint in Frankford, on the Trent River, soon followed.

Intelligent, athletic, tall, and strikingly handsome, Hughes was a commanding and charismatic leader whose personality was not easily forgotten. A history of the Toronto school board, written in 1950, called him “impudent, bumptious, often ill-mannered and assertive; but … also lively and fun-loving, generous, ardently loyal, and a fearless fighter in many good causes.” A similar likeness appears in The measure of the rule, by novelist Robert Barr*, which immortalized Hughes as the fictional schoolmaster John Brent. The young teacher rose rapidly through the education system. In 1867 Hughes left Frankford when he was invited to join the staff of the Toronto Model School. Four years later he became headmaster of its boys’ section, and in 1874 the Toronto Public School Board selected him for its top administrative position of inspector of public schools. Hughes was just 29 years old. He had found his vocation, and he would follow it, pursuing his goals, for nearly 40 years.

During Hughes’s tenure, schools in Toronto changed dramatically. Reform was in the air, and Hughes, like many others, was drawn by currents that promised educational and social improvement. It was argued that elevating the status of children would lift up all humanity, particularly the masses mired in the depths of poverty, immorality, and ignorance caused by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Religion also shaped Hughes’s approach, especially his strong faith in his ability to serve God as an educator. He believed that children were created in God’s image and were naturally predisposed to goodness. This attitude placed him in opposition to those who felt that they were stained with original sin, which adults had to contain and control. Like others who promoted the “new education” movement, Hughes put children at the centre of the educational process. As he would explain to Pierce in 1924, “If the child’s power is used in creative self-activity for right purposes, it will lift the child progressively toward the Divine.” Hughes wanted pupils to be active participants in learning, not merely passive recipients of information, and advised young teachers that “the child is the power; knowledge is not power.”

Perhaps Hughes’s greatest child-centred success was the development of kindergartens in Toronto. By the early 1880s Hughes had become fascinated with the writings of the German educator Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, who believed that children should be allowed to select and direct many of their own activities in their schooling. A visit to Boston in his first year as inspector deepened Hughes’s interest in the kindergarten movement, and he quickly became one of its greatest North American proponents. In 1883 Toronto became just the second North American city (after St Louis, Mo.) to offer kindergartens as part of its public-school system. Hughes shared this success with Ada Marean, the city’s first kindergarten teacher, who would become his wife two years later.

Hughes’s interest in Froebel went far beyond kindergarten. By the 1890s he was considered a leading authority on Froebel’s teachings. William Torrey Harris, a respected American educator, asked Hughes to write what would become Froebel’s educational laws for all teachers (1897), which put the theorist’s more esoteric and mystical ideas into practical terms that educators could apply to their work. Froebel believed that children’s free play was the chief source of their enduring moral, physical, and intellectual “power,” and Hughes explained to teachers how to foster such activities. The teacher should stay mostly out of the way, he wrote, because “there is no more lifeless exercise than a game played by children when they are not interested in it on their own account.” Only when “joyous interest is beginning to wane” should a teacher intervene “to arouse interest on the part of the unsympathetic, to encourage the timid to undertake new duties and assume new positions, occasionally by skilfully assigning them leaderships … and to applaud the effort to succeed even more than the achievement of success.” Froebel’s influence is evident in many of the important reforms Hughes introduced over the course of his long career. He campaigned to ban corporal punishment (he had initially supported it), and in Pierce’s biography he dismissed the practice as “the worst possible process for curing intellectual defects or moral delinquency.” He advocated abolishing examinations as the basis for promotion from grade to grade and also introduced an organized program for the study of the arts to provide students with a well-rounded education. Although arts were part of the existing curricula, instruction was inconsistent. Hughes fought to have trained teachers because, as educator Bruce Northleigh Carter writes, he believed that subjects such as music should be taught “by the regular classroom teachers, supported by a full-time music teacher whose job was both to instruct the teachers and teach the children.” Hughes was also a great believer in manual training, by which he meant any school activity in which children constructed something, using basic tools and materials such as wood, clay, or paper. Older girls would learn cooking and sewing, and older boys would be taught woodworking. Regular teachers would work with younger children, and specially trained teachers would instruct those in higher grades. Ideally, students would learn not only by reading books, but also by doing and exploring, an approach that elegantly combined the benefits Hughes had derived from his own childhood experiences and Froebel’s notion of self-activity.

As well as making progressive changes in the pedagogical approach taken in Toronto schools, Hughes introduced significant administrative reforms. He replaced haphazard groupings of students with classes graded by age and level, opened model schools that provided standardized training for teachers, and enforced the use of the same textbooks in the city’s educational institutions. He worked tirelessly to centralize administration through his office as inspector (he would become chief inspector in 1906) while attempting to reduce the powers of elected trustees, whom he accused of inexpert meddling. Hughes achieved an educational bureaucracy in Toronto that centralized authority, standardized practices (for example, the use of opening exercises), and assigned teachers to subjects in which they were specialists. These reforms regularly attracted controversy, and he faced opposition throughout his years as inspector, in part because many people abhorred the idea that children should be at the centre of education, regarding it as an affront to adult authority. Yet Hughes never wanted children to have unfettered freedom. He believed the teacher’s job was to oversee the development of the child’s faculties and to determine “the channel in which the stream should flow.”

Outside the walls of public schools, Hughes succeeded in bringing to Toronto the concept of an industrial school intended to educate and assert authority over habitual truants and street children [see Frances Esther How*]. Along with his wife, Ada, and John Joseph Kelso of the Children’s Aid Society, Hughes, like other social reformers, believed that healthy recreational activities could help to elevate and control the urban working class. To these ends, he and Kelso founded the Toronto Playgrounds Association in 1907–8.

Hughes was a supporter of the school cadet movement. Exercise and activity were part of the Froebelian philosophy, but Hughes’s enthusiasm for cadet training was based on more than its usefulness to educational principles. He had a strong personal connection to the military. Paternal and maternal grandfathers had fought on opposing sides at the battle of Waterloo, and three of his brothers served in the Canadian military, most notably his younger brother Samuel, the Conservative minister of militia and defence under Sir Robert Laird Borden. Two others, Major-General John Hughes and Brigadier-General William St Pierre Hughes, were high-ranking officers, and his nephew was Major-General Garnet Burk. One of James’s sons, Lieutenant Chester Hughes, was killed during the First World War.

For about a decade after his appointment as inspector, Hughes concentrated on his personal, professional, and civic responsibilities. Pierce’s biography describes an effort, perhaps made during this period, to draft him into local politics: a group of newsboys, prompted by his courtesy to them, tried, without his knowledge, to have him elected as mayor. Hughes, a Conservative and a staunch Orangeman, was touched but unpersuaded, and he remained outside the political arena until the mid 1880s, when the historically difficult issue of separate schools for Roman Catholics and francophones was becoming increasingly contentious. He stumped for Tory leader William Ralph Meredith* during the 1886 provincial election and spent much of his time attacking the Liberal minister of education, George William Ross*. Hughes had been critical of the minister since at least 1884, when Ross intervened in religious instruction in schools. Hughes was outraged when the government subsequently granted separate-school trustees powers that were similar to those of public-school trustees. Seeing in such measures a plot hatched by the Catholic hierarchy in Rome, he rebuked Ross in the Evening Telegram (27 Nov. 1886) for failing to stop “Roman Catholic aggression and undue interference with Public Schools.” On the evening of 20 December, eight days before the polls closed, the two men met in Strathroy for a seven-hour debate. As Carter recounts, they “formed a dynamic pair.” But the unprecedented clash between the province’s minister of education and the Toronto school inspector did little to sway the electorate, and the government of Oliver Mowat* returned to power with another majority.

After the Jesuits’ Estates Act passed in 1888, the Equal Rights Association was formed in Toronto [see William Caven*; D’Alton McCarthy*] to protest perceived special advantages granted to Catholics and French Canadian nationalists. Hughes supported the association, and the following year, in an open letter to Meredith, he warned that the province must guard against “the spread of ignorance and superstition from Quebec.… We should welcome Frenchmen, but we must insist in the most definite manner, that their children shall be trained as nineteenth century Canadians, not as Frenchmen of three centuries ago.”

Two years later he threw his own hat in the ring, running as a Conservative against Liberal Kenneth Chisholm* in Peel County, and endorsed by the Toronto Daily Mail (21 April 1890) as “an Equal Rights man, unchanged and unchangeable.” He lost the race but kept Ross in his sights. During the campaign he had challenged the minister to another debate on what Hughes believed to be threats to Ontario education. He “demanded that the Separate school system be abolished” and commended “the brave battle” being fought by Manitoba premier Thomas Greenway* against separate schools. (The dispute was eventually resolved by a compromise between Greenway and Liberal Wilfrid Laurier*, the new Prime Minister.) Hughes despised “Romanism,” which he had defined in the Mail (6 March 1889) as “a political organization” that amounted to “Government … by the Church for the Church.”

Despite his abhorrence of ultramontanism and its influence in Quebec, Hughes maintained that he held no animosity towards individual Catholics, and he began to moderate his view on separate schools. By 1896 he was supporting Sir Mackenzie Bowell*’s Conservatives over those who followed D’Alton McCarthy, whom Hughes considered “a purely selfish politician.” Although he was grand master for the Orange order in Ontario West, he defended French minority rights in Manitoba. “Remember that the central principle of Orangeism is justice,” Hughes declared in the Toronto World (1 Jan. 1896), “and that an Orangeman who refuses to treat Roman Catholics exactly as he would wish Protestants to be treated is cowardly as well as untrue.” His position angered other Orangemen, but he continued to moderate his views; in 1922 he prepared a sympathetic report on Ottawa’s bilingual public schools for the Unity League of Ontario, a group of Protestant supporters of Franco-Ontarians that had been co-founded by Napoléon-Antoine Belcourt. One of the league’s objectives was the repeal of Regulation 17, which limited French-language teaching in Ontario schools and had been introduced in 1912 following a report by the former chief inspector of public and separate schools, Francis Walter Merchant.

After his electoral loss Hughes remained active in civic affairs, notably women’s suffrage. In 1891 he was elected president of the Toronto branch of the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association (it would be renamed the Canadian Suffrage Association), which was headed by Emily Howard Stowe [Jennings*], and after her death by her daughter, Dr Ann Augusta Stowe* Gullen. A short book, Equal suffrage, which Hughes published in 1895, drew on the Bible and the opinions of church authorities to make the case for equality between women and men and the consequent right of the former to share the voting rights of the latter. It also argued that “sex slavery is more indefensible than race or class slavery, and the complete emancipation of woman will be a grander triumph for justice and truth and liberty than the granting of freedom to any race or class in the history of the world.”

Hughes announced his retirement from the Toronto chief inspector’s position in 1912, the same year in which McMaster University awarded him an lld. He stayed on until he was replaced by Robert Henry Cowley in 1913. Among his many achievements, Hughes had presided over an enormous growth in the Toronto school system: in four decades the number of teachers had risen from 68 to 1,100 and the number of pupils from 5,000 to 45,000. Over the years he had been offered several positions outside Toronto, including those of chief superintendent of schools for Prince Edward Island and associate editor of the Philadelphia Sunday School Times. He turned them all down. His life’s work had been carried out for Toronto’s public schools, and he wished to remain at their head until, he explained to Pierce, “certain reforms were accomplished.”

Throughout his life Hughes was involved in numerous clubs and causes, and retirement left him ample time to pursue his extracurricular interests. As a young man he played for the Toronto Lacrosse Club alongside his brother Sam and future general William Dillon Otter*, and he penned the lyrics to “Lacrosse, our national game,” with music composed by Henry Francis Sefton*. In 1875 Hughes and his Toronto team-mates won the dominion championship against the Montreal Shamrocks; he would later serve as the club’s president, as he did for several other sports associations. Hughes was also a founding member of the Toronto Astronomical Club in 1868; it would later become the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. In the Orange order he served as both a county master and deputy grand master of various lodges; as well, he was a mason and a master of St Andrew’s Lodge. Hughes also joined religious boards and societies in which he held positions that included stints as president of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society, superintendent of the Queen Street Methodist Sunday school, and other leadership roles in local Sunday school associations.

Hughes’s second wife, Ada, who had contributed greatly to his establishment of kindergartens, died on 24 Dec. 1929. Shortly thereafter he married Estella Rounding, who was 49 years his junior. In old age Hughes seemed content to continue his habit of writing abundantly and perfecting his skill as a public speaker, a role in which he had gained renown. In his last two years Hughes suffered uraemia from chronic interstitial nephritis. A fall in his home weakened him further, and he died shortly thereafter.

Hughes authored at least 29 books, including 8 works of poetry, and scores of articles on pedagogy, among other subjects. When retirement was announced, a tribute published in the Toronto Star Weekly labelled him “a many sided man.” The journalist was probably referring to Hughes’s vast repertoire of interests and abilities: in addition to being a writer with a prolific pen, he was an educator, reformer, public servant, and speaker – to list but a few. But the phrase could equally well describe Hughes’s ability to defy stereotype. He was a progressive in education and a Conservative in politics. He was a patron of the cadet movement who wanted to ban corporal punishment in Toronto schools. And it was a rare Orangemen who opposed Catholic schools only to support the Unity League of Ontario, which endorsed bilingual education. James L. Hughes’s contradictions, it would seem, were often as many-sided as he was.

Jason Ellis

There is no extant collection of James Laughlin Hughes’s papers, and no comprehensive list of his publications exists. The most detailed bibliography can be found in B. N. Carter, “James L. Hughes and the gospel of education: a study of the work and thought of a nineteenth century Canadian educator” (d.ed. thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1966), which includes 12 pages of entries. Hughes was prolific, publishing multiple articles, reports, and books, primarily related to education. Some of his most important works include Froebel’s educational laws for all teachers (New York, 1897), Mistakes in teaching (2nd ed., Toronto, 1880; a copy of the first ed. could not be located), and Dickens as an educator (New York, 1901). Influential reports include his Report on manual training presented to the Toronto Public School Board ([Toronto], 1900) and his “Modern tendencies in education,” which appears in Ont. Educational Assoc., Proc. of the fifty-second annual convention (Toronto, 1913), 73–92. Hughes also wrote widely on matters of personal interest, his choice of subjects ranging from women’s suffrage, in Equal suffrage (Toronto, 1895), to the poet Robert Burns, and palmistry and phrenology. Most of his publications are indexed in LAC’s Aurora, the Canadian national online catalogue.

An autobiographical series, on which Hughes’s biographer, L. A. Pierce, relied heavily, appeared in the Toronto Star Weekly in 1912 under the heading “Fifty years of public service in Toronto.” Letters and correspondence from Hughes exist in various fonds at the AO, the City of Toronto Arch., and LAC. The Lorne and Edith Pierce coll. at QUA contains correspondence between Hughes and others, including Pierce. Quotations in the biography provide many insights into Hughes’s ideas, especially his views on himself and his importance. Pierce’s book Fifty years of public service: a life of James L. Hughes (Toronto, 1924) also includes a selected bibliography of Hughes’s published prose and poetry.

AO, RG 80-2-0-89, no.037037; RG 80-2-0-122, no.040505; RG 80-2-0-173, no.041358; RG 80-2-0-414, no.006150; RG 80-8-0-1121, no.008770; RG 80-8-0-1550, no.001276. Globe, 9 April 1890, 25 Oct. 1930, 4 Jan. 1935. Toronto Daily Mail, 22 Dec. 1886, 6 March 1889, 21 April 1890. Toronto Daily Star, 3 Jan. 1935. Toronto Star Weekly, 17 Nov. 1912. Victoria Warder (Lindsay, Ont.), 28 Aug. 1885. World (Toronto), 1 Jan. 1896. G. M. Adam, Toronto, old and new: a memorial volume … (Toronto, 1891; repr. 1972). Robert Barr, The measure of the rule (London, 1907; repr. Toronto, 1973). Canadian album: men of Canada, or success by example …, ed. W[illia]m Cochrane and J. C. Hopkins (5v., Brantford, Ont., 1891–96), 1. Centennial story: the Board of Education for the city of Toronto, 1850–1950, ed. E. A. Hardy and H. M. Cochrane (Toronto, 1950). Penney Clark, “‘Reckless extravagance and utter incompetence’: George Ross and the Toronto textbook ring, 1883–1907,” Bibliographical Soc. of Can., Papers (Toronto), 46 (2008): 185–236. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. Alexander Fraser, A history of Ontario: its resources and development (2v., Toronto and Montreal, 1907), 2. E. C. Guillet, In the cause of education: centennial history of the Ontario Educational Association, 1861–1960 (Toronto, 1960). Journal of Education for Ontario (Toronto), 27 (1874): 70. E. M. Luke, “Woman suffrage in Canada,” Canadian Magazine, 5 (May–October 1895): 328–36. J. R. Miller, Equal rights: the Jesuits’ Estates Act controversy (Montreal, 1979). Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers, 1892, 1907 (reports of the Dept. of Education, 1891, 1906). R. M. Stamp, “James L. Hughes: proponent of the new education,” in Profiles of Canadian educators, ed. R. S. Patterson et al. ([Toronto], 1974), 192–212; The schools of Ontario, 1876–1976 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1982). Toronto Normal School: 1847–1947 (Toronto, [1947?]). Who’s who and why, 1914.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jason Ellis, “HUGHES, JAMES LAUGHLIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hughes_james_laughlin_16E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hughes_james_laughlin_16E.html
Author of Article:   Jason Ellis
Title of Article:   HUGHES, JAMES LAUGHLIN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2023
Year of revision:   2023
Access Date:   April 14, 2024