A Meeting of the School Trustees, 1885 Robert Harris (Wales, 1849 – Quebec, 1919). When Robert Harris painted this scene immortalizing Kate Henderson’s confrontation with self-righteous Victorian values of rural Prince Edward Island he may not have intended such a universal message. Kate came to represent progressive thought. One of the “women fighting invisibly at her side (Williamson 1970)” was Sarah Harvie. On Prince Edward Island in the 19th century, the gulf between the rich and the lower classes was enormous. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Bog area of Charlottetown where many Black Islanders lived. In the Bog, on Rochford Street, was an integrated school for the underprivileged. For over fifty years in the Bog School (1848 – 1903) Sarah Harvie, trained more than two thousand children. Sarah, who was African Canadian, was highly respected for the positive influence she exerted on the locality. (Hornby 1991) One can imagine the 1860 meeting in Charlottetown similar to the one portrayed here. Some protested the fact that children of “respectable parents” were sending their children to Sarah Harvie to benefit from her progressive teaching. On the same street as the Bog School was Robert Harris’ family church, St. Peter’s. Harris who returned often to his Island home, was very attached to this Church. His brother was the architect of St. Peter’s Chapel and Harris contributed numerous paintings to decorate the interior. It is from here that Harris was buried in 1919. In the 1880’s Church meetings must have been heated when, against the wishes of more conservative members, St. Peter’s Chapel became a Chapel of Ease for the poor people of the Bog (Tuck 1997).
The Bog was razed in a redevelopment project shortly after the school’s closing in 1903. With the local community scattered many black Islanders became part of an exodus. Within ten years the Island lost most of its African Canadians. The majority went to Boston, joining thousands of African Canadians moving south in search of community and opportunity (Hornby 1991). Williamson, Moncrieff, Robert Harris (1849 – 1919) An Unconventional Biography, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1970. (Williamson 1970)

Hornby, Jim, Black Islander: Prince Edward Island’s Historical Black Community, Institute of Island Studies, no.3, Charlottetown: University of Prince Edward Island, 1991. (Hornby 1991) Tuck, R.C., “St.Peter’s Cathedral”, The Island Magazine, 1988. My information on this is based on a telephone call with Canon Tuck March, 1997. I have ordered at this at NAC. Changes may have to be made when I get the published article. (Tuck 1997) In the 1870’s Harris did sketches of “urchins” from the Bog. In 1904 he sketched Sam Martin’s bridge. Martin, a former slave of a Loyalist was the founder of Charlottetown’s black in the early 1800’s. Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1999. Homage to Sarah Harvie, acrylic on canvas. Linkletter, Charlottetown, PEI

13 Responses to “Robert Harris. 1885. Meeting of the School Trustees”

  1. Robert Danner Says:

    The Meeting of the School Trustees, painted by Robert Harris, is reported to be a meeting between Kate Henderson and the trustees of the Long Creek School, PEI. However, the school roll in the foreground of the painting shows “Pine Creek School.” Do you have an explanation for this difference? Thanks.

  2. It is my understanding based on a close reading of Harris’ art historian/curator Williamson, that Harris purposefully changed the name of the school to Pine Creek School from Long Creek School based on an incident there that did in fact inspire him to do the painting of the Meeting of the School Trustees, to avoid offending his own mother Sarah Stretch Harris and her brother, his own favourite uncle, Joe Stretch who lived in Long Creek (Williamson 1970: 117-9, 121, 127, 129). William Critchlow Harris and Joe Stretch immigrated as a family group to Prince Edward Island in the 1850s.

    “One of [Robert Harris’] favourite expeditions was boating on or walking along the banks of the Elliot River to his Uncle Joe Stretch’s farm at Long Creek. (It nestles there today, just as it did one hundred years ago, commanding one of the loveliest views of the Island.) Uncle Joe Stretch was Harris’ favourite uncle, and the Harris, Stetch and Cotton families were a close-knit clan. Many of Harris’ happiest recollections were of the visits to his uncle and cousins. A good likeness of the man is still hanging in the farmhouse (Williamson 1970: 31 illustrated (Williamson 1970: plate 21). He could easily be ‘mistaken’ for one of the narrow-minded trustees depicted in The Meeting of the School Trustees.

    Williamson described Harris’ return to Prince Edward Island in the 1870s after his studies in Europe as a period in which he did his best “to conform – renewing acquaintainces, visiting his cousins at Long Creek. . . (Williamson 1970: 59)”

    After his marriage to Bessie in 1885 she was often the model for his paintings and this was the case for the teacher (Kate Henderson) in The Meeting of the School Trustees.

    “One day Robert and Bessie went to visit the Stretch cousins at Long Creek. Calling in at the one-room school they met the teacher, Kate Henderson, sister of the local blacksmith. Kate was a friend of the Stretch family and she and Robert has known each other in the past. In the course of their conversation she told him how she had been ‘laying down the law’ to the school trustees and generally ‘talking them over.’ This chance happening was later to inspire Harris to paint The Meeting of the School Trustees, his masterpiece, which was the sensation of the 1886 Royal Canadian Academy show (Williamson 1970: 117).”

    Williamson, Moncrieff. 1970. Robert Harris (1849-1919): An Unconventional Biography. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

    Cheers, Maureen

  3. I have just come across this website, in which I am mentined. St. Peter’s Cathedral is a cathedral, not a basilica, which in its ecclesiastical rather than its architectural meaning is a dignity bestowed by the Vatican on a church. St. Peter’s is Anglican and unlikely to be dignified by the Vatican (unless of course the schism between Canterbury and Rome should be healed at some time in the future, in which case it might very well come to be dignified with that particular title. However, attitudes (on both sides) would have to change for that to be possible.

  4. Names of the people who was in the school trustees?

  5. linda Hennessey Says:

    I was looking at some of Robert Harris works at the Confederson center and noticed that there was a painting that looked a little different but similier to the painting of the school trusties. Was there two similier paintings done on the subject .
    the painting that I was looking at had a female in the backround that had different facial features than the other people Harris has painted and I was wondering if she could be Sarah Harvie ?

  6. Tara Says:

    I was told that one of the gentlemen in the painting was my great great (great?) grandfather. Or rather the it’s his likeness. He looks a lot like my grandfather. Does anyone know if any of these people’s likenesses are based on anyone in the Stretch family?

    • Yes, the story is based on the Long Creek school and one of the men could be your great(great?) grandfather. Harris was being slightly critical of the Long Creek school trustees in this painting so he did not name the models, one of whom was his favourite uncle, Joe Stretch. There is a portrait of Joe Stretch by Robert Harris in the Long Creek farmhouse in 1970 when the book on Robert Harris was written. Robert Harris’ parents met and married in England. Chrithlow Harris fell in love with Sara Stretch’s voice the first time he heard it. The Stretches were from Lancashire (p.3). Sarah and Chrithlow Harris and their children including young Robert, came to Prince Edward Island along with Sarah’s brother Joe Stretch and his family c. 1856. They all lived in Charlottetown at first but Joe Stretch purchased land at Long Creek on the banks of the West, or Elliot River. (The farm was still owned and operated by the Stretches in 1970).

      Williamson, Moncrieff. 1970. Robert Harris: an Unconventional Biography. Toronto:McClelland and Stewart Limited. 0-7710-9010-2

      • Tara Says:

        Thank you so much. This is so interesting. I will have to make a trip out east sometime soon. My grandmother used to talk about an old stone house that the Stretches built in PEI. Do you know if it actually is a stone house? I assume if it was it was built by Joe.

  7. JS Says:

    Thanks for your beautiful description. Would you know if there is any literature on Kate Henderson?

  8. Momo~chan Says:

    Hello Everyone,

    Does someone know how Sarah Harvie was related to Kate Henderson or if there was any connection at all?

    Also, was Robert Harris inspired to do the painting of this particular topic, because he was supporting women’s independence or something?

    I am doing research on the painting. Any info is welcome.

  9. Momo~chan Says:

    Hello JS,

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry that it took me so long to reply. I do not quite know how this system works.

    So far, I have found a little info on Histor!ca Minutes, and I tried to search for Kate Henderson both in google and library references and have not found a great deal of info. My assignment is to analyze the painting so I wanted to include the background information of that time and women’s status etc. Mmm, O guess that I have to be more creative in my research, eh?

    Please feel free to comment or suggest anything. I look forward to any input.

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