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SPRAGG, JOSEPH, educator; b. 28 March 1775 in Canterbury, England, possibly a son of Joseph Spragg and Frances—  ; m. 18 Jan. 1802 Sarah Bitterman in London, and they had three daughters and four sons; d. 17 Dec. 1848 in Toronto.

Joseph Spragg had become a schoolmaster by 1806, in which year he lived at New Cross (London). In 1819, possibly at the request of William Wilberforce, he entered the Central School of the National Society in London. Wilberforce recommended Spragg to Sir Peregrine Maitland*, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, for the post of teacher at the school that Maitland intended to be the vanguard of a system of schools like those of the National Society in Britain, which functioned under the precepts of Andrew Bell’s monitorial method. National schools had been set up in Lower Canada and the Maritimes [see Jacob Mountain*; George Stracey Smyth*]. These schools were similar in operation to the Lancasterian schools of the British and Foreign School Society in their utilization of older and brighter students as teaching monitors [see Joseph Lancaster], but the essential difference was that the National Society, in using Bell’s system, followed Church of England tenets. In his conviction that love of God and king should be the basic aim of colonial education, Maitland favoured such schools as a counterpoise to the non-denominational common schools that had been established in Upper Canada in 1816. Because of their frequent employment of American teachers and texts, he criticized them for “instilling principles into the pupil’s mind unfriendly to our form of government.”

One of Canada’s first monitorial-school teachers, Spragg arrived in York (Toronto) in the summer of 1820 at the age of 45. The school in which he was to be set up already had an incumbent in common-school teacher Thomas Appleton*. He had to be removed but it required some tough talking by the Reverend John Strachan* as chairman of the district board of education before he agreed to resign. Critics of Maitland, such as reformer and school trustee Jesse Ketchum*, saw in these actions a deliberate attempt to replace the common school with what amounted to a church school. The trustees resigned along with Appleton and in their place Maitland appointed Attorney General John Beverley Robinson*, Surveyor General Thomas Ridout*, and Joseph Wells*. He then installed Spragg as the teacher of what became known as the Upper Canada Central School. Unfortunately for Maitland, Appleton refused to leave gracefully, and his case soon became a cause célèbre.

In September the Upper Canada Central School was opened for both boys and girls and, as in other schools in the National Society system, most were admitted free because their parents could not afford to pay fees. During the first year of operation, 158 children attended, the majority having had no previous instruction. Under Spragg’s direction the monitorial system was applied, “by which those who teach and those who are taught are equally improved and benefitted.” The government-sponsored school was patterned after the Central School in London, and it was intended that the York school would be a training-ground for teachers of similar schools throughout the colony – one in every town, according to Maitland. One scholar, George Warburton Spragge (Joseph’s great-grandson), has estimated that at the most four or five schools were attempted; only the one at York survived for any length of time.

As a schoolmaster, Spragg had a mixed reputation. Even Wilberforce had admitted in 1820, “I cannot say that He has particularly fascinated me, tho’ I have had very respectable recommendations of Him.” Maitland, whose opinion may have been biased, spoke favourably in 1822 and again two years later of both Spragg and the school, but parental reports, presented in 1828 in the report of a select committee of the House of Assembly on a petition from Thomas Appleton, did not always agree. After Spragg had built a house on the western outskirts of York in 1824, he was frequently late for school and reports of his negligence increased. On one occasion in 1829 Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*, visiting the school, found that Spragg had not arrived by 10 a.m. Colborne promptly suspended him for a time. Despite his spotty record, Spragg repeatedly appealed for more money and teaching assistance and sought personal promotion through new office. That he had a high opinion of himself is reflected in Henry Scadding*’s observation that, “though not in Holy Orders, his air and costume were those of the dignified clergyman.” He did have some success in placing his three surviving sons in the 1820s: Joseph Bitterman and William Prosperous became clerks in the Surveyor General’s Office and John Godfrey* was articled as a law student.

Spragg remained headmaster of the central school until his retirement in 1844, the year it closed its doors. By that time a church-run free school funded by the public treasury was an anomaly. Maitland’s plan never materialized. Not only was the Bell system, with its Church of England bias, unacceptable to the majority of Upper Canadians, but the House of Assembly suspected that the National schools were intended to undermine the non-denominational common schools.

J. Donald Wilson

[G. W. Spragge, “Monitorial schools in the Canadas, 1810–1845” (d.paed. thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1935), provides a full description of this system of education. The details of Maitland’s plan to introduce National schools are discussed in my “Foreign and local influence on popular education in Upper Canada, 1815–1844” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1970), 65–71. Conflicting views of the Appleton case are presented in G. W. Spragge, “The Upper Canada Central School,” OH, 32 (1937): 171–91, and E. J. Hathaway, “Early schools of Toronto,” OH, 23 (1926): 322–27.  j.d.w.]

National Soc. (Church of England) for Promoting Religious Education (London), Reg. of masters from the country, entry for J. Spragg. PAC, RG 1, L3, 463A: S14/160; RG 5, A1: 23980–83, 23987–95, 26393–95, 31899–901, 39075–77. PRO, CO 42/365: 328, 418, 420, 432–33; 42/366: 3 (mfm. at AO). St James’ Cemetery and Crematorium (Toronto), Record of burials, 20 Dec. 1848; Tombstones, lot 29, sect.P. Trinity College Arch. (Toronto), G. W. Spragge papers, Spragg family genealogy. Univ. of Toronto Arch., A73-0015/001, extract of dispatch from Maitland to Bathurst, enclosed in Major Hillier to General Board of Education, 13 May 1823 (mfm. at AO). John Strachan, The John Strachan letter book, 1812–1834, ed. G. W. Spragge (Toronto, 1946), 212. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1828, app., “Report on the petition of T. Appleton.” U.C. Central School, First annual report of the Upper Canada Central School, on the British National system of education (York [Toronto], 1822), 7. Globe, 23 Dec. 1848. Scadding, Toronto of old (Armstrong; 1966).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. Donald Wilson, “SPRAGG, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spragg_joseph_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spragg_joseph_7E.html
Author of Article:   J. Donald Wilson
Title of Article:   SPRAGG, JOSEPH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   September 22, 2023