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TANSWELL, JAMES, schoolmaster, journalist, and office holder; b. probably 10 March 1744/45, in Blandford, England; d. 25 April 1819 at Quebec, Lower Canada.

Although he may have studied at a Jesuit college in Europe, James Tanswell himself records only that he spent “the Twenty first Years” of his life “in acquiring a universal Education, & . . . assisting in some of the first Schools in England,” until in 1765 he opened his own academy at London. There on 3 June 1768 he married Ann Blacklock; they were to have at least five sons. In 1772, at the request of several people in Nova Scotia, Brook Watson and Robert Rashleigh persuaded Tanswell to go there “to plant the liberal Arts & Sciences”; shortly after his arrival, he was licensed by government to open a school at Halifax, which he conducted for five years.

In 1778 Tanswell received letters from some residents of Quebec inviting him to move there and intimating that Governor Sir Guy Carleton had promised him “Protection & Commission.” Although Tanswell apparently thought he was coming primarily to tutor Carleton’s children, the invitation was likely prompted by a lack of Protestant schools in the city [see John Fraser]. When Tanswell arrived in mid September Carleton had departed for England, but on 3 November Governor Haldimand granted Tanswell’s request for a licence to keep a public school, and on the 23rd he opened an “Academy” and boarding-school on Rue du Parloir. The following year it was moved to the bishop’s palace, which the government rented from the Roman Catholic bishop.

In the Quebec Gazette of 19 Nov. 1778 Tanswell advertised public and private lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic, the Italian method of bookkeeping, English, French, Latin, Greek, geography, and various branches of mathematics; he also promised that “the exterior Deportment and Behaviour of the Children will be particularly attended to, as well as the Improvement of the Mind.” He subsequently widened the range of courses to include ballroom dancing, history (“the most useful study in Life”), German, Spanish, Italian, and the Copernican and Newtonian systems. In 1801 he offered four classes, taught in English and French: reading, writing, and mercantile arithmetic at three guineas per student per annum; French and English grammar and bookkeeping at four guineas; geography, trigonometry, and mensuration at five guineas; and Latin and Greek, geography, the study of globes, the construction of maps and charts, astronomy, navigation, surveying, gauging, architecture, and fortifications at six guineas.

Tanswell taught both boys and girls, but in “separate apartments.” Girls, for whom he opened a boarding-school in 1800, were offered “all the necessary, useful and ornamental Branches of Literature, Languages, &c,” as well as sciences, and had at their disposal the same materials as the boys, including by 1803 “a Planetarium, Lunarium, Tellurium &c. such as have never been seen in this Quarter of the Globe.” Boys probably took substantially the same courses in literature and science, but in addition were “expeditiously fitted, for the Army, Navy, University, Accompting House, Mechanicks, &c &c.”One subject Tanswell stressed for both sexes was language; he was as keen to help the British attain “a thorough knowledge . . . of that beautiful and necessary Language the French” as he was to teach English to the Canadians.

Tanswell made a remarkable effort to facilitate the education of his clientele. He offered courses to both young people and adults mornings, afternoons, and evenings, at first five and then six days a week, in all seasons, and private tutoring in the hours between scheduled classes. In 1789, “from the Hardness of the Times,” he educated three British and three Canadian lads free, and he doubled the number the following year. In October 1793, “under the Patronage and Directions” of Prince Edward Augustus, Tanswell opened the Sunday Free School, where instruction was given in both languages in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but where particular attention was accorded the teaching of English to Canadians. At the other end of the social spectrum, in 1815 he proposed “to finish the Education of a small but very select number of Young Ladies” and a limited number of young gentlemen. About 1814 he had begun teaching English grammar at the Séminaire de Québec, to whose students he had for a number of years been offering prizes for excellence.

To handle such a wide range of course offerings, times, and types of schools Tanswell required help. His son Thomas assisted from about 1790 until 1803, even though he had opened his own evening-school in 1798, and in 1804 Tanswell had three assistants. Teaching became virtually a family business; in 1817 a grandson, Stephen Joseph, opened a school in the city.

In 1801 Tanswell removed his academy to the Upper Town market; thereafter it was kept successively in various houses in Upper Town. Between 1778 and 1790 the number of Protestant schools at Quebec had increased to six and then stabilized, apparently under conditions of strong competition, for the next 30 years. Unlike most of those who opened schools after him, Tanswell received from the time of his arrival a salary of £100 per annum from government, as well as the usual fees from students; none the less, he found his “arduous, painful & confining Profession of instructing Youth” not very profitable, probably in part because of the competition and his own idealism. He imposed not only a lower, but also an upper limit on the size of his classes; as well, in 1790 half of his 25 students were “free scholars.”

Although this proportion of non-paying students was probably unusual even for Tanswell, and although he nearly doubled the number of his students in 1791, he remained constantly in financial difficulty and continually sought new ways to apply his own education to increasing his income while dispelling “the dark Clouds of Ignorance” at Quebec. In 1780 he petitioned Haldimand for three years’ salary in advance to help pay the purchase price and cost, of repairs on a large house acquired for a boarding-school in which he maintained, often on credit, “many young Gentlemen from the Country.” In 1781 he imported “a large and general Assortment of Stationary and Books,” which he offered wholesale or retail. In a letter to Haldimand the following year he wrote that, not finding enough work at Quebec, he was ready to abandon teaching for a government job, but that if he must continue teaching, he would need at least a part-time government position. At the same time he solicited from Carleton, commander-in-chief at New York City, permission to set up an academy there. All these requests were apparently refused, as was another in July 1783 for authorization to call his school His Majesty’s Royal Quebec Academy. The following year, adducing “a Torrent of unexpected Opposition, a sudden Rise of every specie of Provisions, Infidelity of Servants, and many bad Debts,” he requested another room in the bishop’s palace. In June 1788 he advertised his services as a copyist of letters, memorials, and petitions, a translator, and a bookkeeper. He had been hired by William Moore* in January of that year to edit Le Courier de Québec ou Héraut françois, the first newspaper in the colony published exclusively in French; only the prospectus and three numbers appeared, however. On 15 Dec. 1788, after the Courier had been discontinued, “there not being subscribers sufficient to pay for the paper,” Moore advertised a “French Gazette” to be edited by Tanswell, but no issue was ever printed. In 1791 Tanswell was prepared to publish for Canadian students an English grammar with exercises explained in French as well as a French treatise on arithmetic; neither appeared, probably because no way was found to defray the expenses. In 1796 he was appointed interpreter in the courts of King’s Bench and Quarter Sessions at £40 per annum, and two years later was made keeper of the Special Gaol for the District of Quebec. He also rented part of his house. In spite of all his efforts to increase his income, however, Tanswell continued intermittently until 1815 to petition the government for aid.

In the early years of his career Tanswell had complained of “the many illiberal & unmerited Aspersions” cast upon his character since 1778, and these unidentified disparagements had perhaps contributed to his financial difficulties. In 1783 his membership in the Thespian Society, a theatre company formed that year, had given rise to the criticism that he had been attending more assiduously to it than to his academy. Opposition to Tanswell may have stemmed most, however, from suspicions about the religious affiliation of the “Protestant schoolmaster.” Apparently an Anglican before his arrival at Quebec, and provincial grand secretary of the Society of Free and Accepted Masons in Canada from 1780 to 1784, he none the less had close connections with the Roman Catholic Church, and probably converted to Catholicism at some point. His son Charles was baptized in Notre-Dame Cathedral in 1778 and Ann Tanswell was buried from there in 1797. On 25 June 1799 Tanswell married Marie-Joseph Coutant in Notre-Dame-de-Foy church at Sainte-Foy, and on 27 April 1819 he was buried in the Catholic Cimetière des Picotés. Certainly one notable characteristic of this English schoolmaster’s career at Quebec, spanning 41 years, was the ease with which he had moved in the French-speaking and Roman Catholic Canadian society. After Tanswell’s death his academy was taken over by the Reverend Daniel Wilkie*, a Presbyterian minister.

Mary Jane Edwards

ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 27 avril 1819; CE1-20, 25 juin 1799; CN1-26, 25 avril 1812, 23 févr. 1813; CN1-63, 4 déc. 1811; CN1-178, 14 avril 1812; CN1-262, 14 août 1797; 10 avril 1801; 26 févr., 8 mars 1803. BL, Add. mss 21733: f.161; 21755: ff.37–38; 21877: ff.229–30, 267–69, 336–38 (mfm. at PAC). PAC, RG 1, L3L: 591; RG 4, A1: 21369, 38199–201, 28 Dec. 1815; RG 68, 90: 114. PRO, CO42/71: ff.284–86; PRO 30/55, no.10011 (mfm. at PAC). Bas-Canada, chambre d’Assemblée, Journaux, 1801: 276; 1807: 250; 1814, app. A. Le Courier de Québec ou Héraut françois (Québec), 1er janv., 24 nov., 1er déc. 1788. Nova-Scotia Gazette and the Weekly Chronicle, 15 Aug. 1775. Quebec Herald, Miscellany and Advertiser, 1788–92. Quebec Gazette, 1778–1819. Quebec almanac, 1780: 60. The register book of marriages belonging to the parish of St George, Hanover Square, in the county of Middlesex, ed. J. H. Chapman and G. J. Armytage (4v., London, 1886–97), 2: 176. P. [-J. ] Aubert de Gaspé, Mémoires (nouv. éd., Montréal, 1971), 124–25. L.-P. Audet, Le système scolaire, 2: 136, 139, 310, 321, 343–44, 346–47; 3: 55, 140; 4: 181, 188–89; 5: 40, 44–45. J. H. Graham, Outlines of the history of freemasonry in the province of Quebec (Montreal, 1892), 50–51, 58, 70–71. “L’Académie royale de James Tanswell,” BRH, 42 (1936): 359. F.-J. Audet, “James Tanswell,” BRH, 3 (1897): 141.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Mary Jane Edwards, “TANSWELL, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 19, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tanswell_james_5E.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/tanswell_james_5E.html
Author of Article:   Mary Jane Edwards
Title of Article:   TANSWELL, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   May 19, 2024