The Forgotten College on the Hill


(c) RMG Thomas Bouckley Collection


Drive down Park Road south towards Bloor Street, the area known as College Hill, and you’ll notice a few things:  the sprawl of modest, post-war homes, a handful of small, uninspiring strip malls, and a 1960s-style church.  But one thing is conspicuously absent: there’s absolutely no sign of a college.

But back in 1876, the landscape looked very different than what we see today. Here’s the forgotten story of the rise and fall of DeMill Ladies’ College, which one stood east of Park Road, just north of College Avenue.

DeMill Ladies’ College was the vision of Methodist minister Reverend Alfred B. DeMill.  Assisted by his well-educated wife, who, in her role as Lady Principal, took on the responsibility for the student’s moral training, the purpose of DeMill’s college was to provide higher education for girls, including domestic skills, with a heavy dose of religious influence.   DeMill believed that educated girls, who were well-versed in not only the domestic arts, but also religion, became superior mothers who would raise good, Christian children.

The school opened in 1876, on what was then a beautiful and commanding site with views of Lake Ontario, in the flourishing town of Oshawa, located on the east side of what we know refer to as Park Road.  Boasting four stories, high ceilings, and the latest in heating and lighting technology, the school’s inaugural year saw 29 girls walk through the doors.

Four years later, DeMill Ladies’ College was home 100 female boarding students, a mix of girls from local families, as well those from across Canada and the United States.   The entrance age for the College was 16 years, and tuition was deliberately kept affordable for families bringing in an average wage. Not unusual for the time, the DeMills had strict rules about student attire, written correspondence with the world outside of the College, and family visitors.

While the focus of the College was to prepare young women for their lives as wives and mothers, it also offered training for the limited female vocations of the time.  Students could earn teaching certificates, prepare for work as a professional artist or music teacher, or continue on to advanced European conservatory music instruction.

(c) RMG Thomas Bouckley Collection. Look closely – the awkward angles of the students in the photograph suggest several heads were added in the darkroom…

Tragically, in 1896, DeMill saw his life’s work go up in flames, when the College burned to the ground.  The Fire and Water Committee of the Oshawa Town Council lead an investigation into complaints regarding the response of the Fire Brigade at the fire scene, but, on May 8, 1896, after considering the difficulties the Brigade had to contend with, exonerated them from all blame.

DeMill Ladies’ College was never rebuilt.  However, a few reminders of the grand college that once towered over the area remain to this day: College Hill Public School opened in 1953 on Laval Street, and College Street runs parallel to Highway 401.

To view historic photos of Oshawa, check out the Robert McLaughin Gallery’s Thomas Bouckley Collection online.  For more information about Oshawa’s history, visit the Oshawa Museum Blog