Elmwood School has been an institution in the Village of Rockcliffe Park for a hundred years. It was founded in 1915 as the “Rockcliffe Preparatory School” by Theodora Philpot.
Though British by birth, both Theodora and her husband, Hamlet Philpot, had worked in the United States until the outbreak of the First World War encouraged them to return to the “Empire.” Hamlet was hired to teach English, classics, and debating at Ashbury College, and Theodora looked for an educational project to absorb her considerable energies.
Rockcliffe Park Village was still largely rural in the second decade of the 20th century, though it was being colonized at the time by families from Ottawa in search of large lots and a country style of life. The newcomers sent their older boys to Ashbury College, but younger sons had no school to attend. Theodora recognized a business opportunity in the emerging village and seized the opportunity to found the Rockcliffe Preparatory School.
Theodora opened the school in an ill-equipped farmhouse leased from Charles Henry Keefer. Set close to Buena Vista Road, the old residence was of a simple frame construction, covered in stucco. Inside there were just two classrooms downstairs and up some very creaky back stairs, two other rooms very small with lean-to walls.
The School opened for business in 1915 with only four students, aged four to seven. The educational ambitions of the first Headmistress were high. She wrote: “The discipline of the school and the instruction are in accordance with the best modern methods, and constant care is given to the proper development of each pupil and the fostering of good school spirit.”
Theodora Philpot’s vision rang true with many parents. Even in the first few years, there were exponential increases in enrolment. Two more teachers arrived in 1916, and the following year a young Englishwoman, Miss Button—she was soon to become Mrs. Buck, Elmwood’s second headmistress—was hired. In 1917, the school created a makeshift auditorium out of a barn and connected it to the main building by means of a covered corridor. By 1919, Elmwood was booming, with more than 40 students; most of them girls.
By this time, the original building was bursting at the seams; but the founder lacked capital to expand. When the property, which they had rented since 1915, came up for sale, Theodora appealed to two Elmwood parents—Lilias (Ahearn) Southam and Ethel (White) Fauquier— to buy it.
After founding the school, Theodora Philpot retired to England leaving Elmwood in the capable hands of Edith Buck. She donated a Bible Box, inscribed with the words “Pactum Serva” meaning “Keep the Faith” to the school, and it came with a plea to carry on the work she had started.
In summer 1925, Lilias Southam resolved to tear down the dilapidated Keefer farmhouse and replace it with a large, three-storey house with room for boarders. The new building, with the Front Hall at its heart, remains today much as it was in 1925.
When the school was rebuilt in 1925, it welcomed the first 25 boarders. With a matron and maids, there were some 40 people living here at one time. The Boarding School closed in 1966.
Thomas Ahearn, local industrialist and father of Lilias Ahearn, died in 1938 and left money to finance the building of a new wing, which was completed in 1946. In recognition of Ahearn’s scientific interests, the new wing included a science room.
The school’s enrolment continued to grow—from 130 or so in the 1960s to over 300 in the 1980s. More room was urgently needed. A massive building campaign eliminated the courtyard and created new classrooms, offices and a large new gymnasium. This era also saw the introduction in 1978 of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme to the school. Later on, Elmwood School became the first school in North America to be accredited for all three levels of the IB Programme.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Elmwood had over 500 students, and was bursting at the seams: a separate Junior School was constructed, and a fine new library, art rooms and a music studio were built in the main building.
As Elmwood approaches its Centennial year, the School is poised to continue the work started a century ago by Mrs. Philpot, and start its second century as the premier school for girls in Eastern Ontario.
1915 – 1920 – Theodora Philpot
1920 – 1950 – Edith Buck
1950 – 1955 – Emily Graham
1955 – 1962 – Kathleen Bruce
1962 – 1969 – Patricia Blyth
1969 – 1982 – Joan Whitwill
1982 – 1990 – Margaret White
1990 – 1996 – Morag Gundy
1996 – 2003 – Carol Kirby
2003 – 2007 – Helen Spence
2007 – 2008 – Suzana Szymanski (Acting Head)
2008 – present – Cheryl Boughton
Mrs. Philpot was responsible for choosing the symbols and colours of the school. In doing so, she was inspired by the famous poem of William Wordsworth, “The Daffodils,” for she found it very much in keeping with her educational vision. “The daffodil became for me a symbol, in its happy way,” she wrote, “of growing in merry companies and open spaces, joyous, strong, companionable and free.” Today, the flower-shaped emblem that she designed – the Philpot Token – is still awarded annually to the girl who best embodies that vision.
The motto of the school, however, came later. “Highest of the High,” was taken from the school song, “Summa Summarum,” which was composed by music mistress Miss Tipple in the 1920s. The school hymn, “To Be a Pilgrim,” is sung at assemblies and appreciated for its beautiful melody and lofty vision of life as an adventure requiring courage, high ideals and hard work.
The “samara” – the seed pod of the elm tree – was also adopted as an emblem and as the name of the school yearbook, which records so much of the Elmwood story over time.
Students are grouped into Houses at Elmwood, the first three being created in 1927 and named for inspiring women (Nightingale, Fry and Keller). A fourth, Wilson, was added in 1982 and named for a modern Canadian hero.