ROBERTSON, THOMAS JAFFRAY, educator; b. March 1805 in Dublin (Republic of Ireland), youngest son of Charles Robertson, a Dublin portrait painter, and Christiana Jaffray; d. 26 Sept. 1866 at Toronto, Canada West.
As a youth Thomas Jaffray Robertson attended the Frinaiglian Institute in Dublin where he won many academic prizes before his graduation in 1820. He then entered Trinity College, Dublin; although unable to take his degree “through illness,” he obtained honours in both science and classics. In 1827 he returned to Frinaiglian Institute as a teacher of classics, and the following year joined the Irish Office of Education. He reached high office in it when he was named chief inspector of the national schools of Ireland in July 1845. Two years later he accepted appointment as headmaster of the newly created Normal School in Toronto, a position that was to have gone to the headmaster of the national model schools in Dublin, John Rintoul, until his wife’s illness forced him to withdraw.
Arriving in Toronto in September 1847, Robertson, a “tall, erect, well filled out” man of “strong, rugged character” and “direct ways,” had to prepare at once for the first session of the Normal School which began on 1 November. Although he himself taught a variety of subjects for a total of five hours per day, his main interests were grammar, physical geography, and ancient and modern history. Three textbooks he wrote for publisher John Lovell*’s series of Canadian school books reflect his concern with the subject of grammar: The general principles of language; An easy mode of teaching the rudiments of Latin grammar to beginners; and The rudiments of English grammar for beginners.
As a teacher, Robertson “had little to do with the fine distinctions of psychology and child-study”; rather, he was known as a strict disciplinarian, and he instilled in his students “sturdy, energetic, thorough-going ways and methods.” In an 1856 report on the grammar schools in the eastern section of Canada West, he lamented the insufficient attention being paid to the “inculcation of the habits of neatness, regularity, and order, so especially necessary in the training of youth.” He also criticized the too great “dependence being placed on the Text-books and the recitation of lessons committed to memory.” Similarly, his textbook prefaces reveal his opposition to rote learning and his belief in what he called the “conversational-method.” “Mechanical” teaching he condemned, because it failed to seek out the general principles underlying a subject and because it tended to be reinforced by the “pandying” and “cowhiding” of children. One account asserts that The general principles of language “did much . . . to lift grammar from being a mere mechanical repetition of rules and exceptions to becoming the ‘logic of the classroom.’” Despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, his students found him an earnest instructor and a kind friend. As a reward for work well done, he made a practice of taking his favoured students on yachting trips.
Yachting was Robertson’s main leisure-time activity; in it “his genial nature was fully shown.” He was one of the persons responsible for founding in 1852 the club that two years later became the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. From the outset Robertson held various leading offices in the club, including the top rank of captain (a title later changed to commodore) and that of vice-commodore. He remained on the club’s executive until his death, and also won the first racing trophy at the rcyc, the Queen’s Cup.
Robertson was granted a leave of absence for the school year of 1865–66 because of failing health, and he died while still in office. His successor as headmaster was a former student, J. H. Sangster. Robertson was survived by his widow, Amelia Nelson of Dublin, and six children.
T. J. Robertson was the author of Chronological chart of contemporary dates in the history of Judea, Israel, Nineveh, Babylon, Egypt, Syria, Persia, Greece, Phœnicia, Carthage, Troy and Rome (Toronto, 1866); An easy mode of teaching the rudiments of Latin grammar to beginners (Montreal, [c. 1860]); The general principles of language; or, the philosophy of grammar (Montreal, 1860; 2nd ed., 1861; 3rd ed., 1864); Grammar school tables for parsing Latin and English (Toronto, 1866); and The rudiments of English grammar for beginners (Montreal, 1866).
Daily Telegraph (Toronto), 27 Sept. 1866. Journal of Education for U.C., XIX (1866), 140–41. Leader, 2 Oct. 1866. Documentary history of education in U.C. (Hodgins), VII, VIII, XII. Past principals of Ontario normal schools, January, 1905 ([Toronto, 1905]). David Fotheringham, “Thomas Jaffray Robertson, M.A.,” Toronto Normal School, jubilee celebration, 1847–1897: (October 31st, November 1st and 2nd); biographical sketches and names of successful students, 1847 to 1875 (Toronto, 1898), 10–12.