Waterloo South Primary School, An Architectural Gem

This handsome red brick building at 186 Waterloo Street, may be London’s earliest surviving school. The Waterloo South Primary School (the cottage-like structure to the left) was erected in 1864. The land on which it stands was granted by the Crown to Charles Brock on December 4,1842.

When Rev. Benjamin Cronyn was named Superintendent of Education for London in 1842, he was asked to divide the town of London into school sections. He used the municipal divisions already established, setting up the school sections to correspond with wards. The early private schools in London were replaced by ward schools – Waterloo South Primary School served Ward 3.

Noted architect William Robinson designed this prototype for ward schools, basing his design on the popular Ontario-cottage but adding some Gothic elements. Other important London buildings designed by Robinson include the earliest buildings on the South Street campus of Victoria Hospital in Soho and the Customs House (long since demolished) in downtown London.

When Waterloo South Primary School closed in 1890, the students were divided between Simcoe Street Model School (later Governor Simcoe School) on the corner of Clarence and Simcoe streets, and the Hamilton Road School (since re-named Aberdeen School). The former ward school was preserved as the site of the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Mission. This congregation thrived and in 1904, built their new Chalmers Presbyterian Church on the northeast corner of Waterloo and Grey streets. The schoolhouse was used for Sunday School classes. Although the Chalmers congregation eventually sold its building and relocated to Oakridge Acres, the ward school and adjoining church have survived as Cornerstone United Reform Church. The blue heritage plaque, indicating a designated building, should guarantee that the schoolhouse will survive for decades to come.

Teachers at the Waterloo South Primary School included the principal, Justus Wright (later the principal of Aberdeen School), and Thomas Steele, whose widow lived on Grey Street behind the three-room school.  The female teachers included Phoebe Martindale, a sister of Philadelphia millionaire Thomas Martindale. Phoebe sometimes taught as many as 70 pupils in her classroom. In the winter months, a stovepipe, which was sometimes red hot, was located only a few feet above the students’ heads.