Elizabeth “Bessie” Ridler was born on November 28, 1816. Bessie lived at 34 Hatt Street with her brother George who worked as a tailor from their home from 1829 to 1853. She was described as a rather short woman with a round, good humoured face, and, according to her pupils, incapable of a frown. She wore gold rimmed spectacles and had old fashioned side curls hanging down on each side of her forehead. Bessie originally came to Dundas as a young woman engaged to an Englishman, however, her life forever changed when her fiancée drowned in a shipwreck. Bessie never married and had no children.
In 1849, Bessie Ridler opened her private school where she taught both boys and girls from the ages of 5 to 12 in the front room of her home (later renovated to the Ellen Olser Memorial Home in 1909). She was possibly the first female teacher in Dundas. Bessie Ridler strived “to create a heroic pride in well doing” in her students. Miss Bessie, as she was fondly known by parents, quickly gained the reputation as an excellent teacher and ultimately was entrusted with shaping the young minds of the town’s leading families such as the Wilsons, McKenzies, Graftons, and Bertrams.
The typical school day consisted of arithmetic followed by writing and spelling. History and geography followed spelling with the day ending with home economics. Needlework was one of the main features taught to both girls and boys and was noted to be “an accomplishment not to be despised” by one of her students in later years. Miss Bessie was beloved by the many families who knew her and was known for her good-humour.
When Miss Ridler died in April 1903 at the age of 86, more than a hundred former students attended her funeral. She was buried in Grove Cemetery. Her epitaph reads “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
Miss Ridler’s School:
Miss Ridler’s School was on 34 Hatt Street. Miss Ridler taught both boys and girls until the age of 12. The school room was in the front room of the house on the ground floor where large windows were present. The window was a one containing 28 panes of glass, on each side there was a front door where the girls entered by the right and the boys entered by the left. A long sloping table with a top that slanted to front and back sat in the room. The children sat on the sides with the boys on one side, the girls on the other with Miss. Ridler siting at the head of the table like a ruling queen. The discipline of her school was mild but effective. All subjects were taught including home economics. It was common for those who walked by the schoolhouse to hear the sounds of the scrawling of chalk on slate and the voices of children saying “yes Miss Ridler” and “no Miss Ridler.”
Thanks to the students of McMaster University Department of History for their help with this project.